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“… I fear’d to set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” - Anselm in northern France

“… I fear’d to set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” - Anselm in northern France

Nov 25th, 2007, 09:34 AM
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“… I fear’d to set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” - Anselm in northern France

“Bonjour monsieur, vous avez bien dormi?” The owner of the Auberge de la Vallée in Bourg-et-Comin smiled. There had been a mix-up with my reservation and I had ended up with the large semi-circular room at the front of the hotel. Yes, I had slept well. I told him that I had eaten well, too, forgetting for a moment the cold cheese I had been served the evening before. He told me to drive carefully, there was a lot of frost on the road. Was I going to Chemin des Dames? No, I’d been the day before. He gestured northwards and remarked that it was just as well, it was going to be freezing up there today.

I used an Eddie Bauer card to scrape the windshield and drove into the rising sun, east towards Reims. On my left was the steep wooded slope of Chemin des Dames; on the right, the flat fields bordering the Aisne River. Everything was white and gold in frost and sun.

Between Cuiry-les-Chaudards and Pontavert, the road turned northeastwards. There, suddenly, I saw my last cemetery: perfect rows of white crosses, a tricouleur overhead. Backs to the sun, the markers threw long shadows towards me across frosted grass.
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 10:40 AM
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No idea what the previous poster meant. I'm really enjoying this and looking forward to more....are we off to the WW1 battlefields hence the title?
gertie3751 is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 10:43 AM
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nukesafe is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 10:50 AM
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Just ignore him/her, he'll disappear as soon as the Fodors editors get my email, along with others', reporting him/her.
NanBug is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 11:11 AM
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Gertie, you're right. We're off to look at some battlefields. More in a minute ...

AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 11:12 AM
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“Monsieur, je vous propose …”

Last month I spent a few days at Verdun and Chemin des Dames, French battlefields of the Great War. There hasn’t been a lot written here about these two areas, both beautiful in their own way, but each with a particularly grim past. This trip report is about the hotels and the food, a bit of history, some practical information about what you can see, and a few observations about what it felt like. Beware, it’s not all pleasant reading.

I went first to Copenhagen to see my daughter, who is studying in Århus. After four days of good company, good sightseeing, and that curious mixture of Danish cosiness and reserve, I flew to Paris. It was October 18, the day of the transportation strikes. I had planned to take the TGV to Reims, but the rail unions foxed that idea. I booked a room opposite Gare de l’Est and spent the night in Paris.

In the end I lost only half a day of my itinerary. Late the next morning I was able to catch the first TGV to Reims. I picked up the rental car and, carefully laying down a trail of breadcrumbs, made my way out of the city. I was aiming to look first at Les Éparges, near Verdun, but it was getting late. I drove instead straight to the Hôtel de Lorraine in Longuyon, a small town near the intersection of France, Belgium, and Luxemburg.

My room was spacious, simple, and clean. The drawing card was Le Mas, the hotel restaurant. I was reminded again that the pleasures of the French table are more than the appearance, taste, and scent of the food. In the right environment, the little rituals flood me with contentment: a warm greeting when entering a restaurant or simply the words “Vous avez choisi, monsieur?” It might be the recommendation of exactly the right wine or the careful sweeping away of bread crumbs after the cheese. And a particular favourite, even though I don’t have a sweet tooth: the waitress, standing beside the desert trolley, saying “Monsieur, je vous propose …” and then naming every item on the cart.

I chose the Menu de plaisir et de terroir: foie gras de canard and then sillure, a local fish. The surprise here was the light sauce, which was creamy and subtly flavoured with cabbage. This was a pairing that I would never have dreamed of, and it was further enhanced by a glass (all right, it was half a bottle) of Rully, a white burgundy recommended by Mme Tisserant, who runs the dining room. The cheese and desert trolleys both rate honourable mention.

The next morning, as I was leaving, I asked Monsieur Tisserant, the chef, about the fish. Sillure, he told me, is a very large river fish “avec un visage grotesque.” I mentioned the sauce, and he beamed. “Cabbage from our garden,” he told me.


On to the battlefields, a very sobering counterpoint …
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 11:56 AM
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Thanks for sharing, AA.

Great report.

ira is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 12:50 PM
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On the edge of my seat. I have a friend who lives in that area who is always digging up WW1 metal bits.
gertie3751 is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 02:43 PM
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“… voilà cinq jours que mes souliers sont gras de cervelles humaines …”

Twenty kilometres southeast of Verdun, a tall ridge overlooks the village of Les Éparges to the west and the flat plain of the Woëvre to the east. The German army took the crest in 1914. Recognizing its strategic value, the French attempted to dislodge them in February 1915. It was a ferocious engagement, a foreshadowing of the kind of fighting that would take place around Verdun a year later. “You cannot know what man can do to man,” a French soldier wrote to his wife. “For the past five days my boots have been slick with human brains; I have been crushing chests, walking through guts …”

By the end of April, the French held most of the ridge, but not the actual peak. From 1916 to 1918, the two sides tunnelled under each other’s positions and set off gigantic explosions. It wasn’t until 1918 that American troops finally cleared the hilltop.

The road to the battle site is well marked. There is a French cemetery at the foot of the hill and then a tiny road up to a plaque. A path leads up to a monument, and then onwards to “Point X,” the highest part of the ridge. It was, like so many of the other sites I was to visit, quiet and deserted, save for the French family I met as I walked up to the monument. At first glance, there is nothing to distinguish this from any other hillside path, until you realize that you are zigzaging between shell craters.

“… the forces of France will bleed to death …”

In late 1915, Falkenhayn, the Chief of the German General Staff, shrewdly concluded that an attack on Verdun would force the French to defend it to the last man. Still stung by the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War, the French could not contemplate the loss of historic Verdun. Though weakly defended and vulnerably sited in a deep salient, the French fought.

Both sides suffered terrible losses; between February and December 1916, German and French casualties at Verdun exceeded 700,000. A swath of land west, north, and east of Verdun was devastated, churned up and scarred by tens of millions of artillery shells, poisoned by gas, and littered with unexploded munitions, fragments of metal, discarded gear, and human remains. Roads and forests disappeared, and villages were destroyed; eight of them were never rebuilt.

Today, there are farms again along the valley of the Meuse. But visitors soon see the dozens of military cemeteries in the area; in a chess-like way, white crosses mark French graves, black crosses mark German. The tall, steep hills and the deep ravines, areas of the most intense fighting, were reforested in the 1930s. The woods look peaceful and inviting, until you start to walk into them. Then you see the shell holes—millions of them, interconnected. You can occasionally see vee-like grooves, which are probably the vestiges of trenches, and concrete structures, now crumbling and covered in moss. Do you remember Browning’s Childe Roland, afraid to set his foot upon a dead man’s cheek? You have a sense, when you step into the forest, that you are walking on an open grave.

I entered the battlefield from the north, following the path of the German assault. D905 runs through the Bois des Caures, the scene of a remarkable defense by Colonel Driant and his Chasseurs. There is a trail through the woods to a stele marking the place where he died. You can go on from there to his command post, but I encountered deep mud and turned back.

The road continued southwards to Vacherauville and Bras-sur-Meuse, where I turned eastwards and climbed back up into the Forêt de Verdun. The Tranchée des Baïonettes soon appeared on the left. Two companies were said to have been buried alive here in shelling, leaving only their bayonets poking up through the earth. There is an imposing gate at the entrance; the trench itself has been covered by a protective concrete structure.

Further hill climbing brought me to the structure that marks the centre of the battlefield. Three long galleries spreading out from a tall shell-shaped tower—the Ossuaire de Douaumont—contain the unidentified remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers killed at Verdun. Inside, the names of the “disparu” are carved into the walls and ceiling. Outside, I glanced into one of the basement windows and saw bones. There are many windows; there are innumerable bones. I saw hands and parts of legs.

The French national cemetery falls away down the hill in front of the Osssuaire: 15,000 crosses sweep across two huge fields. On each marker is a name, a division, the words “Mort pour la France,” and the date of death.

Forts Douaumont and Vaux are nearby. The former, stripped of its heavy guns and left in the hands of a small garrison, fell early in the fighting. The loss of this symbolic fort sent shock waves through France, spurring repeated attempts (and causing tens of thousands of deaths) to recapture it over the next eight months. The roof of the fort, pounded by countless heavy shells, looks like a turbulent ocean. The dry moat is barely discernable and the façade is broken and distorted. You can tour parts of the underground corridors and rooms, which include a walled-up gallery containing the remains of more than 600 German soldiers who were killed in an ammunition explosion in May 1916. Fort de Vaux, famous for a stubborn defense by Major Raynal, is in slightly better condition. It, too, is open for tours.

Colonel Driant’s stele, the Tranchée des Baïonettes, the Ossuaire, the national cemetery, and the forts: these sites are more than memorials. They feel like shrines. As one historian said, “honour transcended common sense” at Verdun. The immediate consequences are sorted and stacked in the basement of the ossuary, and Verdun has cast a shadow over France ever since.
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 03:03 PM
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I have been following your report with this map www.maplandia.com/france/lorraine/meuse/verdun/
It shows the terraine as well as the places. My friends live in Foameix to the north east of Verdun.
You are right, it's an area/event which is little written about. Have you seen Intimate Voices from the First World War? There's a first-hand account of your battle in Chapter 9.
gertie3751 is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 03:51 PM
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Gertie, thanks for that link to the map. It's fascinating to look at the ossuary and the forts from the air (and even more incredible to realize that I was actually there).

I didn't drive through Foameix (it's a really tiny place, as you doubtless know), but I did stay one night in Étain, which is about three kilometres south of it. As a matter of fact, my next installment will talk about the hotel in Étain.

I haven't read "Intimate Voices" yet. I just looked it up and I will probably add it to my collection. At the end of this trip report I'll post some practical information for those who might want to visit Verdun and I'll include a list of the books I did read.
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 03:57 PM
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Anselm, it's always a pleasure to come across one of your beautifully written reports. I remember you talking with someone at the Toronto GTG who had visited the battlefields of northern France and now you have been there too!

One of my uncles, born in 1917, was given the middle name of Verdun, after the battle. He was in the first group of Canadians soldiers to liberate the Dutch in 1945 and was treated royally when he returned there in 2005.

You may enjoy reading "Three Day Road" by Joseph Boyden about two James Bay Cree, Xavier and Elijah, who become famous snipers in the Canadian Army during the First World War.

moolyn is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 04:42 PM
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This is indeed fascinating.
You were helpful when I asked about visiting Beaumont-Hamel from Paris (and I got there! and it was well worth the trip). Now I see what a depth of info you have about WWI.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 05:29 PM
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Hi moolyn. Thanks for the comments, and thanks, too for the recommendation of the book. One more to add to my reading pile.

Yes, that was a conversation robjame, SallyCanuck, and I were having at the GTG. SallyCanuck was telling us about her visit to Canadian war sites of both the first and the second war, and robjame spoke about seeing the Canadian military cemetery in Holland.

Interesting that your uncle would have been named Verdun, although it was doubtless on everyone's mind in 1917. There is a part of Montreal named Verdun, and a community near Quebec called Charny, which is also the name of a village just north of Verdun in France. If fellow-poster Laverendrye checks in here he may know whether they were named during or after the first war.

nfldbeothuk, I remember your trip planning and your trip report. I've been reading a lot of Great War history recently (and paying for it with nightmares), but I still have a great deal to learn. Hope I haven't made any glaring errors in my history in this trip report.
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 05:34 PM
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La Sirène

My next night was in a hotel called La Sirène in Étain, a small town about 20 kilometres east of Verdun. I again had a large room with a recently modernized bathroom. The décor felt a bit dated, but the room was quiet and comfortable. The dining experience was significantly different, with a less attractive dining room, a less sophisticated menu, less finesse at the stove, and certainly a less formal service. I had a workmanlike terrine de maison, then escalop de veau with a too thick mushroom sauce. But every cloud has its silver lining. The Côtes du Rhône was rather good and the brussels sprouts, tamed by long braising with small pieces of bacon, were perfect.


“Tout ça me bouleverse …”

The city of Verdun didn’t look its best on a cold Sunday morning. I walked up to the Palais épiscopal, one of the first structures to be hit in the German artillery barrage of February 21, 1916. It now houses the Centre mondial de la Paix, where I chanced upon a temporary exhibit of those stereo photographs that were popular in the years leading up to the war. The exhibit attendant, a young German man, gave me a set of special glasses so I could see the three-dimensional effect. It was a startling peek at the fighting: men firing artillery, men digging trenches, men marching into battle, and men dragging the wounded to shelter. The photographs were full of death, sometimes poignant, but usually not. Shelling broke bodies; it buried them; it launched them into the air. There were two unforgettable photos of corpses hanging in trees.

I drove north up the right bank of the Meuse to the village of Bras-sur-Meuse and then turned west across the river to look at Côte 304 and le Mort-Homme. These two hills, perfect sites for artillery, were the focal point of the fighting on the left bank. Like Les Éparges and so many of the hills on the right bank, there was prolonged and brutal fighting for possession. Today both are forested, quiet, and lonely.

I took D123 and D19 north and west to Butte-de-Montfaucon. This hilltop village was held by the German army until cleared by American assault in 1918. There is now a tall monument commemorating the action. Beneath it, all that remains of the original village are the ruins of the church. The new Butte-de-Montfaucon lies 100 metres to the west.

Meuse-Argonne, the largest American cemetery in Europe, lies on a gentle hillside between the villages of Cunel and Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. There are more than 14,000 Americans buried there, most of them killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918. I arrived during a moment of sunshine; under autumn leaves, the setting was haunting.

I walked past the graves, all the way up to the chapel at the top of the hill. On my way back I ended up in conversation with two other Canadians and a French couple from Verdun. The latter had with them a high school student from Des Moines, Iowa, who was living with them while on exchange. This young man had arrived only a couple of months before with hardly a word of French, but was apparently making wonderful progress.

The woman from Verdun mentioned that her great uncle had died in “quatorze dix-huit,” as she referred to the war. A moment later, she turned to me, gestured with her head towards the graves, and said, “Tout ça me bouleverse.” This is all overwhelming. I nodded. For some reason, this was the place where I felt shattered. I had been looking at craters, trenches, barbed wire, and walls entombing soldiers. I had seen bones, pictures of corpses, and too many graveyards. Cursed with a vivid imagination, I had added in the explosion of shells, the rattle of machine guns, and the screams of the injured.

It was time to move on.

Three dogs worked their way across a field, followed by three men carrying shotguns. Hunters. It all looked so normal, despite what was under their feet. I was on D38, heading back to Verdun. I turned onto the Voie Sacrée—the vital supply link—and drove south to Souilly, where Pétain had his headquarters. I was taking the route of France’s survivors.
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 06:36 PM
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Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Man's inhumanity to man never seems to end does it. We need to keep reading, keep visiting, keep not forgetting.
gertie3751 is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 09:20 PM
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Great report. Indeed, I have always felt that the Meuse and Ardennes regions are a much more somber reminder of the wars in Europe than anything that can be seen in Normandy. The Ossuary at Douaumont is in my opinion the most chilling site in France, yet the cemetery is lovely, with a rose bush planted in front of every cross or crescent.

I had a great uncle who lived in Etain for the second half of his life. (He was transferred to a nursing home just across the border in Belgium, where he died around 2002.) Anselm, I'm sure you would have been interested in seeing the neighborhood ("Les Clairs Chênes") where his house was, as it was a former American NATO base, and all of the houses are American military housing from the 1950's, transformed over the last 50 years into French houses, yet so unmistakably American. I never liked staying in my uncle's house, because there was something completely alien about the French furniture trying to fill American spaces.

Meanwhile, for November 11, 2007, France had only 2 remaining veterans from "14-18". In 2006, there were still 5 of them. Next year, who knows?
kerouac is online now  
Nov 25th, 2007, 10:09 PM
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What an interesting and informative report, thank you.

(P.S. I had to look up "silure" as I've never come across that kind of fish before - apparently it's a kind of catfish).
hanl is offline  
Nov 25th, 2007, 11:54 PM
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Very interesting indeed.
luveurop is offline  
Nov 26th, 2007, 01:17 AM
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Bookmarking with great interest.

Thank you

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