At this garrison town in eastern France, Marshal Pétain proclaimed, “They shall not pass!” And they didn’t. Verdun is where the Allies held out against a massive assault by the German army in World War I. Near the end of the war, 600,000 to 800,000 French and German soldiers died battling over a few miles along the muddy Meuse between Paris and the Rhine. Two monuments commemorate these tragic events: Rodin’s La Défense and Boucher’s To Victory and the Dead.
The local tourist office provides maps for two tours of the brutal and bloody battlefields that helped define World War I. The “Circuit Champs de Bataille Rive Droite” encompasses the better-known battlegrounds on the River Meuse’s right bank. It’s a 4-hr., 32km (20-mile) route, and takes in Fort Vaux, where Raynal staged a heroic defense after sending his last message by carrier pigeon.
After passing a French cemetery of 16,000 graves—an endless field of crosses—you arrive at the Ossuaire de Douaumont (www.verdun-douaumont.com; tel. 03-29-84-54-81), where the bones of those blown to bits were embedded. Nearby, at the Fort de Douaumont, the “hell of Verdun” was unleashed. From the roof, you can look out at a vast field dotted by the corroded tops of the tiny “pillbox” guard posts. Then you proceed to the Tranchée des Baïonettes (Trench of Bayonets). Bayonets of French soldiers entombed by a shell seem to burst forth from this unique memorial.
Within a few paces of the Tranchée des Baïonettes, you’ll see the Mémorial de Verdun, Fleury Devant Douaumont (www.memorial-de-verdun.fr; tel. 03-29-84-35-34). Originally built in 1967, the museum was completely redone and reopened in 2016. Its sleek exhibition space chronicles the savage battle through thematic displays of weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and archival material.
The second self-guided tour, known as “Circuit Champs de Bataille Rive Gauche” (or “Circuit de l’Argonne”), requires about 4 hr. to cover its 97km (60 miles). The tour focuses on mostly outdoor sites. It takes in the Butte de Montfaucon, a hill on which Americans erected a memorial tower, and the moving Cimetière Américain at Romagne (www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials), the largest American cemetery in Europe with over 14,000 graves. Because public transportation is inadequate, only visitors with cars should attempt to make these circuits.
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