Posts Tagged ‘German occupation of France in the First World War’

Carnets de Verdun

April 20, 2016

51gEh0EU7+L._AC_US160_Some of you may be aware of my long-standing interest in the Great War, from occasional mentions of my visits to battlefields and more frequent reviews of literature connected with it. I’ve read this anthology from accounts by French veterans of the Battle of Verdun during my first visit to the area.

British interest in the Great War tends to focus either on Flanders or the Somme, these being two main areas where our troops were heavily involved. For the French, Verdun is the battle, the symbol.

I’ve been learning a good deal about the difference between France’s and Britain’s experiences. For starters, large parts of northern France were occupied by the Germans, who ruled quite brutally. Families were separated, cut off from each other. France lost a sizeable part of its industry and coal, which made fighting the war harder. But the most important thing was, the Germans were there: this never happened to the British, and so it requires quite a leap of the imagination to comprehend. (It also, of course, explains the French insistence on the ruinous reparations from Germany after the war, which contributed to the rise of Hitler, but that’s another story.)

The soldiers’ accounts paint a horrific picture, of destruction, slaughter and cruelty beside which I have found a lot of what I’ve read about the Somme pales rather. Nine villages so completely erased from the map that they could not be rebuilt after the war and are now merely marked as historical remains – martyr villages – on maps. Men used as cannon-fodder because their commanders hadn’t a clue what to do, and (almost) willingly going to certain death because they were really doing it for their families and their country. Astonishing acts of bravery and endurance by ordinary men.

The more I see, the less I understand. The museums and memorials here are very interesting. I can see how and why both French and Germans have been so committed to real reconciliation and peace-making in Europe, and again, this feels like something hard for us on our island to understand clearly. Forty per cent of the Frenchmen who died in the Great War died in the first three months, because they were so desperate to drive out the invaders. Twenty-seven thousand of those died on one day, which puts some perspective onto the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Two things I’m aware of: books like this remind me of the appalling human cost, and the human tragedy. Museums and exhibitions, with their emphasis on artefacts, remind me of the stupendous destruction and waste of all sorts of materials and resources which might have been put to better use. Are we really an intelligent species?

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