The Long Walk (Western Front)
My adventure started back in 2004 on an organised tour to the First World War battlefields. Not sure whether the seeds were sown on a wet weekend hopping on and off a bus, huddled in groups, staring at names on crosses and digesting events etched into memorials.
On reaching home, I began to think about my trip and wondered if it could be done in a more personal way.
I met Val in November 2004 and discovered her passion for walking, which over time began to make a huge impression on me. We would walk for hours across the Chilterns, trying to recognise the little brown things that flew across our path.
As confidence grew we walked further and further and then the penny dropped. One day in the early spring of 2005, I asked Val if she would be interested in walking the Verdun battlefields having read the excellent book titled the Paths of Glory. Val was not one to turn down a challenge and the rest is history …….
Oh I forgot to say my ambition is to walk the Great War, from every battle, skirmish that occurred from day 1 to the conclusion. Here is my story
April 2005 – Verdun(1916) Walk No 1
Flight to Paris - Train from Paris to Chalons sur Champagne - Train from Chalons to Verdun
We met Georges the train conductor on the train to Verdun. His nephew was on the train and was introduced to us so that he could improve his English. I told him of our quest but I’m not sure he either understood or believed me.
Verdun station set the trend, my mind wandering back to Feb 1916 and those first salvos that rained down, turning the tracks into twisted metal.
Who needs public transport or taxis when you can walk everywhere, saying that the walk to the Hotel Tigre complete with luggage was a slog. The Hotel Tigre sits on the Voie Sacree the most revered road in the whole of France and an important supply artery for the French Army in their hour of need.
Ok, Val and I like a drink and we didn’t disappoint, in fact we got pretty hammered by the end of the evening. It would set a precedent, a relaxed evening preparing for the unexpected.
Early rise, routine much the same now as it was then. We head to the supermarket to stock up. We stretch and go!!
Absolute rookies at this stage, not sure of distances, how much water to take and whether we had the correct walking gear. We didn’t look like stereotypical walkers that day and still don’t 8 years later. As long as you’ve got a decent pair of shoes and an umbrella, you’re good to go. Yes, you did read right an umbrella rather than waterproofs. If you are prepared to spend decent bucks on a breathable cagoule then fine but don’t go the cheap option as I assure you, you’d rather get wet on the outside then on the inside – catch my drift. Umbrella’s rock!! J
Anyway, we set off following the River Meuse past Bras, turning right at Samogneux. Three hours of walking on tarmac – ouch! Off-road for the first time following the path to the village of Haumont, where we had lunch and wondered what this village would have looked like. Haumont was blown off the face of the earth by the heavy fighting endured for 10 long months and was never re-built. I recall a long path called the Chemin des Americaines, meandering through the re-generated woods, which was signed off with a high five. High fives should be used sparingly, or they become worthless and they can be a tad geeky as well. We arrived at the Bois des Caures famous for a certain Colonel Driant who is immortalised here and his bunker (HQ) was soon reached. If I can take you back to that February morning when the German bombardment was at its most intense, French soldiers in the rear could see their comrades in the front trenches being systematically annihilated, then realising that that same bombardment was working its way towards them – now that’s a thought.
We followed the German attack through Beaumont en Verdunois, coming across some random guy with his dog looking for truffles, down through Louvemont-Cote-de-Poivre, another decimated village (village detruit), along the aptly named Ravin de la Mort, ending up at the Tranchee des Bayonettes.
An American was so moved by the story of a group of French soldiers who were interred by an explosion leaving only their bayonets visible that he built a memorial which enshrouds this moving site.
We had run out of water and boy was it showing. I took a drink from a stream, Val thought otherwise preferring hallucinating to dysentery. We finally found a place near Thiaumont to grab some water, which Val ordered in Spanish, which she doesn’t actually speak – interesting!
The Ossuaire is an incredible place, 15,000 headstones in front of a mausoleum. All along the length of the building are arches, atmospherically lit, displaying the names of many of the places we had walked through. Take a peep around the back and you are met with a macabre sight of bones found on the battlefield, stacked in huge piles in numerous crypts.
The walk back to Verdun took us through Fleury, flirting with the grounds of Fort de Souville, past the Lion de Souville commemorating the furthest advancement of the German army. I remember Val or myself spotting a dead Hawfinch in pristine condition on the side of the road.
We paid our respects to the Unknown Soldier at Faubourg cemetery and sat down at a bus stop gathering our strength for the final stretch.
Once in Verdun (no high 5), we collapsed in a restaurant that we have visited many times since. Neither of us found it easy to walk the final stint back to the hotel. But on reflection our day, which totalled 11 hours of walking (43.8km) and I hasten to add has never been surpassed in the 20 plus trips since, was a walk in the park compared to what those brave soldiers endured 99 years ago.
Woke up surprisingly fresh, both given the thumbs up, we’re good to go.
Stocked up at the same supermarket just by the railway station, had a good stretch and headed off in the same direction along the Meuse before taking a right up through Belleview, the goal being Belleview Fort on top of the hill. The house at the top of the hill had an interesting garage, from memory was definitely WW1, possibly a pill box or observation bunker. We ventured into the Fort, very eerie, noticed empty wine bottles – this was Fort Hoboville, not Fort Belleview. We walked the entire circumference of the Fort marvelling at the condition, although subject to German artillery bombardments never saw hand to hand combat, the German advance stuttering to a halt a mile or so away.
Retraced our steps back down the hill, chucking a right across fields (little farm on right), appreciating great views of woods in front and the top of the Ossuaire just visible. Descended onto the Sentier de Froideterre where we were not disappointed coming across various French fortifications. One of these being the Ouvrage de Froideterre, a defensive work, where we met some English lads who had a torch – bonus! Through dark corridors we inched, until we came to a gun turret. To reach the turret we had to ascend a ladder, which was missing several rungs. I and another lad climbed to the top, where I cast my mind back to the mind-set of a French gunner firing shell after shell at the approaching hordes. What discipline these men must have had to see so many attackers flowing like ants over the immediate terrain and the defenders refusing to leave their positions.
Following the path we soon reached the Ouvrage de Thiaument, tortured land, frozen in time. The remains of what was once an observation cupola, lying on its side where it had been hurled almost 100 years ago. Jagged barbed wire and undulation or should I say shell hole after shell hole, resembled the peaks and troughs of waves.
Adjacent to Thiaument is the Ossuaire, which we had visited briefly the day before. Rather than re trace our steps (standing joke between Val and myself, mustn’t tread over trodden ground, well at least on the same trip), we picked our way through the 15,000 graves, noticing the Muslim graves pointing towards Mecca. The Sentier De Douaumont led us to the biggest and most famous of the forts at Verdun - Fort de Douaumont. I must quickly say the path leading up to the fort should not be over-looked, with trenches visible either side.
Well, we went in, under, over and all around the fort. To think a handful of Germans, took the fort without a struggle, the French expending 100,000 men to re-claim the fort months later. Standing on top of Douaumont does not do the surrounding area justice, if you are trying to imagine the battlefields of 1916. Nature has a knack of re-claiming what man has endeavoured to obliterate. Check out the chicane’s within the fort, to thwart the enemy and buy time for the rest of the defenders. In one of the many dormitories, young swallows perched on the rusting bedsteads being fed by their parents.
Tiredness particularly after the previous day’s exertions was beginning to take its toll. At Fleury, we followed the mazy paths around the village that is no more. Names of the previous tenants, etched onto plaques mark out the original plan of the village. Fleury museum probably came at the wrong time for the both us and we crept around the exhibits like Flamingos, resting each leg in turn. Half-heartedly we flirted with Fort Souville, knowing full well that we would be back in the not so distant future.
Felt fresher than day 3, the last day of this trip. We headed out towards Fort St Michel, through the suburbs of Verdun towards the railway track. We trudged up and down looking for a path that would take us up to the fort; all we achieved was setting off a pack of dogs on at least three occasions. Fort St Michel like Fort Souville would have to wait for another day. Making our way to the Tunnel de Tavannes became only visible by scrambling down an embankment towards the railway line. Here in 1916 a huge explosion apparently caused by explosives attached to a pack mule resulted in 500 French dead.
We had lunch at Fort Tavannes. Not venturing too close to the damaged stronghold as the bombardments of 1916 had made light work of its structure.
Rain greeted us at Fort Vaux, no sign of humanity other than ourselves. We huddled on top of the fort for this quick visit, Fort Douaumont’s French flag on the horizon. The rain eased off and our trek continued on to Damloup, yet another of the villages destroyed although a mile or so up the road the re-built Damloup village very much alive and kicking. We ended up walking a complete circle thinking we were at Douaumont in fact we were back in Damn Loop... I mean Damloup. A tad dispirited we set off again for Douaumont, this time successful in our efforts. Our first trip was coming to an end.