After a very Canadian, World War II experience at Juno Beach the day before, Tuesday was dedicated to World War I, The Great War, from a French and German perspective, with a visit to Fort Douaumont as the centrepiece of our visit. We had planned to do the 28KM circuit from the charming town of Verdun to Fort Douaumont via bicycle, but after a failed attempt to rent bicycles – fun fact credit cards are no good for renting anything in France, just hundreds, or sometimes thousands of cold, hard Euros are needed as a deposit – we made our way to the Verdun tourist office and arranged a taxi to take us to Fort Douaumont. Much to Valentina’s displeasure at the idea of paying 50-odd Euros for a taxi ride to a 100-year old, bombed-out fort.
As we stood next to a random medieval tower, oh the charm of Europe, where we were told to wait for the taxi, I mentioned to Valentina how I hoped we would get some chatty, French-English capable cabby who would enthusiastically share with us the history of what we were going to see. And then Philippe arrived to pick us up. At first Philippe was quiet, just confirming where we wanted to go, first in French and then in English, but as soon as we got out of the town and into the countryside Philippe became quite lively and enthusiastic as he pointed out sites, even pulling over to explain certain ones, and chatted about the WWI history surrounding Verdun. First in French-glish, but as Philippe realised that I, with my high-school French, and Valentina, with her university French, were understanding more French than he was expected, he got really excited and went full French on us. It became a never-ending stream of random facts and tidbits about the Battle of Verdun, most of which we caught, which Philippe aptly described as the symbol of France’s devastation and perseverance in the Great War. He even and promised to take us a different route back to Verdun later in the day to show us and tell us even more.
The informative taxi ride took about 15 minutes and we reached Fort Douaumont around 12PM, at which the taxi metre read 26 Euros, I am pretty sure I heard Valentina groan, but Phillipe told us we would pay when he picked us up again at 6PM at another site close by: the Douaumont Ossuary.
Immediately upon our arrival at Fort Douaumont, the scale and scope of the 10-month long battle centred around the fort, which inflicted some 750,000 casualties between the French and Germans, a century before was obvious. The land was heavily scarred and cratered, as the grass and trees could not hide the extreme destruction levied by hundreds of thousands of artillery shells that had exploded nearly 100-years ago. The exterior of the fort itself, a memorial of the battle, sat in the maintained state of devastation that it found itself in at the end of the war in 1918.
We first spent time exploring the 1KM path that encircled the fort and we were sure to mind the signs that read: “Please stay on path. Undetonated explosives.” Beyond the unexploded bombs, massive craters and generally maimed terrain, the landscape was riddled with reminders of war from rusted barb-wire and anti-infantry traps to crumbling walls of the fort’s outermost defensive line. It is beyond comprehension the scale of destruction that this one slice of the Western Front must have endured, especially when you consider the German strategy for Verdun was to simply “bleed the French white.”
From atop the fort, the high-point of the area, you could see the destruction continue in all directions, as massive artillery craters lent themselves to the wave-like flow of the surrounding terrain. We explored the outside of the fort and attempted to process the scale of the destruction for a good while before we headed into Fort Douaumont itself, where we spent another two hours following a free audio tour that the fort offered, which took us through most of what remained of the fort and shared with us of all its horrific details. Again, just trying to comprehend the conditions that the French and Germans, who occupied the fort at different times during the battle, experienced was almost impossible due to the scope and pure madness of it all.
After we visited Fort Douaumont we walked the one-kilometre stretch of road between it and the Douaumont Ossuaire, and of course, within that one-kilometre bit of road the landscape was riddled with scars from the Great War. There were preserved communication trenches, battered and collapsed portions of Fort Douaumont’s exterior defenses, memorials plaques and crosses, and of course the artillery craters.
It took us about 30-minutes to meander our way down that one-kilometre stretch, which is when we came upon the imposing and beautiful Douaumont Ossuary. A beautiful and powerful building, inside and out, made up of two elongated domes and 46-metre tall tower at the centre. The Ossuary contains the remains of some 150,000 soldiers from the Battle of Verdun in its crypt, and its front grounds are the final resting place for a further 15,000 French soldiers. The 15,000 white-stone crosses of which were all perfectly aligned and hauntingly beautiful. As we walked throw the seemingly endless rows of crosses, we again felt ourselves at a loss trying to comprehend the sheer scale of destruction and loss of life that lay all around us.
And right on schedule Philip returned and picked us up at the steps of the Douaomont Ossuary, and, as promised, we were taken via a new route back to Verdun with Phillipe excitedly sharing anything he knew about everything we passed along the way. We arrived back in Verdun with the metre again reading about 27 Euros, and again, I think I heard Valentina groan. But, when we asked Phillipe how much we owed, he told us only 25 Euros, and despite our best efforts to give him more, he refused, saying that it was his privilege and honour to share the history of his home with us – you gotta love that.
If you have any interest in World War I, Fort Douaomont and the surrounding area, provide a powerful example for the scale of destruction and loss of the Great War. And as an aside, The Price of Glory: Verdun is an excellent book on the topic, as well as Storm of Steel, which offers a first-hand German perspective of the battle.