Our family had watched the film WAR HORSE together and we talked a lot about the first World War. When we were planning our week in France, it was obvious we were going to visit Verdun, the location of many memorials and museums of WWI.

Here are some basic facts about the battle of Verdun:

  • There were nine villages completely destroyed, Verdun is the only one still standing.
  • In 1916, the French and Germans waged a war in this one area for 11 months. This was the longest and one of the most costliest battles of the war.
  • 362,000 French died
  • 336, 000 Germans died
  • 101, 000 French are missing
  • and 210,000 French were wounded

The memorials and museums are spread out over the Verdun area. And the battered land is also a memorial. The grass is not smooth and flat. You see holes everywhere, there is grass there now, but you cannot easily walk on it. You can see where the trenches used to be, as there are still indentations in the ground. This is still a burial ground, as human remains are  found each year. There are 130,000 unidentified remains buried in Douaumont Ossuary.

Millions of shell casings fell onto the ground and they have scarred this land. There are craters everywhere. During the battle, there was much rain and that, in addition to the mud, devastated the land. In some areas, there was more human flesh and bone, than natural vegetation. The shell craters were so big that soldiers would slip on the mud and fall into them and drown.

Needless to say, the visit was overwhelming. These were not just cemeteries and statues, this was where the blood was shed. This is where soldiers are buried and still not found.

It is very quiet at Verdun. It was a beautiful sunny day and you can imagine the conditions of war almost a hundred years ago. I was reminded of Gettysburg as the feeling is very similar because you are at the place where people died. You are standing on land that men fought on and died. Being at Gettysburg was very emotional for me and the visit to Verdun was very similar. Everywhere you went reminded you of the tremendous loss of life.

As we were leaving one of the memorials, a man was speaking to us in French. We finally figured out that he was telling us that we had a flat tire. This was not part of our plan for the day, as we had a three hour drive ahead of us, but there was no way of denying that the tire had to be changed. We were having trouble getting the spare tire out of the trunk, it was lodged in there very tightly. Finally, we asked a man who had just pulled up next to our car if he could help us (in broken French) release the tire. This man was burly and seemed very strong, but he even had trouble with it. The tire did come loose and he continued to help us, and basically did all the work in changing the tire. He did not speak to us and we all assumed he spoke no English. By then, he knew we spoke Dutch and English. When he was done, I gave him a moist wipey thing to clean his hands and I thanked him. He smiled and nodded. Then I said “you are a good man” and he beamed and said “thank you” in English and French. We thanked his family for being so patient with us and they were very friendly and smiled too. When we got back into our car, I said “I now take back all that I have said about the French. (this was based on the Olympic coverage and our observation that the French refuse to even try to speak English) I announced that the this French man saved our butts big time and that he did not have to do what he did. Everyone agreed. We had to drive very carefully down the hill to the city to find a tire garage and we were all silent. We were driving past the memorials, the unmarked graves and the scarred land…I reminded the children of the scenes from WAR HORSE and if they could imagine how bad it was for the soldiers and the horses. The tire was forgotten, the tire was a non-issue, the tire was a tire. But on this day, a Dutch American family came to a battlefield to learn and to pay respect. A French family came along and solved our problem and we were grateful. And on a day like this, gratitude is a very good thing.

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