"It's your 50th birthday this March, darling, is there anything special you would like to do?" This from my wife (there's nothing funny about me!)
So there I was having to decide between a week at Gettysburg or five days at Verdun.
As I don't like flying or coach-loads of tourists who do not 'feel' what they are looking at I decided to go to Verdun.
I duly took myself off and bought two five-day tickets on the Shuttle (yes! I am fortunate in having a wife who understands...she was coming with me.)
Twelve weeks later, the Tuesday after Easter, we were driving onto the 8.21am shuttle to France (we live 20 minutes away) and by 10am French time we were on the A26 heading for Verdun.
By early afternoon, having driven through rain, snow and sunshine, we were pulling up outside the Hotel Coq Hardi in Verdun - warning: there is only limited parking in the hotel so you must either use the meter parking outside or go to a public free car-park and walk to and from the hotel. I parked across the river in a car-park behind the tourist office.
Having settled into our (somewhat expensive) room we decided to make a start on visiting things. The Citadel was chosen as it is in town and is easy walking from the hotel. We arrived at the entrance at 4.00pm (last entry is 5.00pm I believe) and walked down a cold, damp tunnel to the pay-desk. - warning: dress warmly, it is very cold underground. They hire out blankets at the pay-desk at 2ff a go but they looked as if they had first been issued during the Great War.
We paid our 30ff (each) entry and , having ascertained our nationality (for the commentary) were directed to another tunnel with wooden seating at the sides.
After several minutes wait an electric car appeared (somewhat akin to a fairground ghost-train ) and we were invited to take a seat. Tip: take a torch, it is pitch black inside the tunnels and it is nice to see where you are going.
The trip around the tunnels with its hologramed images is superb. Well worth the cold. At the entrance/exit there is a small shop selling the usual (as I was to find out over the next few days) postcards, books and other souvenirs.
We then took our time walking back to the hotel. Verdun is, against my expectations, a very nice, typical French town. We had a couple of pastis in a cafe frequented by tarts in tight, red sweaters and old men with berets and Gauloises playing accordions (get the picture) then went back and changed for dinner.
The Coq Hardi has two restaurants, an ordinary one - The Bistrot and a 'Restaurant Gastronomique' which is very expensive. We ate in the Bistrot and very good it was too. Then off to bed!
When we woke up, after a very creaky night, it was raining but, being hardy Welsh Hill walkers we had all our wet-weather gear with us. After an excellent buffet breakfast which included boiled eggs, bacon and (oh joy) croissants we loaded the car and set off for Fort de Douaumont. Hint: obtain a copy of the Blue IGN Map 'Forets de Verdun et du Mort-Homme' which has now been re-published - this is an invaluable guide showing all points of interest, roads, footpaths etc.
We followed the signs for 'Le Champ de Bataille', then 'Fort de Douaumont'. About two miles out of town I hung a left and then the road started to climb steeply and it became obvious immediately why these hills are the key to Verdun. After another mile or so we entered the heavily wooded battlefield site and straight away I saw that the ground beneath the trees was as torn and cratered as I imagined it would be. At various points along the road there are orientation maps describing what went on and how to get to places of interest, there are also footpaths through the woods to the most critical points in the battle and being, as I have already mentioned, hill walkers we had already decided that the only way to see a battlefield that was fought on foot was to park up and walk. (By now it had stopped raining and started pouring.)
In the distance, across the tops of the rain-sodden trees, the tower of the Ossuaire beckoned but that was second on my list.
Our first stop was the Verdun Monument This is a vast edifice tracing the course of the battle, built on the site of what used to be the railway station for the village of Fleury which was obliterated during the fighting. It was 30ff each entry (as are most of the other sites we visited) and was well worth the visit. Take a camera as there are some terrific uniforms on display and the shop only sells the usual postcards i.e. copies of old black and white photos, books and videos. On the way back to the car I took some photos of the guns ranged outside, had a quick mars bar and drove the mile or so to the Ossuaire.
I parked in the huge car park, we changed into our wet-weather gear (it was still pouring, as it was to do all day) and crossed the road to look at the vast cemetery in front of the Ossuaire. We then crossed back over the road and entered the Ossuaire itself. This is where all the unknown dead are remembered. The walls and ceilings are covered with engravings from families and regiments to their sons and dads who went off to war and never came home again. We then climbed the tower for a panoramic view of the battlefield. Beware: it is a lot higher than it looks and there is an entrance fee but the view is great.
It was now time for the 'Tranchee des Baionnettes' and Fort de Douaumont. First we made use of the conveniences situated in the car-park behind the Ossuaire (one of the few opportunities for civilised relief). We then set off on foot for the Tranchee. I thought we might be able to cut through the woods behind the Ossuaire but there was no way through, so we followed the road. On the way we passed a large cafe (which I mentally filed away for later). After a few-hundred yards we arrived at the Tranchee but there isn't really much to see - a long mound of earth covered by a concrete canopy with some crosses inside.
I now determined to cut through the woods to the Fort. I couldn't see it but with my superior military knowledge (nine months with the school army cadet force thirty-five years ago) I assumed it would be at the highest point. Having searched about I found a track and led my dear, damp, uncomplaining wife down-hill! Fortunately, after several hundred difficult, muddy yards the track joined another that led uphill. (I now know why officers and other ranks carried sticks in the trenches). We walked for maybe three quarters of a mile and all this time the ground on each side of the track was very badly pitted, eventually we came to a metalled road which I assumed led to the 'destroyed Village of Douaumont' but I didn't want that so we cut across the road and followed a path uphill through the woods. This 'path' was very badly broken up with water-filled shell holes and after 15 minutes scrambling we had to turn back to the road. On reflection I think the 'path' was in fact a fire-break through the woods.
We turned right at the road and walked downhill and eventually came to the location of Douaumont village (pretty good at finding my way about ain't I). There is a footpath here signposted for Fort de Douaumont so that was the direction in which we went. (The good thing about the rain was we hardly saw another soul and as I have mentioned the shell-holes were all full of water which made the area more forbidding - the trees do tend to soften the appearance of the battlefield somewhat!)
Finally we arrived at the end of the path and there stood Fort de Douaumont before us. There were three or four cars in the car-park but we were the only walkers. The fort is pretty battered and again is very cold and damp inside. It cost 30ff each at the desk in the standard souvenir shop and we were given a sheet - in English - that explained what was what as you walked around part of the very impressive interior. Hint: even in summer, without rain, I imagine you would need stout shoes and a warm coat.
We spent about half an hour inside the fort then emerged and walked round the side where it is possible to clamber to the top. We mooched around for 20 minutes or so but by now, even with waterproofs we were starting to feel a bit cold and damp so I suggested walking back up the road to the Ossuaire and stopping at the cafe on the way.
On entering the cafe it was like a scene from a cowboy film - all conversation ceased and heads all turned to the door to view the two apparitions that stood there dripping and steaming. We divested ourselves of our outer garments and found a place by a wall heater - "Oh bliss." We had a couple of hot drinks followed by a couple of Cognacs and 45 minutes later we were ready for the 'Ouvrage de Thiaumont' and the 'Four Chimneys'.
The Ouvrage is only a couple of hundred yards from the cafe on the far side of the Ossuaire. (It was still raining). We walked there at a smart pace which soon got our blood circulating again. The Ouvrage is behind the huge Jewish memorial and is, arguably, the most evocative part of the entire battlefield. There are no trees, the shell craters are full of water and the partly destroyed reinforced-concrete bunkers point their rusted, tangled claws to the sky. (Poetic eh!) We hung around here for a while then followed the footpath down to the 'Ouvrage de Froideterre' and the 'Four Chimneys'. This was where we started discovering things.
There had obviously been a lot of logging going on recently and the edges of the woods were just a sea of forbidding, pale whitish-grey, liquid mud (one could see quite clearly how soldiers, weighed down with weapons and equipment could disappear without trace - hence the Ossuaire.)
'They' had been clearing the paths and all along the route was a mound of freshly turned mud and we spent the next hour 'slurping' along the edge of the track with our eyes glued to the ground (and the ground glued to our boots!). My dear wife made the first discovery - a huge nose-cone, God only knows what it came from but it must have made a hell of a bang. I then found what appeared to be a cartridge case but on picking it up it turned out to be a live round (not a dud - the base had not been struck by a firing-pin). Discretion proved the better part of collecting and I reluctantly threw it into the trees. I then saw that Mrs. A. was about to step on an unexploded shell and it was at this point I decided it would be better if we walked on the track but as I made my way back across the mud I came across what I think was a fore-arm bone. This I pushed gently back into the mud but I could not help wondering "Who was it? Whose dad or son or brother had gone off 80 years previously to fight for his country only for his arm to be pulled out of the mud by an Englishman on his hols?)
As we were both now wet and cold we decided to call it a day and made our way back to the car.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a supermarche and bought a few bottles of wine and beer and some biscuits to eat in our room.
Back at the hotel (I was able to park outside for an hour and then the metering period expired until 9.00am the next morning.) We showered and changed then set off into the rain to look at some other restaurants we had spied on our way back from the battlefield. We settled on Le Cloche d'Or (near what appears to be an Arc de Triomphe at the far end of town) and enjoyed our meals so much that I asked if he had any rooms available - but it was full.
We then spent another night at the Coq Hardi and in the morning after another huge breakfast, we paid our bill (not cheap) and set off for Fort de Vaux. (and guess what! the rain had stopped overnight - it was quite a nice day.)
I wanted to look at forts de Vaux, de Souville and de Tavannes but first we had to find a hotel for that night. I drove north out of town, towards Sedan to a village called Marre to look at a logis (which was ideally situated for Friday's visit to le Mort-Homme and Hill 304) but as I patiently explained to my beloved, the hotel might be very nice but if we arrived at 4.00 or 5.00pm what would we do for the rest of the day - it was miles from anywhere.
It was then decided that we would worry about accommodation nearer the time and we headed off for the hills. Again I followed the signs for the Champ de Bataille (you would have to be a real moron not to find your way to the battlefield) and after three or four miles we arrived near the Verdun Monument.
Contrary to my earlier statement about walking, as Fort de Vaux stands on its own down quite a long road I decided to drive there and then return and park by the Memorial for the rest of the day. After a 10 minute drive we arrived at Vaux and again there were only a few cars in the car park. I made sure I parked in full view of the few people about - remember we had all our luggage in the car. We put on our warm coats and walking boots and went inside. The same entry fee, the same souvenir shop even underground was similar to Douaumont but very interesting all the same. It is difficult to picture my Grand-dad as a young man being involved in all this - but he was!
When we had finished underground we walked to the top of the fort and marvelled at the thickness of the steel cupola blown apart when its own demolition charge was set off by a shell. (Lucky hit from a German point of view.)
I had a mars bar and then back in the car for the drive back to the Memorial. I parked opposite the entrance (luggage in the boot) and we then followed a footpath marked 'Sentier de Souville', which starts by the side of the car-park on the other side of the road. This footpath soon angled off into the woods and we were traipsing through thick, cloying mud. Several hundred yards uphill the path dried out and a pleasant walk ensued. There are several features on this path, ammo. dumps, machine-gun emplacements, trenches etc. and I found two more live rounds (which I reluctantly discarded) and an excellent Trench Nail. We never did find Fort de Souville (or maybe we did but did not recognise it - these forts were all built underground with only little bits poking out!) Finally the path gave out on a road which I recognised as the road to Vaux that we had driven down earlier. We turned right and walked down this road then turned off left into the woods towards the Batterie de l'Hopital which I knew would cut off the angle of the road and bring us out at the cross-roads near Fort de Tavannes. We crossed the road and followed the path into the woods but again the same applied here as at Souville - did we see it or not?
It was now getting late and as we had nowhere to stay we decided it was time to make a move. A brisk one and a half mile walk back up the road we had just come down brought us back to the car and after a somewhat heated discussion it was decided we would go back to Verdun and find a different hotel for the night. The hotel St. Paul we chose was behind the restaurant that we had eaten at last night and we were able to park outside for free. The rates were very reasonable but always ask to see the room before parting with your money. The first room offered (bear in mind the hotel was almost empty) was on the third floor - and no lift. When I asked for a different room we were put on the first floor. The room was basic but clean. We changed and bathed then went out for a walk (suckers for punishment eh!) We had a nice stroll along the river - the Meuse, I bought a video 'the Battle of the Chemin des Dames', into the cafe we found earlier for a few aperitifs and then went back for dinner.
As the hotel we were now staying at had a gastronomic menu - calfs' ears, lambs' brains, snails etc. not really to my taste, so we ate over the road at the Cloche d'Or again. After another excellent meal we walked (staggered) over the road and retired for the night.
We awoke to the gentle patter of rain, which is what we were to hear (with increasing ferocity) throughout the day. After a rather more frugal breakfast we paid the bill, (much more reasonable) loaded the car , said "Goodbye" to Verdun and set off for Mort-Homme and Hill 304. I headed north out of town - in the same direction as yesterday morning, passed through Marre and after another couple of miles arrived at a dirt-track which led to the battlefield. Half a mile up this track brought us to the battlefield memorial with its inscription "THEY DID NOT PASS" and the start of the Mort-Homme footpath. There is a small grassed area for parking - mine was the only car (a bit worrying as all our luggage was in the boot again). On went the trusty waterproofs and off we went.
The path follows a circular pattern around the summit of the Mort-Homme hill (it was given this name many years before the Great War - somewhat prophetically I think). Apart from the pitted landscape beneath the Pine canopy there is not a lot to be seen but I did find another live round (yes you've guessed it - into the trees it went) and some wild deer crossed our path. A little further on poignantly is a lone memorial almost hidden in the trees to an 'Aspirante' (trainee officer - no British equivalent), who was killed at this spot. Then, along the track came a car, what a surprise, the first sign of civilisation we had seen for about two hours. Where was he going? Where had he come from? Neither of us really cared. Another half an hour brought us back to the car and warmth. (It was still raining). The next stop was Hill 304. Back down the dirt (mud) track and turn right at the village. Two miles or so along the road and we came to the turn off for Hill 304. Up the winding road and then a right turn into a long, straight avenue of trees (which we would later have to walk along) that led to the battlefield memorial. We parked up on the edge of a small, shingle car-park (I would have got bogged down if I had driven onto it!) On went the waterproofs again and off we went following the 'Sentier de la Cote 304'.
Again there is not much to see apart from the usual shattered ground but a word of caution might be appropriate at this point - these woods seem to be swarming with wild boars. Every path and clearing displayed clear signs of hoofprints and freshly turned earth. The fact that they dig the ground with their snouts was quite useful as I came across another unused round (guess what I did with it) and sticking out of an embankment I came across another unexploded shell, which I tried to prise out of the mud with my walking-stick, until discretion (fear) got the better of me and I let it be.
I did find another shattered nose-cone which I brought away with me.
The path climbed steeply until it opened onto a minor road where we turned left. We followed the road for a short distance until we came to a picnic area and the path re-entered the woods. It followed the line of an old trench until we came to another sad memorial. This is known as the 'Monument J. Delepine' and it is the saddest of all the memorials we came across. The inscription reads "TO OUR DEAR CHILD. BORN MARCH 1896. KILLED AT THIS SPOT JUNE 1916. FROM HIS MOTHER AND FATHER." The path continues up from this monument (all the time Mrs. A. was looking around in trepidation convinced that the boars were all hiding and watching us - the signs were all about us still - but we saw nothing.) Eventually we came back onto the avenue we had driven down and about one mile away I could see a little red dot - our car!
A long but wet walk brought us back to the car where we were able to divest ourselves of our wet clothing, then it was start the engine, turn up the heater and head for the motorway and an overnight stop at Peronne (yes it wasn't over yet).
Roughly two hours later, after a horrendous drive through torrential rain, we were driving through Peronne on the Somme battlefield - warning: this is a very busy town on the Paris road and because French motorways are toll roads more traffic tends to use the old 'N' routes.
The reason I came to Peronne was to visit the 'Historial of the Great War' but first we had to find somewhere to stay. The logis were all by the side of the main road and parking was obviously a problem, so we decided on a Campanile. I had the brochure which lists all the hotels with directions on how to find them - now, this is great, if only the hotel was where the map indicated it should be! Be advised: the hotel is by the side of the main road (N17) not up the side road (D1) as shown on the map - good trick eh!
We booked in (it was still raining) but we were on the ground floor and were able to park directly outside our room. The room was excellent, it had its own heater, a separate well-lit bathroom (with a heater) and sufficient space for the two of us - all-in-all it was the best room we had all week.
We settled in then decided to drive into town on a reconnaissance. By now the 'rush-hour' had finished and I was able to park quite easily, we had a little stroll around in the rain and bought a couple of bottles of wine in a crappy little supermarche next to the town square. We then decided that enough was enough and returned to the hotel for dinner. We both had deep, hot baths with the room heater set to full. I had a couple of beers and a couple of Jamesons and we were ready for dinner. The meal was very good and the thing with Campaniles is you can fill up on the wonderful buffet starters then have a last course all for next to nothing (but we had the 'Full Monty' of course.) Then off to bed.
Last day. We awoke around 7.30am (no slugabeds us) and by the time we had finished the substantial buffet breakfast it was approaching 9.00am. As the 'Historial' doesn't open until 10.00am we paid the bill (very reasonable) and headed out of town for the Intermarche on the Arras road (N17). This must rate as one of the best supermarkets we have shopped at in France (and we've been to a few I can tell you.) The wine section was superbly laid out with all the wines in racks by region. We bought more here than we intended but it was now gone 10.00am and the 'Historial' beckoned.
We followed the signs for the 'Historial' which took up back into the centre of town and then directed us up a street that was CLOSED for market day. One of the good things about France is that signs like that are seen as a challenge to the natives' revolutionary principles and are mostly ignored - so being partly French I too ignored it, drove past the barrier and parked outside the chateau that houses the 'Historial'.
On entering the building I was tempted to go into the souvenir shop first but was 'dissuaded' by Mrs. A. who said we had to go round the exhibition first.
It was all very interesting, especially the room that showed the conditions in the various countries just before the War and the uniforms were laid out (literally) in a very interesting way. It was, however, a lot smaller than I had imagined it to be.
We ambled around for about one hour then it was time to go - but first the gift shop beckoned. What a cornucopia of goodies, what a veritable treasure house of 'things'. I bought quite a few postcards and three Starlux figures and was tempted by several books but resisted the urge to spend more money. Even my dear wife bought some postcards....need I say more?
Then outside we went and on the way back to the car, as we walked through the market we bought some strips of vegetables for the allotment, which are a lot cheaper here than in England. These we duly loaded in our trusty vehicle and set off for home. I followed the signs for the 'Autoroute' and after about 4 or 5 miles we joined the A1 for Calais. At a steady 90 - 100mph the journey soon passed and we pulled into the Shuttle terminal at around 2.00pm (having stopped at Cite Europe, for more wine, on the way.) The worry was that we were booked on the 8.10pm Shuttle and I wasn't sure if we would be able to go earlier. My fears were unfounded, we could go on the next train. So, a quick trip round the 'Duty Free' then onto the Shuttle and home.
Advert: For people who live as close to the terminal as we do there really is no other way of travelling to and from France.
By 3.00pm we were home (having knocked off an hour back to British time) and enjoying a 'nice cup of tea', having had a most enjoyable (if thought provoking) few days in France.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Maurice Alexander
Copyright © Maurice Alexander, January, 1998.
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