The Northern Area
The main and best known sites associated with Verdun are concentrated in an area of the forests just to the north-east of the town itself. However, there is a great deal more to see in the area, both to the west and also further north. Some of these sites are very well preserved, and well worth a visit. I must acknowledge here that many of the sites on this page are described in a driving itinerary suggested by Christina Holstein in her Fort Douaumont book, and I would highly reccomend this guidebook to anyone visting the area.
It is also worth noting that the road leading to Louvemont and then to Ornes is closed on Mondays and Tuesday, as the area is part of a military firing range. Hence, this should be taken into account when planning any visit to these two destroyed villages.The road across the military area is not in good condition (being quite badly potholed) and should be taken with care but it is passable in a normal car.
The destroyed village of Louvemont can be found by heading north out of Verdun on the D964 towards Bras-sur Meuse. In this village there is a right turn (signposted to the battlefields), and after about half a mile is another left turn onto the small road which leads to Louvemont and Ornes. After following this road for a further mile and a half or so, there is another signed left turn leading to the site of Louvemont. At the turn leading to the village site is a memorial listing villagers who died (including two sons of the baker, M. Colson, later deputy mayor of the village). This memorial was dedicated on May the 4th 1930
To the left of this memorial is another, this one commemorating the 51st Division, who fought and repulsed German attacks on the 21st and 26th of February 1916.
There is also an information board, which gives some facsinating detail on the village, including a list of the families living here in 1914. There were 183 inhabitants, 58 of whom were entitled to vote. Despite the small size of the village, there were a number of shopkeepers including as one might expect a butcher, baker and grocer. There was also a tobacconist, locksmiths and three innkeepers. Many of the family names listed can also be seen on the nearby memorial. Following the road off to the left leads to the actual site of the village itself. This is a lonely spot, at the end of a road, and the only sound when I visited was the rooks cawing loudly in the trees around. As with several of the other destroyed villages, a chapel was built here on the site of the original church after the war, and on the walls surrounding this are plaques showing that, despite the village being destroyed, there continued to be a mayor of Louvemont after the First World War, and in fact names are listed running up until 2003. The chapel was consecrated on July the 31st, 1932.
In the area around the chapel, presumably the site of the original graveyard around the original church before the war, there can still be seen various grave markers, seeming to date mainly from around the start of the 20th Century. One such is shown below.
After the early battle near here in 1914, Louvemont found itself only about four miles from the frontline, although in October 1914 the French pushed the Germans a little further back. But the village remained perilously close to danger, and of course in Febrruary 1916 the area became the focus of it. The village was bombarded at 6.30 a.m. on the morning of the 21st of February, although it was not taken by the Germans until the evening of the 25th of February. A contemporary account recorded that "the village was an inferno......all was lost in the confusion of smoke and the fine snow that had started to fall". The village was retaken by the French ten months later, by which time it was in ruins.
After the war, those inhabitants who returned to the village were housed in wooden huts, but the devastation was so complete that the decision was taken that the village could not be rebuilt; the danger from remaining munitions and contaminated soil was too great. In 1922, inhabitants recieved recompense at the tax office in Bras for their losses during the war. In the woods behind and to the left of the chapel are what look to be the remains of some of the buildings, mainly just moss-covered stones, but the lower floor, or perhaps cellar of one of the houses is exposed, perhaps being excavated.
Returning to the road which leads across the firing range, another ruined village, Ornes, is located to the north. At the site of the village there are parking spaces and a picnic area. This village was larger than Louvemont, with 861 inhabitants recorded in 1901, and 718 listed in 1913. As well as farmers and shopkeepers, there were three mills, a small cotton weaving industry and distilleries in the village (which may be considered a small town).
The church here is of particular interest. A photograph on the information board shows it already partially damaged during the war (when it was at times used as a dressing station), and destruction continued. However, after the War an effort was made to rebuild this, and columns stand tall amidst the ruins of the original structure, with large blocks of masonry lying around the outside.
At the back of what was the original site of the church stands a symbolic metal cross, embedded in the top of a stone obelisk.
Opposite the ruined church is a memorial put up by touring club of France, with the legend 'Here stood Ornes, destroyed in 1916' on it. It also has a relief plan of the village as it existed before the war engraved on it. There is a similar memorial at Fleury.
A litle further on, just to the left at the cross-roads reached by leaving the ruined church on your left side, is the village memoiral to those who died during the war. This is a large and ornate structure, with many of the names seen on the information board listing the inhabitants repeated on the front. Also on the front is a relief engraving of a mother and her children, with soldiers in view behind them. There are also bas relief scenes of the village before (on the left side of the memorial) and after (right side) the war.
Also to be found in Ornes is a more modern chapel and an area with stone benches around a fountain - located on the site of the Place de Ceux de Verdun.
Continuing north from Ornes on the D24, after about a mile and a half turn left on the D65. Follow this road through the village of Azannes, and then turn right on the D66. A little along this road is Azannes II German Cemetery, which slopes up the hill to the left of the road as this bends to the right. The areas here to the north of the battlefields were the site of German supply infrastructure, and also medical and munitions sites (as will be seen later).
It is a steep climb up the hillside that the cemetery is set on but at the rear are two memorials to German units. That shown on the left below is to the fallen of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment from 1915. The inscription on the second memorial is somewhat damaged, but the base refers to the 64th Infantry Regiment, which was named after Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia (who died before the Great War).
Much has been written about the Battle of the Somme which commenced on the 1st of July 1916, but it was largely a British attack intended to help reduce the terrible pressure that the French were under at Verdun that year. As I walked down through the cemetery, the cross marking the grave of one soldier, Kurt Knorr, and his date of death caught my eye.
Kurt Knorr died as the British attacks started on the Somme to the north
In the area around Verdun there are a wealth of bunkers to be seen. Continuing along the road towards Mangiennes, and just before the village on the left of the road, is a massive example. This can only be seen from the road, as it is located a little way inside the field, but enough can be seen to appreciate the massive solidity of the construction. In this location, this is likely to be a German bunker, possibly dating from later in the war.
In Mangiennes itself is another German cemetery, which is extremely interesting because of the original grave markers that can still be seen. Mangiennes German Cemetery is located towards the west side of the village, and is well signposted. The graves here are marked by small stone crosses, rather than the metal crosses seen in Azannes II Cemetery earlier. There is a mass grave just inside the entrance to the cemetery, where 358 soldiers are buried, and a large cross located at the rear.
Also at the rear of the cemetery, behind the last row of graves, are quite a number of original grave markers with a number of different designs seen. Some of these are shown in the photographs below.
Another style of grave marker can be seen behind the current gravestone of Major Friedrich Schonlein, who commanded the 12th Grenadiers and died on the 8th of May 1916 in the explosion at Fort Douaumont. He was killed in his bed by a stone which fell from the ceiling. The current simple cross is shown below left, and the original stone is located not far away on the edge of the cemetery.
From Mangiennes, the D66 leads towards Pillon, and near this village are signs to the site of the 'Long Max Cannon' (signed as Site du Canon Allemand). There is a parking area, and a lot to see here. The site is significant, because it was the massive naval gun located here which fired the opening shot in the Battle of Verdun. There are a number of signboards that give excellent information about the structures which remain, and the site (constructed by Krupps in 1915), which was classified as a listed monument in 1924.
Perhaps the most significant feature is the pit which housed the gun itself. The gun was classified as a 38L/45; the 38 refers to the caibre or diameter of the gun, at 38 cm or 380 mms, and 45 was the useable length - 45 times the calibre, at 17.1 metres long. As stated above, this was originally a naval gun, intended for a battleship which was never completed. The breech of the gun alone weighed over two tons, with the entire construction being over 200 tons. Three officers and 70 marine gunners operated as a special unit to fire the gun, and were commanded by Captain Shulte. This was one of four 'Max' cannons located in the area north of Verdun.
Each shell weighed 750 kg, and they were transported by small carriages on tracks. When the gun was fired, a fifteen metre long flame came from the muzzle, and the noise could be heard from miles around.
To protect the site from attack by the French, practice rounds were fired during foggy weather to deaden the sound of the shot, and decoys were sited elsewhere which mimicked the sound and smoke produced by this gun. A net on a rail covered the gunpit when it was not firing, and the whole area was camoflagued. Concrete was painted green.
Tunnels 80 metres long were constructed to make workshops where the charges were prepared, and 120 kg of powder in a round meant that the shell could travel the 25 kilometres (about 15 miles) to Verdun. A higher charge of 183 kg would enable the shell to reach the French support lines, over 20 miles away.
For supply of the area, including 'Max', the rail network was extremly important, and this area was known as the Spincourt sector after the village of that name. At Spincourt, to the east of the Max cannon site, a legacy of the logistics of supply can still be seen; the railway runs through this small village,, and the platform constructed during the Great War remains. It is of a truly astounding length. A road runs on the opposite side of the tracks, and driving opposite the platform my car mileometer registered a third of a mile. The platform is so long that it was impossible to fit it into one photo! Today, it is overgrown and disused, but one can imagine the bustle and activity there must have been here whilst the war was raging nearby ninety years ago. Another facsinating site, not far away, is the experimental concrete works at Camp Marguerre, such an incredible site that a separate page is devoted to it.
Another bunker can be seen in Spincourt, across the railway line (there is a level crossing) and along the road in some undergrowth.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Christina Holstein: Fort Douaumont