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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Monday, February 24, 2014

Verdun Battlefield — Day One








Verdun.

I suppose there are a lot of Americans who’ve never heard of Verdun, and that’s sad. It is the site of one of the most historic defenses in military history, the site of a defeat that helped to derail Germany’s military plans during World War I, and the site of so much human loss that it defies comprehension.

But let me backtrack for just a moment…

I didn’t know much about Verdun until Benjamin, my younger son, who was then 8 years old, became obsessed about the French role in World War I. He watched videos. He read books. He read more books. By the time he was 10, he was reading college-level texts about France in World War I. I would be sitting and writing, and he would walk up to me and begin to describe trench warfare in such detail that he gave me chills.

I put him in French lessons. He took French in school, minoring in the language in college. Thanks to his college French professor and a French government program (funded by French taxpayers), he was invited to serve as an assistant language teacher in the Versailles school district for this school year. I knew he wouldn’t be in France long before he went to Verdun.

He has written a 9,000-word account of his visit, that you can visit here. I won’t attempt to recreate his account. His eloquence and knowledge on this subject dwarf mine. But over the years, I’ve developed an interest in this topic, too, because the stories he’s told of battlefield bravery, human cruelty, and poignant survival have stirred my imagination and made me cry. Truly, he has reduced me to tears at times telling me about things that occurred on the battlefields of Verdun.

A quick historical overview: Germany launched an attack against the stronghold of Verdun on Feb. 21, 1916. The battle lasted 10 horrific months. The German policy was to “bleed the French white,” i.e., to kill as many French as possible in order to win the war.

But karma had a lesson in store for Germany (a lesson it sadly forgot). Yes, they killed lots of French soldiers. But for every Frenchman they slew, one of their own was lost. At the end of those 10 horrific months, Germany had lost as many of its sons as the French. Some 700,000 men were dead — that’s 70,000 a month — while more than a million were wounded.

Verdun as a city was mostly destroyed, and the land surrounding it was absolutely devastated, as millions upon millions of shells had landed, blowing apart the forests, turning the land into a landscape of shell craters, human bones, rotting corpses, and mud.

I knew I had to see this place, to feel it, so to speak. We made plans to visit it long before I got on the plane to France.

Our visit seemed like it was going to be hugely disappointing, as the tour buses to the battlefields do not run during this time of year. We hadn’t realized that and were somewhat surprised, as Feb. 21 marked the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the battle, an event that is usually marked by a ceremony. However, this year’s events were muted as most people are saving up their pomp and circumstance for the 100th anniversary in 2016.

As luck would have it, the woman who runs the hotel front desk at Hotel Les Colombes in the evening and on weekends knows a man who is an expert on World War I. A life-long resident of Verdun, Frédéric Radet is also an expert on the forts, having purchased Ouvrage de la Falouse, one of the smaller forts that was part of the massive fortifications of Verdun, and restored it, turning it into a kind of World War I museum. He is also an author on the architecture of these forts. A quick call to Mr. Radet resulted in his agreeing to drive us around and answer our questions in exchange for a very reasonable daily fee.

We were cranked.

This blog post will cover our first day of touring the battlefield with visits to Ouvrage de la Falouse, Fort de Vaux, the Ossuary at Douaumont, and Ouvrage de Froideterre.

February 20, 2014

OUVRAGE DE LA FALOUSE





The morning started with clouds and rain and a drive to a place I’d never heard of — Ouvrage de la Falouse. Mr. Radet doesn’t speak or understand English, and I understand a lot of French but speak it very poorly, so Benjamin was the main conduit of communication both directions. Since Benjamin was the one with the questions, I just did my best to understand what was being said and to ask questions when I did not.

Ouvrage de la Falouse remained behind French lines during the Battle of Verdun. It was used as a shelter for French troops when they weren’t serving on the front lines and was part of a massive ring of fortifications built around Verdun after the Franco-Prussian War.

The first thing I saw was the barbed wire, one of the symbols of World War I. It was used to ensnare soldiers, who could then be shot down by machine gun fire. At the forts of Verdun, it served that function, helping to keep attacking forces from climbing onto the fort structures.

Here’s the thing about the forts at Verdun: They’re not what you expect. Most of them are subterranean. They’re not like the forts of the American West — wooden pickets surrounding a courtyard. They are heavily fortified bunker forts designed to withstand shell strikes and to cover one another with big guns. Counterscarp bunkers (or counterscarp galleries) enabled soldiers to protect the forts themselves with anti-personnel weapons like grenades or machine guns. They all had big gun turrets, capable of firing shells great distances toward the other ouvrages and forts if/when they came under attack. They are designed to protect soldiers from artillery fire while enabling them to fire back with big, BIG weapons.

Sadly, the French had lost confidence in their system of forts before the Battle of Verdun and had left many of them undermanned and had even removed guns and taken them elsewhere. But we’ll get to that another time. Suffice it to say that it can be costly to learn the right lesson at the wrong time. Or the wrong lesson at the wrong time. Or whatever…

Falouse was behind battle lines. It was not attacked. French and U.S. soldiers stayed at the fort, which has been beautifully reconstructed. Seeing it enabled me to understand and better interpret what I was seeing at the other forts later in the day.

What’s the difference between an ouvrage and a fort? The ouvrages are smaller than the forts, like mini-fort outposts designed to link the bigger forts together. Or that’s my impression of them at any rate.



Mr. Radet and his friends have included mannequins in detailed uniform to help show how people used the fort. We saw reconstructed barracks where soldiers slept four to a bunk , their kits and weapons kept at the ready next to the beds above their heads on a system of shelves and gun racks. We saw the collapsible benches that lined the main hallways, giving soldiers a place to sit as they arrived or prepared to leave in large groups. We saw the duct work that ventilated this large, underground structure and the system of pipes and tanks that held water for washing and cooking. We saw the kitchens, where meals and bread were prepared for 80 men a day. We saw the long lines of phone and telegraph wires strung along the upper right side of the hallways.

There were also latrines. The ones for the enlisted men gave them a place to cop a squat over a hole behind a door. The officers got to sit. No tubs. No showers.

Thinking of human waste, poor ventilation, and lots of sweaty bodies made me wrinkle my nose, but the only smell in Falouse was a vaguely musty scent brought on by the century that has passed — and by the water that leaks through in places.

The captain of the fort had an office near the phone room and the telegraph room. When you know the history of these places the way Mr. Radet and Benjamin do, that means something. Benjamin learned that the heroic commander of Fort Vaux, Major Raynal, had stayed there for a night, and I thought he might swoon.

Now, it’s important to understand that the conversation during our time with Mr. Radet took place in French. Benjamin translated for me when I needed him to, but I also tried to join in the conversation, straining for French words from my high school French classes. This invariably made Benjamin grin or laugh or shake his head, as I asked things like, “How many soldiers was they feedings here on the every day?”

The highlight of this fort for Benjamin was seeing the intact machine gun turret that he was able to turn. These guns were made to turn and fire where needed, and they were aided by multiple steel observation domes where spotters could sight the enemy and, via telephone, direct fire.




The 75mm gun turret was not movable, but its inner workings were still in place and amazing to see.

Mr. Radet showed us an outdoor latrine, one of the few that still exist from this era. It had something special — graffiti etched by an American soldier from Newark, N.J., who saw fit to scratch his name and town into the metal while doing his business.

FORT DE VAUX




After Falouse, we went to Fort Vaux, which is bigger but almost identical in its construction. Unlike Falouse, Fort Vaux was the site of a fierce battle between French and German forces, and that was evident in the damage around the fort and some damage to the fort. Outside, it looked like a moonscape of craters, the mud now covered with moss and grass.

Fort Vaux had been stripped of some of its guns, so the Germans entered the fort through its counterscarp galleries. But the French did not make it easy for them. After a week of fighting, the Germans had only made it a few meters down the hallway.



Standing near the entrance where the fighting occurred, it wasn’t hard to imagine the rattle of gunfire, men’s shouts, grenade explosions, and piles of dead and dying men as the two forces fought face to face for every inch.

On the walls of all the forts were written something like, “It is better to die and be buried in the rubble than to surrender.”

They continued to fight the Germans, who pumped diesel fumes in through every ventilation port they could find. After a week, the French had run out of water, and soldiers began to lick the walls, trying to drink the condensation on the whitewashed walls.



Raynal, the fort’s commander, had been sending pigeons back to inform the French command of his dire situation. Eventually, he was down to one remaining pigeon. He wrote a desperate message, updating his commanders and pleading for aid.



“This is my last pigeon,” he wrote.

But aid did not come in time.

The men who licked the walls began to die, their tongues swelling in their mouths due to the chemical makeup of the lime-based whitewash. And Raynal knew he had no choice but to surrender.

Had his fort had a machine gun turret, had it had all the guns it was built to carry, it would have been able to fend off this attack. However, those weapons were not in place, and he had no choice to but to yield.

As the story goes, the Germans were impressed with his and his soldiers’ valiant defense of Vaux and gave them full military honors.

And that last pigeon?

Sadly, it was gassed. But it flew its little heart out, arriving back at The Citadel in Verdun before it collapsed and died, its message intact. It was named Valiant and given a medal.
Hearing of young men so desperate for water that they licked the filthy walls of the fort and then died as they suffocated from their tongues swelling breaks my heart. But thinking that little bird suffering due to human depravity — gas is one of the most barbaric weapons ever devised — flying its little heart out just to get home, not  knowing it was caught in a war, not knowing anything but that it was in pain and wanted to be home, always makes me cry.

They stuffed Valiant and put him in a museum.

THE OSSUARY




At the end of the Battle of Verdun, the French were faced with a landscape of death. The “red zone,” the battle fields, were a charnel pit of unidentified corpses, human bones, unexploded ordnance, destroyed villages, and shell craters. Nine villages had been utterly destroyed, their cemeteries blown sky high, mingling those long dead with those dead for a few months, weeks, days.

The land was unfit to farm, and so the French let the forest reclaim it. As you drive along the roads that cut through the battlefields, you can see millions of shell craters in the shade of tall trees. Rainwater collects in craters, as do fallen leaves. Moss grows on the trunks and on the ground. Everything is green, peaceful, quiet.

Standing guard over this landscape, is the Ossuary at Douaumont. It was built to resemble a sword thrust to its hilt in the earth. The sword’s handle is the tower, and its hilt is a long silent chamber with a chapel and dozens of alcoves, each representing a region or battle in the overall Battle of Verdun.




The walls are covered with names, 4,000 names of soldiers whose families paid to remember them, helping to fund the building of the Ossuary. Each alcove has engraved in it the name of a battle/region — Vaux, Douaumonet, Fleury, Côte 304, Morte-Homme and so one. Beneath those names rest marble blocks carved to resemble coffins. It’s a touching display, but not because of what you see. Rather it’s what you know that puts a lump in your throat.

Laid to rest beneath those marble blocks are the jumbled bones of 130,000 thousand unidentified French and German soldiers. Their bones lay strewn upon the land and were gathered and placed in heaps according to the region in which they were found.



In front of the Ossuary, are 16,000 tomb stones of Christian, Muslim and Jewish French soldiers who died in at Verdun whose identities are known.

These 146,000 men are a drop in the bucket of the total killed at Verdun. They represent less than 20 percent of those who perished in this terrible battle, a battle that raged over a very small region of earth. Verdun, in turn, represents a fraction of overall French losses in World War I. Let that sink in for a moment.

There are other cemeteries that hold Verdun’s war dead, some German, some French, but none so large as the Ossuary and the national cemetery that stands before it. So where are the rest of the dead? Where are the rest of Verdun’s slain?

The French government estimates that at least 10,000 bodies lie beneath the mud at La Côte du Mort-Homme, a place we planned to visit. When shells fell, they sent up huge sprays of mud and dirt, giving thousands upon thousands of dead unceremonious battlefield burials. They also liquefied and pulverized bodies.

Walking on battlefields at Verdun means walking on the dead.

Periodically, a bone appears, freed from the mud by rain. It’s placed in the Ossuary with the others.



Men fought this war to end all wars. They lived in hope in the unendurable conditions of the trenches that no one would have to suffer what they were suffering. And when their bones were placed in the Ossuary, one word was inscribed above the structure’s wide front door: PAX.


Peace.


World War II came quickly enough to prove that the war to end all wars had become the seed of continued conflict.

That alone is heart-breaking to me.

You can ponder the fact that French and German dead lie together. You can look through the exterior windows into the crypts that hold the bones and see what 130,000 dead men’s bones look like when their skeletons fall apart. You can imagine the heartbreak of families who never knew how or where their sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, and uncles died. You can try to grasp the pain of dying by shrapnel or mustard gas or enfilading machine-gun fire. You can try to imagine the soldiers’ daily fear.

But mostly I found myself grieving for the waste of human lives.

Once Germany invaded, France was right to defend herself. But in the days before the war, so many different decisions could have been made that might have spared these men and given us all a very different 20th century.

We lit candles at the Ossuary for the dead of Vaux, Fleury and other sites. It was so cold inside, I could see my breath. But somehow the cold seemed appropriate for a monument that offers a resting place to the bones of the unknown.



The inside of the Ossuary is inscribed with words that praise heroes, but the windows that look inside the crypts from outside the Ossuary tell us that in war time, human life is cheap.

To me, the words “Support our troops” mean sending soldiers to war only when it is truly necessary, which is not necessarily when our politicians tell us it is necessary. Once World War I had begun, it was necessary to win it. But before it began…

We have so much to learn about making peace.

OUVRAGE DE FROIDETERRE

 

After the sobering experience of Froideterre, we drove the short distance to Fort Douaumont, the biggest fort on our tour. Capable of providing shelter to 800 men, it had a turret with a 400mm gun — a huge weapon. We were turned away by a grumpy, sour-faced woman who told us that 45 minutes wasn’t enough for us to complete the tour and discouraged us from entering.

Mr. Radet took us to a nearby site I’d never heard of, one that is not open, much less open to the public — Ouvrage Froideterre.

Ouvrage Froideterre was similar to Ouvrage de la Falouse in its layout, purpose, and construction. But it differed from the other site in three important respects: It was attacked by the Germans and was the site of a French victory and it has not been restored. (There are other differences, as well, but I won’t go into detail.)

We arrived in the rain and took a tour of the top section of the ouvrage, where Mr. Radet told the story of the German attack. They’d shelled the fort, creating a hole in the roof. When they began to swarm it, the machine gun turret that might have repelled them was useless, as a chunk of concrete had gotten wedged into the turret, preventing it from turning toward the attackers.

German soldiers tried to force their way into through the breach in the roof using flame throwers, grenades, and weapons fire. The commander did not have contact with the machine gun nest on the other side of the courtyard, nor could he contact the big 75 mm gun, so he asked for a volunteer.



The volunteer was ordered to run the length of the courtyard — that would be like running out your front door when there’s an army with flame throwers and rifles on your roof — and run to the machine gun nest and order them to blow the German’s to bits. Somehow, this brave soul managed to carry out this command.

The machine gunners, alerted to the situation, turned their weapons on the fort’s roof and began firing. Behind them, the soldiers manning the 75mm gun saw what was happening and began firing shrapnel-loaded shells designed to cut down the attackers without destroying the already damaged fort.

It worked, and the Germans were repulsed, their drive toward Verdun cut short at Froideterre. A French force soon arrived and drove them farther back behind their lines, halting their progress altogether. And the day was saved.



Interestingly, when the Nazis occupied France, they burned that 75mm gun but not the rest of the fort. I wonder if someone remembered what had happened there.

After telling us this story, Mr. Radet pulled out a flashlight and invited us to explore the unlighted interior of Froideterre with him. In my head I was thinking, “He has got to be kidding! No. WAY!” But he wasn’t kidding.

I took hold of Benjamin’s arm and stepped into the dank, musty interior. It was pitch black. PITCH black. Mr. Radet was clearly familiar with the layout and confidently moved ahead of us, the light of his little flashlight of no use to our eyes. He showed us the place inside the fort where the roof had collapsed and the French had been forced to face flamethrowers to keep the Germans out. The whitewashed wall is gone there, and raw concrete is exposed and blackened.



I thought, “OK, we must be done.” But no. He really wanted to lead us through the place. We walked further, and seeing a little door that opened to the outside, I saw my chance.

“I’m staying here,” I said. I crawled into that little alcove and stayed put, while the light from the flashlight and Mr. Radet’s voice and Benjamin’s faded away. I snapped a few photos of that front hallway, shooting in the pitch black with a flash, and was very grateful when the men returned and we were able to exit and go to the car.


Dark underground places? SO not my thing.

By then I was chilled to the bone and emotionally drained and was eager to get back to the hotel for some dinner. Mr. Radet took us to his house, showed some artifacts and books, including one he wrote, to Benjamin, and the two spoke at length.

In an hour, we were delivered to the doorstep of our hotel. In the span of about eight hours we had covered the ground where some hundreds of thousands of men had died.

We went to bed early because the next day would be even tougher. We hadn’t come to Verdun on these days by coincidence. Feb. 21, 2014, marked the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the battle, and we had a pilgrimage to make.

We were going to the place the battle began — Bois des Caures.

3 comments:

Pamela, I can't imagine what it would be like to visit Verdun. Thank you for taking your readers with you in spirit.
I've heard it said that if there ever was a justifiable war, it was World War 2. I can see some justification in that, but not for the Great War. And as you said, the most tragic thing if all is that it led to another world war. If only humanity would learn from all of this.

Outlander said...

Thank you so much pamela for the tour. I am one of those unaware of this part of history. I am anning on learning more. I will definitely read Bengamin's account. So sad and horrified that humans can be the bearers of such depravity. The extent and length of the battles are unfathomable.

Thank you for taking us on this pilgrimage with you! Your words and pictures have brought the battles to life for me. To read of the steps man will go to destroy his enemy, is truly heartbreaking. I pray, one day all the needless and senseless killings will stop. Until then, May God forgive us.

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