The Verdun Battlefield in northern France is the site of one of the world’s most horrific battles. Almost 100 hundred years ago the Great War or World War I raged along a 400 mile front in northern France and Flanders. The beautiful countryside was then a flaming war zone with trenches, bombed out craters, and the desolate no man’s land. No man’s land was the area of land between the two armies that was so bombed out no life existed.
Historical context of the Verdun Battlefield
One of the key points in this swath of destruction was Verdun, France. The German Army decided here in 1916 that they could bleed the French Army white and eventually wear down the French with their bigger army. They were almost successful, but the attrition wore them down just as much as the French.
Arriving at the town of Verdun
Verdun is now a peaceful quiet town in the French countryside. I arrived one day by myself and with my school boy French asked a waitress at a French café where I could tour the battlefield. Où est la bataille de Verdun. The lady replied in a torrent of French. I must have been so successful with my French accent that she thought I was a native.
“Repetez lentment,” I replied (repeat slowly). I did my best to converse with her and in the end I was able to decipher that the actual battlefield was about 20 kilometers from town, which was way too far to walk and then tour in one day. She said she would call a taxi for me and the driver would drive me around to all the places I wanted to see.
Getting a Verdun battlefield tour
I counted my francs, and I had enough to pay for the tour. It was 200 francs for a couple of hours with the taxi driver. At the time it was $40.00. The exchange was much more favorable back then. I imagine it would be around $60.00 to $80.00 now for the same tour. See the bottom of this post for tips on visiting.
My taxi driver picked me up and we headed to the Battlefield. The tour was amazing. My driver took me to areas where evidences of trenches and craters could still be seen. There were areas with deep craters that looked like a moonscape except for the fact that vegetation had grown back. It was strange to see these holes in the ground with grass and trees growing on top.
The area had a ton of monuments dedicated to the battle, and I was also taken to a military cemetery. War cemeteries are always an emotional visit as you can see firsthand the impact the battle had with so many lives being lost. You can read statistics, and they can be impressive, but when you see row after row of crosses each the final resting place of a young man with a bright future, the tragedy of war really hits home.
Besides the cemetery, another macabre structure paying homage to the fallen at Verdun is the Douaumont Ossuary. The Douaumont Ossuary houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers. During the course of the battle, over 100,000 soldiers went missing and many died and were buried where they fell either by compatriots or from the impact of shells burying them. These bodies are still being uncovered today by the French Forestry Service and handed over to the Ossuary for their final resting place. There is also an observatory and a museum inside the structure.
The best part of the tour was visiting Fort Douaumont. This fort was a central part of the battle of Verdun. There is an excellent book called the Price of Glory by Alistair Horne, which is one of the best military accounts of a battle ever written, and whole chapters were dedicated to the fighting around this key structure. There was also an accident in the fort where munitions blew up in the fort while the Germans had control killing almost 700 soldiers and wounding 1800 others.
The area around the Fort was crater filled as one would expect. The striking aspect about standing on the fort was how beautiful the surrounding area was. Tree covered hills could be seen in the distance. It is soothing to know that no matter how much we try and destroy ourselves, nature always rebounds.
Anytime you walk in the footsteps of a place where so many people suffered and died, it is always an eerie experience. Estimates of losses vary widely. Wikipedia states 337,000 French casualties in 1916 with 162,000 killed in action with 337,000 German losses with 100,000 killed in 1916 alone. The losses are staggering and these numbers do not include counterattacks in 1917 by the French and an American offensive in 1918 in the same area.
If you are interested in visiting Verdun, trains leave daily from Paris.
You might consider renting a car. Since you will need to find a way from Verdun to the battlefield if you take the train. It would be more convenient to just drive there and then have a car to tour the battlefield.
If you take the train stay in a hostel in Verdun the night before. Get the scoop from the proprietors and other travelers. You may also find other travelers who would like to tour with you and who could help share the cost of any tour.
There are guided trips you can find online, but it is more of an adventure to just go there and figure it out once you are there. It is also usually less expensive. It is better to book these tours on the spot instead of beforehand because you can get feedback from other travelers and locals on who to go with.
Read the book Price of Glory by Alistair Horne before going.
Very interesting story and background on Verdun. I am intrigued by WWI and WWII. However, this area is beautiful as well despite its war history.
Jeremy Branham recently posted..A Budget Travel Guide – Santa Fe Travel Tips
I wish I had more time to explore the area. I was here near the end of my time in France and only had time to tour the battlefield and return back to Paris.
Another great post Ted. Did you notice how the Osuary tower resembles the space shuttle, interesting. It would be nice if man put half the effort into loving his neighbor as he did trying to destroy them, for sure.
Robb714 recently posted..Handling the Holidays
I did not notice this until you mentioned it, but you are right. It is amazing that France and Germany seem to have finally learned to get along. There is hope for the future of mankind if these two long time antagonists can learn to live next to each other.
How interesting. My BFFs husband and his friend go often on what i call battleship weekends and love it. I always thought they weren’t for me, but having seen your photos, I am very tempted. Very tempted. Thanks, Ted!
@mrsoaroundworld recently posted..Me gusta Madrid – my favourite places
Touring these sites are very educational and you also learn a lot about the culture. Knowing about World War I is essential in understanding France, Germany, Russia, and Great Britain even today.
You’re right Ted…staggering numbers, impossible to imagine.
D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..What Time Is It…? Food & Wine Time!
Sure is Deej, especially in today’s mindset. If we lose seven soldiers in Afghanistan it is front page news. Seven soldiers lost in World War I was a quiet 15 minutes on the Western Front.
I’m really enjoying all this history-type stuff you’re posting. I have to say that I don’t know much about the first World War and this does make me want to delve deeper into that era. Well done, Ted.
Leah Travels recently posted..Taking it Easy in the Big Easy: 36 Hours in NOLA
Thanks Leah. History is my background, so it is one aspect I love when traveling overseas or throughout America.
So true what you say about visiting a military cemetery. The reality does kind of hit home; at least that’s how I felt when I visited Arlington. As Leah said, I don’t know a whole lot about WWI, but now I’m quite intrigued by Verdun, especially Fort Douaumont. Awesome stuff here, Ted.
Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) recently posted..Getting cultured in Kenosha
Visiting battlefields in France was fascinating. There is so much history in Europe.
I always learn so much from your posts. This one is no exception. Thanks for keeping me informed.
Tawny- Captain and Clark recently posted..Getting dominated by the Grand Canyon [Video]
Amazing how this place can be so peaceful today, given what occurred here.
John recently posted..Berlin’s East Side Gallery: Appeals to Tolerance, Freedom, and Hope In Photos
Ted, great pix and run-down on Verdun. I have seen a lot of France when I lived there and in other trips but have NEVER been to Verdun. It, Rouen, Reims, and Biarritz are high on the to-see list. In Normandy, you also see very vivid reminders of war and it is very moving to think of all the young lives lost due to the mental illness of one human being…
Raul (@ilivetotravel) recently posted..Sampling Wines in Moldova – and a One-of-a-Kind Wine Cellar
the place looks so peaceful today, it is amazing how the earth just moves forward with time… I definitely enjoy these slices of history, please keep on educating…
stay adventurous, Craig
Craig Zabransky recently posted..Sunset Sunday – A Tour Bus Stop in Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz
“It is soothing to know that no matter how much we try and destroy ourselves, nature always rebounds.”
Incredible to think that such events happened looking at the woods there today. And the inside of Fort Douaumont must be haunting.