Do you remember reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” in your freshman English class? I can barely remember it, but I remember the artwork on the cover. It was stark barbed wire and a German soldier. The story recounts the mental and physical toll of World War I. It was a story that I had forgotten about until Husband suggested we visit the Verdun battlefields in France over Memorial Day.
When people talk about World Wars, as Americans, we often automatically identify with World War II. I think this is primarily because it was one that directly affected us as a nation. We were attacked on our own soil, and a result, saw our military men (and women) fight across the European and Pacific theater. Although WWI didn’t strike on American land, it did hit the hearts and lives of many who made the choice to serve.
We started off our morning bright and early, piling into the car. On the docket for the day: Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, Fleury-devant-Douaumont and Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. I was half-expecting Boy and Girl Child to be a little feisty about the amount of time that was going to be spent in the car, but they pleasantly surprised me. Then again, we let them bring their favorite electronics for the road.
When I originally envisioned the battlefield of Verdun, I thought that it would be one singular field and one location. Verdun is more of a region, with multiple battlefields and sites. It covers a wide swath of land in northeast France. Of course, it’s still a modern-day city, but the history in this area is absolutely remarkable. As we drove into the area, Husband told me to keep my eyes peeled to the sides of the road. There you could see what was left of trenches. Many had collapsed in on themselves; however, there were still some open ones with barbed wire surrounding them.
Fort Douaumont and the Ossuary
Our first stop was the ossuary and memorial. Perfectly aligned white crosses dot the green hillsides in somber remembrance of those who gave their lives. As you walk around the giant ossuary, you can peer in through the windows below the memorial. Here lies the remains of tens of thousands of unidentified soldiers…French, German, African, American…in the end, it didn’t matter. They fought against each other, yet died together.
After we spent a little time at the ossuary, we hopped in the car and drove to Fort Douaumont. For a small entry fee, we were able to walk through the belly of this fortress. Dating back to the 1800s, there are still original wrought-iron bunks inside several of the rooms. It was awe-inspiring to see the conditions that many soldiers lived through, for months and/or years at a time. Once we toured the interior, we walked back out into the warm (hot) sunshine and clambered up the hills next to the fort. We could see the beauty of the French countryside in all its glory. What was fascinating were the sheer amount of pock marks that scar the landscape. Exploded artillery shells left huge craters in the earth. Spiky barbed-wire still coiled around parts of the hills.
We jumped back in the car and headed over to another battle fortress, Fort Vaux. Since it was so hot outside, and the air inside the fort was humid and cool, it created this really cool type of fog inside a few of the rooms. Fort Vaux was very similar to Fort Douaumont — large craters in the ground, exposed bunkers and wires and amazing history on display. The cool this about Fort Vaux is that there is a very short video (with subtitles in English) about the history of the area. What’s interesting is that although the ground is ridiculously polluted with heavy metals and unexploded ordnance, nature has started reclaiming the area. Aside from clearing the mines and ordnances, the government has essentially let the land “heal” on its own. Red poppies and wildflowers were sprouting everywhere, and there were signs to watch out for wildlife.
Inevitably, we had to remember that we needed to feed and water the kids. It was a really warm day, so we kind of rushed through Fort Vaux and headed over to Fleury-devant-Douaumont … or what’s left of it. This once bustling little village was home to 422 residents. During WWI, it changed hands between the Germans and French not once, not twice, but SIXTEEN times before it was completely and utterly destroyed. Deemed “The village that died for France,” all that remains are stone foundations of what once was.
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
Once we had properly gorged on our traditional (okay, maybe not traditional…let’s go with habitual) meal of McDonald’s (hey … Girl Child was with us. Plus, I ordered a Royale with Cheese, yo … insert Pulp Fiction reference here), we headed to Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
This amazing plot of land is the largest American military cemetery in Europe (the Lorraine American Military Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France is the largest one for WWII), and is the final resting place for more than 14,000 service members. Corporal Freddie Stowers (the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient in history) and Captain Frank Luke (for whom Luke Air Force Base is named) are among those buried here. Since we came the day before Memorial Day, it was very quiet and peaceful. Inside the welcome center, there is a fantastic history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, as well as the stories of the men (and women) who were laid to rest at the cemetery.
I think we spent an hour and a half at the cemetery. I thought for sure that there would have been a minor revolt from the Girl and Boy Child, but they surprised me. Both of them admitted that it was really neat to see history up close and personal. Seeing the battlefields and then visiting the cemetery gave a sense of the harshness and reality of war. Something that we should all remember on Memorial Day.