Visiting the Ossuary of Douaumont, Verdun, France: sombre memories of a crucial World War One battle

Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Douaumont Ossuary, near Verdun, France
Douaumont Ossuary, near Verdun, France | Source
Douaumont Ossuary at sunset
Douaumont Ossuary at sunset | Source
Map location of Verdun 'arrondissement'
Map location of Verdun 'arrondissement' | Source

Horrors recalled

This massive structure is a sombre place: it commemorates the hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers who perished at the Battle of Verdun from February until November 1916, during World War One. After the grim events at Verdun, total estimated dead, wounded or missing among the French and Imperial German armies were reckoned to be 714,231 although subsequent calculations suggested that 976,000 casualties were more accurate. The Apocalyptic conditions on the battlefield are almost unimaginable, and contrast hugely with the now, green, peaceful scenes around the Ossuary of Douaumont (French: Ossuaire de Douaumont).

The Battle is sometimes billed as a great French victory, which in a sense it was. But when one considers the cost of so many thousands of lives lost over the possession of what often amounted to a few kilometres of mud and barbed wire, the sheer senselessness of such a conflict is heightened.

Verdun was also the scene of other battles in 1914 and 1917, although the events of 1916 stand apart as exceptional in terms of their sheer horror and huge losses.

Human remains from the battlefield at Verdun were often so charred and unrecognizable that it was decided to bury en masse at a special building, designated for the purpose, many of the human bones found at the extended site of the action.

The Ossuary was built from 1923 onwards and officially inaugurated in 1932 by French President Albert Lebrun. Features of this imposing structure, containing the bones of at least 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers, include a 46-metre tower, poignant alcoves where many of the remains are on view, and a cloister area. The structure's main architect was Léon Azéma (1888-1978)(1).

The hero of Verdun is often cited as Marshall Philippe Pétain. His reputation for his rôle in holding the French lines at all costs — and what a cost! — is probably justified in military terms. Years later in personal terms, however, his heroic status waned considerably, when from 1940 until 1944 he headed a régime with a collaborationist stance towards France's Nazi German invaders.

More broadly, North Americans can usefully try to understand just how marked must have been the effect of collective, psychologically traumatic experiences of World War One battles, such as Verdun, upon French thinking.

In 1984, French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl led a symbolic, joint commemoration at Douaumont Ossuary.

When I visited the Ossuary, the weather was dull and somewhat stormy and this background seemed to give an extra sombre sense to the monument being visited.

May 24, 2013

Note

(1) Architect Azéma served as chief architect for the City of Paris, and was responsible for many public buildings.

Also worth seeing

Verdun itself, situated on the Meuse River, has various notable buildings, including its Citadel, the Medieval Châtel gate, its partly Medieval Cathedral, and 18th century episcopal palace.

Metz (distance: 79 kilometres); noted structures include: its two cathedrals; its enormous railroad station, built during the Imperial German annexation period, with memories also of WW2 Resistance leader Jean Moulin.

...

How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), where car rental is available. (Paris-Verdun, distance: 225.3 kilometres). The French railroad company SNCF maintains services from Paris to Verdun. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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