As the world capital of the Great War, Verdun is the symbol of violent battles that raged in Lorraine throughout the entire conflict. From August 1914 to November 1918, Lorraine became a blood-soaked ground where hundreds of thousands of soldiers perished.
From the Vosges, the only mountain front in France, to Verdun, to the annexed Metz and Nancy (which remained French), Lorraine still bears the marks of the Great War. Today, the scarred land is an exceptional conservatory of the sites and remnants that, testify to the battles that were fought there.
Beginning of the conflict
Although it was a world war, the conflict had unique features in Lorraine due to its geographic location and the annexation of Metz and Moselle, which had been German territories from 1870 to 1918 following the Franco-Prussian War.
Before the bloody clashes of Verdun, France and Germany had already clashed numerous times in the Vosges mountains and around Nancy, beginning in 1914.The Battle of Grand Couronné included fighting in Lunéville and Léomont, not far from Nancy. After changing hands eight times in one night, the French took control of the hill to win their first victory of the War.
Fighting in Le Grand Couronné and particularly Bois-le-Prêtre Forestwas so violent that the Germans nicknamed the forest “The Widows’ Forest” and French soldiers the “Wolves of Bois-le-Prêtre” due to the fierce and relentless fighting.
Verdun – Meuse, historic land
In September 1914, the Germans succeeded in advancing inside the French lines in an attempt to besiege Verdun. This formed what would be called the Saint Mihiel Salient, which stretched from the Eparges to Pont-à-Mousson, through Saint Mihiel.
The Eparges Ridge still bears the scars of the terrible fighting of 1915. The Calonne Trench, where writers such as Jean Giono and Alain Fournier met, was also in the area.
During the fighting of 1916, Verdun lived up to its motto “They shall not pass”. With 300 days and 300 nights of non-stop fighting, 300,000 French and German dead and missing, 400,000 wounded, 9 villages wiped off the map, this head-on confrontation was the most deadly in history.Seventeen nations honoured the city after the war by giving it their highest distinction and naming it "Capital of the Great War”.
The rich authenticity of the remain and sites of the battlefields of Verdun form a unique heritage. These include, for example, Fort Douaumont, the cornerstone of the fortifications protecting the city of Verdun, or Fort Vaux, symbol of the heroism of Verdun infantrymen.
The Underground Citadel of Verdun, an underground city organised to shelter and meet the daily needs of 2,000 men, played a major role during the Battle of 1916. It was from here that the Unknown Soldier was chosen in November 1920 to be placed to rest under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
In Argonne, prominent for the use of mines, the Vauquois Hill is the best example of underground "living" quarters. The well-exhibited and well-kept site make it a major site in Lorraine. It is where the Germans built theIt is where the Germans built the “Kaiser Tunnel”, equipping it with power generators and a field hospital.
Finally, the “Voie Sacrée" (the "Sacred Way”), is an historic and emblematic strategic road behind the French front lines during the Great War that connects Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. It was a vital logistical corridor serving Verdun and wasn’t given its name until after the war by the writer Maurice Barrès. During the War, on average, one vehicle passed through it every 14 seconds.
Behind the German front line, examples of installations that remain include the Duzey Battery and “Big Bertha”, a twenty-tonne long-range howitzer naval gun that fired 380 mm shells, or Camp Marguerre, the final resting place of German soldiers that was also used for concrete manufacturing and storage.
Besides numerous cemeteries, there are various sites in the Lorraine that are dedicated to remembrance of the Great War. For instance, the Centre Mondial de la Paix, des Libertés et des Droits de l’Homme (World Centre for Peace, Liberty and Human Rights), located in the prestigious episcopal palace of Verdun, is a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation, a driving force behind European integration.
In 1984, echoing the 1958 meeting of De Gaulle and Adenauer, the handshake between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand sealed closer ties between France and Germany, the two pillars of the European Union. In addition to battlefield tours, the Centre also programs rich temporary art and/or history exhibitions.
Each year, the Monument to the Victory and Soldiers of Verdun is the scene of annual ceremonies for the Armistice and the Selection of the Unknown Soldier. On the battlefield, the Verdun Memorial, created under the patronage of the veteran Maurice Genevoix in 1967, retells the history of the most famous battle of the Great War. The site reopened on 22nd February 2016 following major renovation work.
Nearby, the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers lie in the Douaumont Ossuary that preserves their memory.
The Bayonet Trench Monument, built by an American patron, was inspired by the legend of French soldiers who were buried alive in their trench under heavy bombardment.
In memory of American involvement in the Great War, the United States erected the Montsec Hill American Monument in 1932. It commemorates the offensive of the 1st American Army in September 1918 and the achievements of soldiers who fought until 1918. Montsec hill offers a magnificent panoramic view of Madine Lake and the Meuse hills.
In addition, the Romagne-sous-Montfaucon American Cemetery and Memorial is the largest American cemetery in Europe with 14,246 crosses on the graves of American soldiers that fell while fighting to liberate the Meuse-Argonne area. The Montfaucon American Monument in Argonne was erected by the American Battle Monuments Commission to honour the 28,000 Americans who fought to retake Montfaucon hill on 26 and 27 September 1918. At the time, it was the largest battle in American history.
Over the past few years, the "Ravin du génie" or "Ravin des sept fontaines" has been cleared and restored to create a heritage trail in the forest to show the life led by the Poilus.