Walking Verdun

Posted on Thursday 4th February 2016


walking the battlefield of Verdun

The Verdun battlefield of 1916 is unlike any other. Blasted by shells for ten months until forests, fields, farms and houses were completely wiped off the map, it was regarded by the French government as impossible to restore to pre-war use and handed over to the forestry department. No one was allowed to live there again and the nine villages destroyed in the battle were not rebuilt. As the years went by, trees covered the devastated landscape but under the trees the battle lives on, unvisited and unknown.

If you’ve ever wanted to walk the battlefield you can do so with Walking Verdun, a guide for visitors who want to get away from the crowds and see at first hand what remains of the longest battle of the First World War. And what remains! Trenches, camps, bunkers, machine gun posts, batteries and shelters Forts and fieldworks all bear witness to the months of struggle. With Walking Verdun you can head out from the destroyed village of Bezonvaux, now emerging like some Sleeping Beauty from a century of abandonment, through ravines used by thousands of German soldiers as they moved up to Fort Douaumont. Along forest tracks you’ll pass through a landscape of shell holes and trenches until you emerge from the forest at the edge of the ditch surrounding the fort and get a sense of the size and power of the greatest permanent work in the Verdun system before the First World War. Or you can discover the Bois des Caures, a scene of the heroic defence by Lieutenant-Colonel Driant’s Chasseurs - two under strength battalions – as they found the courage to face two German divisions after hours of unimaginable bombardment. Then, for a change, explore Fumin Wood, swamped by shells between March and June 1916 as the Germans inched towards Fort Vaux, or walk the Mort-Homme, the Dead Man, the sinisterly named hill on the Left Bank where the most striking monument of all, Death triumphant with French flag and laurel branch, marks the place where the German advance was stopped.

These are just some of the possibilities. Eight of the ten routes in Walking Verdun are battlefield walks. Seven follow the German army’s advance from the start of the battle in February 1916 to its high water mark five months later; one follows the French counter offensive of October 1916 which retook Fort Douaumont and pressured the Germans into abandoning Fort Vaux. They follow marked paths but you will still need a map, and the best one to buy is IGN No 3112 ET; Forêts de Verdun et du Mort-Homme; Champ de Bataille de Verdun, which is produced by the French Institut Géographique Nationale. It ought to be on sale in Verdun but sometimes it isn’t, so avoid disappointment by getting it before you go.

Each walk is divided into two parts; an account of the events and a detailed description of the route together with a simple map. None is more than eight kilometres long but they all involve hills and they all need stout, waterproof footwear – oh, and don’t wear shorts or the mosquitoes will get you. For the last two walks – gentle strolls around the central battlefield monuments on the Right Bank of the River Meuse and through the picturesque heart of the old city of Verdun – you won’t need heavy shoes but you might still need a rain jacket. And at the end of the city walk, what could be nicer than a cool glass of wine by the riverside?

Finally, this was a battlefield, so stay on the paths and keep away from the edges of holes. Most of the forts and fieldworks at Verdun are out of bounds and anyone found there will be prosecuted. Do not dig, collect ‘souvenirs’, or use metal detectors unless you want to end up in court. Stay out of forts, shelters and dugouts however tempting they may look and do not, under any circumstances, touch live ordnance.

Happy walking!

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The smashed cupola of the 75mm gun turret on Fort Vaux, blown out by the German s in the early hours of 2 November 1916 before they withdrew from the fort
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The passage of a century cannot hide the evidence of heavy shelling at the Ouvrage de Thiaumont during the summer of 1916
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A Call to Arms by Rodin, presented to Verdun after the war by the people of Holland
All images are those of the author, Christina Holstein
VERDUN
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A concrete machine gun post forming part of Colonel Driant's defences in the Bois des Caures
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The façade of Fort Douaumont today, showing the massive layer of concrete poured on top of the original stone construction to protect it from shelling
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Fierce and proud on top of Mort-Homme, Death marks the place where the German advance on the Left Bank came to a stop
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The old peacetime entrance of Fort Souville, now ruined
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The devastated top of Fort Douaumont in 1919
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The Ossuary, the mighty memorial to the men who fought the Battle of Verdun and the resting place of unidentifiable remains still found on the battlefield

Further Reading


Walking Verdun
(Paperback - 176 pages)
ISBN: 9781844158676

by Christina Holstein
Only £12.99

On 21 February 1916 the German Fifth Army launched a devastating offensive against French forces at Verdun and set in motion one of the most harrowing and prolonged battles of the Great War. By the time the struggle finished ten months later, over 650,000 men had been killed or wounded or were missing, and the terrible memory of the battle had been etched into the histories of France and Germany. This epic trial of military and national strength cannot be properly understood without visiting, and walking, the battlefield, and this…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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