The Central Area of the Battlefields
This page covers what might be termed the 'main battlefield sites' associated with Verdun; that is, the area in the forests just to the north-east of Verdun itself. There are quite a number of sites in reasonably close proximity here. Many of these are well known, and should be part of any visitors itinerary.
Right at the heart of the Verdun battlefield, and perhaps the main focus of it as well, is the massive Ossuary located not far from the site of Fort Douaumont and the ruined village of the same name. The building of this structure took some twelve years, and it was finally inaugurated in 1932.
Inside the base of the building are collected the bones recovered from this battlefield - an estimated 130,000 skeletons; and walking around the building one can peer through the small windows to see these grisly reminders of the bloodshed here. Through some of the windows can be seen neatly piled long-bones; through others jumbles and scraps of bones as well as skulls.
On the slope below the Ossuary are the crosses of the French Cemetery here - a further 15,000 French soldiers are buried here, in the regular rows of graves seen in French military cemeteries. General Ernest Anselin is buried in a grave alone, covered by lw foliage, by the wall at the front of the cemetery, near where the steps lead down to it. The sloping lawns of the cemetery are kept in immaculate condition, and the gardeners cut the grass on some of the steeper slopes by pulling lawnmowers up and down them with ropes tied to the handles.
Decorating the exterior walls of the Ossuary are the shields of many towns and cities across France and further afield - there is one for Londres (London). Inside the Ossuary itself, the atmosphere is similar to that of a cathedral - voices are hushed and the smallest sounds echo along the halls. There are two main arms of the building leading off left and right from the entrance, with candles at each end. Their flickering flames glow amidst the dim orange light that permeates the interior. Along the hall are alcoves (with the names of areas of the battlefields inscribed above them), and mock tombs inscribed with the names of cities in France. Names are also inscribed on panels on the walls and the roof. There is a chapel straight ahead of the entrance way, and to the right of this stairs lead down to a shop and then out to the car-park at the rear.
Beyond the cemetery sloping away from the Ossuary is Abri Caverne 320, where several chimneys rise from the cratered ground, and there are again excellent views across the valley beyond.
Near the Ossuary are several other sites of interest. There is the Memorial to Muslim soldiers, overlooking the cemetery below the Ossuary. This was originally a small monolith, but in recent years this relatively small monument has been relocated and placed inside a much grander structure, which was inaugurated on the 25th of June 2006 by Jacques Chirac.
On the opposite side of the Ossuary is the Memorial to Israelites in the form of a large wall with red script upon it. A little further towards the Ossuary is another much smaller memorial in a similar style, commemorating that in June to October 1916 there was bitter combat at the Thiaumont Redoubt. The French Infantry Regiments that were involved are listed, and the inscirption goes on to commemorate the actions of the 24th of October 1916, when the 4th Regiment retook Thiaumont.
Located a little way along a small road leading north from the Ossuary (the D913) is the famous Trench of Bayonets. A long low concrete structure has been built to cover the site.
An ornate green bronze gate, decorated with a sword entwined by vine leaves leads into the site. The crosses of the Unknown French soldiers lined up within the covered area are perhaps one of the iconic sights of Verdun.
Aklso within the site is a memorial to the 137th Infantry Regiment, and the land near by is still cratered.
Travelling south-east from the Ossuary, and passing the memorial museum at Fleury, the D913 in this direction leads to a number of sites of interest. First reached is the Lion of Souville monument. The agonised look on the face of the wounded lion is clearly to be seen. Across the road is a memorial marking the site of an ancient chapel.
Turning right at the cross-roads by the Lion Monument, the D112 leads to two more memorials. The one on the right of the road (travelling south) is to commemorate that on this line the 30th Corps under General Chretian on the 21st to 25th of February 1916 held up the first attacks of the Germans and lost two thirds of its men.
The other memorial, more angular in form and shown in the right-hand picture below, commemorates a later event - how on the 12th of July 1916 the Fort of Souville, the last obstacle in the Germans path towards Verdun, resisted furious and repeated attacks by the Germans for ten hours. Lieutenant Kleber Dupuy and soldiers from the 3rd Company of the 7th Infantry Regiment are mentioned here too, and so is the fact that Fort Souville, which is in ruins (and is dangerous) can be found 200 metres behind the Maginot Monument.
The Maginot Memorial itself is a litle further along the D112. It is an imposing monument, which was being worked on by stonemasons at the time of my visit. Andre Maginot fought in the Great War, but was wounded in November 1914. He became Minister for War, and was instrumental in ensuring a defensive line of forts was built after the Great War ended, and this line was named after him: the Maginot Line.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Western Front South