Our first trip once we reached eastern France’s Alsace region was out of the region to Verdun. My husband loves history, which means we found ourselves setting off on a three hour drive to Verdun from our French home base of Strasbourg.
After adding another McDonald’s to our list of McDonald’s visited on this trip we arrived in Verdun.
As we drove out to the museum and memorial we drove through a forest that was pock marked as a result of the Battle of Verdun in WWI. We made it to the museum after passing a few memorials and points of interest along the way. This is trying to be an interactive museum, but I found it rather disorganized and annoying. Luckily in our preparation for the trip I knew about the battle and what happened on the site so learning at the museum was not essential for us. We grabbed lunch in the museum’s café we set off for the Douaumont Ossuary. This is the French military cemetery.
There were 700,000 casualties of the Battle of Verdun, 60 million shells were fired on both sides. The Ossuary is home to 130,000 unidentified bodies from both sides, German and French. There are 16,142 graves on the hill in front of the Ossuary. Each grave bears the name of the soldier and has flowers at the base. Just rows and rows of crosses in front of the home of 130,000 unidentified bodies. This was another “why” and “how” moment on this trip.
Along the way to and from the cemetery we passed destroyed villages. These are 100 percent gone – 100 percent destroyed. There are no roads, there are no structures. Nothing. They were destroyed during the 300 day Battle of Verdun. Today descendants of the villagers still elect a mayor; the village may be destroyed but in an effort to never forget the village still elects a mayor.
I remember reading about American Cemeteries in the area before we left, and found the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial was on the way back to Strasbourg. This is a WWI cemetery. When you pull up you think you are pulling up at the White House or something. You face big black gates that have a memorial past the cemetery that looks like it would be at home sitting on the National Mall in Washington DC.
We were the only visitors there. The first thing that struck me was how similar this was to the Normandy cemetery. It has the same rows of crosses and Stars of David standing proud and reflecting the sun off of them. In the center of the cemetery is a sculpture of an eagle that doubles as a sundial. Around the base General J.J. Pershing’s quote “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. This brought a tear to my eye as I stood in the middle of 4,153 graves. We continued to walk to the end of the cemetery, feeling it was important to visit these men who sacrificed so much for us to travel here. Far too many “why” and “how” moments on this trip.
As with our trip to Normandy, and our visits to sights in Nuremberg and Dachau, this certainly isn’t fun to do, but we feel it is important. We want to remember, we want to thank those who served, and we need to learn so we can never repeat this history again.