A sobering moment exploring the ruined landscape of Vauquois Hill near Verdun.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of reports from Sweet Briar associate professor of history John Ashbrook. He is leading a course this summer, “Industrialized Killing — The World Wars, the Holocaust, and Memory,” that takes participants through the battlefields and war memorials of Europe.
We began our second tour of the Somme region with the British section of the line that went over the top to attack German positions in 1916. Robert Hewer, our guide, showed us the jumping off points of the attack that achieved many of their objectives (in the south) and those that were much less successful in the northern sector.
Very little of the battleground is preserved since farmers reclaimed most of it for agriculture. What is left is a testament to the massive amount of industrialized killing of the First World War, including the solemn graveyards commemorating the foreign men who lost their lives in this land. Land owners routinely come across unexploded ordnance (including poisonous gas shells), and more often than not, discard it in dumps located all around the countryside.
Next, the group traveled to Newfoundland Memorial Park
. Now a province of Canada, the then-independent Dominion of Newfoundland sent soldiers attached to British units by request, purposely separating themselves from Canadian forces. The park’s main monument is a caribou sculpture — a reference to the regiment’s emblem — facing the direction of the German trenches. Also inside the memorial park are three cemeteries, including a circular gravestone monument to 12 British Black Watch soldiers killed by the same explosion.
We ended our Somme tour with a trip to the World War I museum in Peronne. The museum is in a refurbished medieval fortress, and has a very well done film about the history of the war and prints of famous artist Otto Dix.
We left the Somme and headed to the Ypers salient area
of Belgium. The museum, In Flanders Fields, was awesome, making very good use of presentation technology in innovative ways. It was chock-full of artifacts, but also with testimonies of the actual combatants, played by actors using diaries and letters.
From there, we took a tour of the battle sites around the city with Pieter Trogh. Three major battles took place there during the war. Trogh showed us where the Germans first used chlorine gas against colonial troops. The chemical assault almost secured a major breakthrough, but lack of foresight — a typical problem in World War I leadership — prevented such a victory.
That afternoon we traveled to Bastogne, Belgium, where the well-known Battle of the Bulge occurred. We took a full-day tour with Roby Clam, an expert on the region and the battle, and saw where much of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne fought. Roby reminded us that many other units also fought in the region and shared the same hardships that the Band of Brothers warriors faced. One of the highlights of the tour was climbing on a Panther tank the Belgians recovered from a river and set up in a village square. The Panther was an excellent, well-engineered German tank, but it was introduced too late in the war to make much of a difference in its outcome.
Verdun, France, was our next stop. We stayed at two charming bed and breakfasts in and near Nantillois. Our host and guide, Maarten, took us on tours of the local battlefields and two of the famed fortresses of the Verdun defensive network. The newly renovated museum just outside Verdun is impressive and has a wide collection of the mechanized implements of war.
On top of this, all over the region, we saw many cannons and trench mortars, along with a Sherman tank from the Second World War. One morning, Maarten took us into a small wood that the Germans used to house and treat their men. The detritus of war littered the ground in places. Shrapnel, old barbed wire, wine bottles, discarded boot heels, unfired ammunition — all the products of factories and assembly lines, and all about a century old.
For me, the highlight of the Verdun trip was Vauquois Hill. In 1914, Vauquois was a small French town overlooking the surrounding flatlands. In 1918, it was an unlivable series of craters. For a year and a half the Germans and French detonated more than 400 multi-ton mines under each other’s trenches. The craters here illustrate the underground war that the armies fought against one another on all fronts of the war and are a lasting testament to the permanent affects of war on the landscape.
Our last stop in France was a medieval village in Alsace called Turckheim. Not far from this village was a contested highland in the Vosges Mountains called Le Linge. At this point, the Germans and French contested a strategic overlook in 1915 and 1916. We roamed the small museum there and the well-mapped and preserved trenches adjacent to it. There wasn’t as much tunneling and mining here as at Vauquois, but the forward trenches were separated by a no-man’s-land that was an easy grenade throw.
Currently we are on Mount Lagazuoi in northern Italy. And here is where the next blog post will pick up in a few days.
Read Part One of this series here
More photos from France
Headstones of British soldiers who died at the Somme in 1916 at one of the many memorial parks maintained by the British government.
Exploring a German dugout in a trench at Le Linge.
The memorial to the fallen German soldiers, their bodies interred behind the stone wall at the back, in Douaumont Fortress overlooking Verdun.
The group outside one of the bed and breakfast establishments in Nantillois, France, a few miles from Verdun.