Where the moss grows

19 FEB 2017

So many lives lost… one million at the Battle of Verdun. I stand in the dark tunnel where German soldiers had infiltrated Fort Vaux. The French managed to hold them off for two weeks. Two weeks they spent killing each other in this tunnel, until finally Major Raynal surrendered the fort so that the survivors could have some water. What dignity or heroism can be had in this cold, damp, dark place, hungry and thirsty, among fallen comrades and excrement.

The long hall of the underground fortress splits off into barracks, escape tunnels, and the communications room. Small windows for cannons and machine guns let the sunlight peek in. The walls, two meters of concrete, protect the soldiers from German shells, and later French shells after the fort is taken. They explode and shake the earth. The flat fields and smooth hills are pockmarked from the fury of war. So much destruction, everywhere.

Looking out from the top of Fort Vaux where the French flag flies, Verdun is not far off. The countryside is beautiful, the sun is bright, and trees now blanket once barren fields. A mossy ground cover manages to make the shell blasts look peaceful. One hundred years ago, an explosion tore through the thick metal of a turret dome. A remnant of the concave casing now lies prostrate, home to a bird bath and new moss growth. Nature nurtures the artifacts of this war.

The French and German unidentified dead of the Battle of Verdun rest as bones in the Douaumont Ossuary to the west of Fort Vaux. This white sword hilt of a building appears to have its massive blade buried into the earth, signifying the end of fighting. One hundred thirty thousand soldiers’ bones can be seen through small windows. I think they had hoped this monument to the fallen, who now share a final resting place, would be enough to remind the two nations of the horror that was World War I and keep them from committing to the same mistake again. It was only twenty-one years later, from 1918 to 1939, that WWII broke out.

A little south of the ossuary lies the town of Fleury-avant-Douaumont. Our guide recounts the tale of how the residents were told to flee their homes because fighting in the area was imminent. The townspeople left behind the homes of their parents and theirs before them. They left behind their farmlands and their shops. When the fighting was finally over, the townspeople were led back to Fleury, but when they were told this was their home, they could not believe it. The houses, the shops, the flat farmland was no more. It had all been shelled and destroyed. The landscape had become infested with the miniature hills of shell-blasts. Stones and blocks of their homes littered the walkways. The wood had burned. The terrain was unrecognizable. The earth was contaminated by poison gas, explosives, and the bodies of soldiers.

I stand where once there was a house. I am surrounded by blast holes and concrete blocks. The poison gas has dissipated, the explosives discovered and disarmed, the bodies removed and reburied with proper rights. Now, the moss ground cover lives here, too. A forest has taken root. A memorial chapel was constructed to commemorate the collective loss.

So many memorials. So many graves. And not so very long ago.



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