Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Father's Day in Verdun

Douaumont Ossuary - French Cemetery
This past weekend we celebrated Father's Day. Father's Day in Luxembourg actually occurs in October, but since we celebrated Mother's Day in May, we kept with our American holiday timetable. It was Joe's "day," so I let him decide where he wanted to day trip to since we were anxious to get out of the city and the weather was actually cooperating! Joe had not been to Verdun, France yet and had heard so much about the place from a work colleague of his, so that is where he chose to go.

If you aren't a history buff and have never heard of the place, Verdun was a very significant sight during WWI. The Battle of Verdun was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, especially for the French. To put it in perspective, about 1.7 million French military personnel died during WWI - 542,000 of which died during this battle. The Germans lost 435,000 of their 2,477,000 WWI casualties there as well, so they didn't fair much better than the French. The whole strategy of the battle, from the German perspective, was to kill as many French soldiers as possible with the intent of breaking the French morale and forcing them to retreat. In fact, over 26,000,000 bombs (or 6 bombs per millisecond) were dropped in the Verdun vicinity during the battle. However, the French reserve and pride held out much longer than the Germans ever anticipated, thus leading to the longest battle of the war.

As far as day trips go, I have to admit that our boys are not big fans of visiting war sites or cemeteries. Not a big surprise for 12/13 year olds, but now that we live in Europe even my husband, who admittedly is not a history buff, is quite determined to impress upon the kids the importance of understanding what our brave soldiers (both past and present) sacrifice for our freedom. Luxembourg is so centrally located to many of the biggest battles in world history that you can drive to many of the battle sites within an hour. So, as somber of a day trip as Verdun was, we really felt the need to show the kids just how important these historical sites are.

Verdun, France
The trip by car only took about an hour, though we did chose to take a more "scenic" route through Belgium to avoid the weekend traffic between Lux and Metz, France. There are several tourist sites in and around Verdun, but the most significant one is the Douaumont Ossuary. This site includes the largest French WWI cemetery, many of the nearby trenches used during the battle, an Israeli memorial, and last, but by far not least, the actual Douaumont building. There is a 5 euro adult, 3 euro child entrance fee which includes a 20 minute film about the battle (available in several languages) and entrance into the cloister and tower of the building. The cloister contains the epitaphs of many of the soldiers who fought and died in the battle. Large signs hanging from the ceiling show current and past pictures of individual survivors from the battle, with a smaller sign near the exit that provides (in French) a short narrative of their role in the war. Most notable about the building is the fact that the bones of over 130,000 unidentified soldiers are entombed below the building. There are several windows outside of the building where you can peep in and see the skeletal remains. One of my sons was not too keen on peering in, while the other seemed a bit intrigued by the site. It really is quite moving when you think of the thousands of family members who never saw or knew just what really happened to their loved ones as they marched off to war. As word got out about the battle, most of those soldiers near the Verdun battle lines knew that they would have to serve their time in the battle, and knew that their chances of survival were very slim.

We did take time to take a short hike along the foot path that guides your way near the old battle trenches. There are pictures in the Douaumont that show what the desolate landscape looked like after the initial assault and it can only best be described as apocalyptic. All of the trees and grass were destroyed leaving stumps of burning wood and bomb-pocked earth behind. Descriptions of the battlefield spoke of endless amounts of mud and treacherous weather throughout those long 300 days and nights, not to mention the hellish sight of the dead and the smell of decaying bodies the soldiers were forced to deal with. The trees and grass have of course grown back in the last 90+ years, but the craters from the bombs are still very noticeable as you drive through the area and hike along the path. Many of the holes and trenches are filled in with water and most of the trenches are covered with twigs and tree branches. Signs are posted along the way with clear warnings to stay away and out of the trenches and on the marked paths since not all weapons of war were removed from the area. Some of the bunkers remain and landmark signs indicate where you are standing relative to where various points of the battle took place. It is difficult to imagine what the landscape looked like during the war, given that the area is now filled with tall grass, wildflowers and the constant hum of bees.

Verdun's bombed terrain
Though it may seem a bit on the morbid side to spend Father's Day among the war dead, it was a day spent honoring the fathers of history who gave up so much during such a tumultuous time of our world's past. Driving through the vast farmland and fields of Northern France you can't pass through a small village without seeing a statue or some memorial that pays homage to the soldiers of the great wars or the allies who came to their defense. Although many of us cannot imagine a world at war, the memorials remind us of how senseless war can be, and how easily a country's peaceful existence can suddenly change over issues that to many of us seem incomprehensible. There will always be war and there will always be disagreement and hostility among nations, but we should always take a brief moment to step back and consider what our forefathers undertook for our freedom and never underestimate the power of democracy and unity. Without their unyielding determination to defend the freedom and rights of their countries, the Allies would never have been able to develop the resistance and war efforts that ultimately won both wars. Had that determination ever yielded, our world map would look nothing like it does today.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! Thank you so much for letting me read your blog! I will have much reading today and it is going to be good fun!