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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A Visit to the Westwall Museum in Irrel, Germany

Last Friday my genealogy society luxracines took a trip to Germany to visit the District Archive of Bitburg-Prüm or Kreisarchiv Bitburg-Prüm in the city of Bitburg.

Following our visit to the district archive, lunch at the Restaurant Zagreb in the Bitburg Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone), and a bit of sightseeing we met up at our bus. On the way back to Luxembourg we stopped in Irrel to see the Katzenkopf bunker (Panzerwerk Katzenkopf) which houses the Westwallmuseum.

The Westwallmuseum sign includes a plan of the bunker complex. Below the sign, a view of the town of Irrel in the valley.

The Katzenkopf bunker is the second largest of its kind and the northernmost along the former Siegfried Line which can still be visited.

The Westwall statistics: length, depth, cost, materials used, transportation of material, and manpower.

Germany began planning the construction of the Westwall, better known as the Siegfried Line by the Allies, along its western border in 1936. The line stretched from Kleve on the border to the Netherlands to Weil am Rhein on the border to Switzerland. More than 22,000 forts, bunkers, and pillboxes were planned along the 630 km (390 miles) line. From 1937 to 1939 two bunkers were built in Irrel: the Katzenkopf and the Nimsberg. Constructed on hills opposite each other with Irrel lying in the valley below, they guarded the main road from Cologne to the city of Luxembourg.

Following World War II, during the French occupation, the above-ground section of the bunker was blown up and the remains were bulldozed into a heap. In 1976 the volunteer fire department of Irrel began excavation of the site and restoration and preservation of the bunker. To date, the members of the fire department have worked 75,000 hours voluntarily on the site. Work is still being done inside the bunker during the winter months when the museum is closed to visitors.

Opened to visitors in 1979 the fortification is a B-Werke, the only accessible in Germany, with exterior walls of 2-meter thick reinforced concrete (B neu). Originally it had been planned with a B construction thickness of 1.5 meters. Three levels are accessible to visitors on Sundays and public holidays from April until the beginning of October.

Our guided tour began on the outside where our guide Mr. Geisen explained the strategic location of the Katzenkopf and the Nimsberg bunkersOn the upright concrete slab which remains of the former roof is a memorial for the 4,000 dead and missing soldiers of the 39th Fusilier-Regiment of Dusseldorf.

Our guide stressed that the bunker and museum are not meant to glorify the Nazi cause. The motto of the site is:

Once an instrument of war, today a reminder for peace.
Panzerwerk Katzenkopf. Einst Werkzeug des Krieges, heute Mahnung zum Frieden.

The artillery and infantry watch-turrets which can be seen on top of the bunker were used for the all-round observation. The bunker itself and its immediate area could be defended by several firing positions.

After showing us the watch-turrets on the outside our guide took us inside the bunker. Our tour had been arranged by appointment, the ticket office at the entrance was not manned, and our guide was the only responsible person at the location. Therefore as a precaution, he locked us in. This was more of a safety measure for persons using the hiking paths which pass by the bunker. An unlocked door might invite unwanted guests who would inadvertently be locked in at the end of our tour. Following this explanation, Mr. Geisen began telling us about the workings of the complex which housed a crew of 84 men on 4 floors.

Troop quarters with folding table and chairs as well as bunk beds which could be folded up against the wall for space.

The two upper floors were originally divided into 45 rooms of various sizes. They included troop quarters, lavatories, ammunition and gunnery rooms, canteen, kitchen, cold storage chamber, telephone control and radio station, guard rooms, and a first-aid station which was outfitted to perform any type of operation needed.

Kitchen sink with the original Villeroy & Boch tiles.

Electricity was produced by two diesel-engine generators for heating and lighting. Electric motors were also used for the ventilation system.

On the fourth floor, the lowest level, are two large galleries totaling 138 meters in length. Photographs and weapons of the period line the walls of these tunnels. One leads a room with a water pump installed over a 180-meter deep well and the other to the remote gun-turret.

A wartime scene is displayed where the tunnel work was discontinued.

At the end of the tunnel which leads to the room with the water pump, one can see where work had been interrupted. Due to the early outbreak of World War II, the construction of a tunnel between the two bunkers in Irrel as well as an elevator shaft between the tunnel and a railroad tunnel below was not finished. The elevator shaft would have been used to transport provisions into the bunkers and soldiers in and out of them without being seen.

The atmosphere in the bunker was a cool 10° C (50° F) and very damp.  Coming back up the four flights of stairs from the lowest level to the entrance, we were relieved to be back on the outside. We’d been in the bunker less than two hours. We’d felt the dampness and were able to imagine the cramped quarters as our group of 18 gathered in a room outfitted for 18 men. With the bed frames down there was standing room only. We saw photos of the streets of Irrel where nearly every house had been seriously damaged or destroyed. We can only hope to never have to live under similar conditions. The members of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr Irrel have succeeded in turning an instrument of war into a reminder for peace.

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