|Verdun Mémorial by Wolfgang Staudt|
For years I have taken groups of students and adults of varying ages to the Memorial Museum at Verdun, nestled on the roadside on the avenue de Corps européen at Fleury-devant-Douaumont. Even my children were really impressed by their visit to the site at quite an early age. I was therefore keen to visit the refurbished site, reopened for the centenary of the 1916 battle. Rightly or wrongly, for many, especially in France, Verdun has come to symbolise Western Front warfare and the Memorial Museum holds a special place in the commemoration of the Great War’s longest battle.
Veterans were actively engaged in the creation of the original museum and they especially wished to create a centrepiece that would accurately communicate the reality of the battlefield as experienced by the Poilu. This lies behind the construction of the enormous diorama that dominated the central space of the museum and passed from the ground to the first floor. It was a truly monumental landscape and left a very powerful impression on the visitor, especially when set alongside photos from 1916. The surrounding galleries held exhibits from both French and German combatants and in addition to providing informative captions also presented the stimulus for deeper explanation and wide-ranging discussion. This was a great museum and I always took groups here to consolidate any prior learning or viewing relating to the 1916 battle. The years I spent taking groups past the building site during refurbishment were accompanied by the hope that an exceptional resource relating to this unique battlefield would be enhanced rather than in some way compromised – after all, the staff involved in the refurbishment project were not simply dealing with yet another museum, but were altering a sensitive component in the French national psyche.
My visit took place early on a bitterly cold December day when the forts had closed for the Christmas and New Year break; the Mémorial de Verdun and Ossuary at Douaumont have their own timetables and opening hours covering most days in the year. This provided a little welcome respite from the cold of Souville. My 11 Euro entry fee soon proved to be good value. A new entrance has been built below the stone steps at the front of the building – don’t try to use the old main doors.
The new entrance seen from the refurbished and extended car parking facilities. Enter just behind the field gun.
There are new visitor facilities, including toilets – remember the whole of the Verdun battlefield is a memorial and should be accorded due respect. Having paid the fee, visitors are then channelled through a turnstile at basement level into the main exhibition. All exhibits have a tri-lingual presentation (French, German and English) and are well-presented and informatively captioned. Before plunging into the exhibits, visitors are able to watch two short presentations. The first is an excellent overview of the Great War from 1914 to 1918 – invaluable for less-well-informed visitors. The second is a short film about the battle of 1916 and features a German academic on location in a range of the battlefield fortifications. The only shortcoming of the film is its lack of engagement with Falkenhayn’s long-term strategic thinking and the debate between Vernichtungsstrategie (strategy of annihilation) and Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of attrition). This debate in the German General Staff had profound implications not just for the Battle of Verdun in 1916, but also for the fate of Imperial Germany by the autumn of 1918 and is of central importance in any discussion of German planning in 1915-16. This minor criticism aside, the visitor is left well-equipped for the rest of the exhibition.
The museum flows logically through exhibits that are arranged thematically and that manage to inform whether through a fleeting glimpse or a lengthy perusal. All aspects of the battle are covered, from uniforms and equipment through to transport and medical services and other logistics. The exhibits are informative, sometimes enigmatic and frequently shocking, especially when their purpose is given a little thought. The dim light and quiet of the museum incline the visitor to consider the human dimension to the various exhibits. The old static display at the heart of the Memorial Museum has been replaced by three screens set in a simulated battlefield and arranged to form a tiered pyramid through the core of the building. Images are projected onto the screens whilst visitors listen to a range of experiences of Verdun veterans on the headphones in front of the screens. This is a powerful display and a fitting replacement for the old model, whose full-size aircraft are still suspended from the ceiling at the centre of the building.
The thematic display continues on the second floor, incorporating all the old material, but freshly presented. On the second floor is a space for special temporary exhibitions. In December it focused on the history of the military and emergency medical services and was up to the standard of the other floors. Also on the second floor is a seating area and automatic dispensers for snacks. This is a valuable resource. On the battlefield, eating is only allowed in designated picnic areas and in winter it is a relief to be able to sit in comfort and have a warm drink. Lifts are available throughout the building, which is also suitable for wheelchair access, although prams are not allowed. The shop at the basement level is well-stocked with a range of titles in French, German and English – the photographic guides are particularly useful, especially if you are visiting in inclement weather.
Overall, this is an excellent site. It is worth remembering that the building is a memorial first and a museum second. It is intended to stand as an informative, educative reminder of what the men who fought in 1916 experienced. All those who engage seriously with the exhibits in this site will leave impressed, but also better-informed. If visiting Verdun for the first time, the Mémorial de Verdun should be a “must”; if making a return visit, then the memorial provides stimulus to reappraise views about the battlefield and, of course, will always throw up a new piece of learning. Friendly, dedicated and helpful staff make this a special and unique site whose refurbishment will serve to inform new generations of visitors and historians whilst causing those of us for whom Verdun has become something of a regular haunt to reassess engagement with a site of arguably global significance.
Images from the displays, ranging from the enigmatic to the high-tech. Photography is permitted throughout the building, but without flash.
Dr Peter Edwards
Image of Verdun Memorial from Wikipedia and taken by Wolfgang Staudt.