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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.
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.

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"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
—Emile Zola

"I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day."
—James Joyce

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery."
—Jane Austen

"Writers are those for whom writing is more difficult that it is for others."
—Ernest Hemingway

"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth."
—Kurt Vonnegut

"The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar is the test of their power."
—Toni Morrison

"No tears in the author, no tears in the reader."
—Robert Frost.

"I'm a writer. I give the truth scope."
—the character of Chaucer in
A Knight's Tale