For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be in Verdun, sitting under the trees, smoking my pipe with my bike. Finally, at 34, I have done this. It is odd to think how long it has taken to accomplish this and how clouded with ignorance my vision was.
Verdun must have popped into my imagination during a nap in high school history. It is not the story of Americans assisting the French, but the many year sacrifice of the French and the brutality of war. It is a grim reminder of the pointlessness of World War I and failures of the Treaty of Versailles. At the Verdun Ossuary, the bones of 375,000 unidentified French soldiers are interned above a massive cemetery of identified men.
Unlike Ypres, which is once again farm country, most of the land around Verdun has been left as it was at the end of the war: brutalized. Covered again with trees, it is unmistakably bombed to hell. The Red Zone with the Village Detruit, or the missing villages, around Verdun are a silent testament to the horrors that occurred here.
I had a lovely evening in camp drinking wine with a Scottish couple. They had driven their VW bus to India through Iran and were making a tour of modernist buildings in France. It is a testament to how life continues simply, sweetly and with pleasures considering we were there to see the battlefields.
After a brief morning tour of the casements on an automated train and the UNESCO World Peace Museum, I biked to the American Cemetery at the Argonne Forest. While not officially part of the battles for Verdun, it lies only about 30 miles north and was the last major offensive of the First World War. Over 18,000 Americans are interned there and it is the largest American cemetery in Europe. It is over twice the size of the Normandy Cemetery. I was pretty much alone. There was no one there to take my picture, and to tell you the truth, it seemed somewhat silly and pointless.
So these are my pictures of a place not many Americans actually get off to see, stuck in the under-appreciated northern tip of France. Verdun. If I could make a prayer, I think I would.
Verdun and the Argonne Forest