It was a day with clear skies and a light wind. It was a perfect day for my first solo flight as a US Air Force student pilot. The thrill of piloting a jet all alone is hard to describe. It’s one of life’s experiences that never leave you. There are other memorable things that we do or places that we visit. One very powerful place is in France: the First World War battlefield of Verdun.
What happened during the battle of Verdun?
Verdun was the site of one of the largest battles in the First World War. The battle was between the German and French armies and lasted 10 months, from 21 February to 18 December 1916. It was the longest and one of the most costly battles in the First World War. 30,000 people died in each of the ten months of fighting and over 500,000 were wounded. The battlefield was about 100 square kilometers and primarily an artillery battle.
Seventy percent of the casualties were from artillery
French artillery fired 23.5 million rounds. German artillery fired over 21 million shells in the first eight months of the battle. So many shells were fired at Hill 304, the top 12 feet of the hill vanished. This was confirmed by a survey after the war. The massive amount of artillery created many over lapping craters. Every time I go to Verdun, I think this is what the moon surface must be like. 95 years later, the land is still scarred. To honor those who fought in the war, and to preserve the memories of the war and battle, an ossuary was constructed.
The Douaumont Ossuary is in the heart of the battlefield
The ossuary was built in the shape of an artillery shell and cross. It holds the remains of 130,000 unidentified German and French soldiers. In front of the ossuary are over 16,000 graves. It is the largest World War I cemetery.
As you walk towards the entrance, you see windows at the ground level with human bones in piles of unidentified remains. Seeing those bones had a very powerful emotional effect on me. Inside the ossuary, in the main hall, silence is required as it shows respect for those who fought and died at Verdun. It is a very somber experience and helps you to understand the sacrifice that was made from both sides.
I didn’t appreciate how big the sacrifice was
I had never been to a large military cemetery until I visited Verdun. The ossuary and battlefield are a few kilometers from the city of Verdun. Look for the signs to “Ossuaire de Douaumont” or “Champs de bataille.” (“Fields of battle” is the literal translation to English). The 100 square kilometers is more in the shape of a rectangle with a long side. The battlefield goes past many villages. This map gives you a good overview of where the battlefield was and how it was shaped.
As you drive and drive, and drive, it starts to sink in how massive the scope of the battle was. Twice as many people were wounded or killed at Verdun, in one battle, than all of the US deaths in World War II combined. It was a powerful revelation.
You can’t describe Verdun adequately. You have to experience it. It is something you will never forget. Make it a point to visit it one day. It’s an important site to visit as it gives you a deep appreciation of the loss both sides experienced. Hopefully mankind will never see a battle like this ever again.
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