The year 2018 will mark the centennial of the conclusion of World War I, the war that was billed as “the war to end all wars.” While there are no more survivors to tell us their stories, WWI sights and memorials scattered around Europe do their best to keep the devastation from fading from memory.
Perhaps the most powerful WWI sightseeing experience a traveler can have is at the battlefields of Verdun, where, in 1916, roughly 300,000 lives were lost in what is called the “Battle of 300 Days and Nights.” The battle left a barren, lunar landscape. Today, it is buried under thick forests — all new growth — and the soldiers’ vast network of communication trenches is overgrown and haunted by their ghosts.
Plenty of rusty battle remnants and memorials to the carnage are still accessible. A string of battlefields lines an eight-mile stretch of road outside the town of Verdun. From here (with a tour, rental car, shuttle bus, or taxi) it’s possible to see the most important sights and appreciate the horrific scale of the battle in as little as three hours.
You can ride through the eerie moguls left by the incessant shelling, pause at melted-sugar-cube forts, ponder plaques marking spots where towns once existed, and visit a vast cemetery.
To get a good overview, start at the Verdun Memorial Museum. The museum is rich in artifacts and delivers gripping exhibits about the battle (with lots of information in English). It works to pair German and French artifacts — for example, you’ll see a circa 1916 German rucksack completely loaded up right next to a French one.
In the Verdun Memorial Museum, I learned that the vast majority of WWI casualties weren’t hit by machine gun bullets, but by shrapnel — every time an artillery shell exploded, jagged bits of the shell’s casing sprayed like buckshot.
Another key sight for visitors is Fort Douaumont. First constructed in 1885, Fort Douaumont was the most important stronghold among 38 hilltop fortifications built to protect Verdun after Germany’s 1871 annexation of this area. Built on top and into the hillside, it ultimately served as a strategic command center for both Germany and France at various times. Soldiers were protected by a thick layer of sand (to muffle explosions) and a wall of concrete five to seven feet thick. Inside, soldiers were forced to live like moles, scurrying through two miles of cold, damp hallways. Visitors can still experience these corridors (enlivened by an excellent audioguide) today.
Climb to the bombed-out top of the fort and check out the round, iron-gun emplacements that could rise and revolve. The massive central gun turret was state-of-the-art in 1905, antiquated in 1915, and essentially useless when the war arrived in 1916. From the top, look out at fields leading to Germany. From this perch, imagining the carnage here in that horrible battle is an unforgettable experience.
There is a beautiful sight at Fort Douaumont today. German, French and European flags wave alongside each other, as if to exclaim, “We learned and we won’t do this again.” Say what you like about the European Union, but it’s hard to deny what a great accomplishment it has been to weave together the economies of two historic enemies — and to subsidize the humanization and empathy that comes with getting to know each other. In 1914, most French soldiers had never met a German, and vice versa — making it all too easy to carelessly kill each other. Thanks, in large part, to the EU, we live in a different world today, built on a solid foundation for maintaining European peace.
I visited Verdun this summer with my friend and co-author Steve Smith. We did it as a very long day trip from Colmar: three and a half hours each way, on the autoroute. The time went quickly on the freeway, in part because we listened to four hours of radio interviews about France, filling the drive with conversation from fascinating French experts. (We downloaded the interviews from the France playlist on the free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. If you download tracks while you still have a Wi-Fi connection, you can listen to them later offline.) We both learned something and the time zipped by. And, even though we spent seven hours in the car, we had six wonderful hours to explore Verdun’s WWI sites.