The Fields of Verdun (Where They Had A Giant Battle In The War To End All Wars)

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The Battle of Verdun was one of World War I Western Front‘s first major battles.  For 11 months in 1916, the German and French armies fought it out on the  hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse (unsurprisingly located in north-eastern France, near the Champagne region).

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I knew the area was a historical battleground for France and Germany, but driving from Alsace to Verdun, I was shocked by the sheer number of military monuments I saw from the highway.  When Charlemagne‘s empire was divided under the Treaty of Verdun (843 A.D.) the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Later, the Peace of Westphalia (1648 A.D.) awarded Verdun to France.  France and Germany continued to butt heads.  Verdun was part of the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

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There were even more monuments when I got off the highway.  I had a little bit of driving time because I got off at the wrong exit.  I couldn’t believe that I just happened upon places like this in the countryside 20 miles (32K) from the battlefield.

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The Germans hoped a decisive strike and victory would demoralize their opponent, forcing a quick surrender.  Hey, it worked pretty well in the Franco-Prussian War.  Verdun seemed like a logical point of attack; it was almost surrounded.  The Germans failed capture the city of Verdun and to inflict a much higher body count on the other side.  The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory.  Unfortunately, it came at an extremely high cost to both sides, there were about  800,000 casualties!  Cemeteries surround the museum and contain 15,000 tombstones.

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L’Ossuaire de Douaumont, an ossuary next to the cemetery.  It is the final resting place for 130,000 French and Germans who died in muddy trenches. The tower is shaped like an artillery shell.

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Armies (British, French, American, and German) fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.  Even today, entire areas remain cordoned off and live bombs are turned up by farmers plowing their fields.  Notice the trees are relatively young.  Artillery shelling demolished the existing forests.  It also created craters that are still visible (see the photos below).

DSC_0955DSC_0950The shelling destroyed villages of Cumières and Chattancourt.  Believe it or not, there used to be a town where the chapel now stands!

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The museum is amazing.  I was stunned by how low tech some of it was.  There were carts that had been pulled by horses (they had an ancient looking car too) and a hot air balloon.

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The museum has photos and a recreation of the trenches.  It’s hard to imagine the conditions the soldiers endured.

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After mobilization of the German Army during World War I, the government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat to protect them.  Franz Marc (one of my favorites) was on the list, but before orders for reassignment could reach him, he was struck in the head and killed instantly in 1916 by a shell splinter.

By the way, November 11, is Armistice Day.  On November 11, 1918, fighting ceased in “The Great War” when an armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect.  It started on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but the “war to end all wars” officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France.

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The Malgre Nous, Forced To Fight Against Their Country Of Birth During WWII

Malgré-Nous is a French phrase  (at the bottom of the above monument) that means “despite us” or “in spite of us.”  It refers to inhabitants of the Alsace and Moselle (part of Lorraine) areas of France who were conscripted into the German armed forces during the WWII.   We first noticed it on monuments and memorials when we visited Alsace (Belgians and Luxembourouise were also conscripted).

France and Germany repeatedly fought over the territory.  In 1639, the French conquered Alsace to keep it from the Habsburgs.  In 1871, Alsace (and Lorraine) fell under German control when France lost the Franco-Prussian War.  With Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the area became French once again and Germans who had settled in Alsace were expelled.  When Germany invaded and annexed the area on October 18, 1940, the departments fell under German control.  By 1942, service had become compulsory and French inhabitants became part of the Wehrmacht (the German army), the Luftwaffe (the air force),  the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) or the SS.   Others were sent to the Eastern Front to fight Stalin, many ended up in interned in Axis Soviet prison camps (like the one in Tambow, Russia). Others fought in more local battles in Normandy such as Das Reich in the Falaise pocket.

Others deserted.  They were shocked when the U.S. military treated them as deserters, not as the liberators of France wanting to fight for their homeland they believed themselves to be.  Many were sent to camps in the west of France, alongside German prisoners who didn’t look too kindly on people they viewed as traitors.  Those who defected to the Soviets were also seen as deserters or spies and shot.  Still others deserted to join the Resistance or fled to Switzerland, but their families were deported to labor or concentration camps.   This policy effectively forced conscripts to remain in the German Army.

Malgré-Nous who survived the war were considered by some as traitors or Nazi sympathizers after its end.   An amnesty law enacted on February 20, 1953, forgave crimes committed by Malgré-Nous.   Of the 130,000 men who were conscripted Third Reich in the Second World War, 32,000 were killed, 30,000 wounded and 10,500 missing and presumed dead.

The last phrase of the plaque above says “Alsace is the region of France who paid the heaviest price for the madness of Nazisme.”

War Memorials On Armistice Day, Also Known As Veteran’s Day

We’ve done our fair share of traveling in France lately.  We’ve noticed virtually every town there has monuments to local citizens who died in service of their country.  The lists of names, often including those deported and killed locally, are a touching remembrance.

Veterans Day annually falls on November 11, but to make it a bank holiday/federal holiday it is observed on Monday, November 12 in the United States .   Why November 11?   On November 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed.   On that day, hostilities between the Allied countries and Germany officially ended.  Germany

Technical innovations like the machine gun, poison gas, tanks, and aircraft appeared in battle for the first time in World War I.  Scientific advances and industrialization joined to create enormous death tolls.  Germany lost 1,800,000; the Soviet Union lost 1,700,000; France lost 1,385,000; Austria lost 1,200,000;  Great Britain lost 947,000.  While that may seem small in comparison to some of the other countries listed, about 1/3 of Great Britain’s male population died in The Great War!   Extrapolating, it’s difficult to imagine the devastating effects on  experienced by some of the other countries listed, especially those who had the war fought on their soil.

Although we haven’t seen quite as many such monuments in Germany, we did see a few there too.  We came across the one below in Bad Munster, near Bad Kreuznach in Germany.

After WWII, the holiday was expanded to remember those who served in that war.  In the US, we’ve had a significant number of wars over the last century  Veterans Day honors and thanks veterans for their service to their country.

War requires sacrifices and troops bear more of them than most.  It is important to remember those sacrifices and the people who made them.  War isn’t a triviality.  It’s important to remember that it carries with it a human cost.  Whether you call it Armistice Day or Veterans Day, it is a time to remember the price paid, the sacrifices of those that have served and honor those that did.

No World Wars In Western European Since 1945 = Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1993, I was living in Belgium and the Maastricht Treaty  (aka the Treaty on European Union) was taking effect.  It was all over the news…and I didn’t understand any of it.  I asked and a lovely Belgian friend explained it to me.   Before I tell you when they told me, lets detour to quick history lesson.   This is a list of just some of the battles that have the battles that have taken place on Belgian soil:

 

  • World War I The Battles of Flandres – There were five, yes five.  The First Battle of Ypres, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the  Battle of the Lys,  and the creatively named Fifth Battle of Ypres.  Germany and the Western Allies faced off once again in Belgium.  Industrialization increased the scale of wars and they took on a far more devastating nature.  Battles with over 50,000 fatalities became common.  Mustard gas doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to go either.  Belgian farmers still turn up canisters of gas when they plow their fields in the spring!
  • When the Germans wanted to invade France’s Mangiot Line fortifications built after WWI, they just went to Paris via Belgium.  Like many of the occupied countries during WWII, most of them weren’t too happy about their visitors.
  • Battle of the Ardennes (also known as the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne) – After the Allies landed in Normandy, they made their way to Germany.  If you’ve read the last few bullets, you know the easiest way from France to Germany (and vice versa).  Southern Belgium has the Ardennes mountains, which happen to be a good place to entrench (and freezing in the winter).  The Germans mounted an offensive and surrounded almost 20,000 American troops.  It’s famous for General Anthony McAuliffe‘s line, ‘Nuts,’ in response to the German’s request to surrender.  Although I have heard that  ‘Nuts’ was the only printable equivalent of the word that was actually used, it goes without saying that a battle ensued.

You get the idea.  If you got tired reading that list, you can imagine how tired the Belgians were of the wars themselves.

My Belgian friend explained to be that linking their economies and cultures so thoroughly that untangling them was more difficult and costly than waging war was the only way to prevent it from happening again.  At that time, many people were alive who’d lived through the occupation and the war.  I met people whose family members were shot dead in front of their house by the Nazis.  When you think about it, Belgium is a country that only experienced intermittent periods of peace before foreign powers again waged war on their soil.  As a citizen of the tiny country that was continually caught in the cross-fire, they were hopeful that the European Union would help put an end to the seemingly never-ending series of wars waged by European powers like England, Spain, France, and Germany on their soil.

You can’t read the news today without reading about the European Union’s problems.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have good reasons for not joining (which they haven’t in order retain their neutrality and independence).  Nevertheless, as someone who likes a lot of Europeans and likes to travel, there hasn’t been a war on Belgian soil since WWII and I will happily celebrate that.

O-Kayersberg

Kayersburg has experienced countless conflicts.  Kayersberg (in Alsace, France near Colmar) was badly damaged during the second world war.  Wandering through the streets today, you’d never suspect the previous damage and turmoil.  Like Eguisheim, it is one of the prettiest towns in France (Les Plus Beau Villages de la France).

Located on the famous wine route, this beautifully preserved village is packed with history and traditions.  Kaysersberg‘s half-timbered buildings, rivers (the Sambach and the Bogenbach) and wonderful flowers make it one of the prettiest towns in France.  It’s location in a valley surrounded by vineyards doesn’t hurt either.

We strolled through the streets.  After eating our 600th pretzel of the trip, he checked out the church Saint-Croix ( and the neighboring Chapelle Saint-Michel).  I walked around the exterior, admiring the architecture.  I saw a sign that said “Ossuarie” (ossuary in English, a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains) and was intrigued.   Although it was locked, you could clearly see inside.  For us, it was a foreign, unfamiliar sight.  Bones were piled meters high all around the  building.

The quote translates from German to “that’s it because the master is enslaving by his 1463.” The rest has been lost.

The ossuary was built in 1514.   The bones are from the old cemetery which was moved outside the town walls in 1511.  The full German inscription on the ossuary has been lost.   It is believed to say someone about the master resting next to the servant.

We climbed up to ruins of a medieval castle.  Our eyes were immediately drawn down to the town and the tower of its 12th century church.  The surrounding countryside and vineyards were stunning.

Like the rest of Alsace, Kayersberg has a Christmas Market.  Theirs is reputed to be one of the most traditional and authentically Alsatian.  In a setting like this, would you expect anything less?