Subject: Back to Verdun
Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 15:55:32
The 2002 reunion trip to Verdun is now a little slice of our own history, perhaps like the city itself. I doubt this will be the only e-mail you receive from some of those 50 or so former students that were able to return recently, many of us for the first time in 40 years. I would wish for everybody that they, too, could get back sometime in their lifetime, if they have not already. Until then, I thought I would offer up a few of my own personal observations for those curious souls unable to make the trip.
First, the town looks great. The river front down by the Port Chaussee is now a real night happening spot with many cafes, and the fountain and a new two blocks of stone dockside, a gift from the UK government I believe. Street lighting is everywhere, the sidewalks and curbs all seem to be new. The various memorials are still scattered around the city in their well kept state, and a lot has been done to further add to the story of the town and its place in history. There is now a very active tourism office, and the Citadel had installed an interesting attraction where visitors are driven around on an automatic electric cart through various tunnels and historic displays, with each cart programmed into one of several languages. For all I know, Disney could have designed it.
The cathedral, never an attractive edifice even before its war damage, still looks like it needs a little work on the side aisles and in the back. However, the old crypt, forgotten for a couple of centuries, has been renovated including several columns that had to be replaced due to damage from World War I. The adjoining Peace Palace looks great, and now houses various traveling exhibits. The streets are clean, and the population is alive at night. The main drag that runs by the foot of the familiar Victory Monument is quite the shopping street. Trees are everywhere, and the old hotels still exist. Any images you have as an unattractive little town full of loud little mopeds may have to be updated.
We were given a reception by the mayor in the Hotel de Ville late one afternoon, the first time many of us had been up to the second floor where the city's numerous awards are displayed. The mayor made some very appropriate statements, first by recognizing what the whole of France owes to the Americans for coming to their aid not once, but twice, this past century. Champagne and some local cheeses were served, and we were able to see things in those rooms that even the old Verdun army brats among us had not seen before.
The high school is gone now, as everyone probably knows. The dorms plus the 3 wings of the school, including the out buildings, were demolished several years ago. The rest of the complex is still standing and operated as a hospital by the French government (for either invalids or the mentally disturbed). It is in good shape. The original flag poles in the front are still there and could use a paint job. Next to them is the original dedication monument and plaque, compliments of the US Army circa mid-1950's. In the place of the school is a beautiful park, scattered benches and all. The grass is green, the trees themselves are now quite large. All that physically remains of the place is a long asphalt strip that was the base of the barbed wire fence built to protect us kids from the external dangers of post-war France. The original entrance way is there in the form of two concrete curbs, along with about 6 feet of the entry sidewalk. With a little imagination, one can enter the complex between the chain link fence, walk up a couple of wings on the linoleum tiles, turn right into the dining hall, pick up one of those sectioned metal trays, and go sit with your friends.
The golf course is a farmers field, but the gym still stands. It is apparently used by the staff and patients of the hospital for activities other than basketball, although it is looking a little worn. More tennis courts have been added. The football field has been converted to a soccer field and has a great carpet of grass. The old cinder track is gone without a trace. The barren entrance road up the hill is still there, but has a nice row of trees on either side. If you didn't know where to turn up, you would not recognize the road, except for the sign to the hospital.
My wife and I arrived in Verdun a day ahead of the group, as I wanted to revisit the battlefields at my own pace. My dad spent many a day escorting me among the various places there, and a few classmates and I did our own exploring with flashlights back then (and also did some pretty stupid things which could have easily turned tragic). Any trip there should now start with a visit to the museum-memorial that has been built at Fluery, one of those nine quiet farming villages on the battlefield that was eradicated completely by the war, about two klicks down from the Ossuary at Douamont. For my wife, a novice about the Battle of Verdun, this first stop went a long way. She now knows that Verdun was the worst single battle in the history of civilization.
The roads throughout the area have been improved, many of them nicely paved. A lot of signs have been added. Sunday saw a lot of bicyclists, with the usual colorful French jerseys. The Ossuary still chimes a long time at noon. The area behind it is now a large parking area. Like the time when we all lived there, the cemeteries--regardless of nationality--are all in pristine condition.
The cartographic division of the French Government now publishes a very detailed map of the area, and the museum has a series of ten or so walking tours one can take in areas that have been cleared of old ordinance (you may recall that such ventures were discouraged when we lived there, except for those of us that ignored those "defense de fume" signs).
Inside Fort Douamont looks much it did 40 years ago. Wet, damp, and lit by those bare bulbs. They are doing some reconstruction on the outside. One difference I did notice was on the inside. Some of you may know that the fort underwent an accidental explosion when it was occupied by the Germans, and behind a wall that dates from 1916, still lie the remains of about 650 soldiers that could not be removed for burial outside because of the continuous shelling. It is known as the German cemetery inside Douamont. When I was going through some of my dad's old slides earlier this summer, he had photographed it in 1961, covered in flowers and reef stands. The same site now is void of anything floral, save a few small potted flowers dating back to earlier this year. I wondered about the difference. Forty years ago, there was still a generation of people who knew of the Great War firsthand, and who probably brought all those flowers on a regular basis. Now, even those people are gone. There are no old widows dressed in black shuffling around on the streets of Verdun anymore, nor for that matter, on any of the streets in France. Seeing all of them in farmers' markets on Saturday mornings are just another memory for us.
With the exception of one morning, the weather was sunny and nice. I took my wife on a couple of long walks using the new map, starting with a walk through the village of Fluery once was. The trees within the battlefields are bigger compared to when we were there, but not by much. Pine trees dominate, as they are much more able to live in the soil that is still poisoned. A walk through the woods there is still strange. There are now a few birds, but too few to easily hear. You don't see little creatures, or even droppings other that those from dogs that have been walked by their owners.
There is also still that odor. My wife said it was boxwood, which has been planted around the memorials, large and small. When we got deeper into the woods, and the smell remained, she wasn't quite so sure. I am not sure we all realized at the time what it was like to walk ground upon which 770,000 men had died or been blown apart in the course of nine months, not to mention the poor horses. The pungent odor is a reminder that not all of those remains are in those cemeteries nor under that huge Ossuary.
We drove up to the top of Mort Homme and Hill 304 on the left bank. The famous memorials on the top of each site are still there. The woods are thicker, but one notices that the earth is still disturbed. September was a good time to visit, as these places were mostly devoid of any other visitors.
Finally, a little further to the west is the tall American memorial column on the hill at Montfaucon. It is still there and in the same spotless condition, maintained by an arm of the US Department of the Interior. The trees are much taller, and like our old school, outside the boundaries of the battlefield, with some farm fields nearby. Most of you will recall roaring there on a Fagel bus with the rest of the dorm on a field trip during mid-week national holidays, perhaps also later with our parents, and climbing to the top. You can still do it. It still overlooks the medieval church that was destroyed in the old village site--like Fleury, now "detruit."
The Yanks arrived in 1917 well after the battle, but relieved Verdun, as well as ending the war by pushing the Germans straight North until the Armistice was signed. Near Montfaucon is a big American cemetery of many of those soldiers of a previous era. One was always humbled to visit and look out at all those white marble crosses, and remember that it wasn't just us that had a connection to Verdun, it was all of America at the time. My father often commented that the French never appreciated what the US had done for them, particularly after deGaulle showed the door to the NATO forces. Maybe your parents felt the same way. My father would have probably been glad to have heard what the mayor had said in his remarks the previous evening.
After a couple of days in and around Verdun, many of us returned to the bases and depots that we lived. A half dozen of returned to Laon, about 100 klicks to the west. By fate, the Laon people have been adopted by a great local host, who got us on the old base which is now occupied by French Marines. We were first escorted to the CO's office, after which we rode around the base and took lots of photos. All things being equal, I was glad that Laon was still in the hands of some arm of some military as they tend to take care of things, even old buildings. While the Laon runways are silent now, I suspect that a lot of you came from smaller bases or depots that were either abandoned or now gone completely.
Finally, I visited the old housing area outside of Laon where my family lived. Even the place where we gathered to catch the bus to Verdun every Sunday afternoon. It had changed so much, it was hard to believe. It must have been good solid construction, because the units are still standing, and have a lot of additions, such as garages stuck on them. It is still a family place, although the language is different. The old baseball field now had kids playing soccer on it. I'd say it all looks pretty much like middle America, French style, 2002.
In closing, I would like to thank the several people who worked to pull off this trip. Our nomadic childhoods have somehow created a common heritage which is probably the reason that the VAHS website was started and continues to thrive. That, too, has made this little revisit very special.
Thanks for the memories.
I guess I'll be the second Verdunite to write a little bit about the Verdun reunion of 2002. For those of you who couldn't go for various reasons, let me just say you missed a great opportunity to see the changes that have taken place since I was last there in the 60's.
The housing area where we use live in Verdun had changed so much that I didn't even recognize it when we pasted right by it on the way into the city. Trees have grown tall and when we were there they were only scrubby bushes. I found the house that I use to live in finally after walking about a mile. I was so excited my heart was pounding and memories began to fill my head. The AYA had been torn down and more houses had been built in it's place. Also, the commissary and the BOQ's were still there. The downtown district was so clean and beautiful with a fountain just next to the Meuse River.
The tour that the Vice-mayor took us on was extremely educational, taking us through the Cathedral of Verdun and other points of interest. Places that I never saw when I was there in the 60's. I would love to go back and stay a little longer. I'm sure there were things that I would have like to have seen, but there was not enough time.
I truly enjoyed seeing some of my old friends again and making lots of new friends while there. And, I even saw my English teacher Mrs. Muska. She was such a delight to talk with.
The reception given by the city of Verdun for the American students was outstanding. The speech given by the Mayor was most heartwarming when he expressed his appreciation of the USA for it's role in helping win WWI and WWII.
Last but not least , I would like to thank the folks who helped organize the trip for I know it was not an easy task to get this many people all going in the same direction at once. It was especially great to live up to a promise that I had made about 35 years ago , that someday, I would take my dear wife Karen to France to see where I use to live. Many thanks to all for a great job.
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