Friday, June 26, 2009

On Haunted Ground

When the train pulled into Verdun, my first impression was: pretty little city. A couple of canals and the very mellow Meuse River run through the middle of it.
The second impression was it was a place frozen in misery. Like Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Dresden, and Hiroshima, Verdun's identity is forever intertwined with death and destruction. For a while in the early 1900s it was the Battle Capital of the world. Some of the older building still show the scars of bullets and shrapnel.

This is Verdun as it looked like at the height of World War I. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is in the background, rising over the blasted shells of buildings by one of the canals.
This is what the prosperous little burg looks like today from the same viewpoint.
I stopped by the tourist office to pick up a few maps and discovered war is Big Biz here. The city and the area around had seen some of the bloodiest fighting in World War I. In 1916 a quarter of a million French and German soldiers were killed in the area, with basically nothing to show for it. By the time Uncle Tom arrived in September of 1918, the two armies had fought to an exhausted standstill. The French hoped the arrival of a million and a half Americans would give their side the necessary boost to push the Germans out.

The energetic young woman at the information desk had that special tourist office ability to read the map upside down as she cheerily pointed out the sights: memorials, the statues to the heroic dead, an ossuary full of unknown soldiers' bones, a place called Bayonet Trench where French soldiers were buried alive by an artillery barrage and only their bayonets protruded above the earth and on and on. Each site had an horrific and bloody story attached to it. And a brochure for it.

"Where is the American cemetery?" I asked.

"Up the road that way," she pointed north. "It has the largest number of American soldiers buried there outside the United States." Big smile.

What's a salient?
The plan was to follow Tom's steps through this area. His first battle was south of Verdun near a place called St. Mihiel. In 1914, as now, it was a sleepy village. Unfortunately back then it sat in the crossfire of French and German armies. For four horrific years friendly and enemy fire rained down on it. When Tom and his fellow soldiers arrived here from Chateau-Thierry their job was to clear the Germans out of something down that way called the St. Mihiel Salient.

I didn't know salient was a noun. Basically the word describes any kind of protrusion. In military jargon it refers to part of a battle line that has bulged into enemy territory, sometimes the result of a stalled advance. The German had a salient which had been a fixture near St. Mihiel for four years. The French had unsuccessfully tried to drive the Germans out of it, a piece of territory about the size of Manhattan. When the Americans arrived, the French said in effect, "You want something to do? Get those guys out of there."

History books are sketchy about the battle of the St. Mihiel Salient. The condensed version is the Americans launched an attack against the Germans on September 12 and the battle was pretty much over three rainy muddy days later, September 15. The attack was no secret - date and time had already been published in a Swiss paper - and rather than stand and fight the huge number of Americans, the Germans decided to pull out. They were in the process of retreating when the shooting began. It was a win for what was grandly called the American Expeditionary Forces. According to one historian the U.S. lost "only" about 1,300 men in that battle. That's about two years worth of KIAs in the Iraq War killed in three days. I guess human life was cheaper then.

There is no detailed record of how Tom did, but he survived. And his reward was a chance to die in another battle.

Battle Scars
Fortunately - if that's the right word - there are still sections of the battle zone which are preserved, or to put it more accurately had been frozen in time by benign neglect. The WWI generation has long died out and today few people bother to visit these forgotten places. I was grateful for this. I could step into a place where history was stopped and see what Tom had seen.

So, my GPS suction-cupped to the windshield of a rented car,a glossy tourist office map spread across my knees, I drove around until I found a spot my brochure said still had French and German trenches. Nobody in the parking lot. Everything was still. The only sounds were an occasional distinctive call of a cuckoo bird, the first time I heard one outside of a clock.Old signs pointed deep into the piney woods. I walked by a weatherworn memorial decorated with faded plastic flowers and stepped into the shadows beyond. A place which used to be crowded with soldiers shooting at each other, bombarding each other, killing each other was now a silent patch of overgrown woods. This is what I found.

A huge crater from an artillery shell. It looked a dark entry to another dimension:

A mossy, overgrown bunker:

The scars of trenches snaking through the forest.

How a similar trench looked during the war:

When I tried to climb down into one, I slipped in the mud - it had rained heavily the day before - and grabbed for balance as I dropped into the trench. For my effort I got a fistful of greasy mud the color of dark chocolate. It stuck to my skin like paste. It was impossible to wipe off. Days later I was still digging it out of my cuticle. Soldiers crawled through this stuff, slept in it, had to live with it for years.

It was only after I had been here about an hour that I noticed something odd. I had hiked through woods in different parts of France and would always see some sorts of woodland creatures, birds, rabbits, even an occasional snake. But here there was nothing. The only sign of wildlife in all the time I was wandering through this silent world was a weird fluorescent orange slug shimmering in a patch of sunlight:

I looked around at the woods. The growth was so dense that even as noon approached little sunlight seeped into the dim place. If it was this dark on a bright summer day, what must it have been like during the sodden, rainy fall of 1918? Men who slept in such dank spots even for a few days got trench foot, diptheria. The Argonne Forest, where Tom was going next, was very much like this, I had read, only worse.

Depressing WWI Fact: Verdun was the site of the war's longest single battle. It dragged on for 11 months and caused over a million casualties.
{To be continued}