I was walking with a few friends on a mossy forest path through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, a small village nestled in the pastoral landscape of north-eastern France. It had rained heavily the night before and a fine mist still hung in the air. A cacophonous flock of birds hid in the lush canopy above my head, their lively song juxtaposing the deep silence of the tens of thousands of unknown soldiers who lay in the hallowed ground below my feet.
They had died for France
During World War One, French and German soldiers completely razed nine villages during the Battle of Verdun, the longest and one of the fiercest artillery battles of the war. Raging for around 300 days and nights in 1916, troops used giant guns – including Germany’s infamous ‘Big Berthas’ – to rain a never-ending barrage of shells over the combat zone. The shells contaminated the earth so badly with lead, arsenic and lethal poison gas, France determined that most of the villages couldn’t be rebuilt. Casualties of war, it was said they had ‘died for France’.
Over the last 100 years, only one of the destroyed villages has been reconstructed. Another two have been partially rebuilt, but the remaining six, including Fleury-devant-Douaumont, sit uninhabited within France’s Zone Rouge, or Red Zone.
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After the war ended in 1918, the French government deemed 1,200 sq km of non-contiguous land near Verdun too dangerous to inhabit and too costly to rehabilitate. Although no-one lives in any part of the Red Zone and much of it is still considered too dangerous for visitors, French law recognises the destroyed villages as municipalities – there are even designated mayors who receive government money to receive guests and preserve the memory of what’s left. Besides the villages, which are open year-round and deemed safe to visit, a few museums and other sites have been erected to memorialise the soldiers who lost their lives for their countries.
Just outside the Red Zone, a small private museum, Romagne ‘14-‘18, tells the personal stories behind a large collection of war memorabilia. Inside the zone, south of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, the Mémorial de Verdun (a museum and memorial opened in 1967 by the government) offers stunning exhibits that give visitors a more comprehensive overview of the war.
Just a few minutes drive away, the Douaumont National Necropolis and Ossuary contains the skeletal remains of about 130,000 French and German soldiers. Located on a hill that cascades from the necropolis and ossuary, a cemetery contains a sea of more than 15,000 white headstones – Christian, Jewish and also Muslim, reminders that French colonial forces were instrumental in defeating the Germans at Verdun.
Yet while these sites deserve attention, it wasn’t until I walked through the trenches in and around Fleury-devant-Douaumont that I started to feel the true magnitude of the war.
The path we were walking along was an old communications trench. Once, soldiers skittered back and forth along the path carrying messages between bunkers. Today, old cement posts still line some portions of the route, which is at constant threat of being engulfed by the forest. Suddenly, the path ended and we reached a small clearing.
“Be careful,” warned our guide, historian Guillaume Moizan, pointing towards twisted cords of rusted metal that thrust from the ground like roots. We were standing on top of the ruins of a bunker. Small stones and pine needles were scattered over the moss that blanketed the structure. Moizan picked up a stone and handed it to me. I was surprised by its weight.
Lead. It was a small, rusted part of an exploded shell. I rolled it gently between my fingers.
The birds overhead had grown silent. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as I peered down at the amalgamation of metal, moss and pine needles on the bunker. A single small, pink flower grew amid it all. In this open-air memorial, life finds a way.
Some historians call the Battle of Verdun a ‘meat-grinder’: healthy men were pushed into the fray only to be masticated and torn asunder by the war’s hungry machine. First-hand accounts of the battle mention that the sky, thick with acrid smoke, was animated at night by a horrifying fireworks display of flaming blue, yellow and orange shells. The dead couldn’t be removed from the battlefield, and living soldiers were forced to sleep, eat and fight beside the stinking, rotting corpses of their friends.
Standing in the forest, it was difficult to imagine the carnage. The mastermind of the battle, the German Army’s chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, had tried to end the whole bloody war by forcing his enemy into a trap where “the forces of France will bleed to death”, but in the process, he also very nearly bled his own army dry. Together, both sides suffered an estimated 70,000 casualties per month – or a total of more than 700,000 (it’s thought that between 80,000 to 100,000 of the dead still remain lost in the forest).
Jean-Pierre Laparra, the mayor of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, helps keep the ghosts from the war alive. His great-grandfather settled in the village in 1909, but was evacuated along with his wife after war descended upon them in 1914. Their son – Laparra’s grandfather – stayed behind to fight.
Nothing remains of Fleury-devant-Douaumont except for stone ruins of the foundations of a few buildings. Laparra, who lives nearby, often leads visitors from around the world across a thin path that has been constructed over the ruins. Along the way, he points out various landmarks: the grocery, the foundry, the blacksmith. He talks about how the inhabitants lived and notes where the children went to school.
The villages in the Red Zone “are the symbol of the supreme sacrifice,” Laparra said. “You must always know what happened in the past to avoid reliving it. We must never forget.”
After the war ended, acorns and chestnuts were collected from the ravaged battlefield and sent by the Mayor of Verdun to Britain as remembrances of the battle between French and German soldiers. A couple were planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and others have been traced to various grounds across the United Kingdom. Today, these trees tower over the land.
In the ghost villages of the Red Zone, nature also thrives. In the decades after the war, millions of saplings – including thousands of Austrian pines given as war reparations by Vienna – were planted in and around the cratered trenches. Today these stalwart pines share the land with some of the same species of magnificent oak and horse chestnut that made their way to Britain.
Olivier Gérard, director of the Douaumont Ossuary Foundation as well as the mayor of Douaumont (another destroyed village, located just north of Fleury-devant-Douaumont) – tells me: “Nature and life always find a way.”
Over the course of a century, the trees have absorbed enough of the contaminants from the toxic earth to allow other species of flora to thrive, and the land is teeming with life. In effect, the bucolic countryside of the Red Zone is turning into a Green Zone, although with arsenic levels in the soil up to 35,000 times higher than normal, the forest is nowhere near pristine.
You must always know what happened in the past to avoid reliving it
As we walked, Moizan paused, bent down and plucked a piece of metal from the ground: a fork. The rain from the night before had washed away the top layer of soil, yielding detritus from the war. In addition to shells, dog tags, helmets and even bones sometimes appeared. We stared at the fork for a few moments, and I wondered to whom it had belonged. The average age of soldiers who enlisted in World War One was 24. Someone’s son once ate using that fork. Perhaps he also used it to eat his last meal.
At the edge of the forest, we came to a small chapel, constructed after the war was over as a place to pray and remember the dead. We walked around it, and I was mesmerised. It’s the only building for miles, and I recalled a rhyme my stepfather, a minister, taught me when I was a young child.
“Here is the church,” he said, while hiding his fingers within his hands. Then, thrusting up two fingers in a triangle shape, he continued: “Here is the steeple.” Finally, while opening his hands and waving his fingers, he exclaimed: “Open the doors, and see all the people!”
Staring at the church, I felt as though I could see the ghosts of the people who once lived in the area. As we left, an old man slowly passed us on the path. Who is he, I wondered? A descendant of one of the soldiers? Or perhaps a retired soldier from another war, there to pay homage to his brethren? I looked back at the man, towards the church and beyond, at the forest, which swayed in the wind over the cratered battlefield. The sun had risen high over trees and the forest was bathed in golden light. I noticed a number of young birch trees standing together like waifs, their leaves glittering.
I realised that I was still carrying the piece of shell Moizan had handed me at the bunker. I let it drop heavily to the ground with a soft thud. From somewhere out of the last vestiges of the fog over the forest, a flock of birds took flight. The air was punctuated by a mad rush of feathers, and then the tiny souls lifted and disappeared into the light.
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