Reflecting on Verdun

This week I am in northern France in the area of the great stalemates of the first world war. I have not seen the sun nor blue sky for three days. The sky is unrelenting grey pressing down on the earth and it sprinkles now and again. One doesn’t go out without bundling up.

I have always marveled that the men of that time never mutinied when after the second or third bloodbath it should have been obvious to all that their commanders had no idea how to wage a war in the then new era. Now I might see it. Were I living for months in this place, wallowing in the mud of the trenches, never able to get warm, then venturing forward in a futile charge into the barbed wire, gas, and machine guns might seem a better prospect.

As bleak as that is, the people have healed the land of the scars of that fight, and the views are of lush farm fields and small villages, though few buildings have been here more than a century. Still there are many clues. Where there are trees, they reveal man’s hand in thier planting by being of a kind and growing in ranks and files, rather than the haphazard scattering of diverse species that nature prefers. The pyramid like slag heaps that were among the few landmarks not razed by artillery barages still mark the horizon when you can see that far, and the monuments and memorials erected to those times are well tended.

The people compensate for the bleak weather and horrific history by using the rich soil to grow wonderous creations to fill thier dinner plates and wine glasses. And these things have good effect on the disposition of the people. I have found these French people to be quick to smile, slow to take offense, and eager to help a stranger. I wonder if Americans who claim the French are snobbish have ever ventured beyond Paris? I did find the people in that city less patient with my attempts to communicate, but not more so than the natives of New York or other places infested with too many tourists.

Thanks for the picture. How big is the cemetery? What do local children say about the trenches? Did you crouch in a trench, or lie flat in the dirt? Have you seen or heard ghosts?

Did you visit the memorial to Driant? I would love to see that.

Eventually they did exactly that.

Edit: Interestingly, historian John Keegan has pointed out that most other armies in WWI also had massive morale breakdowns, and in each case the collapse occurred (very roughly) after the same proportion of casualties – when the cumulative number of dead and wounded roughly equaled the number currently in the ranks, if I recall accurately. The main exception was the German army, which he speculates may have been buoyed up by victory over Russia.