On our way to Colmar we stopped in Verdun for the morning and early afternoon. I have never visited any WWI or WWII battlefields before and this was a highlight for me. In preparing for this trip I watched "A Very Long Engagement", a movie based on the Battles of WWI in France.
Eight of the villages around Verdun were completely destroyed during WWI and not rebuilt after. The ground was still so full of ammunition, metal and other objects that it was not possible to consider coming back to them.
A shocking realization for me was to drive through the winding roads and see signs indicating that a village used to be in that place. Complete villages were flattened and only the rolling mounds of grown-in trenches left.
During the 300 days of the Battle of Verdun (1916) approximately 230,000 men died out of a total of 700,000 casualties (dead, wounded and missing). The battle became known as the "Verdun mincing machine".
It's hard to tour a place like this and feel what actually happened during those long days, but the guided tour we received definitely made me have a new perspective on the pain and suffering that France experienced.
At one point our guide got us to cover our ears as she lifted and slammed down a heavy piece of metal. The sound that roared through the tunnels of the fort was unforgettable. And she said it was just one-tenth of what the soliders experienced all day as bombs went off outside the walls.
The most interesting part of the tour was just listening to the many stories of how the soldiers lived within the walls during the war. No sun, no clean water, and sometimes no food or fresh air. The stench alone would driven a person mad.
We came upon one tunnel that was sealed at the end with a memorial on it. I learned that behind that wall were fallen soldiers from an ammunition accident. They couldn't give them a proper burial ouside due to the fighting, so they just sealed it off.
This tour was such a moving experience.
Before viewing the Ossuary we watched a movie that provided us with the history of the battle and the area. Even though the movie was very detailed and at times hard to take, I still cannot imagine experiencing it in real time.
The Ossuary was built to house the remains of over 100,000 fallen unknown soldiers (French and German). Through small windows, the remains can actually be seen. Interestingly, unlike the neatly stacked piles in the Catacombs, the bones of the dead soldiers are simply in heaping piles, which strangely feels more appropriate for the violent and tragic way they died.
Inside there are a number of posters picturing a present day person who was involved in WWI holding a photo of themselves from WWI.
It's hard to understand the effect of all the wars that have been fought on France's soil.
For lunch we had a picnic with the group before going to tour the Citadel in Verdun. It was so nice of William and Julie to go shopping in Reims and put together such a wonderfully fresh meal for us. We had baguette sandwiches, various fruits, juice, wine and chocolate. Our group is still getting to know each other, but having causal dining like this allows people to be more comfortable.
The Citadel is the old fortress on the outskirts of the town where up to 6,000 soldiers lived and worked throughout the war. It was basically untouched during the wars. They have now converted part of it into a tourist site with an interactive ride-along tour. I would not say that it was as thought provoking as the Ossuary, but it was the first Citadel fortress that I have been in. The one downside was that it was extremely cold. Throughout the passageways each room contains a mock up with models and figures showing the way of life during the war for the soldiers. It also includes a mock up of the ceremony on November 10, 1920 when the Unknown Soldier who now lies beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris was chosen in front of the Minister Maginot.
Before getting back onto the bus it was encouraged for us to use the facilities. It's one thing for us ladies to always have a lineup, but this place didn't even have a toilet! A hole in the ground was all we got. Thankfully, William took pity and asked them to open the private washroom that had some porcelain! I admire those French women.
Arlene, Nancy, Candace
Joe, Lois, & Judy