Saturday, January 2, 2010


On New Year's Day we drove via Thionville (and Yutz--actually not Yiddish but derived from the Latin word for justice) to the Verdun battlefield. On the way, bright green fields still covered many of the rolling hills, and the oak forests painted a study in grays and browns. As we neared the hills and forests north of Verdun, where 400,000 French soldiers, nearly as many Germans, and tens of thousands of Americans lost their lives in the First World War, we began to pass military cemeteries, first German, then French. Narrow black crosses marked the German graves, wider white crosses the French graves.

Few cars were on the roads, and few people were visiting the sites at Verdun. It's a solemn place, and all the more so under oyster-gray skies, in temperatures at freezing, and with occasional snowflakes. Because it was New Years Day, the memorials and museums were closed. But visitors could still explore the emplacements, stroll along the forest paths, see the memorials, and walk among the graves. The fortifications we viewed helped me understand how miserable, terrifying, and chaotic the it was for the soldiers.

The main battle of Verdun began with the German attack attack on February 21, 1916. The terrain is wooded, bumpy, complicated. Fortifications had been built into the hillocks and slopes--some reinforced concrete bunkers and forts, others just trenches.

Fort de Vaux, which sustained a horrific German assault, displays a touching memorial to a carrier pigeon, the commander's last, which made it through poison gas to reach headquarters before dying. The French defenders, cut off from reinforcements and supplies, held out for six days in the bomb-blasted ruins of the fort, enduring attacks by poison gas and flame-throwers. Finally, out of water and ammunition, they surrendered on June 7, 1916. Fort de Vaux was recaptured by the French on November 2. Although the battle of Verdun ended on December 18, the war would continue for two more years. With the entry into the war of the United States, the Franco-American offensive of September 1918 pushed the German forces out the region.

Many US soldiers died in that offensive, 27,000 of whom were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery northwest of Verdun. The bodies of about 60 percent of the dead soldiers were repatriated to the US in the 1920s, but even so the Meuse-Argonne cemetery remains the largest US military cemetery in Europe, with 14,246 graves. The soldiers had come from all over the the United States, and ended dead on the Western Front. When we visited the cemetery late on New Year's Day, the pollarded trees edging the cemetery sections were leafless in winter's slumber. Light snow covered leaves of shrubs and dusted the headstones. We paid our respects to the fallen and turned home to Metz in the gathering darkness.

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