"It's our 20th wedding anniversary next month, dear" said I to my wife Joan, "Is there anything special you would like? A cruise, two weeks in the Seychelles, a diamond cluster ring?"
"No, my darling" she said "I want to go back to Verdun for three days, we missed a lot when we went four years ago!"
So, several weeks later I booked a 5 day ticket with Seafrance (and took a chance they would not be on strike on the day we wanted to go). The reason I went with Seafrance and not Eurotunnel was price...Eurotunnel is so expensive now and with the delays getting through the tollbooths, can take just as long as the boat.
Thursday 18th April.
Caught the 7.00am sailing from Dover (having left our 15 year old son asleep, this was the first time he had to wake himself up and get off to school on his own...his sister was coming to stay for 3 nights but she would not arrive until the evening). We had breakfast on board ( unfortunately the French have yet to appreciate that an English breakfast tastes much better HOT ) but this was our only quibble ...the boat arrived at Calais on time and we set off down the autoroute.
Four hours later (having driven through sun, fog, rain but not snow) we arrived at Verdun. They have changed the road layout since our last trip. It is all No-Entry and One-Way now and very nice it all looks.
I had decided to stay at the Hotel Orchidées (web-site: http://www.orchidees-hotel.com/) which is on the other side of the river on the N3 - Route d'Etain about one mile out of town. This turned out to be a very good choice. The room was clean and very reasonably priced. There was, however, one item missing. This was pointed out by Joan. There was no mirror on the wall and even when traipsing through mud and bullets in the pouring rain, in common with most women she does like to look her best. There is a swimming-pool for the summer visitors but the best reason, though, for staying at this hotel is its proximity to The Battlefield. Turn right out of the car-park, left at the twin water towers and then right after 100 yards and you are on the D112 which takes you to the Lion Monument crossroad.
Once we were settled in our room I decided to visit the tourist office to see if there were any new maps or leaflets. The tourist office, however, appears (as is common in many French official departments) to be run for the staff and not the tourists. There were a few videos and leaflets and that was that.
It was now time to start visiting things and the first site on my list was Fort de Moulainville. On the way out of town we noticed the Faubourg Pavé Cemetery on the left-hand side of the road and stopped for a look around. On the small garden area in front of what turned out to be two cemeteries...a military one and a civilian one, were ranged five or six guns including a couple of 75mm's. They were very interesting but in desperate need of a coat of paint to arrest the rust. The civvie cemetery was the usual morbid, gothic place beloved of the French. Each grave was covered in plastic flowers, photo's and messages but the military one was different. Long lines of crosses with, at various places, Jewish stars and Moslem memorials. One grave was marked "An Unknown Senegalese Soldier". These people came from all over the French Empire to die in this cold, wet part of France. It is a sad place but not depressing. Anyway - on to Moulainville.
The fort can be found on the Route d'Etain (the road we were on) about one mile on the right past the hotel. To get to it you have a two mile walk down a forest track. We drove back and forth but it proved impossible to park and in the end I decided that I would have to drive onto The Battlefield and park near the Batterie de l'Hopitale and then walk down the track that ran past Fort de Tavannes. This we did and true to form as soon as we got out of the car it started to rain. We walked through the woods and started down the track from Tavannes. (You pass a telecoms site of some kind on the left.) We followed this track and it eventually crossed the main road that we were driving up and down earlier. We continued for about two miles in the steadily increasing rain and then, suddenly, there it was. Talk about spooky. Remember it was now getting on towards evening and with the rain it made the place look most forbidding.
This is not one of the popular forts like Vaux and Douaumont, it is not maintained. It has been bricked up but you can wander around all over the outside. After the fall of Douaumont the Germans concentrated their heavy guns (including the 420mm 'Big Berthas') on this fort and because it was not as efficiently cushioned as Douaumont it suffered more damage than any of the other forts. Many heavy shells smashed their way into the fort and eventually the fort's 155mm gun was put out of action but the steel, elevating gun cupola is in place with the gun still inside and you can see the gouges in the metal made by shells and bullets. Funnily enough the exterior damage is nothing like the forts further north. I can only assume that all the damage is inside the structure. Anyway we hung around here for about one hour, I had my torch and professed a desire to go inside but secretly I was pleased that there was no way in. By now it was absolutely tipping down and we decided it was time to make our way back. We walked, briskly, in the direction of our car and this, of course, caused the rain to immediately cease.
We went back to the hotel to get changed and decide where to go for dinner. I lay down on the bed and the next thing I knew Joan was shaking me and saying "Wake up..you're snoring!"
We drove into Verdun and parked in a car-park just over the bridge on the right. We decided to try the Cloche d'Or where we had eaten very well four years before. As we walked around the town prior to eating it was as if the populace had heard that the Boches were at the gates.....it was deserted. We looked in at the Cloche d'Or but it was empty and we decided to try elsewhere. Eventually we found the Big Bif on the Quai de Londres. There were people in it and the price (and food) was right. We ate and drank well and then went back to the car and drove back to the hotel. We slept soundly and awoke refreshed and ready for the exploring to come.
Friday 19th April.
This morning was deemed a 'discovering things morning', but first we had to buy some bread and wine (religious eh!) and cheese for lunch. This was done at an Intermarche down by the river.
Now that we were suitably vittled I drove up to the Verdun Memorial. This a memorial/museum built on the site of the 'destroyed village' of Fleury's railway station. I parked opposite the building and we struggled into our wet weather gear, it was, naturally enough, pouring down. We walked back towards the Lion Monument and turned left onto the D112, after about 200 yards we turned left into the forest (this was, in fact, the first viable opening we could find) and so Hansel and Gretel set off on their adventure. Hansel had, previously, taken a compass bearing thus precluding any chance of getting lost (he hoped).
The floor of the forest was one huge, pitted mass of tree-filled shell craters and unfortunately, at this time of year the the dead leaves form a rust coloured carpet which, when you are looking for rusty objects doesn't, exactly, make them stand out. Still, off we wandered with our eyes glued to the ground and within thirty yards I came across a flattened two-litre French water-bottle. "Aha", I thought, "this is going to be easy!" (Here is a little history lesson for anyone interested. The two-litre bottle was issued to African troops, i.e. Foreign Legion, Zouaves, 'Turcos' etc for obvious reasons. Whereas the troops from Metropolitan France had to make do with a one-litre canteen.) I was more than pleased with my first find, thinking I had come across a pretty rare object (more about this, erroneous, thought later.)
On looking up from my low level scrutiny Joan was nowhere to be seen. (Tip: a joint issue of whistles or similar devices would be useful in the woods, when one is wandering around, looking at the floor it is very easy and quick to become separated.) However, on calling out a few times we soon became reunited ("Oh joy!") which was lucky because it was now that my dear wife came into her own. She was like a questing bloodhound or an Iroquois tracker in the woods of Canada. I would say to her "Seek..girl" and off she went and found things. I would be wandering about, eagerly leaping on rusty Coke tins and pieces of tree bark when I would hear a cry of "I've found something" and on rejoining her would find her standing by the side of a rusty Mark 1 tank or a crashed aeroplane (slight exaggeration but I think you get the picture). Anyway after about an hour of this the cry went up again "I've found something...and it's good! "It had better be" I thought "otherwise someone will be digging her up in 90 years time." Well! it was good. Someone else had, obviously dug the items up and then, for some reason decided they didn't want them. (Just a word of justification here...these artifacts would simply rust away and the brave men who once owned them will become forgotten. Whereas I treasure and preserve both them and the memory of their erstwhile owners.) Joan was standing by a small heap of recently dug earth (maybe one month, maybe six...it was impossible to tell). Surrounding her were mess-tins, a cup, a spoon ( not an issue one "Here you are mon cher! you'll need this while you're away, try not to lose it." Is this what happened? Who knows?), an Adrian helmet (without rim but with some lining in place), loads of live bullets and a one litre canteen (complete with stopper). I found out, when I got home, that in 1915 the two-litre canteen was issued to all troops - which means that the smaller one is the rarer (presumably). "Are these any good?" she smirked, as I stood there wondering how I would get them all in my rucksack. I managed of course and we set off again. A little while later her cry of triumph rang out again.....only this time she had come across what appeared to be a human vertebra. I dug a little hole with my trowel (I had come prepared this time) and put it in so he would be with all his mates. We (she) also found some shoe leather and a belt and also, interestingly, a German water-bottle. Then, with the weight of my rucksack bending me backwards, it was decided to go back to the hotel to dry out and have our bread and cheese. It had been bucketing down all this time and even with our waterproofs we were pretty damp. Although I had my compass I had not looked at it and we emerged from the forest on the road about two-hundred yards from where we had entered. We had gone in a huge circle.
Back in the hotel we dried off and snatched a quick meal, then I sounded 'Boots and Saddles' and it was time to set off to the Bois des Caures and Col. Driant's monument.
Lt. Col. Emile Driant was Colonel of the 1st BCP from 1899-1905 when he resigned at the age of 50. He was elected Deputy for Nantes in 1910 but on the outbreak of war he rejoined the army and was made Colonel of the 56 & 59 BCP. (For those not in the know BCP is Bataillon de Chasseurs a Pied, BCA is Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins, RI is Regiment d'Infanterie and so on). Anyway, when the Germans attacked on February 21st it was Col. Driant and his two battalions that took the brunt of the fighting and held up the German advance for several days. The Colonel was killed on the second day but his leadership inspired his men to continue resisting.
To get to the monument I drove towards Verdun and branched off right at the traffic-lights following the signs for 'Autre Routes'. I turned right at the roundabout leading to the bridge and followed the D964 for several miles. I took a right turn at Vacherauville onto the D905 and followed the signs. (This is a very busy road with quite a few large timber transporters hammering up and down it...be aware!) After several miles I came to Driant's Monument with a car-park next to it. This is where I parked. We, gingerly, put on our damp (and now cold) waterproofs and set off down the Sentier du Bois des Caures. This is a well marked footpath which circuits the wood. It was not raining but the path was more like a muddy stream than a walkway. We slipped and slithered our way downhill, having visited Col. Driant's first burial place (just a simple grave in a clearing) and eventually came to the 'destroyed village' of Beaumont. This, as the name implies, is the site of yet another village that was completely obliterated during the to and fro fighting that took place in this area. There is a chapel and a lonely, walled cemetery and mounds of stone and brick rubble and not a lot else. We had a look around and then carried on our muddy way. About half-a-mile from the village the path crosses the D905 that we had driven up earlier. On the other side of the road the path climbs steeply and after 50 yards or so I suggested we cut off to the right and make our way obliquely through the woods, picking up the path further round. We had only gone a few yards when I came across a German stick-grenade (the wooden handle had long since rotted). It was in perfect condition, too perfect in fact. I was worried that, when it dried out it might become lethal again, so I, reluctantly, threw it away (I did ask Joan to carry it but she saw through me). These woods were criss-crossed with trenches with, in places water-filled concrete bunkers. There were the remains of barbed-wire defences everywhere. I found a French entrenching tool and then, a little further on, sitting in the bottom of a trench was a huge, unexploded shell. At other times I have walked up to them and had a good look but this one, for some reason looked evil, so I left it well alone. Joan refused to pick it up, so, probably, it is there still. By now it was getting late and we decided to head downhill towards the car-park but after several hundred yards the woods became impassable, so we made our way down to the road. There was only half-a-mile or so to go so we strode purposefully on. We did find a deer in the storm drain by the side of the road which, apart from being stone dead, looked to be in perfect health. On arriving at the car we had a quick drink and decided to head for Leclerc Hypermarche in Verdun. (Notice my 'deliberate' mistake? I forgot to go and look at Col. Driant's Command Post which was just up the road.)
The Hypermarket visit turned out to be a major mistake...we had a blazing row with each other in the drink section and stormed out. If anyone from Leclerc reads this then the trolley with two bottles of cider that has blocked the wine section aisle for the last 2 weeks, is not wanted. It can go back outside and the one euro deposit can be put in the poor box. We drove back to the hotel without speaking and when we went up to our room Joan started packing with a view to going home but in my smooth talking way I managed to talk her out of it...but in the words of Wellington "It was a damned close-run thing".
As it was a Friday we reckoned that the restaurants might have a few more people in them so we tried the Cloche d'Or that night and after a few aperitifs in a bar by the river, we wandered round to the restaurant and had an excellent meal. We, then, returned to our hotel where we slept the sleep of the innocent.
Saturday 20th April.
We awoke to a thick fog. "Right" I thought "we, either, spend the day having visibility impaired French drivers crashing into us or in an hour or so the sun will appear." Fortunately it was the latter and we had a splendid day.
First I drove to the Tourist Office to replace my copy of the IGN Map 'Forets de Verdun et du Mort-Homme' (an, absolutely, invaluable guide to the Battlefield), which had got damp in my, supposedly, waterproof map-case. Then, on to the Butte de Vauquois.
Vauquois is not, strictly speaking, part of the Verdun Battlefield. The main battles for this strategic village took place in 1915 but it is an, extremely, interesting place to visit. I followed the same route as yesterday but I turned left at Bras sur Meuse and followed the road for Hill 304. It is about a half-hour drive through the deserted French countryside. As we arrived in Vauquois I ignored the first car-park on the left, opposite the Mairie and drove up the road and parked in the car-park further up the hill.
Before The War the village of Vauquois occupied what turned out to be an unfortunately commanding hill-top position. By 1915 the village had been shelled almost into oblivion and with the Germans on one side of the hill and the French on the other, both sides decided to mine each others positions and force them off the hill that way. The result is that the top of the hill resembles nothing so much as a huge volcanic crater with a few overgrown mounds of brick rubble the only reminder of what was. The village has now been rebuilt at the base of the hill.
As it was such a lovely day we decided that the waterproofs were surplus to requirements. We did, however, put on our boots then we set off up the path to the summit. The walk around the perimeter is no more than a half-hour stroll but as usual, we kept diving into woods and investigating the various dug-outs and tunnel entrances that abound. There is one particularly fine part of a trench that appears very unrestored. There are panoramic views from up here and it is obvious why it was such a strategic point. We found a couple of pieces of shell casing (not shrapnel - which is something completely different) and after a couple of hours, decided to go back to Verdun for lunch.
I parked in the free car-park behind the Tourist Office and we walked over the bridge to the Big Bif, where I had an American sandwich and 'pitcher' of wine for about £2.00......excellent value! We were, now, ready for the last trip of our short-break.
We had decided to go back to the Fleury Monument and explore the woods across the road from it. I parked opposite the Memorial and we made a quick visit to the shop inside to purchase some souvenirs. We came out to find that it was now raining, so we arrayed ourselves in the appropriate garb and set off towards the Ossuaire. We walked about 50 yards and turned right down a track. This we followed for several hundred yards and then we disappeared into the undergrowth to our right.
These woods are, in fact, a northerly extension of the woods we visited yesterday. There are the usual craters and trenches everywhere. Also the undergrowth is, in places, extremely thick and tangled and as I am a little challenged in the hair department, my head was soon scratched and bleeding. Joan soon disappeared from sight, with her nose to the ground and tail wagging. Then the calls began echoing round the damp, desolate forest, "I've found something!" She discovered another German stick grenade, and a superb German mess-tin and lid (with a hinged handle). Meanwhile I had come across what I thought was a bayonet. I started scratching the earth away but the thing kept getting longer and longer. I know that (Rosalie) the French bayonet was long but at about three feet I realised that my excitement was in vain. It turned out to be a barbed-wire stake...such is life. I started to make my way towards Joan when I felt a strange, flopping sensation on my right foot.....after 22 years one of my boots had parted company with its sole. This I took to be a sign from the gods that it was time to go home. We made our way back towards the place we had entered, only to find ourselves emerging from the trees at almost the same place we had gone in yesterday. We marched back to the car but before going back to the hotel we decided to re-visit the Ossuaire. It is not generally known but at the back of this edifice are a row of dirty windows set low in the wall. If you peer through them you will see a shocking sight. Thousands upon (literally) thousands of human bones. These are the remains of all the unknown soldiers that have been discovered since the end of this almighty conflict. (I hesitated to write these last few sentences but I assume that the only people reading this story are those who feel the same as I do and are not morbid sightseers and this is a tale of everything we saw and did at Verdun.)
We returned to the hotel in a reflective frame of mind but we have been here before and we knew what to expect. That night we ate, again, at the Big Bif (they were getting to know us by now) then went back to the hotel to pack a few things.
Sunday 21st April.
We awoke to a beautiful day and after a leisurely breakfast we paid the very reasonable bill and started putting our meagre luggage in the car. As we were engaged in this arduous task we met a couple of Americans who were doing the Grand Tour of the battlefields of France. We had a long chat and the outcome was that we are going to spend every holiday, in America, with them from now on (only kidding!).
As I was booked on the 3.15pm boat I tried to drive as slowly as possible but, on French motorways that means 80/85 mph, with little bursts, when I got bored, of 115mph. The outcome was that we arrived at Calais early but were able to get on an earlier boat We passed the journey on deck in our shirtsleeves (very unusual for the English Channel) and arrived home a full hour before we were expected. This gave me extra time to plan my next trip to Verdun. There are still, of course, about 14 forts and 40 Ouvrages to visit.
Addendum: For anyone who is thinking of leaving their teenage son at home it may interest you to know that the house was still standing, the cats were still alive and the carpet had been vacuumed and there were no holes in it.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Maurice Alexander
Copyright © Maurice Alexander, May, 2002.
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