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I'm Not Verdun Yet!


Phew, okay, so I may or may not have spent the past weekend holed up inside my room watching the entirety of “Stranger Things” (Told you I was burnt out from Italy). Let me tell you that it as an incredible show with an awesome soundtrack to boot. Plus, it happens to fit three of my criteria for good shows: sci-fi, 80’s, and action. Shows aside, I made sure to spend some time out in the sun by walking to the park and going on workout runs. This week was pretty exciting, because we had a field trip to Verdun on Tuesday, the 4th of July was Wednesday, and I had my second MSE test that evening as well! I think the test went well, but we’ll have to wait and see from the scores, which should come out any day now. I’ll admit, the 4th of July here was a bit of a letdown: and not just because I had a test on the same day. We were supposed to have a barbecue in the evening, but they had “safety concerns” with the grill, so they ended up ordering McDonalds for everyone instead (*groan*). After I grabbed some free, albeit gross, food from the lounge, my friends and I went over to the local pizza place and ordered a large pizza to wash away the taste from our mouths. In addition to the barbecue fiasco, it seemed like no one here even noticed that it was the Fourth! I felt like I was the only one walking around in red, white, and blue. The entire day, the only music I listened to was country music (which is what we did last year in Lithuania)! This Fourth of July doesn’t rank highly in the twenty I have experienced so far. In short, school continues to go well and I have a thermo quiz to get ready for on Friday. I love my classes (except for Stats) and I’m prepared for it to get harder from here on out.

As I mentioned, we had a school field trip to Verdun on Tuesday! I was excited, because it was a trip that I wouldn’t have to do any planning for and could actually go on without needing to worry about checking in, making trains, or finding things to do. There were a good number of people upset by the “mandatory” nature of the trip. As it is with kids, when you tell them that they have to do something (even if it’s visiting one of the most historic sites of WWI!), they’ll get upset and want to do the opposite. On that Tuesday, there was a huge spike in the number of “sick kids” and many others who outright refused to go so that they could do their own thing. There was a good number of people who used the excuse, “I have more important things to do.” Unfortunately, the faculty that planned the trip assumed that almost everyone would be attending, so the large amount of absences created some complications (and some surprising benefits as you’ll see).

We were organized into four groups, each with its own bus. I had signed up for the special group that would be able to tour what was known as the “Citadelle”, a large underground network of tunnels that the French Army used during both World Wars. While we were doing that, everyone else would have some extra time to spend in the city. Leaving around 8:00am, it took us about an hour to get out to Verdun. Many people used this time to go back to sleep, but I did a bit of reading and studying for my MSE test. When we reached the city, we met our tour guide: a delightful Welsh man in his sixties by the name of Giles. He gave a cheerful introduction and wasted no time in jumping into the history and significance of the city as the bus made its way to our first stop. Along the way, he pointed out several groves of trees to us. These, he said, used to be villages of farmers living on the outskirts of the city. The torrential artillery bombardment reduced almost all of them to ashes and rubble. Now, the only sign that they were ever there are crosses that sit nestled back in the woods and mark where the village centers were. Although there was a layer of grass covering the ground, the lumps of craters were still quite noticeable: reminiscent of some strange moon-scape.


Our first destination was the Ossuary and cemetery of Verdun, which is the largest French cemetery of World War I. In it lie over sixteen-thousand graves. Many of the soldiers buried there were not identifiable, so bear a common name on their grave marking. We took a quick jaunt down among the grave markers before heading up into the main attraction: the Ossuary. Essentially, a giant storehouse of bones, it is a one-of-a-kind building. Its creator, the Bishop of Verdun, wanted to create a place where families of the fallen could go and grieve for their loved ones. It houses the bones of both German and French soldiers who went missing. There are the remains of over 300,000 soldiers inside. Close to ground level, there are glass windows that allow visitors to peer into chambers that contain heaps of bones. It was quite a gruesome site to see. Giles led us inside the Ossuary and gave us more information about how the Bishop travelled across Europe and the United States, raising money for his project. The outside of the building bears the crest of each city that donated money, from Philadelphia to Caen. The main hall of the Ossuary had an ethereal orange glow to it, which made the inside seem like it was on fire. We went up several flights of stairs to the bell tower, where you can look down on the valley that Verdun sits in. From so high up, we had a new perspective on how many graves rest in the cemetery. Arranged in blocks of several hundreds, the rows of graves resembled soldiers marching into battle (which is fitting, considering who lies in the graves).




After an hour and a half of poking around the Ossuary, we were rounded up like sheep and herded onto the bus. Unfortunately for us, some people who were looking out for their friends filled in the names of their absent pals on the attendance sheet (so that they wouldn’t face any repercussions for skipping). The attendance sheet was the only way to get accountability, so with extra names on there, it was impossible to know who was actually there and who wasn’t. We wasted almost forty-five minutes trying to figure it out, before some people fessed up and we were able to get a more accurate number.

We took a quick, twenty-minute bus ride to our next destination, the Douaumont Fort. Sitting up on a hill, this was the main bastion of the French Army. It was immensely fortified and would have been highly formidable had the French not abandoned it before the Battle for Verdun began. The higher ups were worried that German artillery would surely be able to penetrate and destroy it, so days before the battle began, ordered for the evacuation of the place. The only people left inside were older reservist troops who, presumably, were better left on the back lines. What happened next was a hilarious stroke of luck for the Germans: one squad of German soldiers was sent to get close to the Fort and survey its defenses in preparation for a larger assault. What they found instead was a deserted fort lacking all of its armaments (for those had been taken too). One man, Pioneer Sgt. Kunze, volunteered to go inside and check things out. Armed with but a rifle, he made his way through a hole in the wall and found the place to be empty. The sole inhabitants of the Fort were members of an artillery team, whom Kunze promptly locked in a room. That, boys and girls, is how a German soldier single-handedly captured one of France's mightiest forts. The oddest things can arise from war.

Giles led us to the top of the Fort, which is built inside a giant hill. Then, he took us down into the tunnels. Damp and musty, the temperature dropped almost twenty degrees when we walked inside, which sent shivers down my spine. Water dripped from the ceiling and formed dirty puddles on the ground as we walked through the halls. Metal buckets were set up on the ground, which made creepy, “plink, plink”, noises as we moved through the darkness (not a great place to be after watching "Stranger Things"). We were able to see the soldiers’ barracks (forty to a room) and made our way through the maze to a large cannon that sat under a giant, metal shield. In its heyday, the cannon could be raised and lowered in mere seconds, which allowed the French to take potshots with it and move it back into cover before the Germans could fire back. Later on in the battle, when the French eventually reclaimed the Fort (taking significant casualties in doing so), the cannon was a key tool for the French Army. We spent about an hour venturing through the Fort’s creepy interior before making our way to the buses once more. At this point, it was getting close to one of my three favorite times of the day: lunchtime!


The bus made its way back to the city and deposited us at the base of a large hill. We said goodbye to Giles and trekked up to the courtyard of a large, regal, manor. Remember how I said there was a good side to those kids who skipped out on us? It seems like the staff that planned the trip ordered enough food for everyone to eat two or three meals. With so many people missing, they were shoveling out sandwiches and bags of cookies as fast as we could take them. One kid walked out of there with eight baguette-sandwiches in his arms! I should consider myself lucky, too, because I was able to snag ten cookies and ration them out over the following week. All in all, lunch was “free” and the food wasn’t half-bad! I’d call that a win-win type of deal.


Following our surprise buffet, our special group was led down to the “Citadelle”. I was excited to see more tunnels, and having signed up for the special group, I had high expectations for this part of the trip. Unfortunately, it couldn’t have been a bigger let down. Although we did in fact get to see the tunnels, we did so on a Disney-like ride cart that brought us through an incredibly cheesy “living museum”, where screens played out scenes of actors pretending to live in the tunnels. The dialogue of the pretend-story was cringier than a freshman boy asking out a senior girl to prom. On top of that, the tunnels in the Citadelle were far colder than those we went through earlier in the day. It must have been forty degrees in there! By the end of the half-hour ride, I was shaking from the cold (man, I really am a Southerner). I was happy to get outside and into the hot sun, where I met up with some of my friends.


When we were all together again, we walked into the main city center and began our inspection of the various candy stores that lay scattered throughout. We had heard of one in particular where you could get a tour of its production rooms and some free samples, but it was just a smidge too far away to get to in time. Consoling ourselves with some of the cookies from earlier, we camped out in a park and passed the time shooting the breeze and talking. When an hour had elapsed, we made our way back to the safety of the busses. On the ride back, the staff tossed more satchels of food to anyone that didn’t already have their arms bundled with food. The journey home went by quickly, which I used to study for MSE again. Once I got to my dorm, I continued to study my butt off and prepare for the coming storm.


Verdun is a small city, but it’s rich in history. Statues and monuments lay scattered all around us: marking off some major firefight or other event that happened over a hundred years ago. As Giles told us, the people of the area are proud of their history, but also want to move on and present Verdun as something more than a city that got beat up like a punching bag a century ago. Nowadays, they have a variety of festivals and events throughout the year that celebrate other aspects of the city’s history. If we hadn’t taken a school field trip to Verdun, I would likely have gone on my own accord. From the Imperial War Museum in London, to the beaches of Normandy, to the death fields of Auschwitz, and now to the cratered city of Verdun, I’m slowly making my way back through history and to a time where the world stood on the brink of collapse. I’m glad that I get to see sites like these, because they remind me of the horrors of war and everything we stand to lose if there’s no one who stands up to the fight against the tyrants and dictators that live among us. Nowadays, it seems like there are many things people take for granted. We have to memorize a quote by Father Denis Edward O. Brien, who puts it pretty bluntly: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protestor to burn the flag.”

Posted by oklempay 10:37 Archived in France Tagged cemetery battle war field_trip verdun ossuary citadelle world_war_i mse Comments (0)

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