France remembers her children

In 1993 an early stage of the 3,700 km Tour de France passed over the forested heights that rise above the river Meuse near Verdun. Traditionally this remarkable sporting event is noisy and exuberant along most of its course. On this particular day, as the peloton of cyclists swept along the crest, the usual hubbub suddenly diminished, radios were silenced and there was little to be heard but the whirr of gears and the hiss of tyres. They were passing through the area known as Douamont, the centre of the old Verdun battlefield and a national shrine of France (Fig. 10). To many French and German viewers amongst the millions watching that particular Tour the name Verdun would, like Somme to the British, sound like a funeral bell and bring to mind, once more, the memory of the hellish struggles of 1916.8

Fig. 10 – Location of selected cemeteries: Douamont, Vauxbuin, Romagne, Langemark, Azannes.

The battle for Verdun began at 7.15 a.m. on February 21, 1916. Amongst the thousand German guns that fired one million shells into a 14-km French front were thirteen of the fearsome Krupp 420 mm (16.54 inch) calibre ‘Big Bertha’ howitzers of the type that had been used to shatter the Belgian forts of Liège and Namur in 1914. Each ‘420’ was served by a crew of 200 men and could lob an 810 kg (1,786 lb) shell a distance of 9 km (10,000 yards). For the next ten months, the drumbeat of gunfire would continue and be audible 110 km away in Trier, Germany’s oldest city. Veterans would invariably refer to the continuous nerve-shattering bombardment by shells. Heavy shells of that period had few planes of weakness in their casing so that the explosion fragmented them into massive chunks of steel. Steel splinters from smaller calibre shells lay everywhere. The battlefield of Verdun is not all that large and a typical estimate is that about one thousand shells fell on each square metre during the course of the horrendous battle. A classic French novel of 1938 provides a vivid kaleidoscopic account of the battle conditions.9 Modern estimates of French casualties at Verdun propose that 216,337 were wounded, 61,289 were killed and 101,151 were missing, a total of 378,777. German casualties were in the order of 330,000.10

Today the principal features of the high ground of Douamont are the large French National Cemetery, the battered but intact remains of Fort Douamont and the crouching mass of the ossuary. Some 16,000 French soldiers lie in this cemetery (Figs. 11-13), making it the largest WW I military cemetery in France. The typical French marker is a Latin cross of cemented conglomerate with a central plaque of grey non-ferrous alloy giving the name and regiment of the deceased. At one end of the cemetery is an expanse of Muslim graves (Fig. 14), a reminder that many thousands of colonial troops fought and died pour la France. They came from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal and Somalia. These curved headstones are inscribed with graceful Arabic script and, in striking contrast to the adjacent ranks of French crosses, all face far-off Mecca.

Fig. 11 – Le Soldat du Droit. Douamont, heights above Verdun.

Fig. 12 – Douamont cemetery.

Fig. 13 – Douamont cemetery and ossuary.

Fig. 14 – Douamont, Muslim graves.

The fort of Douamont (Fig. 15), 380 metres above the river Meuse, was the masterpiece of the French defence system. In 1916 its fortunes, which included loss and recapture, would feature on the front page of world newspapers. Built in the late nineteenth century as one of a chain of twenty large forts protecting Verdun, it was for the most part subterranean, originally surmounted by 3.5 metres of concrete and 4 metres of earth. Domed turrets housed 75 mm and 155 mm guns. Today, at nearby Fort Vaux, one can see how such domes, which are of 27 cm thick cast steel, could be scored, fractured and tossed aside by bombardment. Yet the subterranean stone structure of these forts was essentially undamaged. In his memoir on the battle, Marshal Pétain mentions an estimate that at least 120,000 shells, many of heavy calibre, fell on Fort Douamont. He also discusses the vital role played by such permanent fortifications throughout the battle.11 Although the fort provided some shelter from the hail of steel sweeping its glacis, from time to time death would reach into its dank corridors and chambers. In one terrible night incident, German troops occupying a casemate carelessly lit a cooking fire and ignited leaking fuel from flame-throwers. A magazine of 155 mm shells exploded and 679 German soldiers perished. Their bodies were not removed and the external entrance to the casemate was sealed (Fig. 16). The tomb is often decorated with wreaths.

Fig. 15 – Battered hulk of Fort Douamont.

Fig. 16 – Sealed exterior entrance to casemate of Fort Douamont.

The white stonework of the 137 metre-long ossuary (Fig. 17) forms a monstrous carapace. Its central tower, which looks like an art deco rocket ship, was designed to be a lighthouse from which four synchronized beams would sweep the former battlefield at night as a ‘lantern of the dead’. Its architecture reflects the sombre French mood of the 1920s and its internal style is decidedly grim and, to say the least, unsettling. The ossuary houses the collected bones of 130,000 men, French and German. Within the silent orange-lit interior of the long cloister, the arches and walls are inscribed with names of dead individuals and the forty-six infamous battle sectors: Côte 304, Les Eparges, Fort de Tavannes, Mort-Homme, Fort de Vaux and so on. Set in its rear external wall is a series of small windows. Looking in, one sees indiscriminate heaps of bones and skulls and the occasional neat stack of human femurs. This building, which was formally unveiled in 1927, is obviously meant to endure and I find myself wondering what an archaeologist or Wellsian time-traveller12 of the far distant future will make of its inscriptions.

Fig. 17 – Douamont, the ossuary

  1. Julian Thompson, The 1916 Experience: Verdun and the Somme (London, Carlton Books Ltd., 2006) ISBN 10: 1 86200 369 6 & ISBN 13:978 1 86200 369 9 []
  2. Jules Romains, Verdun (London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1962) Translated by Gerard Hopkins. []
  3. Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun (London, Jonathan Cape, 2002) 5-6, ISBN 0-224-05990-4 []
  4. Henri Phillipe Pétain, Verdun (London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot, Ltd., 1930) 239-254. []
  5. H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895) []