The destroyed village: Fleury-devant-Douaumont

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By Paul Scraton:

As the road approaches the village through the forest, a sign appears at the sign of the road. It is like all others at the entrance to villages and towns throughout France: a white rectangle, fringed in red. The name of the settlement in black letters.

FLEURY DT DOUAUMONT

But unlike most other towns or villages in France, there are more words underneath.

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These two words mark Fleury-devant-Douaumont out from the other villages in the surrounding region and across the country. These two words help tell a story. In the forests around the town of Verdun, in the northeast of France, there are eight other villages with this categorisation. They stand in the Zone Rouge, an area declared uninhabitable by the French government after the devastation of the First World War. The land was contaminated, as along with the remains of the dead, poison and other dangerous gases had soaked into the soil along with lead and mercury, with impossible to calculate amounts of unexploded ordinances littered across the former battlefields.

Before the First World War Fleury-devant-Douaumont was home to just over 400 inhabitants, who worked the land or in the village itself. There were farms and smithys, a bakery and a grocery-cafe. A church and a school, a town hall and a weaver's workshop. It was not easy farming land, although even this far north the villagers were able to harvest grapes and make money from the forest that surrounded them.

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On the 21 February 1916 the sound of artillery shells marked the beginning of the German advance, part of what would become known as the Battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest in all of military history. A few hundred metres from the entrance to the village, the cemetery at Douaumont is the resting place for thousands of French soldiers who died in a battle that lasted months. The ossuary, one of France’s most important national monuments, houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell at Verdun. Altogether, the fighting in these now peaceful, wooded hills, took the lives of well over 300,000 mostly young men and although the forest now covers the landscape, the scars remain. Trenches, dug down into the soil. Shell craters, that give the land a strange, undulating shape. And crosses, so many crosses, in long neat lines. A reminder, a hundred years later, of what was lost.

As the Germans advanced, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was evacuated. Altogether, what remained of the village exchanged hands sixteen times over the course of the battle. When it finally ended, the village was no more. It was in the Zone Rouge, declared a village that had ‘died for France.’ Nothing was left, but in honour of its sacrifice, it kept its legal status. The red-framed white signs still stand at the entrance and exit of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. It still has a mayor.

Today, visitors park on the side of the road that links the Douaumont ossuary with the Verdun Memorial, and wander the three streets of the village, marked out as they are among the trees by white poles. Stone slabs inform visitors in three languages as to what building once occupied a particular plot of land. A farm. The church. A bakery. The wash house. The school. There are remnants of some structures – a few stones in the ground, foundations poking through the mossy forest floor – but otherwise there is nothing, except the war memorial and a rebuilt chapel, where Our Lady of Europe, draped in a blue flag with gold stars, offers a permanent reminder of what could emerge out of the devastation of not only this war, but the one that was soon to follow.

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A small plaque offers the visitor a few words from Jean Guitton of the Académie française:

It is here, in the silence of Douaumont and the wiped out village of Fleury that I came to realise that you cannot pull down walls in Europe without first reconciling the peoples.

In the village and at the ossuary, there are cars parked with visitors from across Europe. The GB and the B. The CZ and the PL. The L and the NL. Mostly F and D, coming like Mitterand and Kohl did, and later Hollande and Merkel, to pay their respects together to the fallen of both countries. It is without question a sombre place. Signs at the entrance of the forest gently remind you that it is not a place for picnics or music, ball games or impromptu campsites. Other signs warn walkers and cyclists to stick to the paths, that the weapons of war can still kill, even a hundred years after the peace.

Why is important to visit such places? Why should we walk through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, where the streets and the memories of the houses and the people that once occupied this hillside have been reclaimed by the forest? Stefan Zweig knew. In 1920, the Austrian writer travelled to Ypres. The guns had only been silent for a couple of years. The landscape was still devastated and the wounded were still returning to their homes and already the first tourist groups were arriving, to the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere along the Western Front.

For Zweig, the traces were important, whether two years after the events or a hundred. In Fleury-devant-Douaumont I thought of Zweig’s words, written after his return from Ypres. It made me hopeful that there were other people there with me in the woods, walking the village streets now held in the embrace of the forest. Zweig knew that despite the distasteful elements of places such as these becoming tourist destinations, there was still something good, and something very important, “when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through … annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Postcard from... Gdańsk

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By Paul Scraton:

Under the archway at the end of the Long Market, two photographs looked down on the pedestrians as they moved through to cobbled streets of the Main Town or out to the car park by the theatre, where the Christmas Market was in full swing. Not many people looked up, to contemplate the vision of Gdańsk as it was at the end of the Second World War. Perhaps they had seen them so many times before. But for the new arrival, they were enough to make you stop and stare.

Here, in the city where the war began, roughly 90% of the buildings were destroyed. The photographs showed the devastation in brutal black and white. It was possible to make out the streets, but barely a single building survived intact. What remained were the stone steps, leading up from the street to where once elegant townhouses stood, now reduced to piles of rubble.

The rebuilding of Gdańsk was an incredible achievement, the Main Town of the city once again reflecting the Hanseatic heyday of this port city that would later come to symbolise the opposition of everyday people to the Communist elites via the Solidarity movement born in the shipyards. On the waterfront or along the Long Market, in front of the grand churches or the amber shops of the atmospheric Ulica Mariacka, the rebuilding made it possible to imagine a city where the war never happened; even with the knowledge that behind those façades, so true to the originals, were buildings of a much more modern construction.

Elsewhere in the city, the reminders of what happened in Gdańsk in the 20th century were easier to discover. The Old Town, to the north, was a fairly nondescript residential district, with only a few pre-War buildings, such as the iconic Post Office, still standing or rebuilt. There were many memorials, of course. To the Post Office workers who held out against the German forces. To the victims of the Second World War and the Communist regime that followed. There were museums seemingly around every corner, trying to tell the story of the city via the many events that shaped it and the different periods of its long history.

Kashubia and Poland. Hanseatic League and Teutonic Knights. Prussia and Germany.

Free City. Destroyed city.

Danzig / Gdańsk

But perhaps the most striking reminder of the past appeared back in the Main Town, on Świętego Ducha. There, on one side of the street, the houses had been rebuilt as elsewhere. Red brick and ornate façades. Crow-stepped gables and Dutch-inspired roofs. But on the other side of the cobblestoned street, the space had been left empty when the rebuilding began, eventually filled a little by trees, a car park and a public toilet, standing in the shade. On that side of the street the steps that survived the war lead up from the pavement to only the memory of the building that stood there before. A ghostly entranceway to a city almost completely destroyed, now re-imagined. The steps were like a postcard from the past, enough to stop you in your tracks – just like the photographs, hanging beneath the city gate.