France 19 Run To Verdun. Part Three

Day 6: Saturday 6th July
Waking up, I had the view of a blue sky out of my window on my first day in Verdun. The forecast was for sunshine. I had planned to spend most of the day at the forts and surrounding sights on the eastern edge of Verdun. My only concern was that being a Saturday, it might be too busy. So I did have a back up plan that would mean swapping visits around with Sundays plan. I had been to some of these sights before when I came here last year, but as I was passing through, I didn’t stay long and missed some of the sights and so this was going to be a more thorough visit.

After breakfast of Coffee and Orange juice, I filled my small flask with Coffee from the dispenser in the dining area. TIP: I packed a small amount of tools and spares and fixed the bag on the rack. I didn’t like the idea of breaking down in a remote wood. So if you’re exploring areas on your scooter, take some emergency breakdown spares. You don’t want to struggle pushing your scooter up and down hills for miles in scorching heat because you didn’t bring a spare cable or spanner. I rode into Verdun centre and bought a couple of bottles of water to fill the large flask to hydrate during the day. This would prove to be a wise move. Today would be the hottest day so far with temperatures soaring and a lot of short rides on the Lambretta and walking would be done. Mileage was going to be low today. Everything I was going to see today was in short distance of each other.

I understand the Great War isn’t for everyone so I’ll not go into too much detail for today’s itinerary, but I’ll leave links at the end for those who are interested.

“Mum, I’m 20 years old and I don’t want to die”
Letter found on an unknown French soldier the day he died.

The Battle of Verdun was huge, it was and still is, the longest battle in history. 65million shells were launched and between them, the French and German had around 800,000 casualties. The Battle of The Somme was used to draw Germans away from and relieved the pressure at Verdun.

Once I left the centre, my first stop on the edge of town was French War Cemetery Faubourg Pavé. This cemetery contains 4,906 French graves from the Great War. There’s also 600 French war graves and seven British graves from the Second World War.

I rode east a few miles out of the city to the woods that are peppered with memorials and cemeteries. This area is also scattered with the remains of thousands of soldiers. French and German laying undiscovered and thousands of tons of unexploded ordinance. A very dangerous place if you step off the paths. There’s a team of bomb disposal experts who remove newly discovered ordinance. Newly discovered human remains are put into the Douaumont Ossuary on a regular basis.

As I ride the road through the woods, each side of the road has small memorials to fallen soldiers who are often lost on the battlefields. I arrive at a well signposted crossroads. This took me to Le Memorial de Verdun. It has a Museum a shop and a cafe with plenty to see.

A couple of hundred yards along the road I came to the spot were Fleury village stood. As with the rest of the villages that stood here in Verdun, none remain. They were all destroyed during the ten month battle. (the longest in history). There remains a path, a marker for each house and photos of what was here before the war.

Next stop was the Ossuary, a huge memorial to the French army with the graves of 14,000 French in it’s foreground. There’s also a shop here. For a few Euros you can walk the steep stairs to the top of the tower with artefacts on show along the climb up. If you walk around the back and look through the glass panels at ground level, you’ll see the bones of at least 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers.

When I walked over to my Lambretta a French couple on a pair of BMW’s came over and chatted to me for a while. We spoke for a while before heading our separate ways.

I rode round the corner to the Trench of Bayonets. A trench that held a line of soldiers waiting to attack who were buried alive by a shell exploding close by and all that remained was a line of bayonets protruding from the earth.

Next was the destroyed village of Douaumont, again a path and markers of what was once here.

Around the corner Fort Douaumont was my next stop. Paying my entrance fee of 4 Euros, I was given headphones and a media player that had images and a recorded voice in English guiding me round the huge underground fort. It was a relief from the heat outside. You could easily get lost in here and I did. I missed a number of signs and had to backtrack. There’s a lot of relics and memorials to the horrors that took place in this fort.

I went back to the museum for a bit of food for lunch and sat in the shade outside. I was making good time, I was getting round the sights without any problems and they weren’t too busy.

While I’ve been reading about Verdun in the last year, I learnt of a French soldier by the name of Arthur Exshaw from Bordeaux. His family originally came from Ireland in the early 1800’s. He was killed in the Battle of Verdun in Caillette Wood when his unit attempted to take back Fort Douaumont on the 23rd May 1916. His name is on the walls of Douaumont Ossuary. With trench maps I found the approximately location of the line of which he would have attacked from in Caillette Wood. I couldn’t get right in to the wood, but I laid a memorial marker of remembrance to Arthur Exshaw near by.

After a walk round some remaining trenches in the area I rode the five miles to Fort Vaux another spot which saw severe fighting during the Great War. Like Fort Vaux, they give you a media player to guide you round the underground fort.

This was a very successful days sightseeing. I got round everywhere I intended going, The places I went to weren’t busy and I got to find Arthur Exshaw’s name and lay a memorial marker in the area he fell in 1916.

When I was riding into town to get some supplies I had a near miss. While approaching the same roundabout that I was nearly hit by a van last year, I lost my concentration and pulled out in front of a car. I hit the brake so hard the front wheel slid away. How I managed to stay upright, I’ll not know, but it served as a warning.

I had one issue which I wasn’t initially sure of resolving. My hotel room has no fridge. So keeping liquids or food chilled isn’t going to happen, especially as the room didn’t air conditioning. The only solution I could think of was to buy a cool bag from the store Decathlon. (There’s one I go to in Belfast and there’s an abundance of Decathlon stores in France). One difference between France and the Belfast Decathlon is the French store sell ammunition! I bought a cool bag and went to the Hypermarche and bought a couple of bags of frozen veg for the cool bag. I bought a load of small bottles of water and headed back to my hotel. When the water got cooled I transferred it to the flask which keeps water cold for over 24 hours . See my review on DGREE Flasks here. It wasn’t ice cold, but it was better than drinking warm water.

After writing my diary for the day, I got my head down for the night.

Mileage for the day: 38

Day 7: Sunday 7th July
I woke at half seven and did the usual trip downstairs to the dining room for coffee and orange juice and filling the coffee flask and loaded the scooter with the emergency tool kit. There was a thin cloud this morning giving a hazy sunlight. This would keep temperatures lower, which was always a good thing here in France.

Alert: War Stuff!
Today’s the day that I’ve been looking forward to for a year. When I rode the Western Front in 2018 I passed through a place called Butte de Vauquois. A tiny village on a hill about 500m long that had the French and German army either side, within throwing distance. The village in between them soon disappeared as the two armies dug down and tunnelled underneath each other and tried to blow each other off the face of the earth when they blew 519 mines over four years. I learnt that there is 17km of tunnels underneath and their was guided tours available, but only on the first Sunday of each month. So this years trip was set around the first Sunday of July.

Vauquois is approximately 20 miles from Verdun and the guided tours were held around nine in the morning, so I left around eight am. The roads were empty and I made Vauquois in plenty of time. As I rode into the car park on the hill, there was a small group of around ten people who’s attention was drawn to the noise of my Lambretta. I was welcomed by the tour organisers who gave us a talk on the aspects of safety and armed us with a torch and hard hat.

I was pre warned earlier in the year when I enquired about Vauquois that the guide didn’t speak English, but I was so keen on seeing the tunnels I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Anyway, I had spent much of the last year reading about Verdun & Vauquois. With the group were two French ex soldiers who stayed at the back of the group to make sure nobody got lost. One of them spoke English, so he translated much of the information to me. Walking into the dark tunnels from the bright outdoors was eerie. We were guided round the different tunnels which had rooms with tables and various ornaments left behind at the end of the war. The use of hard hats was definitely needed. I was constantly crack my head off the tunnel ceilings. Much to the amusement of the others.

After the tunnel tour, we were given a guide of the events above ground. Around 14,000 men died on this small spot during the First World War. Around 8,000 were unaccounted for, their remains lay here lost. So we were told to watch our steps at all times. The tour over, I went into the small museum built into the hill. There was an abundance of relics from the war. I said my farewells to the group organisers and I left breaking the calm serenity to the clatter of my Lambretta.    

I rode a couple of miles up the road looking for a spot of woodland that was a front line in the Great War and there was a number of relics here. I thought I’d researched it enough, only to realise I hadn’t and never found the spot. That’s for another time and an excuse to come back.

I went onto a couple of places that were relevant to the war. Hill 304 and Le Mort Homme (The Dead Man). There’s a trail that you take through the woods with signposts telling of the battles that took place here. The front line changed hands many times between the French and the German armies. It was shelled so much by the Germans that hill 304 lost several metres in height.

I was loving this day. Riding in between the Cemeteries and monuments was a sheer joy. Very little traffic and great twisty roads and little villages to ride through. I wasn’t even bothered when I got lost. I soon find my route.

My last stop was back to the eastern edge of Verdun and the Colonel Driant’s HQ. The concrete built structure still stands. He was killed as he withdrew his men from a German attack at the beginning of the Battle of Verdun. The first high ranking officer to die in the Battle of Verdun

That was my sightseeing done for the day. I rode back to the centre of Verdun. When I arrived at my usual parking spot on the Quai De Londres I was greeted by a chap announcing the word “Bella”. It was an Italian gent who proceeded to tell me of his love of the Lambretta and that he once owned a Model D that he rode everywhere. After a chat I took a walk round town and ended up on the balcony of a pub called Sherlock Homes over looking the River Meuse. I had a pint and a bit of grub. I went back to my hotel and relaxed for the rest of the day. I did my usual diary writing before watching French TV…Clueless the conversations being held.

Mileage for the day: 87

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