Well it’s been awhile since we last visited the Western Front, with our stop in Reims, and today I would like to get back to sharing more as we started our third day of this trip.
Up early as usual we set off under sunny skies to the Verdun area, the setting of intense battles during the Great War. The year long Battle of Verdun took place in an area about 20 square km and claimed the lives of 230,000 with another 700,000 injured. Verdun, and its long history, is a very important place for the French that they would defend at all costs. Knowing this the Germans launched their attack, not so much to capture the city, but simply to kill as many Frenchmen as possible. Verdun was considered to the be worst posting on the Western Front, and the worst posting in Verdun was the Butte de Vauquois, which is the battlefield we started our day with.
Butte de Vauquois
About 25 km from Verdun, the Butte de Vauquois was referred to as a “heap of ruins stuffed with dead men’s bones” by an author named Jules Romains and upon visiting and seeing the great craters created from the mines it is easy to understand why he may refer to it as such. It is estimated that this area is the grave of at least 8,000 missing soldiers.
Before the war the Butte de Vauquois was a large hill about 290 m high with the village of Vauquois situated at the peak and inhabited by 170 people. In 1914 the Germans arrived, the village was evacuated, and the soldiers set about fortifying it due to its strategic position for monitoring the traffic in and out of Verdun. By 1915 it was bitterly fought over between the French and Germans and the maze of tunnels hidden below its surface had begun. Instead of continuing to send men over the walls of the trenches into No Man’s Land (of which there wasn’t much in this area as the front lines are very close together) each side was instead determined to destroy the other from underneath with the mines they planted.
An extensive complex of many kilometres of tunnels was created that included storerooms, command centres, and even tunnels made to eavesdrop on the other army to learn how they were expanding their tunnels and where mines would be set off next. On May 14, 1916 the Germans set off the biggest of these mines- 60,000 kg of explosives- which resulted in a crater 80 m in diameter and 20 m deep and killed over 100 men. Visiting today one can easily see which crater this is and it is huge, though today it’s not as big as it once was as sediment has settled and it has grassed over in the past 100 years.
By the end of 1916 the landscape of what was once the Butte de Vauquois had all changed. Instead of one hill there are now two due to the huge mines that split it in two. There is only a memorial where once stood a little village. And there are 14,000 soldiers laid to rest in war graves or missing forever due to the 519 explosions set off between the French and German armies as they fought over this hill on the Western Front.
Today this site is typically visited by French and Germans visitors but I think it is an important site for all nationalities looking to learn about the Great War to visit. It has been left as much as possible unchanged since the war and in addition to the giant craters, there are trenches, barb-wire emplacements, and tunnels to see. We were not able to go inside any of the tunnels but there are tours offered on certain days for those that wish to explore the area deeper. The very deepest, most comprehensive tours, are only offered a couple of times a year so if interested it would be best to contact them in advance to plan your visit around that time and make a reservation.
For complete visitor information including address, admission prices (for tours only- visiting the site like we did was free), and tour dates and times please visit their website here.
The soldiers who died on the battlefields in Verdun have found their place of rest nearby in a large cemetery and the Douaumont Ossuary. Considered a ‘house of death’, the ossuary has a death bell at the top of its tower, and a death lantern that shines out across the cemetery. The bones of the soldiers are in great piles which is not to be disrespectful, but to help show the sheer scale of the death from these battles. Along the 137 m long cloister are bricks engraved with the name of a soldier, but even with all the bricks there are still tens of thousands of soldiers that go nameless. In the cloister is the Flame of Memory and there is a little chapel off to one side. Visitors can also climb the 204 steps to the top of the tower which provides a sweeping view of the cemetery below.
For further information about this site including opening times (note that they do close for two hours at lunch during certain times of the year which we found out by turning up just as they were closing), location, and admission prices (to the tower), please visit their site here.