Last year around this time I won the scheduling lottery and ended up with two weeks of hotel standby in Paris. Even better, there was a 3-day weekend where I wouldn't even have to be on standby. 3 days to myself, in France. I decided to rent a car and do a little sightseeing.
Now most people I work with would ask me "Did you go to Normandy?" It's almost expected that as an American I should make that pilgrimage.
But no, I did not. Someday I will, but not this time.
I've been studying WWI in recent years and I really wanted to see a WWI battlefield.
Americans don't study WWI all that much. Even though we were involved, it wasn't really our war. WWII tends to overshadow it in American history. The Second World War is more recent in our memory, our involvement was much greater and it was much more clear-cut from a moral standpoint. It's tough to pick a "good guy" out of a bunch of European colonial powers circa 1914.
Still, I think there are lessons to be learned from WWI. As I like to say: WWII happened because nobody was ready for a war. WWI happened because everybody was ready for a war. Munich 1938 is not the only lesson to be learned from history.
So which battlefield? The really big ones are the Somme and Verdun. Being a bit of a Francophile, I wanted to see things from the French viewpoint, so I chose Verdun.
I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.
Having rented a car, I drove 2 hours or so east of Paris. Through beautiful countryside, tranquil farmland, calm rivers, peaceful forests - to a place that was once Hell on Earth.
And bleed they did.
It was the largest battle in history, lasting almost a full year. Two massive armies with no real objective but to kill as many of the other side as possible. Millions of shell were fired. Attack and counterattack and attack again. When it was over, the battle lines were pretty much where they started. The French had taken roughly 400,000 casualties and the Germans about the same. Oh they bled all right.
A little something to think about. Total French casualties (military and civilian) for the war were 1.7 million dead out of 4.2 million total. This was from a population of only 39 million (less than half the US population at the time). I'm willing to cut them some slack for not wanting a do-over in 1940.
Driving on to the battlefield, one of the first things you see is the "Wounded Lion" monument to the French 130th Division. Having seen quite a few, I have an appreciation for French war memorials. They tend to be sober and thoughtful looking - not "Hoorah! Go get 'em!" like some others can be.
"Fixed defenses are monuments to the stupidity of man." - George S. Patton
Over 600 Germans were killed when a single shell ignited stored ammunition. Their bodies were entombed in the fort.
The trench has been enclosed by concrete and wire to keep souvenir hunters away.
I didn't get that feeling at Verdun. If there were any ghosts they were resting peacefully that day.
I picked one cross at random for a picture. The inscription read "Terasier Pierre Caporal 3ME TIR Mort Pour la France 23-9-1917". Perhaps someone can explain the French unit designation to me.
I snapped him a salute. Thanks for letting me use your picture Corporal Terasier. Rest well.
I found a 1919 Michelin guide to the battlefield at a used book store in Paris. Someday I hope to know enough French to actually read it.
I'll finish with a quote from an earlier, but just as bloody war:
"There never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to
prevent the drawing of the sword."
- General Ulysses S. Grant