Universal capital of The First World War, Verdun was the hotspot of the greatest battle the 20th century has ever seen. Destroyed villages, combat sites, museums, memorials and re-enactments bear testimony to the scale and the destructiveness of the war, as well as of the valour and intrepidity of the city’s defenders.
The German offensive over Verdun was launched on February 21st 1916, the day that the nightmare of “The Hell of Verdun” began for French soldiers. This gruesome nightmare lasted 300 days and 300 nights and was especially difficult for the French as they had to fight back with the River Meuse fencing them in and a single supply railroad under fire from German canons, effectively cutting them off from the rest of France. The Germans were prepared for the siege with a never-before-seen artillery park of 2.5 million shells over an 11 km long front, ending 400,000 lives and wiping entire villages off the face of the planet.
Among the many vestiges and monuments that testify to Verdun’s ordeal, perhaps the most impressive are: Fort Douaumont and the Douaumont Ossuary, Fort Souville, Fort Vaux, The Soldat du Droit (The Soldier of Justice), the monuments at Mort Homme, The Memorial to Moslem Soldiers, the memorial to the 137th Regiment of Infantry or The Bayonet Trench, the memorial remembering the lost village of Fleury, The Verdun Museum, The Wall of the Israelites, the chapel of Saint-Nicolas, the memorial to André Maginot, the Verdun Cathedral, ‘The Wounded Lion’ memorial to the 130th Division, the Monument to the sons of Verdun- with the inscription of the Verdun motto ‘on ne passe pas’ (They shall not pass), and finally the Victory Monument.
The battle scenes are off limits to visitors, as millions of unexploded German shells still litter the mangled forest floors. An example of conflict landscape that visitors have access to, a large crater at Butte de Vauquois, where the Germans detonated their largest mine made of 60,000 kg of explosive, is only a few kilometres away from the Verdun and evinces the destructiveness of World War I industrialized warfare.
Currently, 500,000 people visit The Western Front and France will be commemorating its casualties on a massive scale starting with the 2014 centenary of the beginning of The Great War. Less than 400 kilometres away from Calais, Verdun is easily accessible even for ferry travellers. A journey from the port of Dunkirk to Verdun would also take less than 4 hours and would offer numerous distractions for WWI enthusiasts, as most of the journey follows the line of the Western Front.
The front line of the ‘war to end all wars’ is forever scared with the bloodshed of German, French and American troops and it has been preserved intact for the past century. It is being considered for the title of UNESCO World Heritage site and is in reality an open-air museum whose vastness reveals much more than any commemorative museum could, including a message of peace to be passed on to future generations.
The World Centre for Peace in Verdun holds various cultural events, exhibitions and international conferences and is presently the home of some of the Verdun Memorial’s key pieces, as the memorial is undergoing major renovation work and will only be reopened for the public in 2016.
The ‘son et lumière’ show held at the Haudainville quarry, aptly entitled ‘Des Flammes à la Lumière’ (‘From the flames to the light’), is an artistic representation of the Battle of Verdun which is staged by volunteers yearly, on June and August weekends and depicts battle, casualty care, gassing and armistice scenes. This is Europe’s largest sound and light show depicting the Great War and it is a captivating performance for adults and children alike.
There are countless ways to commemorate World War One and as the 2014 centenary is just around the corner, your chance to be involved in the commemoration of unprecedented world-wide industrialized warfare has finally arrived.