The land around Verdun takes on strange shapes. Blanketed in grass, it rolls like the ocean, and you might want to call it “soft,” or “enchanted”—if you were unaware that the ground was carved by shells, imprinted with lives both trapped and released. It grows plants that looked like barbed wire, and barbed wire that looks like plants.
“The war also left a ravaged landscape. The armies of the First World War faced each other on fronts hundreds of miles long, and when they retreated they usually destroyed everything the enemy could use, leaving wells poisoned, roads cratered, fruit trees sawed off at the base, mines flooded, and homes, farms, and factories dynamited into rubble.” –Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars
It’s hard to explain the sensory conflict felt standing in what under other circumstances might be a quiet, green wood—while knowing that this forest was once a village called Fleury, where several hundred people lived until a snowy morning in February 1916. Waking to the sound of shells, and fire on the horizon, residents scrambled to evacuate, hurrying their livestock along. In the following months, their village changed hands sixteen times between German and French; and afterward, there was simply nothing left. Fleury, and twelve other nearby villages, disappeared entirely in 1916. Today only markers persist in reminding: life was here, and here, and here.
It’s slightly easier to describe how it feels to follow small road signs (not your GPS) down farm roads alone to parking areas wondering: Are we in the right place? and walking into woods to come upon a trench, left as it was since the First World War, now partially filled in with leaves or marked with a sign suggesting, in case you were tempted, that you not enter any of the concrete shelters.
These woods are eerie, even on a bright September morning. We were mostly alone, but I felt compelled to constantly look over my shoulder, expecting at any moment someone to walk out between the trees.
In the course of the war, both sides would at intervals launch a major push to break the stalemate of the trenches, the lines that had ceased to move. These offenses were incomprehensibly costly in lives, and often gained very little. Verdun was chosen as the site of one such German offensive in 1916. The battle for Verdun lasted 300 days and took over 700,000 casualties, split between German and French. Ultimately the French retained the land, but to call it “victory” seems a hazy application.
The road between the town of Verdun and Bar-le-Duc (72 km) bore increasing quantities of men and supplies to and from the front, somehow earning the nickname Voie Sacree (the sacred way). For nearly a year, this was essentially the road to hell.
After the war ended, locals were trying to reclaim their ruined land and their lives, but they couldn’t turn over the ground without finding human bones. A provisional chapel was created where these remains could be respectfully, anonymously laid; and where families could come to grieve and pray. In 1927 the Ossuaire de Douaumont was officially opened: the permanent resting place for 130,000 French and German soldiers of Verdun.
The somber memorial shows a multi-lingual film about the battle and houses space for prayer. There was also a moving photo exhibit showing veterans of the war holding photos of their wartime selves. All of these men and women are gone; the last veterans of the First World War were laid to rest in 2011 and 2012, at ages of 110.
At the Bois Brule we saw a French and a German trench in their original positions, and were amazed by how close they sat. As I was the one who’d been doing all the history reading, what surprised Tim was the extent to which the trenches—particularly the German ones—became a construction project as the war went on. The French trenches resembled dirt dug-outs, but the Germans were not only hauling overland massive amounts of concrete for trenches and bunkers—they were building semi-permanent bakeries and other structures in the woods so the troops could get bread and necessities. (If the lines weren’t moving, why not?)
And so those trenches, nearly a hundred years later, remain.
Late that night, in a traffic jam somewhere in Belgium, I pictured those trenches after the sun has gone down… when the craters are hidden by night and vines crawl softly over the ridges where men fought and feared and died. To walk those crevices by day had seemed the edge of nightmares; I could never stand there during the dark.