29 August 2006
The price of real estate
Yesterday was a dull rainy day. The skies were lead gray, all day. The rain never stopped, although it teased us every now and then by slowing. We usually got drenched right afterwards--a calm before the storn kind of thing.

Mr. W and I set out for La Ferme de Navarin, a monument from the battle for Champagne and ossuary holding the remains of 10,000 men--most of whom were never identified. Behind the monument is a large patch of land that has not been touched in the almost ninety years since the war ended. It is home to a bunch of rabbits now, some of whom came out long enough to see who was walking among them.

After that, we continued up the road a short way to the American monument at Blanc Mont, where we were unsuccessful in our attempts to dodge the rain drops. After visiting the monument, and taking a much-needed smoky-treat break, I plotted our course for Verdun, trying to find the roads that would take us past the monuments and battlefields we were out to see.

I'm not exactly sure where we passed from one front to another. The trip took about an hour, and in that time we passed at least one monument every five minutes, I don't know how many battlefields, and five villages that were razed completely during The Great War. Villages--Razed. There were signs "you are entering what was X village", otherwise, nothing. Everything was gone.

We arrived at Verdun just before lunch and got the maps and directions we needed. Verdun itself is actually a nice town. I was surprised. I'm not sure what I was expecting...maybe something a lot more modern? We found a nice restaurant where both the owner/barman and the waiter were very gay, but in that distinguished older gentleman kind of way. When we arrived the place was fairly empty. It quickly filled up and as it did, the two gentlemen's good mood went south. We had pretty good service, due I think, to my telling the barman we weren't in a hurry. Funnily he managed to take care of us before the others complaining about not having time. Maybe I should try that more often?

After filling our tummies with mussels and salmon and shrimp and steak and cheese and lemon mousse, we struck off in the rain for the car, and the object of our quest--the battlefields of Verdun.

Mr. W's father's middle name is Verdun, apparently given to him by his father in remembrance for this field. He was more than a little curious, as was I, to find out whet happened there. Up, up, up the hill we went, passing signs for this fort, that fort, numerous cemeteries, more monuments to specific units, armored holes in the ground--preserved with a quiet dignity that seemed to underscore the reason for their existence. We stopped at the Monument of Verdun--a museum where the battle was explained in detail—gory detail at times. ("Arrived tree days ago with three companies of men...34 are left alive, and those are half crazy...Please advise...)

We then climbed back into the car and continued up the hill to another cemetary and the largest ossuary I have ever seen in my life. The graves that make up the lawn of this monument are beautifully kept and each has a single red rose bush planted at the foot of its cross. The rain kept falling, and I'm sure the views on a clear day are spectacular.
The ground, ninety years later, still has a surreal look to it. Nature has taken over, and the forest that was decimated during the war has come back. Nothing though can take away the scars from this battle. It's something I can't quite capture with the camera, this look of vegetation covered pain.

300,000 men died in the Battle for Verdun. Three. Hundred. Thousand. I look at my family and feel I owe them a debt I'll never be able to pay.
posted by Doc at 09:52 | Permalink |


  • At 20:45, Blogger purejuice

    hi, I just started reading this from the beginning. This post reminded me of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning by Jay Winter, who goes into the whole culture of the hundreds of thousands of unknowns -- excellent book. Nine million people died in WW One, and Winter talks about how that impacted culture high and low thereafter. Very interesting, thank you for your words and pix.