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.
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.
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.
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.