This weekend, I went to Verdun, France with some classmates and professors. The village is surrounded by World War I battlefields, with reconstructed trenches, tunnels, and a fortified citadel. Thanks to a great group of students, good food, and some very knowledgeable professors and tour guides, the trip was . . . what word can I use? We learned so much. We felt so much. What an emotional experience.
I’ll warn you that this is a pretty heavy post.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and began with Fleury-devant-Douaumont, one of nine villages completely destroyed by the 303-day-long battle that was Verdun. The ground was horribly pockmarked by near-constant bombing. The two photos below are of the memorial.
From Fleury-devant-Douaumont, we walked to the Douaumont ossuary, which you can see in the distance.
All of this used to be flat before the war.
We climbed to the top of the tower, which gave us a great vantage point of the battlefield area. After months of being surrounded by mountains, seeing the horizon again filled me with joy, a joy which didn’t last long—the graves wouldn’t let me forget that it was here, on this hill and on the others surrounding Verdun, where these young men fought and died. During the war, this lovely countryside was nothing but mud, shrapnel, and corpses.
Saturday morning, we headed to the Butte of Vauquois. This hill saw six months of mine war, though the battle itself lasted much longer. The hill used to be a village; after the war, the inhabitants came back and were unable to identify anything. It was all completely destroyed.
The hill was split in two by the mines. The Germans occupied one side while the French defended the other. Each dug tunnels for their troops to live in. The mines were dug out by specialized soldiers who worked in tunnels so narrow they couldn’t turn around. They dug as far down as 100m, dug out a room, and then filled it with explosives. This only lasted six months as it was relatively inefficient and quite costly.
Psychologically, these soldiers endured hell. The Germans were on a rotation of 28 days here, 14 days rest. Many of them remained at Vauquois for years. The French on the other hand worked 8 days and got 8 days off. They didn’t return to the same battlefield as often, which made for some difficulty as they didn’t know the fields as well.
Above: the result of sixty tons of dynamite below the surface. The mines served one main purpose: caving in the surface, thus destroying any enemy constructions and burying soldiers alive.
Below: this shows about a third of the hill. It was literally cut in half by the mines. German lines to the left/across the middle. I’m standing on the French side.
In the picture below, I’m standing in the middle of the hill looking at what once was the town church but is now a memorial. The church was completely destroyed by German bombs. At the time, the hill was a complete mess of mud, rubble, barbed wire, trenches, and bodies. The landscape was constantly changing under the rain of bombs, shrapnel, and mines, so the steeple of the church was serving as a reference for the French soldiers.
The emotional turmoil these men faced was incredible. Underground, they had rats, lice, fleas, dirty water, humidity, cramped spaces, little light, and bad air. They lived in fear of gas, explosions, carbon monoxide, and counter-mines (enemy mines dug below their own mines so that they were buried alive while working on their mine). On the surface, the sky rained shrapnel and every explosion brought with it the fear of gas. Comrades—friends—fell frequently, and the soldiers weren’t allowed to leave the trenches to rescue any who fell on the surface as it would mean certain death from enemy bullets. But that meant that wounded fell and were left to die by rats and bullets. The noise of bombs and bullets never stopped; if nothing was happening on this hill, the men could still hear the noise from nearby battles.
The two sides of the hill are only a stone’s throw apart.
In the afternoon, we went to the American cemetery. The Americans didn’t join until April 1917, and their physical contribution was not much (about 110,000 military deaths compared to about 1.4 million French deaths and as much as 2 million German deaths), but their presence proved psychological support for troops who were getting weary of the war that was supposed to have lasted only a few months.
I found two crosses for men from Nebraska.
The Jewish soldiers were given Stars of David instead of crosses.
Then we visited the German cemetery.
The countryside is so beautiful. My heart hurts to think about the destruction this area saw.
Today we toured the citadel. Six thousand French soldiers lived here at the Verdun citadel during the war. It was dark and cramped, and as being sent to the Verdun battlefield was considered almost a death warrant, the atmosphere must have been unbearable.
The scene represented below is of the choosing of the Unknown Soldier buried under the Arc de Triomphe. “On ne passe pas” was the slogan of Verdun during the war. The words were taken from a rousing battle song written to inspire the troops, and it roughly translates to, “They [the Germans] shall not pass.”
The letters the soldiers wrote were heart wrenching. I’ll leave you to find them online if you wish, but I want to share one by an anonymous soldier who wrote to his wife, “We go to battle this afternoon. Don’t worry about me, I will survive. I will come home, I promise.” The letter was found on his body.
I was in tears as we got on the bus to head home this afternoon. How did these soldiers do it? The average age was 20. Most had three months or less of training. They barely ate, they were cold and wet and covered in pests, they were in traumatic conditions 24/7 . . . How did they not all mutiny? Or suicide?
Many of us commented on how easy it would have been for these men to stop the war. Few of them hated the enemy; many letters talk of the enemy as “men like us.” Especially around Christmas, there were moments of fraternization. There were ceasefires so soldiers could rescue fallen friends. How did they not all stand up to their commanders together and say no?
One soldier wrote that being a pacifist is harder than going along with the war. In the war, he said, he had camaraderie, but a pacifist is alone. Or to borrow from Yeats, the pacifist is a stone to trouble the living streams; everyone else is running with the current, but a pacifist has to be still and resist.
Regardless, I heard more than one student cry, “Why do we not learn our lesson?” We read letters written by men who died in the Great War whose sons died in World War II. And wars have not, unfortunately, ceased.
These men were on average twenty years old. I would be their sweetheart, the one they wrote to, the one from whom they received the physically-sustaining packages of food and emotionally-sustaining letters of support. I would be lying if I said I didn’t shudder every time I think about that. One soldier commented in a letter that the German town they invaded had no men left. Another gently rebuked his young son for asking about the bombs, reminding him that the enemy troops were made up of fathers like himself, and asking if he would be happy to hear that a German boy had lost his father because of a bomb.
A part of me worries that humankind hasn’t learned its lesson. If this kind of destruction were ever to commence again, I sincerely hope that my peers—the ones who would be chiefly concerned in the matter—would stand still, quietly refusing to partake in such pointless destruction. Because it was all so pointless in the end. Letters told of hundreds of men lost in a few hours at Verdun just to gain a few dozen meters; ground that was then lost in the next attack.
I’m very glad to have been able to participate in this weekend. As one of the students said, these are numbers and names we learn in school, but by reading the letters and visiting Verdun, the facts became the faces of the soldiers and their families.