This morning, we inadvertently took a wrong turn out of the campsite heading for the First World War battlefields and quickly came across the 16 statues of French generals from the Napoleonic to the First World War era that have been erected in the shadow of the Vauban fort. So we stopped to take a look at them and then wander into the centre of Verdun to look at the victory monument and the monument to the fallen sons of the town. The former is shrouded in scaffolding on one side and very clean on the other side. The Verdun memorial museum out on the battlefield is also closed for the season – we suspect because they are cleaning the exhibits and updating the commentary in preparation for the centenary of the battle next year.
After our trip into the town centre, we went out to the battlefield and to the Ossuaire or charnal house where the bones of over 130,000 French and German unknown soldiers had been enterred. In front of it are the graves of over 16,000 that they were able to identify. The numbers of crosses are truly staggering.
We then cycled to Fort Douaumont – one of a series of forts that were constructed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the loss of Alsace and much of Lorraine to defend the approach to Verdun. It was a major target for the Germans and for much of the war was bombarded by 1,500-2,000 shells a day. The exterior – particularly the grass roof – is pitted with craters, but somehow the structure withstood the bombardment and is remarkably intact inside.
Around the battlefield are 9 of 12 villages that were completely destroyed by the war that are officially classified as ‘villages morts pour la France’. As such they retain their legal status and are still marked on the road with signs when you enter and leave the village and, despite there being no sign of the village left, they still have a mayor. We took a walk around Fleury which has bollards marking out where the streets and houses once stood. Truly sobering.