On 26th April I visited the battlefields and sites of Verdun. The name, like that of the Somme and Ypres, calls to mind visions of unimaginable horror; thousands upon thousands of men turned into names carved in monuments in towns throughout Europe, or lost completely, names and all, in the churned and pulverised fields. In my imagination, such places are always wet, cold, dark and desolate, as frozen in their appearance as they are fixed in old black and white photographs.
I won’t at this point discuss the battle’s history, suffice to say it’s a place in which around 500,000 men lost their lives, a figure which like so many grim statistics (I’m thinking here of my work on the Holocaust) is almost impossible to imagine (as much as it’s impossible to correlate). 26,000,000 shells rained upon the battlefield, six shells for every square metre. But difficult as these facts are to process, we must at least try.
Having arrived in Verdun, we stopped the car at a track leading into a wood and no sooner had we started to walk amongst the trees than we became aware of the undulating ground; the shell craters and trenches, around and from within which this new wood had grown. At once we recalled the craters and trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Ypres, but the contrast between the two was clear; in Sanctuary Wood the trenches had been, at least, ‘over-preserved’ (some suggest they were dug for tourists after the war) but here they’d remained untouched since the end of hostilities. They were rounded and smoothed, and all the more powerful. At Sanctuary Wood, the whole place had the feel of a playground, whilst in this wood, the peace and quiet provided a stark counterpoint to the horrors of war.
This counterpoint came in the birdsong and the colour of the sky, which on what was a glorious day was tinted by the brown of the trees and last year’s leaves filling the craters and trenches; a curious bruising as if a part of the dusk was somehow stained upon it. And between the carpet of leaves and the blue of the sky, was the green of this year’s growth; the whole scene a complete contrast to what the name, Verdun, had until now conjured in my mind. This place was simply beautiful.
Save for a few tourists, we walked the woods alone, and yet, even then, the trees like those we’d encountered at other sites of trauma, seemed more than what they were. But whereas those which grow in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec are strangely complicit in the events of the past, those in Verdun had grown from its wreckage; they did not hide what happened there. And stranger still was the sense that in this place Mankind was older than nature; Man had shaped the ground through his own destruction; he had made the void – the quagmire of mud – from which nature had risen, giving the trees a human quality, as if they carried with them the memory of all who fell – as if they were the fallen soldiers. And the resilience of Nature, it’s ability to rise from such appalling devastation, was one of the most striking aspects of our visit; despite the human feel of the trees, I realised how small humans are, even when they are made big through war. No matter what we do, Nature will in the course of time return. Long after we have finally gone, she will still be here, just as she was that day, in blue sky and birdsong, and as such, to walk through the woods was like being the last two people left on Earth.
This scarred idyll was littered with other wartime detritus; the pillboxes within which men would hide, seeking out their fellow man beyond the apertures through which their guns were trained. They sat like concrete bells, still ringing with the war, like the ringing heard in silence, after exposure to something loud. (I am reminded here of the idea of sympathetic vibrations, where when a bell is struck, another bell across the room begins vibrating, giving off the same sound. These pillboxes which litter the landscape around Verdun, and which we saw in Ypres, seem to contain within their walls and deep impenetrable interiors, a sound which finds sympathy in all the others. I can imagine these vibrations ringing in sites all across the world, again long after man has gone.)
Having recorded the sounds of the birds (and on playback I notice the insects – and I start to think of flies trapped in amber) we left the wood and made our way to Fort Vaux, the second to fall in the Battle of Verdun and a place I will return to later.
This persistence of Nature was nowhere more apparent than in one of the ruined villages which we visited towards the end of the day. There was nothing left of Fleury-devant-Douaumont save for the street names preserved on signposts along with signs indicating where there’d been a farm, the cafe, Town Hall and the workshop of a weaver.
One of the interesting things about the numerous ruined villages is how they each have a Major, a post created to preserve the memory of the place as well as those who lived there. Like the woods, the landscape was blistered beneath the lush grass, undulating like immeasurably slow ripples following the impact of thousands of shells. It was pockmarked with craters some of which had filled with water to make ponds, beautiful beneath the dappled shade of the trees. Again, one had the feel of Man being older than Nature, with the new wood growing out of what remained of the village; despite the unimaginable numbers of shells which ploughed the soil, the sheer number of dead, the poison of the gas used in the battle, the ground had somehow made this beautiful landscape. And just as a corpse can tell us much about its demise through what nature has written upon it – the time of death for example – so the woods grown out from the corpse of the landscape speak of the time that has passed; and here is the curious enigma of the Great War. Despite the fact that almost a hundred years separates us, it doesn’t seem that long ago.
Fort Vaux is a name synonymous with the suffering, endurance and the bravery of the soldiers who fought there. Even after the French were forced to surrender, the Germans presented arms as a mark of respect. The following is an extract from H.P. Willmott’s book on the First World War.
“The German bombardment of the Fort began on June 1st 1916, at one point firing shells at the rate of 1,500 to 2,000 of the per hour. Inside were 600 troops under the command of Major Raynal. Just before dawn on the 2nd the barrage stopped and two German battalions moved forward. By mid-afternoon they had overwhelmed the defenders and occupied a large part of the superstructure. Raynal was determined to resist, and he and his men withdrew to the underground corridors where a grim battle was fought in the darkness with grenades and machine guns. On June 4th the Germans used flamethrowers in an attempt to drive the French out with asphyxiating black smoke…”
It’s a curious shell, a skull like structure cut into the rock which belies the horrors it has witnessed. Standing on top, one could see why it was so important, commanding spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and here, the contrast between the view of the tourist and that of the soldier becomes stark. What would they have seen from this same position? Hard to imagine that it was such a wasteland.
From Fort Vaux we made our way to the Memorial Museum and then to the Douaumont Ossuary. At the Museum, there was one object in particular which interested me, and that was a notebook containing handwritten translations of English words into French.
The first line is the translation for Dead; Mort.
The structure of the ossuary is very much of its time and has the appearance of something which wouldn’t look out of place in Fritz Lang’s vision of the future, Metropolis. And this fact reminds us that it was just twenty years later when Europe and the world would be plunged into yet another catastrophe, indeed, during our journey around Verdun, we found evidence of this catastrophe in a memorial to 16 people killed in the second world war whose mutilated bodies were found dumped in a ditch which itself formed their memorial.
From the top of the tower, one is again presented with spectacular views of the battlefields and again one can’t imagine what it would have looked like in those dark months of 1916. The tower itself houses the Victory Bell and the Lantern of the Dead which shines out over the battlefield.
Most of the structure is taken up by the 137 metre long cloister where each tomb shows a precise area of the battlefield from where the bodies were recovered. What one does notice – especially on a warm sunny day like that on which we visited – was how cold it is inside. One expects it to be colder given the thick stone walls, but there is something of an extra dimension to the chill, one is made all the more aware of being in the presence of the dead. And yet, this cold defines the living, it shows up our breath and for me, this was one of the most powerful aspects of the building.
Outside the ossuary, through a row of small windows, one can see the bones of the 130,000 dead entombed within. Seeing the piles of leg bones, shoulder blades, vertebrae and skulls, one is reminded of the randomness of war, the arbitrariness of death on the battlefield. Like numbers and lists of names, it’s hard to imagine that these mountain of bones were once thousands of individuals, just as walking amongst the graves of the 15,000 men in front of the ossuary, one cannot imagine that many dead. Multiply that number, that space by thirty, see where it stretches out into the distance, and one begins to understand – in part – the horror of the war.
But one can never know what it was really like, and that to some extent is the point. Would we want to? We must do everything we can to never know. The inability to contemplate such horror in the face of such natural beauty is exactly its power. What we see when we walk through the woods is in some respects the world as it was before the war, the world of better days as remembered by those caught in the ‘meat-grinder’ of battle. The trenches gouged in the ground and the shell-craters pock-marking the soil are reminders of a brutal past, and yet they are also a warning about the future.
Having left the ossuray we made our way into the town of Verdun itself. Music was playing from speakers attached to all the lamposts, and at the appearance of people dressed in costume and sporting masks, we realised we had come at the time of a carnival. But there was something sinister about these people, the way in which they were a part of the town but detached, within but without. Something about their featureless, anonymous faces; the way they looked at us but we could not look at them, just a version of their selves.
And seeing all these colourfully dressed people on the steps of the town’s huge memorial served to illustrate the continuity of life, but also the fact that those who died on the battlefields outside the town would have known brighter, happier, more colourful times, a juxtaposition which is everywhere in Verdun and which was to be found in the town’s Cathedral, itself hit on the first day of the battle – February 21st 1916.
The Cathedral still bears the scars of war, but on the inside, one finds again the colour.