Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Verdun France

Several times in the past I had wanted to stop and visit Verdun but time and
circumstance always seemed to get in the way.

I also thought that other things would be more interesting and so I
 let Verdun slip further down the list of places to see.

Finally this time we made it and man was I wrong!
I should have come here long ago.

But again...  I get ahead of myself.

We left Colmar, France on a hot and clear day.

It was another of a long unbroken string of well above average hot and dry days 
that has been punishing the European Continent (and us) this whole summer.

Approaching the outskirts of the city I spotted a familiar sight.
Didn't we just see this a couple of months ago as we sailed out of NY Harbor?

Statue of Liberty Colmar France
Well it turns out that Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi the designer of the Statue of Liberty
was born in Colmar, and this replica was erected in 2004 on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Passing Lady Liberty, we hopped onto the A34 and started to motor our
way thru the rolling eastern France countryside.

Enroute to Verdun, we took a short side trip to the Lorraine American Cemetery.
to pay our respects to those who came before us, and died saving the world.

Containing the largest amount of American war dead from WW2 of any
cemetery in Europe - like all the others - it is well maintained and a moving experience.

Lorraine American Cemetery Entrance
Located in Eastern France, not far from the German border, most of the men here
died in the Fall Campaign pushing out of France - and into Germany

Lorraine American Cemetery
Particularly sad was seeing the graves with men who died so close to the end of the war.
The man below died one day after Hitler committed suicide, and just 6 days before
the German surrender and the end of hostilities in Europe.

Pushing onward to Verdun, we arrived at our next home for 2 short nights.
A rather unique place - it is an old Protestant Church that was converted into a home.
On Air BnB it is known as The Temple.

The Temple Verdun
Like most places - it does not have air conditioning, as usually it is not needed.
This summer however has been a huge exception.
The hosts left us large fans to cool things down a bit and they help....   some.

Stained Glass on stairs up to top floor in the Temple
The top floor is where the living and kitchen area was located.
It had a large skylight that let the light flood into the space.
Unfortunately it also allowed the heat to flood in.

In more moderate temps this place would have been the best!

Becoming fairly well adapted to the conditions by now,
the 4 of us had a fine time regardless, and enjoyed this very unique space.

Top Floor The Temple in Verdun
On our one full day here - we set off to explore the Verdun Battlefield.

You can read more about it HERE but the short version is that it lasted for about 300 days,
was the largest and longest of any battle in WW1, and one of the most vicious of any war.

 The town of Verdun sat just behind a row of hills that stood between it and Germany.
The hills were crowned with fortifications that defended the town which lay in a stretegic
position between Germany and Paris.

Below is a pill box remaining from those fortifications
Pill Box Verdun
The fighting took place in a rather small area of about 7 square miles, yet over 300,000
men died - most from artillery.

It's been said that about 3 bombs fell on every square yard of ground, and when one drives about
it is not hard to believe it because even 100 years later, the scars of war upon the land
are visible everywhere that has not been dug over and re-graded. 

Below Kate stands in one such crater for perspective.
All around here were craters as far as one can see.

Bomb Craters Verdun

There are also miles of old defensive trenches zig zagging their way across the land.

Trenches Verdun
The trenches were dug in a zig zag pattern as they would be easier to defend
and would prevent a shell explosion from sending shrapnel down a long straight line. 

Trenches Verdun
Along the front line laid the town of Fleury-devant-Douamont.
This town changed hands 16 times during the fighting!
Like much of this compact area, bombs would fall and people would die.
Then more bombs would fall and pulverize the dead bodies.
Then more bombs would fall and pulverize the already pulverized parts.

Below is where the village one stood.

During the war, the town was completely destroyed and the land made uninhabitable 
to such an extent that a decision was made not to rebuild it. 

The area around the village was contaminated by corpses, explosives 
and poisonous gas, shells  that it was too dangerous for farmers to resume their livelihoods. 

In 2013, German tourists walking these very same paths saw a bone sticking
up out of the ground and digging by archeologists uncovered another 26
soldiers who had died in the basement of the church that had been used 
as a field hospital.

The site of the village is maintained as a testimony to all wars and is officially designated 
as a "village that died for France." 

There are 6 other villages in the area that are also destroyed and maintained in similar fashion.

Just a mile or so from Fleury-devant-Douamont stands several forts.

We visited Fort Vaux which was the scene of some intense fighting during the battle.

Fort Vaux was built underground with thick reinforced concrete tunnels.
After At one point the Germans were able to penetrate inside the fort.

The French defenders had erected barricades in the tunnels behind which they would fight and
then retreat to the next barricade and fight some more.

For several days, non stop hand-to-hand fighting took place with hand grenades, 
bayonets, and flame throwers.... inside the tunnels.

Below you can see one of the tunnels where the fighting took place.

Fort Vaux tunnel where fighting took place.
The rear side of Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux
Inside the tunnels at Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux
Leaving Fort Vaux we traveled a mile or so to the Douamont Ossuary.
The Ossuary is a large building that houses the skeletal remains of at least
130,000 French and German Soldiers who died on the battlefield.

The fighting being so constant and so severe - the bodies stayed where they fell, only
to be bombed again and again.

So - many of the dead were just fragments of skeletons once they were able to be recovered,
and to this day more continue to be found.

Douamont Ossuary
You can read about the Ossuary HERE

The photo below - taken in the back shows the long line of windows.
The smaller windows below - you can look into each and see piles and piles of
bones and skulls of the deceased.

Douamont Ossuary
Inside the Ossuary looking from one end to the other. 

Douamont Ossuary
There was so much more to see here - and our full day was not enough.

We had relied on Rick Steves advice that it could be seen in 1/2 a day and
what a mistake that was.

Needless to say - we departed with a deeper sense of the horror that was
Verdun in 1916 as well as appreciation of just how much Europe has suffered
during its two world wars.

After Verdun our travels have taken us to Amsterdam and Leiden Netherlands
where we are now.  

Tomorrow we leave for Bruges, Belgium and
our final 5 days before we drop off the car in Calais, and head back to the UK
for our final 2 months in Europe.
Our time in the Netherlands has been super special and will
be covered on our next post.

See you then.

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