Those people stationed in Western Europe really have an unfair advantage. They have country upon country right at their fingertips, and a few years worth of weekends to spend exploring them.
A fun (not so fun) fact about the military. While the leave time of 30 days a year sounds pretty generous, depending on where you are stationed, those days may not go very far. For JAGs (and possibly everyone else, I’m just not 100% sure), at each base you have a radius of distance that you can travel without having to take leave. Should you travel outside of that radius, EVEN if it is a Saturday or Sunday, you have to take a leave day.
In South Dakota we were only allowed to travel within a 6 hour distance without having to take leave, which meant our only real destinations were Denver or Fort Collins, both of which are awesome don’t get me wrong, but a girl needs more options! In Turkey (until recently) we were allowed to travel anywhere within Turkey without taking leave. In Europe, you can pretty much go anywhere in Europe without taking leave – because almost everywhere is just a few hours away and you have plenty of modes of transportation from cars, to trains, to really cheap flights to get you there.
Will had a big trial in Germany, and since he was going to be gone a while, Aubrey and I decided to join him. And since everyone had a free Saturday, we all loaded up and drove into France to see the Verdun Memorial.
But first, lunch was in order.
The World War I memorial spreads out over a large area, and including an ossuary holding the remains of the French and German soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun. According to trusty Wikipedia, approximately 230,000 men died out of a total of 700,000 (some say 900,000) casualties (dead, wounded, missing) during this 300 day battle, making it one of the most vicious battles in history.
In front of the ossuary is the largest single French military cemetery, with 16,142 graves – most marked as unknown soldiers.
There are also gravestones dedicated to the muslims that gave their lives.
The ossuary holds the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants, which can be seen from outside through small windows that line the bottom of the structure.
Beyond the ossuary there are a number of trails which lead you through the battlegrounds. Almost 100 years have passed allowing nature to recover the demolished land, yet rusted steel rebar and the ruins of concrete structures built for protection can still be seen sticking out of the ground.
After the battle, the land resembled a moonscape due to the barrage of artillery shells. And while vegetation has finally returned, you can still see the shell holes covering the landscape, causing it to appear as an oddly hilly terrain.
We didn’t make it to all of the individual sites, but on our way out we stopped by the Tranchée des Baionnettes (trench of bayonets).
The morbid history reveals that the 3rd company of the 137th regime of the French infantry was caught by surprise in an attack by the Germans, which buried them alive in their trenches. Years later French teams exploring the area discovered the trenches when they noticed the tips of the bayonets sticking out from the ground. The bayonets were still attached to the rifles, each with a body accompanying it.
Visiting memorials like this can be heartbreakingly depressing, but it’s also a good reminder of the real and saddening impact of war. I hate to admit it, but I did a horrible job of paying attention in my history classes in school, and was clueless about this entire battle. So this was a huge and fascinating history lesson for me. I only wish we were stationed here so there could be many more history lessons in the future!