06 December 2008

Journey to Verdun, part 2

"And there went out another horse that was red: 
and power was given to him that sat thereon 
to take peace from the earth, 
and that they should kill one another: 
and there was given unto him a great sword." 
(Second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - War) Book of Revelation 6:4

After the long journey from Paris, the train finally pulled into the station.

The city of Verdun was built along a shallow valley of the Meuse river, with gradual bluffs climbing up on either side of it. Under the reign of Charlemagne it was part of his Frankish empire. After his death it, and the area now known as Lorraine were given to his grandson Lothair in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. From the 10th to the 11th centuries a series of walls and towers were built which would eventually encircle the whole town. The city and surrounding countryside would change hands many times through the centuries, swapping from Frankish to Prussian control and back. In 1552, the French King Henri II occupied Verdun, Metz and Toul, marking the beginning of majority French rule. From 1624 to 1636 Henri IV's engineers built a fortified 'city' into the high bluff in the center of Verdun: La Citadelle Souterraine (the Underground Citadel).

Two reinforced forts stand on a bluff overlooking the river valley near the city, Fort de Douaumont and Fort de Vaux. These combined with La Citadelle Souterraine made the area one of the strongest in the French line of defense at the start of the Great War in 1914. The German armies wisely skirted these defenses and crossed the Meuse on the left bank in their bid to reach Paris. The Battle of the Marne halted this advance. Throughout 1914-1915 the two countries fought for control of the high ground, and as the front lines stabilized the armies dug underground trenches to try to get some protection from the constant shelling and machine gun fire. In an effort to outflank each other, both armies began to extend their trench lines in each direction, north and south - the race to the sea. Eventually this resulted in a series of trenches stretching from the English Channel in the north, down through Belgium, France, and ending near the border of Switzerland in the far south. Roughly 400 miles...

At daybreak on February 21, 1916 the Germans turned 1,225 guns on Verdun in an attempt to break this stalemate. By February 25th Fort de Douaumont had fallen, and in June Fort de Vaux also fell into German hands. The French still held the high ground of the hills called Mort-Homme (Deadman) and Cote 304, defending the city and preventing the Germans from actually taking Verdun itself. With help from their colonial Moroccan troops, the French retook Douaumont in October. By November 2nd Fort Vaux was back in French hands, and the battle of Verdun ceased - for a time. In 1917 the hills of Mort-Homme and Cote 304 were taken by the Germans, and the city would surly haven fallen but not for the reinforcement of American troops in 1918. On November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed in a railroad car in the Compiègne Forest, ending the actual fighting between nations. Seven months later, in June 1919, The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the great French chateaux - formally ending World War I (and unwittingly laying the very seeds for World War II).

With all this swirling around my head, I made my way from Gare de Verdun into the city proper under a cold drizzle. At the Porte de St. Paul I turned right and walked past Rodin's actual bronze statue "La Defense," showing the agony of triumph in bloody battle. I crossed the Meuse and stopped at La Monument aux Enfants de Verdun (Monument to the children of Verdun) - a huge statue of five French soldiers, one from each of the French armies in full military dress, standing shoulder to shoulder - their chests forming an impassable wall.

I made my way into downtown, hoping to pay for a tour of the battlefields and monuments. At the tourist office I was informed that there were "no more English tours." Of course. It was a re-occurring theme that had followed us almost every step of our European journey. Where ever we went, the tours given in English had either been the day before we arrived, the day after we departed, or had been canceled or were non-existent. "Ce n'est pas possible" (It's not possible) - this was another common phrase we heard far too often.

Frustrated, I bought a ticket to get into La Citadelle Souterraine, and took a mildly cheesy, but still respectable tour of the underground city - still laid out as it had been during the Great War. I still longed to walk through the forts and battlefields and decided to try to walk and hitchhike. The forts are about 10km from the city and I began trudging through the mud and rain, fields and ditches. After about half an hour a car pulled up as I held my thumb out. I managed to get my point across that I wanted to go to the battlefields, and the kind old man behind the wheel acquiesced.

He let me off near the Mémorial Ossuarie (the Ossuary), near Fort de Douaumont. The memorial houses the remains of 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers who died during the battle. Small windows open on alcoves containing the bones. A sobering site. The day was now dark grey and windy, as rain slashed sideways. To the north, I walked to Les Tranchées des Baïonnettes (The Trench of Bayonets). On June 12th, 1916 a part of the French 137th Infantry Regiment was caught under heavy bombardment as they huddled in their trench. After the battle cleared it was discovered that the entire trench had been covered in with earth from the explosions and just the tips of the soldier's bayonets could be seen sticking up out of the ground. They had been buried alive, standing, still holding their guns. A concrete memorial now housed this gruesome reminder of the horrors of war.

By now it was pissing rain and the wind was howling and I was soaked and a bit miserable. I caught another ride back to Verdun where I stepped into a small café and shivered to the bar. I asked for an espresso and as the bartender was preparing it he poured me a small glass of cognac. Smiling as the liquor warmed my belly and the coffee perked me back up, I made my way back through the rain to the train station. I would soon be back in Paris. C'est Possible! (It is possible).
KJT - Verdun, France (1998)


cae said...

I can only imagine the weight you must have felt there: the inclement weather and knowledge of past events pressing you down against a landscape steeped in ragged history and stippled with monuments to man's unflagging inhumanity to man.

KJT said...

Well said, sir!