VERDUN and CHEMIN des DAMES

HOME
fort de tavannes

fort de tavannes

fort de tavannes

fort de tavannes

fort de tavannes

bois des caures

bois des caures

ornes

ossuary at douaumont

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

craonne

The Battle of Verdun, fought in 1916, left a landscape so devastated that it was abandoned at the end of the First World War. The land is still covered with miles of trenches, crumbling fortifications, and unexploded shells. Many shells still lie visible on the surface but are now often extremely unstable.

The Battle was conceived by the German General Ludendorff to bleed France white (according to his post-war memoirs) but in the end the German casualties were almost as bad, and the French while shaken were undefeated. The Battle had a lasting effect on French morale as over two thirds of French troops were cycled through the frontline here where conditions were recognised as amongst the worst of any battle in history. The 1916 major British battle on the Somme was brought forward in time to draw off German resources from Verdun. While at Verdun the French had been defending against a German assault, in 1917 they took the offensive launching a massive, though under resourced, assault against the German positions occupying the high ground of the Chemin des Dames near Laon.

To the southeast of the city of Verdun lies the Fort de Tavannes which suffered heavily from the German bombardment but remained in French hands. Today it is lost in the undergrowth and largely fenced off unlike some of the larger forts. It lies ruined, exactly as it was at the end of the First World War and care must be taken in the area to avoid the many unexploded shells which can often be seen on the ground, sometimes pushed up by tree roots.

Several villages were abandoned at the end of the First World War, among them Beaumont which is now just a few ruins among the bushes. The land on which the Battle of Verdun was fought was so heavily polluted with decaying bodies, explosives, and chemical contaminants that the French government ordered the local population to be resettled. Redevelopment of the area is slowly starting in some areas but these villages remain a memory of lost lives and livelihoods.

The Bois des Caures is today an area of mixed forest growth rather than the fast growing coniferous growth which covers most of the old battlefield today. Like on much of the old battlefield, the trench lines are often still very evident.

The ruined Church in the trees is at the abandoned village of Ornes. Today most of the village is lost in the undergrowth. It lies ruined, almost exactly as it was at the end of the War. The Ossuary at Douaumont is one of the grimmest places on the Western Front, visibly showing the evidence of war for all to see. In the walls of the basement of the memorial are small rectangular windows each opening onto a small chamber filled with bones. Sometimes the bones are neatly stacked, rib on rib, femur on femur, and sometimes simply piled up as here. This visible cemetery contains the bones of many thousands of unknown soldiers, both French and German stacked together as equal victims of the terrible battle.

Verdun is truly one of the most depressing places I have been, in spite of the attempts at redevelopment. Despite this, the nearby landscape of the River Meuse is extremely beautiful and well worth a visit.

The Chemin des Dames is a 25km long route which runs along the top of a ridge above the valley of the River Aisne. Running east from Soissons it was built for the daughters of Louis XV to help them on their regular journeys between Compi�gne and the Ch�teau de la B�ve, situated in the valley of the River Ailette, to the north of the Chemin. A road had been constructed here as long ago as Roman times.

The Battle of the Chemin des Dames in 1917 enabled the French to push the Germans back from their dominant position at the top of the ridge. This was the French counterpart to the British offensive at Arras to the north. While the French did enjoy some limited success in the battle it was only at a tremendous cost in lives and was one of the factors which led to the mutiny in the French Army shortly afterwards.

The hilltop village, Craonne, was at the centre of the fighting in 1917 for the Chemin des Dames. Craonne and its Chateau were destroyed and the village was subsequently rebuilt lower down the hill. The old site is now a forsted hilltop still scarred by trenches several feet deep which to the stable nature of the chalk soil these are often still almost at their original depth and present a hazard for the unwary. The remains of shells, many still live, and soldiers are still to be found littering the surface. It is still dangerous ground away from the forest tracks although even on the tracks one has to be careful as deep holes can appear when underground shelters collapse.

In the parapet side of the trenches are still many entrances to the deep underground shelters dug by the Germans. The shafts vanish into darkness and are littered with dislodged stones suggesting instability.

The deep shade of the trees was welcome as it was extremely hot in the sun, carrying 15 kilos of photographic equipment. If this was unpleasant for me I can only think that it is a much lighter load than was carried by the average soldier in the War.

HOME