French and Ger­man First World War bat­tle rem­nants sober re­minder of ter­ri­ble time

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES Rick Steves (www.rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

Novem­ber 2018 marked the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War — “the war to end all wars,” which cost an es­ti­mated 40 mil­lion lives.

While there are no more sur­vivors to share their sto­ries first-hand, sights and me­mo­ri­als scat­tered across Europe, es­pe­cially in France and Bel­gium, do their best to keep the dev­as­ta­tion from fad­ing from mem­ory.

Per­haps the most pow­er­ful is lo­cated about 225 kilo­me­tres east of Paris at the bat­tle­fields of Verdun. It was here in 1916 that roughly 300,000 lives were lost in what’s known as the Bat­tle of 300 Days and Nights. The long­est sin­gle bat­tle of the First World War, it left the land­scape bar­ren for decades. To­day, the traces of war are buried un­der thick forests, the soldiers’ vast net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tion trenches over­grown and haunted by their ghosts.

Plenty of rusty bat­tle rem­nants and me­mo­ri­als are still ac­ces­si­ble. A string of bat­tle­fields can be found along a 13-kilo­me­tre stretch of road out­side the town of Verdun. From here it’s pos­si­ble to see (with a guided tour, rental car, shut­tle bus or taxi) the most im­por­tant sights and ap­pre­ci­ate the hor­rific scale of the bat­tle.

You can ride through the eerie moguls left by the in­ces­sant shelling, pause at melted-su­gar-cube forts, pon­der plaques mark­ing spots where towns once ex­isted and visit a vast ceme­tery.

To get a good over­view, start at the Verdun Me­mo­rial Mu­seum, which de­liv­ers grip­ping exhibits about the bat­tle (with lots of in­for­ma­tion in English). The mu­seum is rich in ar­ti­facts and works to pair Ger­man and French ob­jects; you’ll see a circa 1916 loaded Ger­man ruck­sack right next to a French one.

In one part of the mu­seum, a bat­tle­field replica — com­plete with mud, shells, trenches and mil­i­tary equip­ment — is vis­i­ble through the glass floor. You can learn about med­i­cal help in the trenches and leaps in tech­nol­ogy (from X-ray ma­chines to ma­chine guns with syn­chro­nized fir­ing, which pre­vented bul­lets from hit­ting air­plane pro­pel­ler blades). The ma­jor­ity of in­juries in this bat­tle weren’t caused by ma­chine-gun bul­lets, but by shrap­nel. Ev­ery time an ar­tillery shell ex­ploded, jagged bits of the shell’s cas­ing sprayed like buck­shot. On both sides, most men died with­out ever see­ing the en­emy. An­other key sight is Fort Douau­mont, north­east of Verdun. Con­structed in 1885, the fort was the most im­por­tant strong­hold among 38 hill­top for­ti­fi­ca­tions that pro­tected France from a Ger­man in­va­sion. Built on top of and into the hill­side, it served as a strate­gic com­mand cen­tre for both Ger­many and France at var­i­ous times. Soldiers were pro­tected by a thick layer of sand (to muf­fle ex­plo­sions) and a wall of con­crete five to seven feet thick. Vis­i­tors to­day can ex­pe­ri­ence these cor­ri­dors, where soldiers were forced to live like moles, scur­ry­ing through three kilo­me­tres of cold, damp hall­ways.

Vis­i­tors can also climb to the bombed-out top of the fort to see the round, iron gun em­place­ments that could rise and re­volve. The mas­sive cen­tral gun tur­ret was state of the art in 1905, an­ti­quated in 1915 and es­sen­tially use­less by the time the war ar­rived in 1916. From the perch at the top, look­ing out at fields lead­ing to Ger­many and imag­in­ing the car­nage in that hor­ri­ble bat­tle is an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence. On the bat­tle­field nearby, a young Charles de Gaulle, later to be­come French pres­i­dent, was wounded; he spent the next 32 months as a Ger­man pris­oner of war.

The nearby Douau­mont Os­suary is the tomb of un­known French and Ger­man soldiers who per­ished in Verdun’s muddy trenches. In the years af­ter the war, a lo­cal bishop wan­dered through fields of bones — the re­mains of about 130,000 uniden­ti­fied soldiers. Con­clud­ing that they de­served a re­spect­ful fi­nal rest­ing place, he be­gan raising money for the pro­ject — which was of­fi­cially in­au­gu­rated in 1927. The build­ing has 46 gran­ite vaults, each hold­ing re­mains from dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the bat­tle­field. The un­usual ar­tillery shell-shaped tower and cross de­sign of this build­ing sym­bol­izes war and peace (imag­ine a sword plunged into the ground up to its hilt).

For all that’s sober­ing to re­mem­ber here, these Verdun me­mo­ri­als also of­fer vis­i­tors some­thing beau­ti­ful to see: Ger­man, French and Euro­pean flags wave along­side each other, as if to ex­claim, “We learned, and we won’t do this again.” Say what you like about the Euro­pean Union, but it’s hard to deny what a great ac­com­plish­ment it has been to weave to­gether the economies of two his­toric en­e­mies and foster the em­pa­thy that comes with get­ting to know each other.

In 1914, most French soldiers had never met a Ger­man and vice versa — mak­ing it all too easy to care­lessly kill each other. Thanks in large part to the EU, we live in a dif­fer­ent world, built on a solid foun­da­tion for main­tain­ing Euro­pean peace — a les­son that bears re­peat­ing as we mark the end of the Great War.

Say what you like about the Euro­pean Union, but it’s hard to deny what a great ac­com­plish­ment it has been to weave to­gether the economies of two his­toric en­e­mies and foster the em­pa­thy that comes with get­ting to know each other. Rick Steves


The Douau­mont Os­suary holds the re­mains of more than 130,000 un­known French and Ger­man soldiers from the First World War bat­tle in Verdun, France.

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