Never trust the directions of a woman armed with a map. Especially do not trust her if she is behind the counter of the city’s tourist bureau counter. Just walk up here, through there, cross there and you will be at the Verdun Memorial. Oh, by the way everything is closed in January. Of course it is.
I follow her instructions the next day, leaving at nine and on a morning that felt mild but which the thermometer said was three degrees. I figured I would be fine as long as the wind did not blow. Off through a silent town and mostly we are all good until I hit Rue Marceau. ‘Just walk straight up there’ she said. Trouble is Rue Marceau (properly signposted) rapidly turns into a farmer’s lane and then into his driveway – in which he happens to be standing, arms folded. I take a side track around his house into a copse of denuded trees. Do I push on or retreat? Never retreat!
I press on through the damp trees and the farm house vanishes behind me into the mess of bare branches and moss. I hit a chain fence I can’t climb but fortunately it is not very long and I step around the end of it to discover I am on railway tracks. Seriously? Still, I know if I keep pressing north I have to hit the old fortifications sooner or later so I cross the track, work my way around another chain fence and into more trees. Through those, and what looks like a vagrant’s camp, and then onto a muddy track. It takes me east. I decide to follow it a little while and see if I can get my bearings. All it does is take me into the middle of a million cabbages. Really? At least there are no trees and across the paddock and up the hill I can see the roof of a car vanishing out of sight. Right, must be a road up there, I’ll plug on over to that.
There was and it tended to the north so I followed it. And to my surprise it led me into the old Fort Souville. No mention of this by the girl at the tourist counter even though I had expressly asked after this sort of thing. There you go. Actually it was all the better for my own discovery. I had a clear understanding for the previous half kilometre or so that I was coming onto the old battlefields for I had moved away from cultivated acres of young cabbages and the road was closed in by trees which were increasingly rooted in hollows and mounds that became more and more well defined as circular depressions the higher I climbed. By the time I had reached the outskirts of Souville old trenches were clearly outlined in the ground as well.
I quickly realized that mid winter was actually the best time to visit such a place. The dense woodlands would have hidden all that deformed ground and I would have been sorry to have missed it. It spoke its own torture even after one hundred years. I walked eight hours today and covered about 26km and each time I turned around I was impressed at how ruptured the land was. How much more so a century ago? War photos just don’t impress the upheaval in the same way that walking around this place conveys.
But winter has its other advantages as well. Until the end of the day I did not see a single animal and saw only two wrens. The exception to this was a deer that leapt across the track about fifty metres in front of me in the last fifteen minutes of the day. Across the hill of Souville the fog had set in and the place was very dim. Underfoot the previous season’s leaves were mattress thick and soft. All around is the evidence of gargantuan industry, in both the building, defence and partial destruction of these forts. It all speaks of men busy in this place and their ghosts are very real to me. I walk over pits, stand in doorways and walk tracks and wonder at the men who lived here. And died here. It is entirely appropriate that the fog drapes itself over the place, that there are no sounds of animals or birds, or anything else. Not even my own footfall. Even catching a glimpse of my fogging breath surprises me at one point, the movement making my head snap around. And of course there is not a single other visitor on the site. I have the place to myself and there is a clear sense of sanctuary. What else could it be given there is an awareness of so much death here? It resonates with me more than any cathedral ever does. Indeed, it is not until six hours into my journey that I stumble over three others who have driven up to the Ossuary.
I move on from Souville. It’s left a strong impression on me and I am glad I found it. But I am especially glad I stumbled over it in the way that I did – my eye drawn to trenches and tracks that seemed just a little unusual. And then to signs which pointed me into that gloomy forest. I walk out of there and off the hill, down past the “lion” which my tourist adviser had suggested I look at. It’s unimpressive as lions on monuments go. I have a sacrilegious laugh to myself, thinking the Brits post a standing, rather assertive looking lion on a monument at Waterloo with balls that would do an elephant proud, while this French feline is lying down dead. And looking rather, well, passé. Different cats for different courses I guess. Anyway, on past the monuments to Fleury, a town which moved me deeply. It no longer exists.
There are a dozen towns around Verdun which retain their registrations and even have mayors. But they ceased to exist in 1916 when the offensive (called “The Judgment” by the Germans) against this part of the line was at its fiercest. The main street of Fleury is marked by a track which winds down a gentle slope to where the town hall once was. The ground still looks like the surface of a golf ball and rain has collected in many of the craters. Where there was a house or farm or business there is a marker to indicate who lived there and what industry in which they were occupied. Baker here. Shoemaker there. The whole scene is beautifully wrapped up under the shadow of spruce trees which somehow convey the sense of a shrine. And yet it is an infinitely sad and desolate place. I stop there and take a snack but resist the magnetism of that desolation. It’s too easy to wallow in that feeling and I resolve to keep moving. That the wind is up and the temperature down prods me along.
Along past the vast fields of markers to unknown soldiers in fields of white and down to the town of Douaumont, also destroyed in 1916. When I get there a small sign says there is a fort 80 metres away. Really? That girl in the tourist office needs a briefing methinks as I duck under branches and pick my way into the forest and follow a track churned up by mountain bike riders (you can imagine what fun they have around here riding around this moonscape – its perfect for that sport). It’s a lot more than 80 metres but eventually I am noticing pieces of steel on either side of the track and then in the track proper, which the riders have painted red. And then through the bare branches I spot a huge mound of brown grass. It’s Fort Douaumont and I have soon negotiated my way over the outer fortifications and up onto the roof. At last, I have a view of the terrain and this fort, that of Souville which I can now see three or four clicks away (or at least the trees which cover it) and the whole escarpment – which runs east-west – and the defences built along here instantly makes sense. Why Verdun was so important, and equally, why it was so hard to take (it never was) make sense as well.
I trek back, taking a slight detour back over Souville now that I know where I am, and head back into town, avoiding the cabbages and the railway crossing, muddy tracks and frowning farmer. It’s been an invigorating day. And oddly enough I can thank a girl, who has no idea about maps, or her own town, for it.