Talk about becoming history buffs! Brian and I bicycled to the outskirts of Verdun to get a first hand look at World War I battlegrounds and underground forts. Verdun, despite being the birthplace of sugared almonds, does not exactly have a sweet history. Verdun’s citadel housed French headquarters during World War I. The results of the Great War were devastating at Verdun; 800,000 lives were lost. The city, however, was protected for the duration of the Great War by the French and had never been taken by German forces. Soldiers at Verdun’s outlying forts and battle trenches kept the city secure while German soldiers attempted to infiltrate. The map below displays Verdun, and it’s surrounding protective forts. Inventions such as the Pamart Pillbox, added protection to the larger forts. The Pamart Pillbox was a fixed machine gun bunker weighting 2.5 tons, it housed two carriage-housed machine guns behind walls that were 14 cm thick. Three pillboxes were built during 1917 at Fort Souvine.
At Fort Vaux, the French became cut off entirely from supplies and communication. Thousands of soldiers barricaded inside a fort that was designed to host merely 300 men; as we toured the interior of the fort an audio/video guide explained the terrible living conditions these soldiers endured. Constantly booming, thundering sounds from exterior explosions threatened to bury men alive inside the fort. Stifling air which lacked circulation offered scents of excrement, deteriorating flesh of wounded or dead, and during enemy attacks poisonous gas seeping into the fort. Food and water stores were empty, and muddied water fetched from outside wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the thirst of thousands of men. The soldiers at Fort Vaux flew their final homing pigeon with a message pleading for back-up. The back-up never arrived and the French were forced to surrender to the Germans.
Scars remain on the landscape surrounding Fort Vaux’s exterior; lumps and bumps from each artillery blast.
Between the forts, throughout the forests, scarred landscapes and villages. Nine villages were destroyed during battles fought during WWI; none of the villages ever rebuilt. Today, there are monuments where homes once stood, and no recollection of foundations. Fence posts once strung with barbed wire now mark trenches, the outlines that were boarders of forts. Artillery storage units flank wooded walking trails. At Fort Douaumont, a very different story than Fort Vaux. Yes, similar living conditions for soldiers; here designated for 800 men but also housing thousands it was no sanctuary from the storm in a cold, damp fortress. Yet, Fort Douaumont was never forced to surrender. Instead, this larger fort was overtaken by a group of German scouts who sneaked into the fort and found their way to the commanders’ quarters.
The Four Chimneys tropp shelters; rising out from the scarred ground, these chimneys provided ventilation for underground shelters. The chimneys were dug to a depth of 12 meters and consisted of a 60-meter long, buried, brick passageway.
The Douamont Ossuary, our last vision of the battlegrounds as we bicycled home through rain showers. The Ossuary was built in 1920 and contains the bones of unidentified solders who fought and died during the Great War.