It’s difficult to come to this neck of the woods without becoming involved in the WWI obscenity that was the battle of Verdun. We are camped a few kilometres south of Verdun but the main military action was centred just to the north of it. We drove up to look.
Our guide book says that the battle of Verdun lasted 300 days, so let’s say 10 months. It began with a German artillery barrage that went on for 10 hours and expended 2 million shells. By the end of the 10-month carnage, 700,000 men were dead, missing or wounded.
We began our sobering tour at the Fort Souville, where some advanced technology of the time made 15.5cm guns rise from the ground, fire, then disappear back into the protection of what was essentially a silo. The ground is now forested but remnants of the fortifications can still be seen in the ground left cratered and undulating by the explosions of shells.
Nine villages were completely eradicated by the actions. We drove off to where one stood but there is nothing now to be seen. I went expecting that I might see something along the lines of the ruins of the WWII martyr village of Oradour-sur-Glane, near Limoges, where the SS murdered the entire population in June 1944 shortly after D-Day but apparently, these villages near Verdun were so completely razed that no trace of them could be seen in aerial photographs taken shortly after.
We finished with rightly shredded emotions at the Ossuaire de Douaumont which, standing in the middle of the battlefield, serves as the main monument to the Verdun terror and holds the bones of many thousands of unidentified bodies. After the battle, some 120,000 French bodies were identified, being about one third of those killed. The Ossuaire is fronted by a suitably regimented graveyard where 15,000 dead are buried.
I’ve often wondered about “missing” and “unidentified” but I think it must go like this. Bodies litter a battlefield. If they weren’t blown to bits when they were actually killed, continued shelling where they lie subsequently does either blow them to bits or throws up wads of earth from nearby which falls over the corpses and ends up burying them.
I considered myself blessed to have been part of what I believe to be the first generation not to have been plagued by a European war. Verdun has had a tumultuous history featuring in the Franco-Prussian War, WWI and WWII. The EU was formed following WWII, which was really part 2 of the first atrocity, to prevent further European bloodbaths. The theory was that nations that trade together would not try to wipe each other out and it has proved very effective. The EU may well not be perfect but anyone doubting its usefulness really should see these monuments to the terrors of what used to happen before its existence. Surely preventing such senseless carnage is worth a degree of imperfection.