I started coming home extremely early on Friday morning from the great bastion on the Meuse, but I have come back to Britain in a very different and surprising way. Verdun is a place where you are questioned time after time, you are questioned spiritually, you are questioned mentally. Sometimes if you dare to tread under the bowels of the earth as I did for example; Fort Souville and Froideterre you are physically challenged with one overwhelming question,
“How far are you prepared to go within yourself to find the answer?”
Verdun has become a very quiet, peaceful city, a city trying to remember and acknowledge but finding a easier, more suitable solution of coping by trying to forget the past. I personally think the catastrophic defeat of France in 1940 has an overwhelming factor on the mentality of the area. The failure of defeat, in a place where France won her greatest military victory since Napoleon triumphed at Austerlitz. But it feels very very different to places such as Picardy and Flanders in that it is prepared to give you a much closer insight into the realities that these men faced than ever before, it beckons you in, and yet it tries in vain to hide it. It is to anyone with a passion of the Great War a place you must visit in order to truly understand how and why things took such a sinister and dark turn in nature and the capacity of mankind to destroy itself and the earth totally. It is still one of the principle reasons why thousands of our countrymen were sent into the cauldron and catastrophe of the Somme in July 1916. It is also a main reason why so many French soldiers mutinied after the failure of the Nivelle offensive on the Chemin De Dames in late April 1917, Verdun had taken France almost to the point of total exhaustion, and she had simply had enough.
The remnants of trenches, shellholes, fortifications, a world that became underground, a battle of a nation’s immortal soul. The labyrinths of steel, sand and concrete. The battle sites of overwhelming courage and heroism, on which both sides, German and French were totally set on anhilating each other into the abyss. The immortal stories of Colonel Driant, pioneer-Sergeant Kunze, Valiant the carrier pigeon from Fort Vaux, sending the last message from a thirsty and desperate garrison, its commander, Major Raynal desperately needing reinforcements and water for his soldiers, has now become military history folklore. Now nature is fully in control and is allowed to cover and shroud the living wound of the battlefield of Verdun, a living wound that slowly with time will be forgotten and allowed to heal. It is still taught in the French national curriculum, seeing schoolchildren and their history teachers walking underneath the forts was encouraging for the future but now with the centenary of the Great War concluded, it is already seeming to fade into history as Waterloo and Marengo has done before.
The Glorious dead that we are accustomed to here in Britain, remembered, loved and adored in November, become simply the fundamental question of the transformation of the mortal frame to the question of what happens afterwards. The remnants of men under the bowels of Douaumont Ossuary are truly a test of a man’s faith in the belief of life after death. The moral teachings of what I have been taught in love smashed to pieces in the sight of skeletal remains of men who were once French and German soldiers, killing each other with no regrets, believing that God was on their side.
The eastern side of Verdun’s natural ampitheatre, once covered in farmland and peaceful villages such as Fleury, Bezonvaux and Ornes, is now covered in dense forests, the trenches and shellholes slowly being covered over and shrouded after repeated years of Autumn leaves. The remains of the villages heartbreakingly clear to see, the maps of what used to be there over a century ago. These villages that died so that France could survive. with a chapel on the old, destroyed blocks of brick and stone, with one mass said in these small locked chapels annually every year at a certain time. The 2 main centerpieces of the area, is the wonderful memorial museum close to the destroyed village of Fleury, which is absolutely incredible and is worth a visit, and finally the Ossuaire of Douaumont and the cemetery, which dominates the battlefield and shines a light over the forests at night where men once not too long ago were dealt a cruel hand. The windows at the back of the ossuary reveal the dead in their respective chambers of horror and questions ones inner mortal shell in a way that that no other place does. The Ossuary is shaped like a sword hilt driven proudly in defiance to the invader, a beacon and bell tower at the very top of the structure. The best time to visit this place is in the very late evenings of summer, in the midst of such suffering, the birds sing their song, and the dead of France’s Colonies, now lost in the midst of decline after 1945 are appropiately buried toward their place of faith, the Graves of the men from the former Islamic North African colonies are buried facing towards Mecca. The men from Colonies in South East Asia such as Vietnam, buried with honour and dignity, thousands of miles from home.
To the west of the Meuse, the battle sites of the Mort Homme (Dead Man) and Cote 304, are also shrouded in forest and hide the tragedy of the past, but further along the line, you come to the village of Vauquois, a village that was mined into complete oblivion by both sides, the remnants of the front line trenches and mine shafts clear to see and well preserved, and living quietly in peace. Arguably on comparison it is one of the most sacred sites of the living wound that we now know as the Western Front.
Verdun has given me a different and more refreshing perspective on what happened on the Western Front in 1916, It was probably because I needed to look at a new and different area, which to me was dominated by Flanders and the Somme, I personally feel better for the change, it was probably one of the best things that I have done on my own personal journey, accompanied once again with Father. We did make fleeting visits to the Somme and to Flanders as we headed towards Zeebrugge.
I leave you this week with a quotation from a letter by a German Soldier killed on the very same day he wrote home to his parents.
“In the midst of the overwhelming, terrifying images that surround me, the thought of going back home is like a golden halo. Don’t worry, I will survive.”
Wherever he is, in the Verdun forests, in the ossuary, in a German cemetery. I hope that golden halo is over his head in heaven, for if it doesnt, well what is the point of having a belief in anything at all. That is the purpose of Verdun. That is why it continues to haunt France, and in a way haunted me too.