Reading, Reflecting and Verdun


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is now Wednesday following the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. As I mentioned I did not do much writing the past few days, instead I spend the time with Judy, our two Papillons, and friends. Likewise I did a lot of reading and reflection and took the time to watch the classic film A Bridge Too Far and the first four episodes of the HBO series  Band of Brothers.

But anyway…

It was good to take some time that was not directly related to the research and writing of my Civil War and Gettysburg text, even though some of my reading prompted me to do some more research and writing on that text which should prove beneficial to the end product, but as always I digress…


Gun turret at Fort Douaumont 

Over the weekend I caught up on some reading. I was able to read Colonel Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power,  Alistair Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Nate Braden’s American Renegade Marine: The Life and Times of Smedley Butler USMC, and I re-read Eric Hoffer’s classic work, The True Beleiver, and Walter Lord’s classic history of the Battle of Midway, Incredible Victory. All of these books are well worth weeding regardless of one’s political or ideological viewpoint because they deal with the human condition. Of course I have a number of other works in the que and will continue to read simply because all of these works help me make sense of the incredibly nonsensical world that we live in.

I also did some reading about the Battle for Verdun in the First World War and plan on re-reading Horne’s book on it, The Price of Glory. That battle began in 1916 and lasted 303 days. During that time about 750,000 French and German Soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Other more recent estimated place that number at 976,000 with about 1.25 million lost there during the course of the war. When it appeared that the Germans might take the forts surrounding the city and break the French line, General Petain issued the order “they shall not pass.” The battle made a tremendous impact on the French military and political psyche after the war, due to the French policy of rotating units through Verdun during the battle close to three-quarters of the French Army served there. Those who did never forgot the hell that was Verdun. 


If you go there you will find a battlefield unlike any other, it has a significance in France like Gettysburg, but unlike Gettysburg there are not legions of monuments dotting the battlefield commemorations men or units dotting an otherwise pristine battlefield. Yes, there are some, but what impresses is the fact that the land itself, a century after the battle still bears the scars of it. The landscape is still cratered by the immense number of artillery shells fired there. There are areas that are off limits because of the amount of unexploded ordnance, and residue of Mustard Gas. In the areas one can visit there are the remains of the great forts, two of which, Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux can be toured. The village of Fleurey, which changed hands sixteen times during the battle can be walked through. A path paved with small pieces of shrapnel goes through a quit wood, small markers denote where each house, or shop in the village stood. At the center of the town, a small chapel built from the bricks and stones of destroyed buildings stands as a reminder. 

There are other monuments on the battlefield such as the Trench of Bayonets where the tips of rifles with bayonets affixed to them mark the location of a French squad buried when the trench collapsed. Of course there are the cemeteries, including one that contains the bodies of thousands of Algerian Muslim troops. But then there is the ossuary, a massive structure in the center of the cemeteries. Crowned by a tower shaped like an artillery shell which serves as a place where one can survey the battlefield, it has a great hall commemorating the units tha fought there. Underneath that great hall are interred the bones of about 130,000 unknown soldiers who were pulverized by the artillery. More are added every year, in fact while shuffling my feet around Fort Vaux in 1984 I unearthed what appeared to be part of a tibia. I contacted one of the staff so it could be properly interred. 


Fort Vaux 

Verdun has become a symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany over the years. It is a place where French and German leaders come, to honor the dead and to pledge themselves to continued reconciliation and peace. Last weekend President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel renewed that pledge. 

When I visited Verdun I was a young Army Second Lieutenant stationed in Germany, constantly training and preparing for the day the Soviets would cross the Fulda Gap and bring about a war that would have devastated Europe, and maybe led to a nuclear holocaust. The battlefield, the vast cratered landscape where little grows; dotted by forts, gun turrets, wire, pillboxes, ruins, cemeteries, and occasional monuments is still etched in my mind some thirty-two years later. To read the accounts of the men who fought a Verdun is to see the fact that war is brutal and dehumanizing, the sights, and smells of death, of rotting flesh, of men shattered, is sobering. I have been to war, I have seen those sights, smelled those smells, thankfully not on such a scale, for what I did see and experience in Iraq changed me for life, but I cannot imagine carnage and death on the scale of Verdun. 

So anyway, until tomorrow, 

Peace,

Padre Steve+



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Filed under History, Military, world war one

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