Last summer we did something we’ve often talked about on our way to the Black Forest but never before done. We stopped for a couple of nights along the way near Verdun, to find out more about the First World War battle there. As I have so far failed to write about this, and as this week the 100th anniversary of the battle was marked, it feels fitting to take the time to look back and reflect on what we saw.
We stayed in an extraordinary B and B a few miles north of Verdun itself, with a lovely local couple who helpfully filled us in on what we should see and where we should go. (I should add that Dominique was also an excellent cook and we ate there both evenings we stayed – wonderful food, all cooked by him, and two very convivial evenings, quite unlike anywhere else we have stayed).
Oh, and there was a pair of storks and their young nesting right outside our bedroom window.
It was a visit of extremes – the horror of war, set against today’s comforts, but with the reality of the depressed economic life of this region today always there in the background.
There were few shops in the neighbouring villages. Farming was large scale and mechanised. We saw no factories. Our hosts explained that most of the young people in the area had to travel away to find work – some commuted to Luxembourg and Belgium to the north, others to Germany to the east, others south to Switzerland (including Dominique’s children). And this wasn’t necessarily for well-paid jobs with prospects. Much of it was for relatively menial jobs as housekeepers and other domestic help.
The first place we visited was the site of two villages that had been completely destroyed by the battle. All that was left were the last remains of some of the buildings, and some sign boards explaining what had happened there, and why the villages had been left as they were. I wasn’t able to take any photos that would do justice to the scene of what was no longer there, but imagine the ghost of a village with just the footprints of buildings, the smallest traces of roads and houses and shops and craters left by shells and twisted metal and you’ll have it. Perhaps imagine the place you live left devastated, now overgrown with grass and wildflowers, with the occasional signboard to remind visitors of what the place used to be.
There was a beautiful moment when we sat together in silence listening to the birdsong and reflecting on what had been, and we heard the throaty roar of many Harley Davidson motorbikes draw up. Our hearts sank. But our stereotypes and preconceptions were pierced by the thoughtfulness and kindness of the riders. It turned out that they, like us, had stopped there to pay their respects to the villagers who had lost their lives and their homes, and also to take some refreshment. They invited (well, insisted) on us joining them for the coffee and cake they had brought with them. Which was the perfect reminder that all may not be as we assume it to be when we encounter strangers. Certainly a reminder I for one needed at that moment.
Next we visited the nearby fort, Douamont. There, the flags flying acted as a reminder that old enemies can be new friends. The fort and the landscape around had been the front line and battleground between the German and French armies from 21 February until 18 December 1916: 10 whole months.
We went on to the burial ground and ossuary. This was truly horrific – row upon row upon row upon row, seemingly endlessly, of crosses each marked with the name of a dead soldier.
At the top of the hill, overlooking (and overshadowing) all this, a massive building housing the ossuary built to contain all the many unidentifiable bones found on the battle sites. The building itself was, well, what can I say? grotesque comes close. I have never seen a more phallic building anywhere. Maybe that is completely appropriate in the circumstances? I don’t know. Judge for yourself.
The only element of it that felt ‘right’ to us was the coloured glass, which as the sun shone through it, reminded us of all the blood that had been spilled there and around.
Despite the recurrent imagery of the cross, there were also Jews and Muslims (and I assume those of other faiths and no faith) buried there as well. I noted that the Jewish and the Muslim sections were at opposite ends of the site, as far from each other as they could be. Perhaps a foretaste of times then yet to come.
It was a sombre and sober reminder of the reality of death and war, as well as of the origins of something equally topical – the European Union. The many different flags flying overhead and the photographs of the then French and German leaders meeting there in peace were a poignant reminder of the importance of neighbours working together and co-operating (and compromising), and of the dire consequences of their failure or refusal to do so.
And this week the German and French leaders met there again, to commemorate the moment, and remind us all again of the importance of our relationships with our neighbours.