Verdun – WWI Battle Fields

June 10-11, 2017

It seems like ages since Dan and I went on a motorcycle ride together. In fact, it had been ages: February 26th, and that was just a short half-day ride for my birthday lunch. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when Dan came home with the idea: Let’s ride to Verdun and look at the battle sites!

It wasn’t a long trip – we could be in Verdun in just over five hours. I searched the internet for other World War I things to see and do along the way. I didn’t find too many but figured that the ride itself would be its own reward.

Packed up and ready to go!

We headed out of Basel and took the motorway into France and past Mulhouse. No sense in taking more time to visit the back roads in our own back yard. But once we were on the other side of Mulhouse we headed north into the Vosges Mountains and enjoyed some winding roads.

Village in Alsace

France is full of forests, farms and factories. There seems to be not much that doesn’t fall into these three categories. Sure, there are the small villages, but that doesn’t start with an “F” and really ruins the alliteration. Regardless, it is a pleasant country to ride through. The weather was on the verge of being “too warm”, but as long as we kept moving it was good.

In one small village I saw a sign for roadside cherries. I knew that it was a little early in the season for cherries but I decided to stop anyway. An ancient woman sat in a slightly more ancient barn, a table full of cherries, compotes and juices set before her. As my French is limited to “I can’t speak French”, it was a game of pantomime to let her know what I wanted. The transaction went quick and I could see that she wanted to ask me something about my motorcycle. I think that she was amused that I was riding my own “big motorcycle”.

Cherries!

After securing my cherries (which were small, but not as good as the cherries I usually find in Switzerland) we continued our way through the French countryside. We had left the area of Nancy behind and were crossing towards Toul when we both spied the massive cathedral towers in the distance. We couldn’t even see a town – just two massive sandstone towers poking out from the fields and trees. As we got nearer and saw the town laid out at the church’s base we decided to stop and investigate.

Toul Cathedral

Details above the door

Surprisingly plain inside

Return of James’ Way!

I had planned on one small memorial to visit before we reached Verdun, although technically it wasn’t small. Dan and I were still ten minutes away when we could see it on top of a distant hill. At first it looked like a tiny little dome sitting in a clearing but as we got closer it kept growing in size. By the time we took the winding road up to the top it had grown to a massive, classic, circular colonnade. It was indeed impressive and it was the Montsec American Monument.

Our first view of our first stop

Country roads

This monument, located on the Butte of Montsec, was the site of strategic importance for hundreds of years, going as far back as the Gauls and Romans. It is most notable, however, for its part in the shifting battle lines in World War I. The smooth stone columns encircled a massive bronze relief map, showing the neighboring hills, forests, and towns as they stood one hundred years ago. The view stretched for miles across the French countryside.

Model of the battle front in the region

View from the top

Pointing out landmarks in the distance

We rode back down the hill and resumed our trip to Verdun.

Descending Montsec Butte

Leaving the monument behind – the GPS found us a road through an orchard

A lot of classic cars on the road that day

Following the Le Longeau canal

Northern France – relatively flat and very green

New construction in one of the villages

It was a pleasant ride there although the sun was getting warmer. By the time we parked at the main visitor center of the Verdun Memorial, I knew that I would not want to walk anywhere, especially in my motorcycle gear. We went inside the large museum building and bought our entrance tickets. I had planned on filling my water bottle at a fountain, but there were no fountains. I was disappointed to learn that all of the water on the site was deemed “non-potable” due to residue in the ground from the war(s). I would remain thirsty a while longer.

The museum was amazing. Full-size displays of equipment as it would have been used, shelves full of items as they were found in the field, detailed drawings illustrating certain events…they all worked together to create a full picture of what happened here during the battles. I particularly liked a map inset into the floor. Overhead were lights that created lines on the map, moving as the narrator described how the front lines shifted over time. It gave a very good indication of just how fluid the battle lines were and how much (or little) time passed between major fights.

Once we had toured the entirety of the museum we were left with little else to do. It was close to the time to arrive at our B&B in the city of Verdun anyway, so we hopped back onto the motorcycles and rode down the hill and across the river.

Dan had peeked at the street view of our B&B and made a comment that it was very plain. As we pulled onto the street I could agree: it was a solid row of building fronts, none of them more interesting than the one next to it. We pulled the bikes off to the side while we made sure that we were at the right address. The door was of old wood, but without decoration. There was no name plate on the doorbell listing that gave any indication that there might be a business behind one of them. We checked our reservation confirmation and rang a bell. In a short minute the door was opened up by a young man who confirmed we were at the right location. Thank goodness, as I was looking forward to getting out of my gear and finding some shade to cool off in.

Our B&B – can you spot it?

The B&B, named “Maison 1853” was indeed in a building dating from 1853. I had assumed that all of the buildings this close to major battle lines would have been destroyed. It was a pleasant surprise to come in and see the high ceilings, the wide stairs and the thick grained wood floor of the old building. The owner had a fun sense of décor as well, with interesting stained glass lamps, a totem pole replica and a zebra skin livening up the area. Our room was dedicated to the comic Tin-Tin and had artwork on the walls and figurines on the mantel and piano. Yes, we even had a piano in our room.

Our room

Shower after-thought

View from our room

Refreshed and with fewer clothes on, we headed out to explore the city of Verdun. I knew almost nothing about this city, other than for its proximity to the battles in World War I. We picked a direction and started walking, having little idea of what we might find. What we didn’t find were a lot of people. The streets were deserted. There was very little sign that anyone actually lived in this city. It was unnerving, actually, almost like one of those first person video games where you go running around a city looking for aliens but there are no people to seen.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun

After having walked in a half circle and coming to the Sainte Vanne river it was time for dinner. Dan’s phone found a place that was recommended for its fish n chips. No, not something that one normally goes to France to eat, but I was in the mood and it was nearby. We walked down the hill, across the bridge and found a table at The Sherlock Pub.

The meal was good – not as good as London, of course, but good enough. I was just contemplating if I wanted to order dessert when someone at the table next to us lit up his cigarette and blew the smoke directly at our table. Dan and I looked at each other and the feeling was mutual: I immediately got up and waited near the entrance while Dan went and paid our bill. That is the one disappointing thing about outdoor seating in Europe: you never know when you’ll get smoked out. Fortunately this happened at the end of our meal.

We decided to follow the river, not realizing that the river actually split and we were now heading away from the main city center. Fortunately we didn’t get too far before noticing our error and there were minimal step retracing. As we rounded a bend in the river we found out where all of the people had gone!

I love the stepped windows

One of the old city gates – I didn’t even know there had been a wall!

The waterfront was bustling with activity. Restaurants had outdoor seating all the way to the river and every table was full. People strolled along the waterfront and kids played in the sunshine. It was as though the entire city’s population had been concentrated into this five block area.

We decided to join them and found an empty table somewhat near the river. We had been scoping out the motorcycles parked at the end of pedestrian area and made a game of trying to guess who owned which motorcycle. Neither of us won, since no one got up to claim the bikes we were watching while we were there. Eventually we wandered back to our room and had a restful night’s sleep among the Tin-Tin posters.

Sunday

We had to be home the next day but we still had time for some more sightseeing while we were here. We got back on the bikes and went back into the hills above Verdun. Fort Douaumont had caught our eye in yesterday’s museum tour and we decided to go check it out.

As we drove up the long road to the fort we could see the scars still visible in the landscape around us. In the forest were the undulations of trenches and periodically we could glimpse the dirty concrete of a bunker or pillbox tucked into the hillsides. Some trenches had been maintained so that one could get a better sense of what it might have been like to actually have to experience life on (under) the ground.

Trenches

The fort was not what I expected. To me, forts are large stone or wooden structures with massive walls and towers and a gate. Fort Douaumont was the top of a hill. It was covered in grass and the key indication that something was different were the concrete pads where artillery used to be mounted.

Fort Douaumont

Green (cratered) fields now cover the hilltop

With a sigh of relief we went into the fort. Because it was essentially a system of caves dug into the hill, it was dark and cool inside; just what I needed. We opted not to get the audio headsets but instead went with the little information card that was handed out at the ticket desk. We went room by room and read about what used to be stored there, or slept there, or cooked there. There was almost nothing left of any habitation, leaving just the wet, cold stones to look at. I prefer it when there is a recreation of “A day in the life” so that I can fully comprehend just how much ammunition was packed into the room down the hall, or how the cooks had to work under sloping, dripping ceilings. I have a good imagination, but some confirmation would have been nice.

Lichen and moss covered tunnels

And once again, I had the wrong lens for the light conditions

While the cave system felt good on this warm summer day, I could imagine how uncomfortable the cold damp air must have felt during a frozen winter night. The individual lives of the people who passed through here – and died here – made me reflect on just how stupid war can be. I am fortunate to live in such a peaceful era of human history.

Douaumont Ossuary

At the end of our self-guided tour we went back out to the bikes. We made a quick retreat out of the forest and set the GPS to take us on a direct yet interesting route home. It was another pleasant day and I checked the GPS frequently to make sure that we retraced our steps from Saturday as little as possible. Of course, that meant traveling through more French villages and seeing more interesting things.

A monument to the service animals that perished during the war

Enjoy your loved ones while you can