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Country: France / Country Region: Lorraine / World Region: Europe

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      03.12.2000 05:45
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      Verdun, a ten-month battle that claimed close to a million German and French lives, was as far as I can gather the most brutal of battles, in the most terrible of wars. Verdun was the Great War battle with the highest density of dead per square meter, and to this day some 12 million (yes, this mind-boggling figure has been confirmed) unexploded shells still lie buried in the soil around the town. Appallingly, the suffering is still not entirely over – as late as 1991, 36 Frenchmen were killed whilst attempting to exhume unexploded shells still left over from three-quarters of a century previously. Verdun itself was never taken during the battle, which lasted from February to December, 1916. Thus, apart from the Cathedral, which was hit by a stray German shell at some point during the battle, the rest of Verdun is much like any French town. Close to the youth hostel, I ran into the Victory Monument, a massive construction built in the 1920s, with stone from the surrounding forts that proved crucial to the battle’s outcome. Walking down a long flight of steps brings one to the center of town. Pressing on, a bridge took me over the River Meuse, to the older section of the city – where several medieval structures and more Great War memorials awaited. It was early October, and the rain had poured down in the days preceding my visit. Hiking along in the mud brought us outside the city, where for the first time we were able to understand the immense destruction caused by the battle. Trees had of course grown for years since the battle’s end, but much of the ground was still scarred by large shell-holes. I remember seeing one remote section of forest, off the recommended footpath, where trees growing on a particularly disfigured hill were slanted at almost impossible angles. The first stop in this area was the Tranchee des Bayonettes (Trench of the Bayonets), where the French 137th Infantry Regiment had supposedly
      been buried alive in their trench by a German shell, with only their bayonets left protruding from the soil. Doubt has since been cast on this story, with some believing it more likely that the unit had expired more conventionally, to then be hastily buried by the advancing Germans (a less extraordinary, but no less honorable end). The next day took us to the Ossuaire. The surrounding land had rapidly been turned into a quagmire by the rain, making it essential to stick to the walkway. We were glad to reach the sanctuary of the Chapel, which was a somber sight both inside and outside. It was here that I felt the unimaginable loss of the battle most keenly. The interior of the building contained innumerable memorials on the walls, a multitude of candles lit for the memory of the dead, and the remains of Unknown Soldiers. Outside the Ossuaire was an extensive cemetery, which we visited once the rain had slackened somewhat. We happened upon gravestones belonging to soldiers of the aforementioned 137th Infantry Regiment, though I believe these were killed before the Tranchee des Bayonettes incident. Later on, we visited the fateful Fort de Douaumont, taken by the Germans early in the battle, and later re-captured by the French. It is said that the re-taking of this fort alone cost the French 100,000 men. I did not actually enter the ruined fort, but walked over the top of it. The fort is constructed in a pentagonal shape, with the greater part of it underground. The Musee Memorial de Fleury was another worthwhile visit. It is situated where the village of Fleury once stood, before the Germans’ opening barrage. An impressive collection of First World War equipment was on display, as well as illuminated maps of the battle. Probably the best museum I had visited in the Verdun area. Finally, we trekked to the Citadelle Souterraine (Underground Citadel). Walking through a chilly underground tunnel brought us to the begi
      nning of the presentation. Sitting in wooden cabs on tracks, we were taken through the pitch-black tunnels, past several holographic displays focusing on the life of the individual soldier in the trenches at Verdun. This was quite an informative tour, with high-quality images that stood out well in the darkness of the tunnel. The four days I spent in Verdun proved an enlightening yet sobering experience. I could not help but notice a sense of gloom that pervaded the vicinity of Verdun, though I suppose a bit of this could be attributed to my vivid imagination, the inhospitable weather, and the numerous pockmarks I discerned in what would otherwise be a beautiful surrounding landscape. I am sure, though, that this feeling is far from exaggerated – one need only think of the millions of shells still embedded in the Verdun battlefield, and the hundreds of lives lost in an effort to clear the area, years and years after the final German withdrawal, to be appraised of this fact. The terrible suffering endured by both sides at Verdun is something we should all eventually face. If we consistently shy away from trying to understand the situation that confronted individual men at battles such as this, then we shall be poorly equipped to prevent such disasters from repeating themselves. A trip to Verdun is by no means essential to achieving this understanding, but there are, I am sure, many out there who would benefit from such an excursion. The very best of luck to those who feel up to it.

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      Town in northeastern France, in Meuse Department, on the Meuse River, in Lorraine. Verdun (German (old): Wirten, official name before 1970 Verdun-sur-Meuse) is a city and commune in the Lorraine région, northeast France, in the Meuse département, of which it is a sous-préfecture. Population 25,000.