Friday, February 16, 2018

France: Douaumont Ossuary and Cemetery in Verdun

In late spring last year, Dutchman and I went on a long weekend road trip to the World War 1 battlefields of France.


Perhaps not the most ideal and romantic weekend getaway, but the Dutchman has a longtime fascination with the wars in Europe, particularly World War I and II, and Verdun was one of the places he talked about, as the longest and largest battle recorded ever in history. He would like to show it to me.

He has been here in the battlefields a few times during his younger years and he promised me that he’ll go back again, but then together with me. The trip plan wasn’t really a high priority, it was more of like – when we get the chance or we will wing it. Well, I am always in for a trip but I am also a curious individual especially when it comes to history.

The chance came last year in May. It was one of those religious public holidays that constitutes a long weekend opportunity. I was as well in between jobs, although I already had an offer after leaving my previous work in March, I negotiated to start the second half of June to be able to enjoy the last few weeks of free time which includes this road trip and an early summer holiday in the Mediterranean.

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Moi in front of the ossuary. It was a hot blue skies May spring day and windy too. I had to wrap my shawl around the hat so the wind will not blow it away.


Inside the ossuary with the names of the soldiers on the walls and ceilings. The tower of the ossuary is called the Lantern of the Dead.

Our home base for the battlefields extended weekend trip is Verdun in the Meuse area of the Lorraine region in the north of France. We didn’t do much on the first day, having arrived in the afternoon and wanting to start slow and get our bearings first. We have 4 full days so we have enough time. We did a lazy stroll in town and then had dinner on the boulevard. I will be blogging about the town in a separate post soon.

The next day, Dutchman and I had planned a road trip through the battlefields. Since we have 4 days, we have scheduled 2 days for the battlefields road trip. Dutchman wants to show me where the fighting took place, but first, we start with the biggest war monument in France, the Douaumont Ossuary and Necropolis. In remembrance of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 that took 300 days and killed 300,000 French and German soldiers. Bodies of 160,000 soldiers were never found.

Let’s pause for a moment – Can you believe that figure? – 300,000 dead –  In 300 days. That's like 1,000 soldiers dying each day in less than a year. Every single day. The figure is staggering. It is unimaginable.

The Douaumont Ossuary and (Battle of Verdun) Necropolis/Cemetery is located on the grounds where the Battle of Verdun took place (21 February 1916 – 19 December 1916) covering less than 20 square kilometers in the commune of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.



Memorial of the Battle of Verdun: The Douaumont Ossuary Monument and Cemetery in Google Maps.


The memorial is beautifully designed with the names of the soldiers on the walls and ceilings.


The church in the ossuary. We lighted a candle for the Dutch father and Blondine. Both will always be in our hearts.


The Douamont Ossuary, which is shaped like a church and galley ship which makes me think of Noah’s Ark but with a tower, contains the graves of both French and German soldiers. As we approached the building from behind, Dutchman urged me to take a peek into the hole gaps of the basement, and lo and behold, I saw something that I was not really that prepared to see.

Mass skeletal remains said to be of at least 130,000 unknown soldiers that died during the battle.

It is not every day that you see skeletal remains. I once visited a church in Paris that has a crypt full of skulls and bones. They were beautifully presented as part of the crypt's design. But this, in the basement vaults of the ossuary, is a massive pile of skulls and bones.

We proceeded to go inside and the open interior looked more like a museum to me. On the walls and ceiling are names of the fallen French soldiers. The interior is tastefully done, with subtle warm lighting and open space. It makes you reflect on the courageous deeds of the soldiers. But what choice did they ever had? I don’t even want to imagine what these soldiers had gone through. What a terrible time to be born and to grow up during the war. Only to be sent to the battlefield when they were ready enough to face the world. A destiny without a choice.

There is also a church inside the ossuary where people can pray and light candles. Dutchman and I lighted 2 candles for the Dutch father and Blondine.


The national cemetery of the French soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun. Oh, I dared not take a selfie here. It would have been, not only disrespectful but very silly.


Inauguration plaque of the memorial witnessed by Germany (Helmut Kohl) and France (Francois Mitterand). The last phrase translated into English: " We have reconciled. We have agreed. We have become friends." Very powerful phrase.

Outside is the stunning sloping cemetery with the French flag in the middle standing tall. The cemetery has 13,000 crosses and is the resting place of 16,142 known French soldiers. France lost a lot of (young) men during the battle. The Germans too, as well as the English and Americans.

There is a Muslim section in the cemetery with their graves facing Mecca. Jews and Christians are buried side by side on the main cemetery, with Christians bearing the cross, and the Jews the rectangular tombstone with the star of David. As you can see, it didn’t matter which religion they had, they all fought together for the same cause. Freedom.

The whole area around the battlefields is a protected zone. There are still could-be active mines buried all over the place. As it was impossible to clean the area, the government has left it on its own, on war state and have restricted it from the public. A century has passed and nature took over the terrain leaving very little to remember about its violent past. People are then cautioned not to stray and walk only on official streets and paths, and in particular, not to go into the woods.

It is said that each year a soldier’s bone is discovered in the area and some farmer would find an undetonated explosive.

Visiting places like this does not only enrich my knowledge of history, the view of the world around me, as well as humanity, but it makes me also very grateful. Did you know that gratefulness is the basis of happiness and contentment?


A short video I took in the cemetery when they rang the bell in the tower, the Lantern of the Dead. Don't you just love the sounds of the chirping of the birds in the background?


The French flag standing tall in the middle of the cemetery.


Jewish and Christian soldiers buried side by side. Each tomb contains 2 or more French soldiers and has a rose bush in front of it.


Jewish memorial for the fallen Jewish soldiers in the Battle of Verdun.


The Muslim memorial.

Travel Period: May 2017
Destination: Verdun (Grand Est), France

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All pictures were taken by a point and shoot pocket camera or a smartphone.

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