Remembrance tourism in the Meuse département
The Meuse which is part of the Lorraine region bordering Germany and Belgium, was of crucial importance for the warring armies. The front line ran through it and in 1916, with the field of the famous battle of Verdun, it was to be of huge strategic and symbolic importance throughout the conflict. From the Argonne to Saillant de Saint-Mihiel, from Vauquois to the Eparges, the sheer violence of the fighting between French, German and American soldiers was to leave a deep scar on the countryside, which was to be transformed by the bombardments, with its villages destroyed and its military structures decimated… the battlefield of the Meuse is today a living museum of the remains of the First World War.
The Battlefield of Verdun
The struggle to achieve annihilation which unfolded on the Battlefield of Verdun has remained deeply etched in the collective memory. From the start of the war in 1914, the fortress of Verdun and the surrounding network of forts were considered to be a cornerstone to the French defensive system. In 1916, the military strategists in Germany decided to seize it. The ensuing battle lasted from the end of February until December 1916: over a period of 300 days of unrelenting fighting, 26 million shells were fired – meaning 6 shells/m² over something like 17,000 hectares –, 400,000 soldiers were wounded, and more than 300,000 men were killed or lost in action. After the war, a forest was planted on the site of the battlefield. It has since become a sanctuary reclaimed by nature as its own and one can wonder along the paths which cross this “Outstanding forest” to visit this open air museum which includes numerous military sites such as the forts of Douaumont and Vaux, as well as other historical sites such as the destroyed villages.
Remembrance and history : Douaumont, the Memorial and Verdun
After the armistice, Monseigneur Ginisty, who was nicknamed “the bishop of the soldiers”, wanted to provide the unidentified human remains from the battlefield with a decent place of burial where families could come and pray for their lost ones. So, from 1920 onwards, around 130,000 or so unknown bodies of French and German soldiers were buried together in a temporary Ossuary. In 1932, the final monument was inaugurated, overlooking the national cemetery of Fleury-devant-Douaumont where more than 16,000 French soldiers of whom several hundred came from the former colonies, are buried. Along with the Muslim and Hebrew memorials erected alongside it, this is a place for reflection just as is the very symbolic monument of the Tranchée des Baïonnettes (Bayonet Trench) or the German cemetery at the Fort de Douaumont.
The Memorial, with its museography planned for 2016, is about looking at the history of the battle of Verdun in 1916 through an exceptional collection of arms, vehicles, exhibits and temporary exhibitions. During the renovation work a part of its collections will be on show at the World Centre for Peace at Verdun in 2014 and 2015 as part of a major exhibition which will be staged to mark the Centenary of the Great War.
In Verdun itself, a cultural and dynamic town, the Underground Fortress and the event “From flames…to the light” , the biggest show in Europe on the Great War, take a modern day and educational look at the conflict so that the youngest of visitors can appreciate it.
It was to the west of Verdun that the war of the mines took place. The Argonne forest formed a natural rampart into which was dug an impressive network of trenches and underground galleries. The countless underground remains of the bitter fighting of 1915 on the site of the Haute-Chevauchée have been remarkably well preserved. The Butte de Vauquois is another striking example of this war of the mines : where the walk takes one along a path overlooking deep craters or underground into the maze of galleries of the sappers. Argonne is also home to the largest American military cemetery in Europe from the First World War. It is a reminder of the decisive role played by the American army which was commanded by General Pershing, in the fighting of 1918.
The Battle of Saint-Mihiel
To the south of Verdun, the German advance of September 1914 led to the capture of Saint-Mihiel. Subsequently, the Saillant de Saint-Mihiel was attacked but in vain by the French army. The fighting was intense, notably on the Éparges Ridge, and many writers took part in it : Jean Giono, Ernst Jünger and Maurice Genevoix, author of Ceux de 14 (The Soldiers of 1914), would live to tell the tale but Alain-Fournier and Louis Pergaud died. Le Saillant was only liberated in 1918 during the American offensive which is remembered by the Memorial of the Butte de Montsec.
The rear echelons
The French and German rear echelons allowed men and equipment to be transported to the front lines. The German presence to the north and north-east of Verdun left a deep scar on the Meuse landscape with notably the Marguerre camp and the Duzey battery, which has Historic Monument classification. As a logistics base and a medical zone, the French rear echelons took in millions of soldiers who would stay there before and after their time on the front lines. The role of the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way) between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun was an essential one in 1916. Now a national monument, it is the only road in France that does not have to have a number.