After spending one night in Reims, we picked up our rental car and headed to Verdun to see the World War I battlefields and new museum. During the ten month-long battle, German and French casualties surpassed 700,000, making it the longest and deadliest battle in history. All of the Verdun sites are clustered a short drive northeast of Verdun and have been well preserved for those who wish to visit them.
Our first stop was the Verdun Memorial, a museum dedicated to both the French and German troops who fought here.
It’s an excellent museum, jam-packed with artifacts, recreations and art about the war. The museum began with a timeline of events leading up to the beginning of WWI, in addition to the progression of the war itself.
There are displays about every aspect of the war, from various uniforms worn by soldiers of different ranks to the medical tools used to treat wounds; from mess kits the soldiers carried to paintings depicting life in the trenches.
My knowledge of WWI was never extensive, so I appreciated the background information about how the war started. Realizing that these men went to fight not really knowing why they were fighting, and that so many of them did not return was incredibly sobering. In just over four years of fighting, 17 million died and 20 million had been wounded.
Our next stop was the Douaumont Ossuary, where the bones of countless soldiers are entombed. There are approximately 16,000 gravestones as well.
Continuing along the road littered with Verdun battle sites, we stopped to walk in one of the trenches.
If you’ve ever heard of the area being called a ‘lunar landscape,’ it’s because the repeated shelling of this area literally removed seven meters (about 20 feet) of land and created giant pock-marks in the ground that remain today. While the city of Verdun was preserved, any villages near the shelling were completely destroyed. Plaques now stand in their place, and visitors can walk among the craters, imagining what it would have been like to lie in one of them as the ground exploded all around you.
Our last stop of the day was Fort Douaumont, a French fortification overtaken by German soldiers only three days into the Battle of Verdun. It was eventually recaptured by the French toward the end of the battle. While it had been equipped with state-of-the-art rotating150-mm and 75-mm turrets in the late 1800s, by 1914 the German 420-mm artillery proved superior.
After touring the fort and the crater-like grounds above it, we had to race to our car to avoid the downpour the skies had been threatening for hours. (See exterior fort photo, above.)
After the rains subsided and we were driving toward Dijon, we were rewarded with the most incredible rainbow either of us has ever seen. As we drove closer, the colors became more brilliant and we were even able to see both ends of the rainbow at some points.