“Many of us here use writing as a means of staying alive…”
So wrote a French commanding officer, holed up in the underground citadel of Verdun, during the longest battle of World War I. The subterranean tunnels of the citadel were the command post, the ammunitions store, the place from which troops were dispatched or returned from the front, where bread was baked for the soldiers’ rations and wounds were tended.
I was a little apprehensive about visiting Verdun, where over 300,000 soldiers lost their lives on the western front in 1916. Like many young boys, our two are fascinated by soldiers, war stories and, particularly tales of the two World Wars. We knew we wanted to take them somewhere they could experience (and get a more sobering sense of) this history.
Pre-kids, we had visited the D-Day Beaches, Ypres in Belgium and the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute Vienne, which remains preserved as it was on the day in June 1944, when the Nazis rounded up and shot all the men, then herded the women and children into the church and set it alight. The sombreness and weight of the energy in that ruined village is something I will not forget.
In Verdun there are monuments a-plenty. Underground barracks, cemeteries with row upon row of crosses, forts, an ossuary, memorials to soldiers of different faiths, the foundations of abandoned villages completely destroyed by shelling, and an excellent museum that tells the story of the battle and details of the soldiers’ daily lives.
But what was most striking for me was the landscape. The battle took place over a vast area, and much of it has been left to return nature. This is “la zone rouge” – an area so devastated, a landscape so lunar, so utterly bereft of life in 1918, that it was declared unsafe and impossible to inhabit. Beneath the mud lay thousands of unexploded shells and grenades, and the soil was polluted by toxic chemicals and gases. Agriculture was banned, villages were relocated. Restrictions still exist today.
So nature took over. The forest grew over the trenches, the pock marks of the shell holes and the mud where it is estimated that some 80,000 soldiers still lie.
Driving up through the forest, you can see the remains of the trenches, running hundreds of metres through the forest
This for me, was incredibly sobering. Knowing that not so very long ago, thousands of young sons, brothers, husbands and fathers fought and died here. That some possibly lie beneath my feet.
It was a long and sober day, and one the boys will remember.