28 March 2010

Verdun: Capitale Mondiale de la Paix - World Capital of Peace

Upon my arrival in Verdun, I paused at the base of the massive staircase leading up to the Victory Monument (Monument à la Victoire et aux Soldats de Verdun.)  An elderly man (I must really attract them in France) approached me and asked if I was a visitor.  I replied yes, that I was touring the city and battlefields for the day.  "Vous n'êtes pas d'ici." He exclaimed, noting my accent. "You're right, I'm an American, working in France at the moment." I replied.  He seemed quite delighted that I was visiting his town, and proceeded to give me a narrative of the historic monument before me, and of the Battle of Verdun, during WWI, one of the bloodiest battles in human history, ending the lives of a quarter million.  He spoke with such conviction, I began to wonder if he was a tourist guide, or merely a proud citizen of Verdun.  "I'd best be on my way," he said eventually, "But I ask you to remember throughout your visit that Verdun is a World Capital of Peace."  I had seen that expression on road signs on my trip into town, and to hear those words spoken sent chills through my body. Those words of hope were a beacon of light, leading the Lorraine region into the longest period of peace it has ever known. 

Throughout the day, I wandered the city of Verdun, and then the battlefields and cemeteries.  Seeing the rows of white crosses converging on the horizon, I noticed a striking resemblance to Arlington National Cemetery... but here in Verdun, all of these deaths were the product of one battle, fought from February through December of 1916.  The city has been mostly restored, but surrounding villages have been obliterated, never to be rebuilt. 

Arriving at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery approximately 30 kilometers away from Verdun, the horrors of war became personal when I saw a grave marker of a soldier from Michigan, my home state.  He became more than an anonymous white cross among over 14,000 resting in the cemetery.  I lingered at his grave, touching the white stone, imagining the life he knew and the dreams he never would.  While the French and German cemeteries were moving, it wasn't until I was standing among the fallen from my own country that I truly began to grasp the magnitude of the war.  For every uniform grave stone, I imagined the ripple effect that death would cause.  For each person that violently lost his life, how many mourning family members and friends did he leave behind?  How many children would never be fathered? Suddenly, even the countless seemed insufficient, because the number of lives destroyed far exceeds those memorialized in the cemeteries.  

In Verdun, the ground and buildings still bear the scars of explosions, but nature has blanketed the earth with grass and flowers.  I expected to be plagued by the echoes of screams and explosions, but instead encountered the greatest serenity.  The place has been softened without diminishing in any way the events that took place, which seems impossible to imagine until you've actually been to Verdun.  My experience in Verdun, while at times tear-filled, was a healing one, because of the determination to continue the reign of peace.

As spoken by General John J. Pershing, "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."

Le Monument aux Enfants de Verdun morts pour la France
The Monument to Children of Verdun who died for France

The city of Verdun, and the River Meuse

Monument à la Victoire et aux Soldats de Verdun.
Victory Monument

Overlooking Verdun from the top of the Victory Monument

The cathedral still bears the scars of battle

Hard to believe that the cathedral was so badly 
bombed that the roof collapsed.

The Cathedral towers

Memorial made of helmets

Ossuaire de Douaumont, which contains the unknown remains of French and German soldiers.

Inside the Ossuary 

Verdun Memorial

French cemetery

Graves of Algerian Muslims killed in the war

Memorial at the Trench of the Bayonets (Tranchée des Baïonnettes)
A unit of French troops was buried alive by shell bursts, leaving only their rifles protruding above the ground.

Inside the trench of the Bayonets

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery 

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
A fallen soldier from Michigan brought the war to a personal level.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery 


  1. HI Jamie -

    I just got accepted to the assistantship program in Nancy/Metz, and I stumbled upon your blog when I was researching the area. You are such a great writer and I love to read about your experience! Might I be able to email you and ask you more about the job?

    Merci beaucoup!


  2. Hello,

    I saw on Internet that you’re looking for French lessons. Is your message posted on a forum still accurate? I’m a 26 years old French student currently living in Metz after being in Brussels for 6 months. I offer you French language exchange which is the best way to achieve a perfect level (I'm not beginner in english). If you're interested, do not hesitate to email me at: arthur.tigneuc@hotmail.fr.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Regards. arthur

  3. I first went to Verdun about 40 years ago when I was a teenager. At that time, there weren't crosses because the bayonets were still sticking out of the soil. I haven't been able to find a photo from that period to show my daughters who are now teens studying French... and trench warfare.

  4. Thank you for posting such an interesting description of the battlefield. I've always been fascinated by the battles of World War I. The photos are great! Thanks again!
    Ps. I can see why you attract them!


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