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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Suomenlinna Fortress – The Russians Came!

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Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the islands in the Baltic Sea that surround Helsinki‘s harbor.  When we told a Finnish gal that we were going there, he said “it a great place to shoot Russians from.”  Historically, there has been more than a little tension between Finland and its close neighbor, Russia.

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In the mid-1700’s, Russia under Peter the Great was rising as a power.  Pete had just built a shiny new capital called St. Petersburg nearby and had his binoculars trained on the west.  Sweden built the Suomenlinna Fortress (christened Sveaborg by the Swedes) with French financial assistance to address the threat Pete posed.

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The second largest or of its type (after Gibraltar), it is a serious fort to counter a serious threat.    When it was built, it was high-tech and a big deal.  It had the world’s largest dry dock, over 5 miles of walls and hundreds of cannons.

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We checked out the museum to learn a little about its history (there are several others on the island, but the weather was so good that we wanted to be outside).  There, about defenses and battles.  In 1808, the Russians came, led by Alexander I, who had colluded with Napoleon, and began bombarding it (see below).

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When no Swedish reinforcements arrived, the Russians took the fortress, occupied it, and called it Viapori.  The Finnish war ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn under which Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809.  Part of the reason Finland is an independent nation today is because it became an autonomous grand duchy within the empire.

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The Russians expanded the fortress, building extra barracks, a bigger dockyard and extra fortifications.   The English and French tried unsuccessfully to take the fort during the Crimean War.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in damaging it.  Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the war.  In the build-up to World War I, the Russians used it as part of its defenses to designed to safeguard the capital, St. Petersburg.

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Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Suomenlinna became part of an independent Finland.  Later during and after the Finnish Civil War, the island held a prison camp.  The island’s museum has artifacts from, paintings and photos of all these events.

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Today, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Fortress is more than just one of the largest maritime fortresses and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s a cool place to hang out.  It’s only a fifteen minute ferry-boat ride from the center of Helsinki.

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We wandered around the grounds and scampered on the rocks, enjoying the sun, picnicking and taking pictures.  While taking this one, I slid on the slick rock and fell into the Baltic (thank goodness the camera didn’t go under.  He sat there and laughed at me trying unsuccessfully to scamper out on the algae covered rocks.  Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one.  Suomenlinna is the place to hang on a nice summer day.  We saw Finns lazing on the rocks and picnicking in sunny fields.

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The island is home to 850 residents, who have a pretty cool little town.  There’s a nice brewery, a bar, nice cafes, and a general store.  Many of the residents are artists who sell their wares on the island.  I bought a beautiful pair of earrings that were way cooler than their relatively inexpensive price tag.  The island is especially relaxing because there are barely any cars on the island, although I hear that people used to be able to get to Helsinki via snowmobile in winter.

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We explored the ancient fortress walls and tunnels, checked out the rusty cannons and peered through the gun holes.  There’s a submarine from the cold war to tour and the museum.  The island also houses military barracks.

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Reims Cathedral, It’s History Has More Drama Than A Telenovela

When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims.  I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person.  Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different.  It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface.  It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church.   Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun),  it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War.    On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage.  It became known as  the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French.  Strong emotions are an understatement.  Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.

In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral.  Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too.    Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.

Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church.  This was a big deal.  If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event.  I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been.  Monkey see, monkey do.  All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution).   Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there.  Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.

Here Saint Remy Baptized Clovis King of France

In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre).  Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time).  The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.

Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy.   They were replaced during the restoration.  Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.

Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.”  It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out.  Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows.  During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used.  I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s.  Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy.  You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light.   They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.

By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as  “Smile of Reims”  and “L’Ange au Sourire”).  Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city. 

 

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.