‘All quiet on the Western front…’ Verdun, France

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“It’s queer, when one thinks about it,” goes on Kropp, “we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?” – Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front

I exactly remember the moment when I read ‘All quiet on the Western front’ by Erich Maria Remarque for the very first time. I was 18 and the book had a great influence on me. A few years later I got a chance to visit the most infamous battlefield of World War I that probably everyone has heard of – Verdun, in France. Actually I visited it twice, once in winter and  in the summertime.

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The battle of Verdun was fought from 21st February to 18th December 1916. It was the longest battle of WWI and resulted in almost 1 million casualties. To make a long story short, the battle of Verdun became a symbol of French resistance and determination to keep Germans away at any cost. I could risk a statement that in every French family there’s someone who fought in Verdun or got killed there. At least among all French people that I know. I don’t know any German families, but I guess for them Verdun means something similar.

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the battlefield today

I adore visiting this area and I can’t explain why. Maybe because I have a feeling that time has stopped there. It’s both fascinating and scary. It makes me depressed. As if this nightmare never ended, as if it was still alive in people’s minds. Which is good, we should remember. But then again, you look at the horizon of old trenches, of wiped out villages, bomb holes in the ground, which are still there, even 100 years later, you see cemeteries with thousands of graves of young soldiers and you can’t stop yourself from asking: why did it all happen? What was the point of that war? But the answer doesn’t come. And maybe that’s the worst part of the story, the awareness of how pointless that whole war was. In my country we say that it was actually a good thing for us because Poland and other countries regained independence. But believe me, you will never say something like that again if you ever visit Verdun.  If we continue like this, then we could find positive aspects of every other war, we could say: how good that WWII broke out because now at least Gdańsk is part of Poland. But how terrible it sounds. That’s why I’d never say WWI gave us something good.

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Verdun and the surrounding area is very interesting to visit for every fan of history. There’s so many museums and spots on the way that it’s nearly impossible to visit all of them within one day. I’ve been there twice but still I didn’t manage to see everything. Fort Douaumont is a must-see. And in my opinion the best time of the year to visit it is winter. Not only because of lack of tourists, but when can you understand the misery of soldiers if not in cold winter, walking through cold, humid tunnels?

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Fort Douaumont inside…

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… and outside

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Also, the memorial of Verdun is worth visiting. The photos of old men holding their war pictures were the most touching for me.

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“We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”
– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front, Ch. 5

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“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”
– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front, Chapter 12

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