There’s nothing like driving through and touring the Champagne region on your way to visit Verdun, a major battle site from World War 1.
In 1916, the battle of Verdun lasted 9 months and claimed over 300,000 lives, with another 300,000 wounded. There are many worthy battlefields and museums to visit in Verdun, as well as forts and a substantial ossuary, that houses more than 100,000 soldiers.
Let’s start with the town itself. Verdun lies on the banks of the Meuse river in Northeast France. The 14th century city gate, Porte Chaussée, greets you as you cross the bridge to the center of town. Verdun is a quiet place and sees many British and French tourists in the summer months. Since Verdun is a main tourist destination for World War 1 history enthusiasts, and the US did not enter the war until the end, there are not many Americans tourists.
There is limited lodging in the town itself, a few hotels here and there, but not a wide selection to choose from. Since everything was booked up when we planned our trip, we stayed at an Airbnb outside of the center of town. It was a 10-15-minute walk to the river and restaurants, but our accommodations were stellar. When walking down to the river, a recommendation is to dine alfresco, if the weather permits, at any of the riverside bistros. We ate at a few of them and all were decently priced, with diverse menus.
The battlefield sites of Verdun take you to another time and place. We felt so far outside of town when touring these sites, though it was only about a 5-minute drive from our B&B. It’s easy to get to the battlefield sites and there are signs everywhere to provide direction to each destination. Our first stop was the Verdun Memorial and Museum.
It’s the first thing you see when driving through the grounds. It’s best to stop here first to learn about the Battle of Verdun and how it was so significant to the war. The museum will take a few hours to tour, there are so many interactive exhibits and artifacts, photographs and personal effects. It was a very emotional experience for me, especially seeing the photographs and personal effects of those who fought in the war. It was overwhelming at times, but I think that was the exhibit’s intent.
Our next stop was to see the Trench of the Bayonets. It’s an unusual memorial. Here’s a bit of history about it. In June 1916, the German made a surprise attack on the French. The 137th Regiment of French infantry was almost wiped out because of this attack. Years after the war, one of the trenches was discovered with a line of bayonets (still affixed to the rifles) sticking out of the ground. Even more bizarre, was a body was found next to each bayonet, these men were buried alive. There is a memorial remembering these men, near where there were found.
Next stop was to visit the Douaumont Ossuary. The ossuary houses the remains of over 100,000 soldiers who died at the Battle of Verdun. The names of the soldiers are listed inside the memorial. There is a tour inside the memorial, an educational film and optional climb up the tower. We walked around the memorial and looked through the exhibition windows to see all the bones that were uncovered at this site. To hear about the casualties of war has a completely different emotional effect than seeing the remains of so many soldiers.
On our way to Fort Douaumont, we walked through some of the trenches that were still well preserved, we also saw some bunker ruins that were not as well preserved as the trenches. I remember it to be a very hot day, and once we arrived at the fort, it was a relief! Fort Douaumont is the largest fort I’ve ever visited, it is situated underground, and very cold and damp inside. The interior seemed to go on forever, we walked up and down stairs, through winding corridors, I really don’t know how we didn’t get lost. The fort has some wonderful exhibits, as well as just being a piece of history on its own. Once back outside, you can walk on the grassy knolls from the fort above ground. It’s a short drive (5 minutes) to Fort de Vaux. It was too late for us to go inside, but we took the walkway up to the roof of the fort and could see the vantage point of what the soldiers experienced 100 years ago.
Not being a war history enthusiast, I was quite surprised on how beautiful, educational and just truly fascinating Verdun was. If you are looking to do a tour of Word War 1 historic sites, be sure to list Verdun on your itinerary.