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A Visit to the World War I Battlefield of Verdun

Updated on January 7, 2012

A Short Detour While Traveling on Vacation

On a 1979 trip to Europe with my younger sister we made a stop at the city of Verdun in northeastern France.

Verdun is a medieval city whose origins date back to pre-Roman times. According to WikiPedia it was founded by the Gauls of France and later taken over by the Romans and renamed Verdun which, again according to WikiPedia, comes from the Latin word Verodunum which means strong fort.

Sitting on the northern gateway into France, Verdun occupies a strategic position and through the ages has served as a fortress. It was this strategic position and the forts just outside the city that made Verdun a major battleground in World War I.

Verdun War Monument with French and American Flags in Verdun, France
Verdun War Monument with French and American Flags in Verdun, France | Source

An Inexpensive Flight With a Stop Over in Iceland

Both my sister and I were still single and working at the time of this vacation.

I had just completed graduate school and had previously visited parts of Europe on a class study tour while in college and also had been to Germany while flying with the Air National Guard.

We decided to spend our two week vacations visiting other parts of Europe that I hadn't previously visited and visiting friends of mine who lived in Austria.

In those days the best airline deals were on Icelandic Airlines which flew flights from Chicago and New York to Luxembourg with a refueling stop at Keflavík airport in Iceland which I had previously flown into with the Air National Guard (the airport had originally been built by the U.S. military during World War II and became a joint military and civilian airport after the war).

View of cemetery at Verdun battlefield in Verdun, France
View of cemetery at Verdun battlefield in Verdun, France | Source

An Afternoon Visit to the Battlefield

We rented a car in Luxembourg and headed south toward Germany and Austria.

Since Verdun was not that far from the city of Luxembourg I decided to make a quick side trip to the Verdun battlefield as our great-Uncle Walt had spent some time there during World War I. In fact his unit was temporarily deployed to Verdun shortly after they arrived in Europe in 1918.

As a result, we didn't spend any time touring the city of Verdun but spent an entire afternoon driving around the battlefield which is now a memorial park and military cemetery.

When we visited the battlefield, sixty-one years after our great-Uncle, it was a beautiful, peaceful place.  The beauty and serenity coupled with the knowledge of the mass carnage that had occurred a little over a half a century earlier, gave one the feeling of being on hallowed ground.
The well trimmed grass, the trees, the monuments and the rows of neat white grave stones all gave the area a look of beauty and a feeling of serenity. 

A French Military Cemetery

Monument & graves at the French Military Cemetery in Verdun, France.
Monument & graves at the French Military Cemetery in Verdun, France. | Source
View of French Military Cemetery at Verdun battlefield from a distance.
View of French Military Cemetery at Verdun battlefield from a distance. | Source

Chapelle de Fleury - A Memorial Chapel Where Village of Fleury once Stood

However, it wasn't until we stopped to view the Chapelle de Fleury that I realized that the small groups of rectangular concrete, each accompanied by a sign with a French name, which we periodically encountered, were the foundations of homes that had once existed here and were destroyed during the Battle of Verdun.

The battle was mostly an artillery duel that lasted ten months from February 21, 1916 to December 18, 1916. It was at that point that I also figured out that the signs, in French, next to each of these groupings were the names of the destroyed villages. A total of 19 rural farming villages were destroyed in the battle.

Chapelle de Fleury

Chapel at Fleury , one of 19 villages in the area that were destroyed in the Battle of Verdun which lasted from February 21st to December 18th of 1916
Chapel at Fleury , one of 19 villages in the area that were destroyed in the Battle of Verdun which lasted from February 21st to December 18th of 1916 | Source

The Scenery on the Battlefield Was Very Different When My Uncle Walt Was There in World War I

After we returned home I showed the pictures I took, along with some others that I had purchased, to my Uncle Walt. When he saw the grass and trees in the pictures he commented that when he arrived there were no trees, plants or even so much as a single blade of grass to be seen anywhere.

Back then the area was all mud, with some human and animal bones scattered around as well as the scattered remains of equipment that had been blown up.  There were shell craters everywhere.

Upon seeing a picture of the entrance to Fort Douaumont my Uncle commented that as he approached the entrance to that fort when he first arrived, there was an arm bone protruding from the soil by the path just outside the door.

Ft. Vaux

Entrance to Ft. Vaux at the World War I Battlefield of Verdun
Entrance to Ft. Vaux at the World War I Battlefield of Verdun | Source
Entrance to Trench at Ft. Vaux at World War I Battlefield of Verdun
Entrance to Trench at Ft. Vaux at World War I Battlefield of Verdun | Source
Machine gun pillbox at World War I Battlefield of Verdun
Machine gun pillbox at World War I Battlefield of Verdun | Source
Machine gun pillbox at Verdun
Machine gun pillbox at Verdun | Source

Having a Family Connection to the Battlefield Made Visit more Poignant

Having a keen interest in history, which was instilled and nurtured by my Father, I have visited a number of historic sites in my travels, including some famous battlefields in the United States and Canada, but, so far, the battlefield at Verdun is the only one in which someone close to me has been a part of.

While my Uncle did not arrive at Verdun until about a year after the major battle there had ended, when he arrived in Verdun the fortifications were still on the front line of a war in progress.

Following his unit's short stay at Verdun, my Uncle and his unit soon found themselves actively participating in subsequent major battles of World War I on battlefields that I have yet had the opportunity to visit.

Inside Fort Douaumont

French Memorial inside Fort Douaumont at Verdun
French Memorial inside Fort Douaumont at Verdun | Source
Interior corridor in Fort Douaumont at Verdun
Interior corridor in Fort Douaumont at Verdun | Source

Memorial to 400 German Soldiers Buried Behind Wall

Memorial inside Verdun's Fort Douaumont marking area where 400 German soldiers were buried alive by a wall that collapsed  when an ammunition magazine exploded
Memorial inside Verdun's Fort Douaumont marking area where 400 German soldiers were buried alive by a wall that collapsed when an ammunition magazine exploded | Source
Soldiers bunks inside Fort Douaumont  at Verdun
Soldiers bunks inside Fort Douaumont at Verdun | Source
Mechanism for raising and lowering artillery guns inside Fort Douaumont at Verdun
Mechanism for raising and lowering artillery guns inside Fort Douaumont at Verdun | Source
My sister on top of entrance to a trench on Verdun Battlefield
My sister on top of entrance to a trench on Verdun Battlefield | Source
Remains of a gun emplacement at Verdun Battlefield
Remains of a gun emplacement at Verdun Battlefield | Source

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    • profile image

      Antique.Detective 

      8 years ago

      Last year, on a visit to France, my wife and I also visited Verdun. Its possible I mislead her on the distance. Very nice job of presenting a special place frozen in the moment.

    • James Mark profile image

      James Mark 

      8 years ago from York, England

      How many hubs? Thanks for this one; despite living in northern and eastern France for 11 years, we never made it to Verdun. I'll look forward to reading some of your other WW1 articles.

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