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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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Verdun Battlefield Tour, Day Two





Benjamin and I woke up at 6 AM on Feb. 21, 2014. We a little more than an hour away from the exact moment 98 years ago when the Germans launched their surprise offensive in an effort to bypass the fortifications surrounding Verdun and claim the city. We showered, had breakfast, and then Benjamin went to buy flowers.

Mr. Radet met us at about 9:40 and took us where we wanted to go — Bois des Caures.

BOIS DES CAURES




Col. Emile Driant was there with his men on Feb. 21, 1916. In Dec. 1915, he wrote a letter calling for greater preparedness along the battle lines north-northeast of Verdun, which had been deadlocked and quiet for some time but which he feared would be the site of a major German offensive. He openly criticized the decision of his superiors to draw men, ordnance, and weapons away from the region for other areas. He wrote, quite prophetically, that he believed the time would come when soldiers there would find themselves fighting for their lives, some cut off from the rest of the French army and forced to fight by whatever means they could find to hold their ground. The letter got him into hot water, but he was absolutely right. And the men who got cut off and had to fight with every means available to them turned out to be his own.



At 6:58 AM on Feb. 21, Germany started the Battle of Verdun by launching what was at that time the biggest bombardment in human history. For the next 10 hours, they fired 808 guns (canons) as quickly as they could, dropping a million shells on the lines at Bois des Caures, hoping to pulverize the French forces entrenched there so that their army of 80,000 could march into Verdun and claim an important strategic location.

Commanding from a concrete bunker (above, still intact), Driant ordered his men to take cover and stand their ground no matter what. Hunkered down in trenches and hidden in the abris (small dugouts in trenches), his force of 1,200 men waited for the bombardment to end. Some were entombed when abris and trenches collapsed. Others were killed by the explosions.

When the bombardment ended, he and his men emerged to fight, using whatever weapons they had. A functioning rifle. A broken rifle. A bayonet.

Surprised to find resistance, the Germans bombed again.

Driant and his men emerged to fight again.

Again the Germans bombarded them, and again they emerged to fight, their number decreasing rapidly. But they had consigned themselves to fight for as long as they could, no matter what their losses.



By the early afternoon of Feb. 22, lines to the left and right of Driant and his men had broken, and most of his men were dead. He and his surviving chasseurs were at risk of being outflanked.

Realizing he had no choice, he ordered his men to fall back. He then turned to help a wounded soldier — and was shot dead on the spot by a German bullet.

Of the 1,200 men who fought under his command, only 47 returned to Verdun. But
those soldiers bought something precious for France with their blood, giving the French command, taken by surprise despite Driant’s warning, time to mount a defense. Had they buckled or run, the Battle of Verdun might have had a very different outcome.

Benjamin and I both wanted to visit Driant’s grave. The Germans buried him near the spot where he was killed. Later, the French exhumed his remains and buried him beneath a monument erected in his honor within view of the place where he died. Some of this men, their identities unknown, are buried with him, and the spot where he was killed is marked with a commemorative stone.



We walked along a trail through Bois des Caures (the Caures Woods, as it is often translated to in English, or Forest of Hazelnut Trees in the local dialect), all of this on our minds. Rain had turned shell craters into pools, and moss covered the tall straight trunks of the trees. It was quiet, so still, so very different from that morning of deafening explosions, flames, and burning metal 98 years ago.

I had expected to see lots of people there, but we came across only one other couple — an older man and woman making this same pilgrimage. We visited the place where Driant was shot down first. Plastic flowers decorate the memorial of the first hero of Verdun, looking shabby after who knows how long. I said a prayer, a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t keep myself from crying in front of our guide. Benjamin stood beside me, and I knew he was fighting tears, too.

From there, we walked to the sight of his grave, a tall white marker over a marble slab engraved with his name and commemorative words. Together, we laid a bouquet of white roses on the marble, then stood for a moment in silence. I think both of us would have liked to stay there a while longer, but Mr. Radet was moving and urged us to follow.



We walked along a faint trail that crossed repeatedly over the remains of trenches and abris to the concrete bunker where Driant took shelter during the initial bombardment and from which he commanded his men. Covered in moss, it looked like some kind of ancient ruin, except that it is more or less intact. The ceiling on one side is bowed down from a shell strike, but the rest of it stands strong.

The French who remember World War I and Verdun revere this place. A barrier of concrete pylons is build around it, their tops adorned with the fleur de lis. Someone had lit candles and placed them in the lookout windows and on the overhangs that shelter the bunker’s doors.

We went inside and stood there in silence, both of us astonished even to be there. I didn’t know the place still existed.

I touched my hand to the cold concrete and tried to imagine.



“Ninety-eight years ago right now,” I whispered to myself, thinking of Driant, his prediction, and his courage and that of his men.

Only the sound of birdsong answered.



CÔTE 304 & LA CÔTE DU MORT-HOMME





This is a story of two hills — one with no name that was given a number and one that had a name that became only too prophetic: Hill 304 and Dead Man’s Hill.

After the Germans tried to break through lines on the right bank of the Meuse River but had been slowed and lost their momentum, they tried to break through on the left bank of the river in hopes of taking out the French supply lines and capturing Verdun at least.



After months of trying, the Germans finally reached the crest of these two hills, where they came face to face with French lines. French determination, however, prevented them every from reaching the top and taking the hills. I can’t think of any other way to say it than this: The battle cry of Verdun — “They shall not pass!” — was in the heart of every man who fought, was injured, or gave his life on those hills, with the French doing all they could to hold onto their homeland.

We paid our respects to the two memorials, first at Côte 304, where one wife had added a private memorial to her husband, and then on Mort-Homme, which has not only a grisly memorial that celebrates the French units who won the battle, but also a memorial to those who died.



The victory memorial features a man who is partially a skeleton holding a flag, the words “They Did Not Pass” carved below it together with the names of the French regiments that fought there. It is a passionate monument, graphic and powerful, that honors the victorious dead.

Mr. Radet led us through the forest toward a marker that had a photo of what the area had looked like after the battle. You’d swear that you were looking at a photo of the moon’s surface—not a tree in sight, nothing but shell pits and lines that were trenches.

The French government estimates that some 10,000 bodies remain undiscovered and buried on Mort Homme alone. Knowing that makes one watch where one steps. How can it be anything other than sacred ground when so many men are buried there?



As we said our farewells to the place, the sun set through the trees, turning the sky pink. It all seemed so peaceful, and yet there is pain in these places. Each and every hollow created by a shell explosion is a testament to that fact.

Mr. Radet led us on another adventure, but I’m saving that for another post, focusing on the Verdun battlefields in this post.

FORT DE DOUAUMONT





Had the French paid more attention to men like Col. Driant, they might never have lost Fort Douaument. It wasn’t taken in a fierce battle, though it eventually became the site of more than once brutal conflict. The Germans took Fort Douaumont because when they arrived they found the door open and almost no one home.

We visited Douaumont on Saturday in a freezing downpour thanks to Stef Desprez, a personal friend whom I finally got to meet in person for the first time. She was kind enough to take us there, as our guide had been less than enthusiastic about visiting the site.

Benjamin had been to Douaument before and acted as our guide, leading us around the fort’s massive exterior and narrating for us the details of how the Germans captured it. As we walked along, bits of brick and mortar and twisted steel reached up out of the ground at us, “pigtails” that used to hold barbed wire in evidence everywhere, making it clear that the fort’s slopes and top used to be covered with the stuff.

The biggest fort in the area, Douaument had been built to safely harbor 800 men. When the Germans arrived to attack the place on Feb. 25, only four days after launching their offensive, they found no one in the counterscarp galleries. They walked in, strode unchallenged along a hallway, and found only 20 French soldiers inside.

Oops.

The French had lost faith in the big forts—the wrong lesson at the wrong time. Had they all been properly garrisoned and armed to capacity, Verdun would have been a very different battle. Once the Germans took possession of Douaument, they had a base where their soldiers could take shelter and a great view of the surrounding battlefield.



They could not use Douaument as a position from which to fire on Verdun because the fort’s guns didn’t face that way. (A smart feature. Don’t let the enemy aim at your cities with your own forts.) So instead they used it to store supplies, including shells, ordnance, powder, food, and a place to treat the wounded and give weary soldiers a place to rest.

Benjamin had emailed me after visiting Douaument, saying that the place gave him an overwhelming sense of dread. I could imagine that, considering the number of dead soldiers entombed inside. But as we entered, I wasn’t hit with any sense foreboding. Apart from its constant dripping ceilings and stalactites, it seemed to differ from Fort Vaux only in the fact that it ENORMOUS.



We walked along the front hallway, the inside of subterranean French forts now very familiar to me. Ah, yes, collapsible benches. And wiring for telegraph and telephone. Powder magazines. Barracks with steel bunks. Rows of latrines that I wouldn’t use unless I had no choice. Ventilation ducts. Water tanks.

Most of this we had to imagine, using the iron bolts still in the brick to see where these structures had stood. The fort has not been restored like Falouse.



Did I mention stalactites? They were everywhere, poking down from the ceiling like creepy, pale fingers.

We passed a room where a handful of French soldiers were killed and entombed when a German 420mm shell hit the roof, the damage it caused still plainly visible. Nearby, is a room where some 30 German soldiers were killed and entombed by a French shell explosion.

I didn’t realize it until later, but I’d begun to feel some of what Benjamin described — a choking sense of dread. The farther we went into the fort’s deep interior, the more desperately I wanted to get out until the phrase GET OUT was shouting inside my skull.

We walked along what would have been the fort’s main corridor and came to a wall decorated with a cross that reads, “Our Fallen Comrades,” in German. There were plastic flowers — I don’t like plastic flowers — and some lights that shined on a sculpture of parents saying farewell to sons on their way to war. The sculpture was put in place by a group celebrating French-German reconciliation.




Behind the wall lie the entombed remains of 700 German soldiers who somehow managed to ignite some of the fort’s ordnance and blow themselves up, setting off shells and other explosives. The explosion not only killed those in the corridor, but sent a wall of fire through the fort’s infirmary, where the sick and injured were burned to death. Rather than removing the bodies, the Germans opted to turn the passage into a tomb. And so it remains.

We went down, down, through dank, dark hallways toward the big 400mm gun, which made the gun at Falouse and Vaux look itsy-bitsy. We also saw the hallway where the Germans entered the fort. When we visited, a lone bat was sleeping there, causing visitors to duck or veer sideways so as not to disturb it.

The wash room was stalactite city, certainly not a place I’d want to wash anything.

But at this point all I could concentrate on was keeping myself from shouting at Benjamin to quit narrating and just get us the hell out of there. It was utterly irrational, but that’s how I felt.

The French eventually retook Douaument, reclaiming in six hours what it had taken the Germans six months to take. The Germans left behind their dead, as well as carvings on some of the tiles and writing in German on the walls as they labeled some of the rooms.

The place is haunted, a restless tomb. “Bad juju” doesn’t begin to describe it.

I was so relieved when we left and went back outside into wind-driven sleet. We went on top the massive fort, looked at the gun turrets, and then I was so cold that Stef took me back to her car, where we waited for Benjamin to finish looking his fill.



Later, Benjamin and I talked about our shared experience, that sense of dread. We both thought that perhaps it was the last thought of the men who were entombed by the shell explosions or perhaps the last thought of those who saw the wall of fire flying toward them from the site of the explosion.

Then Benjamin suggested that perhaps it was the wish of the 735 people whose remains are still there. Maybe they don’t want to stay inside the fort where they died but wish they’d been removed from this subterranean battleground and buried where sunlight could touch their graves. The 730 German soldiers are so far from home, after all, many of them drafted to fight in a war that wasn’t of their choosing.

How can they rest in peace in Douaumont?


FLEURY





There was once a village called Fleury. It had a café, a church, several small farms, a cemetery, a school. It’s 400 or so residents made their homes on this hillside overlooking Verdun.

Fleury is one of nine villages on the Verdun battlefield that were destroyed and never rebuilt. How can you rebuild something that is a charnel pit of dead bodies, mustard gas canisters and unexploded shells and shell fragments?

Fleury stands near Fort Douaumont, and it was our last stop on our tour of the Verdun battlefields. White markers indicate whose house stood where. This is where the school once was. And this shell hole, now filled with rain water, was a bakery.



The cemetery of Fleury was also destroyed, its coffins blasted out of the earth and shredded during the 16 times the village traded hands between the French and the Germans. Sixteen times. Now, a cross stands in memory of all the departed who were buried and left to rest in peace but whose peace was disturbed.


Fleury still has a mayor. The position is honorary, just as the status of “village” is honorary. The mayor’s job is more or less to see to the upkeep of the memorial to the little village.

France has not forgotten these little destroyed villages. Every year on Nov. 1, the flame from L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris is brought to the Monument a La Victoire in Verdun. On the night of Nov. 10, the flame is carried to Ossuary and also the nine destroyed villages, where it burns overnight and during the day on Nov. 11, the day World War I came to an end, once known as Armistice Day in the US and still called Armistice Day in much of Europe.



There is a chapel on site, its exterior decorated with an image of Our Lady the Virgin of Europe, an image of Virgin Mary robed in the EU flag — kind of a strange image to be sure, but one intended to focus grief over the loss of the village on the hope that war between the nations of Europe is a thing of the past.

Last time Benjamin was here, he saw a human scapula sitting out in the open. It wasn’t there this time. Perhaps it is now in the Ossuary along with all the other bones found at Fleury.

We walked along the paths, paid a visit to the cross that marked the cemetery, even snapped some photos. Stef took one of Benjamin and me in front of the chapel.



Then it was time for us to get to the train station and return to Paris. Stef drove us there, staying with us while we waited, then saying goodbye.

Overwhelmed by all we’d seen in the past few days — all the death, the terrible stories, the suffering, the crushing losses, the creepifying feeling of Douaument — I didn’t even know how to feel.

What amazed me as we drove away was how few Americans and even French people know anything about World War I and how few actually want to know. But they should know. Just as World War I led to World War II, it is a conflict that is still shaping global events today.

I plan to write about this. What form that will take, I just know that seeing all of this has put something inside me now, and it has to come out.



With many thanks to Benjamin for being my travel companion and sharing his passion and compassion surrounding the Battle of Verdun. Thanks, too, to Mr. Radet for his expertise. And big hugs to Stef for enduring the sleet and the creepiness of Douaument with us.

1 comments:

Thanks, Pamela, for sharing your steps through French history with us! After days like that, all I want to do is rest. For hours! It's great to hear that you learned things that you 'will be writing about, because it has to come out'!

I hope the remainder of your trip is memorable in other good ways as well...for your heart, mind and body. Thanks for taking the time to post amidst it all.

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