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Destination: France : Grounds for Reflection : In a year of V-E Day festivities, Verdun still recalls pain and bloodshed of World War I

June 04, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dahlburg is The Times' bureau chief in New Delhi

VERDUN, France — It was summer, and picnickers sprawled in the high grass by the side of Route Departmentale 112, enjoying their baguettes stuffed with cheese and the long days filled with warm sunshine.

Grain, high and green, trembled in the tranquil fields of the Meuse heights as the breeze swept over it. Black-and-white dappled cows grazed in their pastures.

The scene was serene and beautiful, the epitome of the prosperity of rural France. Yet for 10 months in 1916, as an estimated 60 million artillery shells tore through the air and millions of men fought desperately over this very ground, this stretch of quiet northeastern French countryside was a hell on Earth.

A few more years, and Verdun and the other great campaigns of the First World War--"the Great War" that began 80 years ago last August--will cease to be a part of living people's experience and slip into ancient history.

Already upstaged by last year's 50th-anniversary D-day celebrations and this May's V-E Day hoopla, the titanic and often senseless slaughter on the Somme River, the fields of Flanders and even at places such as Saint-Mihiel south of Verdun, where Americans fought and died, seem no more familiar to most of us than Thermopylae or Waterloo--perhaps even less so.

Yet at Verdun, from Feb. 21 until Dec. 15, 1916, no fewer than 700,000 soldiers, French and German, were killed or wounded, one by one, in a veritable orgy of butchery involving artillery shells, trench mortar bombs, rockets, machine guns, rifles, poison gas, flame throwers, bayonets and hand-to-hand fighting.

Only seven aged and frail veterans, men who could rummage in their memories and recall what it was like, managed to make it back for the anniversary of the beginning of the battle last year. Hobbled these days by gout, but able to evoke those momentous days with the vividness of newsreel film, Rene Vincent, 98, was one of them. His keen blue eyes still leak tears as he remembers.

"It was cafard [the blues], despair, that we suffered from, not fear," said the former sergeant in the French chasseurs, or light infantry, who was wounded or gassed five times during World War I and was decorated with the coveted Legion of Honor. "We just didn't see the end of it."

No fewer than six times, Vincent was rotated in and out of the trenches at Verdun. Under the oats, wheat and barley and apple and plum trees that now grow in the northwestern corner of the old French duchy of Lorraine, the remains of tens of thousands of his contemporaries lie pulverized and churned into the very soil they fought to possess.

Across half a million acres plowed and re-plowed by shells, the earth itself has been maimed. It rises and falls in places like the storm-whipped sea or is cratered like the moon. In spots, the vegetation hasn't grown back or is weirdly stunted despite decades of efforts to make something grow.

Nine ghost villages, pounded into dust by the cannon and howitzers, are marked by pathetic signs that say: Mort Pour la France (Died for France).

For France, victory in this great battle marked a turning point. Yet historians theorize that the carnage here was so stupendous, the killing so wanton, that it traumatized the French army and nation into general inaction when they were faced in 1940 with the onslaught of Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Militarily, France also drew the wrong lessons. A World War I veteran from Lorraine later became war minister of France, and set out to build a chain of fortifications that, unlike Verdun's, could not be breached. His name was Andre Maginot and his brainchild the ill-fated Maginot Line.

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By a strange twist of history, Verdun has also come to have a link to the America of our era. As a military brat growing up on U.S. bases in Western Europe, Newt Gingrich visited Verdun and was shocked by the mountains of bones he saw here.

The young Gingrich had wanted to be a zookeeper, but Verdun's mingled testimony to common soldiers' valor and the tragedy of their commanders' obstinate willingness to throw away hundreds of thousands of lives, changed his mind and pushed him irrevocably toward politics. In a sense, the career of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Republican Party's "Contract With America" had its genesis in these green and blood-soaked hills 160 miles east of Paris.

My French-born wife, Yvonne, and I decided to visit with our two daughters while there were still people alive who could tell us what the battle had been like. In retrospect, it was the most absorbing stop during a week we spent in eastern France, one that ranged from Nancy and its stunning 18th-Century Place Stanislas to the cool pine forests of the Vosges.

One warm afternoon last July, we checked into the family-owned Sirene Hotel in Etain, 12 miles east of Verdun. It had a new tennis court but was slightly shabby and roamed by an ancient and slobbering spaniel.

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