The Great War of 1914-1918 brewed for a long time. Depending on what you read, most people saw it coming but assumed it would be a short war lasting only a few months. It was far from the case lasting over four years and killing millions upon millions of soldiers and civilians. As each month went on, the hope for a clean end to the conflict became more and more of a pipe dream.
A year and a half into the fighting, one of the biggest and longest battles of the war broke out in Verdun. It began on February 21, 1916 and ended on December 18th. A recent estimate found a total of 714,231 casualties during this offensive becoming one of the most deadly and costly battles in history. Because of all of the intricacies and strategies employed during this time, my father has grown incredibly interested in this particular aspect of WWI, so Verdun was our first priority while traveling in Northern France.
The city of Verdun was a very typical, small rural town with not a lot to see and explore. What we saw were mostly shopping malls and convenience stores. So, we spent most of our time outside the city and deep in the trenches of the dilapidated forts. Like I mentioned last week, some of these forts and monuments were a mere 50m off the main road. It was really extraordinary.
We first saw the Point of Command for Colonel Driant. The fort looked to be the start of a massive trail that connected several other forts, but here, we climbed down the small flight of stairs and stood in the underground, cement box that held soldiers during the war. The wet stone smelled reclaimed by nature, and it was eerie to feel the conditions which the poor soldiers endured.
Colonel Emile Driant was the first high ranking officer to die during the battles in Verdun. On February 21, 1916, the German Army attacked the French forces. Driant fought despite the obvious failure of the French Army, and he managed to resist the Germans until the following day. This allowed reinforcements to make it to Verdun and cover for his wearied soldiers. During this retreat, Driant was killed. The Germans gave him a full military honor burial and even wrote to his wife to give her the news. Driant is considered a national hero and is commemorated every year on February 21.
As we drove on, it was remarkable to see monuments mounted everywhere. If you weren’t watching carefully and merely commuting from point A to B, it would easy to miss them. But these single monuments and statues for the war were a reminder for how much the war and battle affected the region. To this day, there are parts of the land that cannot be touched because there is too much arsenic still in the soil from bombs. Even after 100 years, the wounds have not healed.
We made our way toward Bezonvaux, a village that was completely destroyed during the war. Despite it having a zero population status, the village still stands as a monument and reminder of what a war can do. Standing in the middle of the area surrounded by trees and a lovely creek is a chapel, which is what first caught our eye. This small church beckons hikers and tourists to see what actually surrounds the building.
As soon as we crossed the small bridge over the babbling brook, we realized we were in a sort of outdoor-museum. Artillery and old rusted relics were placed on cement with placards detailing what they were. A milk can from 1916 sat half destroyed and completely rusted while an artillery shell holder for the French 75mm sat firmly in the same spot it was abandoned 100 years ago. Divots in the ground also showed where shells fell and damaged the landscape. You’re walking in living history in a land deemed too unstable for inhabitants: “a village that died for France.”
The next day, my dad and I set off for a 7 mile hike to see more of the hidden forts where soldiers were holed up and fought valiantly. Our first stop was Fort Tavannes deep in the woods and forbidden military area. But warnings be damned, we still walked and saw a dome stuck in the ground that could have easily been missed thanks to severe overgrowth.
Floored, we surrounded the cement mound and looked inside and sadly saw discarded beer bottles and trash. But debris aside, the small enclosure gave an eerie and claustrophobic look into a gunner’s life.
From that outpost, we followed the clearly marked path (there are still thousands of unaccounted for un-exploded shells in the ground) to the rest of the fort, which was massive and almost completely hidden in the woods. What made Tavannes so important during the war was the tunnels as a way of transporting ammunition and supplies between forts, but it was widely known to the Germans and offered poor shelter to the soldiers with lack of ventilation and no latrines. It served its purpose as a headquarters for the area, but a severe accident with a donkey carrying supplies catching fire created massive damage in the tunnel and killed more than 500 men.
From Fort Tavannes, we made our way to Fort Souville, which is 2.4km walking distance from each other. Unlike the previous hidden fortress, this area is open (more or less) to travelers and school groups. As we pulled up, we saw a large group of students with their teachers walking back to their bus. While the kids were unruly and playing on their iPhones, we were both grateful they were getting an education to the battlefields of their country.
Fort Souville is massive. Based on the maps at the entrance, it is a good 2.5 hour hike to walk all around the compound. We saw the vast majority of the grounds at just around 2 hours of walking. We hiked through the heavily wooded area and made our way to the various entrances of the massive underground fort. Terrified at the dank and dark spaces, we hesitantly entered.
Nine years ago, my little sister bolted inside this fort with no concept of hesitation. While we all shouted at her to stay put, we were also fascinated by what was inside, and on this trip, it was no different. My trepidation was still high, but I found myself inching deeper and deeper in the structure. Dad thoughtfully brought torches to help us see in the dark, and that made it no less creepy.
Once we found the main entrance, we walked in, stepping over mud and cracks in the foundation. We came to a hatch of sorts with a rusted ladder leading down into the depths of the underground tunnels. It took some close inspection to realize the ladder led into a pool of crystal clear water. It was astounding to see. I felt like I was looking into the depths of the Titanic with the rusted relics and the blue-green water.
At the end of the trail around the fort is a statue of a dying Bavarian lion to signify where the French stopped the German line during their July 12, 1916 attack.
The Germans had taken over Fort Douaumont easily and made their way the 4.5km south toward the next target. Knowing this would occur, the French installed a 155mm artillery turret emplacement, and unlike the French 75mm, this one was powered by steam. This turret is still there, and it was truly amazing to see such weaponry.
There is too much history and information to pack into one post about the Verdun forts we visited, so stay tuned this week for the rest of our adventure climbing, descending, and crawling through history. I hope this has peaked your interest in the century-old history that still stands, almost completely reclaimed by nature, in the deep woods of Verdun, France.