Letter from a vagabond 11 October 2018 Thoughts on Verdun…

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Outside, heavy fog curls around our train as I speed on the TGV back to Paris, arriving at Paris Est. I have two hours to make my way to Paris Montparnasse to board another TGV to St. Malo, close to the border of Normandy and Brittany and I will stay there for a few days, four or five.  St. Malo has been on a list of places to see since I read, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, a best seller from two years ago, when I first worked in the bookstore.  If you have not read this World War II story, I recommend it.  It is one of those great reads, remaining with you long after the covers have been closed for the last time.

In Verdun, I spent two days at the Verdun War Memorial and at the Ossuary, the resting place of the bones of 100,000 men, who died in that battle, gathered together in one huge Art Deco building designed in the 1930’s.

It was not my intention to spend two days there.  And it was meant to be.  The first, and only day, I was going to be in Verdun, I spent so much time at the War Memorial I could not get to the Ossuary.  Regretfully, I left the next morning, only to discover I had left something very valuable behind.

So, I returned to retrieve it and took the time to go to the Ossuary, for which I am forever grateful.

The War Memorial lays out the life of horrors the men of Verdun, on both sides, endured.  It demonstrated how they attempted to maintain humanity in inhuman conditions.  They were known as “men of mud” because that is what they lived in, unremitting mud, day in and day out, for months on end, a battle that went on for more than 300 days.  300,000 soldiers, on both sides, died; another 700,000 were wounded, in a battle that decided nothing.  Officially France won the day, and, at the end of the day, it did nothing to move the fate of the war one way or another.  It destroyed Verdun, obliterated Fleury, left widows and sweethearts with dead lovers, mothers and fathers without children, children without fathers.

One letter read something like this: Mother, how could you let me be born into a world that might let me die like this?

It was found on his body later in the day that he had written those words.

Every week, Charles Grauss carved a toy for his daughter, Ghislaine.  They are part of a beautiful collection at the museum.  He did not live to return to see Ghislaine appreciate his gifts; he never saw his daughter after he left for Verdun.

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The Ossuary is a silent temple to the dead, silence that seems to pulsate.  To step outside and look across the fields where the armies fought, and hundreds of thousands died, is to, today, to see one of the most beautiful vistas on the planet, a valley, green and verdant, marked with rows upon rows of white crosses, stretching from one side to the other, marking the graves of men who could be identified.  Trees and grass have returned to a land some thought would be forever war destroyed.

The long upper hall of the Ossuary is bathed in a red orange glow from panes of colored glass; the light evokes both the blood shed on the fields below and the hope of heaven that must have been in the minds of men as they clawed through the mud of earth.

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Catholics from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and the United States all collected money to build a chapel on the second level.  Above the altar is a statue of Christ after being lifted down from the cross, agony ended by death.  It seemed a fitting statue for this somber place where agony often ended only in death.

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After the Ossuary was open, both Germans and French stood in front of it in 1936, vowing to never let this happen again.

In 1984, the French President Mitterrand and the German Chancellor Kohl came together there.  Mitterrand had been captured by the Germans at Verdun in WWII.  Kohl’s father had fought in the hills during WWI.

They held hands a long time, a gesture of solidarity of what both sides had lost at Verdun, the best of a generation, a world that would never be the same, the seeds of an Allied victory having sowed the field that would become the next war.

M & K at V

Two men, at the beginning of the European experiment, acknowledging the hard road from Verdun in 1916 to that moment in 1984, hands clasped fiercely, the European experiment just beginning.

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