100 years ago, fierce battles were being fought on French soil to halt the invading German army. In the UK people are familiar with the Battle of the Somme where 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Four years ago, I visited the area with my father, who was researching our family history, and we located several graves of our ancestors who died there, as well as their names carved in the many war memorials in the region.
However, I never realised that an equally devastating battle was being fought further south in the Marne and Meuse valleys where huge numbers of French and American soldiers lost their lives trying to stop the German advance towards Paris.
I begin my education of the region just outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois where 6,012 American soldiers are remembered in the Oise-Aisne cemetery. A little further south I find an isolated memorial to the 42nd Rainbow Division of American troops, placed at the site of the Red Cross Farm where a bloody battle took place and where 162 soldiers were killed in July 1918. It’s a shocking reminder of the many fatally injured and dead the war left behind in the area.
Continuing my journey, I stop in the small village of Vraux to see an Aviation Museum . On first inspection it looks like just a few exhibits in someone’s garden but I soon discover that there is a vast collection of aviation objects and memorabilia hidden away in the Tardis-like outbuildings at the back of the property.
An enthusiastic volunteer explains that just north of the village was a WWII airfield, first used by the British, then the French and finally the Americans. As well as pieces of wartime aircraft, there are photos of the men who were stationed there and stories about the lives, including reconciliation between British and German soldiers and an American airman who was reunited with his long-lost French sweetheart after 43 years. They subsequently married.
Finally, I arrive at Verdun, where 300 days and nights of fighting in 1916 resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 men. Whilst the town was badly damaged by shelling, it was in the surrounding hills that the main battle was fought. Surrounding the town were several forts and it is possible to visit some them.
At Fort Douaumont I learn how it was easily captured, without a shot being fired, by a small German patrol early in the Battle of Verdun but how they subsequently suffered great losses during the French attempts to recapture it. 679 German soldiers were killed when a fire broke out within the Fort and caused an explosion of the stored ammunitions. Their bodies were entombed in one of the tunnels below the Fort where they are remembered by a simple white cross.
Close by is a huge cemetery, topped by a giant building shaped like the hilt of a sword driven into the ground. It is the Douaumont Ossary, where the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are held. The sight of all the crosses reminds us of just how many died to ensure the freedom which we enjoy in the 21st century.
At Fort Vaux I learn about the last messenger pigeon which was sent out with a message requesting reinforcements and which died from poison gas shortly after delivering it. The pigeon in the cartoon series ‘Wacky Races’ and the one in the animated film ‘Valiant’ are loosely based on this story.
Although the Forts and the Memorials are the main focus of a visit to the Verdun Battlefields, sometimes it is the smaller things that remind us of the hardships of war. The remains of trenches, pockmarked ground from artillery shells, destroyed villages and isolated graves marking the discovery of long lost fighters. The town of Verdun today is a vibrant, bustling place with riverside cafes and designer boutiques but the memorials found there serve as daily reminders that 100 years ago life was not always so easy for the residents and the soldiers who defended them.
We Will Remember Them.