A Visit to Verdun – Nearly 100 Years After the End of World War I

Saturday my husband and I joined other members of my genealogy society luxracines on a trip to Verdun, France.

This year marks the centennial of the end of World War I. The deadliest conflict in the history of man. The human loss was great. Casualties for military personnel numbered at about eight million disabled and about ten million deaths, an average of 6,000 deaths per day. France had the greatest loss. The number of wounded, missing, and killed made up 30% of the active male population (18-65 years), for the most part, men between the ages of 17 and 45 who would never have children.

Battle of Verdun

The longest battle of the Great War, as World War I was known before World War II, was fought on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France from  21 February to 18 December 1916 and is known as the Battle of Verdun. Today the scars of the millions of shells fired and lethal fragments of shrapnel that marked the area during the Battle of 300 Days and Nights are hidden by the forested land. Nature has been allowed to cover the destruction of man in an area of 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres). After signing the armistice on 11 November 1918, France decided no one would be allowed to live in the devastated area and declared it a “Zone Rouge”.

The forest has become a sanctuary. Buried in the earth are the remains of 80,000 soldiers, a world heritage dating from the days of the Great War.

Ivan PARIS, professor of history and geography, was our guide for the day, explaining historical importance of each of the sites we visited.

Tranchée des Baïonettes

A la mémoire des soldats Français
qui dorment debout, le fusil à la main, dans cette tranchée.
Leurs frères d’Amériques.

Entrance of the Bayonet Trench Monument

In memory of French soldiers
who sleep standing, rifle in hand, in this trench.
Their American brothers.

The walkway to the gigantic cross on the wall.
A massive concrete slab supported by concrete pillars…
…protects the trench with its white wooden crosses.

Fort de Douaumont

We continued our visit to the Fort de Douaumont in the red zone.

Our guide on the machine gun turret of Fort Douaumont surrounded by Luxracines members
The German, European Union, and French flags flying over the Fort de Douaumont
Outside walls of the Fort Douaumont
The side entrance of Fort Douaumont
A passageway in the Fort Douaumont
Archway to the stairs to the lower level
Stairs to the lower level of the fort
Sketch of the machine gun turret on top of the fort and mechanisms in the lower level.
Corroded mechanism to lift the turret inside the fort

Ossuaire de DOUAUMONT

The Douaumont Ossuary contains the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unidentified German and French soldiers on the lower level. They can be viewed through low windows on the outside of the building.

Inside, the stained glass windows cast a reddish glow in the 137 meters (449 feet) long cloister. The walls are covered with the names of French soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun. Photography is not allowed in this sanctuary.

After a short visit to the chapel, we descended to the lower level to view a 20 minutes film about the ossuary.

View of the cemetery of identified soldiers from the front side of the Douaumont Ossuary

Unidentified bones are still being found in the area and added to the remains in the ossuary. Of the 300,000 who died during the Battle of Verdun, it is believed that about 80,000 are still buried in the fields and forest where the battle took place. Our guide explained the medical examiner of Verdun has to test all remains found to determine they are from the time period of the battle. He also shared the following anecdote.

In May 2015 three nearly perfectly preserved skeletons were found during the construction work on the new museum but with only one set of dog tags. Which of the three soldiers did the tags belong too? This is where GENEALOGY came into play as a direct descendant of the soldier named on the tags and a woman believed to be related to him were found. DNA samples yielded matches between the soldier, his grandson, and the woman. Read the entire story here: French WWI soldier identified by DNA and laid to rest. 

Following a nice lunch in the Restaurant La Brasserie du Parc in Verdun, we continued our afternoon sightseeing at the museum, Mémorial de Verdun.

Mémorial de Verdun

Part of the “Sacred Way” exhibit

Visitors are invited to enter the exhibit and walk in the footprints of the soldiers and cross the wooden boards which feel as if they are sinking in the mud.

Communicating At All Costs

Fernand Marche (1888-1916) was a runner in the 130th infantry regiment. On 1 August 1916, he volunteered to carry a message to his colonel near Fort Thiaumont but he was killed on the way. The next runner found his body, with his arm in the air and his fingers grasping the message. The messenger took the note and reached the colonel. A memorial to Private Marche was erected in 1925 in Bully-les-Mines, in front of the mining company in which he had worked before the war. ~ Text from the plaque

View of the Douaumont Ossuary from the upper platform of the Memorial de Verdun.

The City of Verdun

Following our visit to the museum, we were back in Verdun for a short walk through the streets and to have a drink on one of the many terraces on the banks of the Meuse River.

Mémoire Vive (left), a sculpture by the students of CAP Métallerie du Lycée Freyssinet in collaboration with the Lorraine artist Jean-No, and Porte Chaussee (right)
Monument to the Victory at Verdun
View from the top of the Monument to the Victory at Verdun
Mess des Officiers – Officer’s Mess in Verdun

Verdun is also well known for its sugared almonds known as dragées de Verdun. The almond, a symbol of fertility, was originally coated with honey. When medieval crusaders brought sugar to Europe in the 13th century it replaced the honey coating. White sugar coated dragées are gifted to guests at weddings (favors) as are blue or pink dragées at baptisms and to thank friends for baby gifts.

And finally, before boarding our bus to return to Luxembourg, we had our traditional group picture taken by our driver.

The day was well organized by our president Rob DELTGEN. Everyone had a wonderful time. I for one learned more about World War I and the Battle of Verdun from our very capable guide, Monsieur Ivan PARIS. We, my husband and I, plan to go back for a longer visit as there is so much more to learn and see in the beautiful city of Verdun and the surrounding area.

logo_klengMany thanks to Erich Singer who did a great job filming, cutting and editing.
Click here to watch the video.

© 2018, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.

A Visit to Verdun - Nearly 100 Years After the End of World War I
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