France builds hope for future on the bloody lessons of its war- scarred past

This weekend sees the 80th anniversary of the battle of Verdun, writes Mary Dejevsky

Verdun - Among the events of this century that have helped to forge France's view of itself and the world might be numbered the student revolt of 1968, the Algerian war, the return of De Gaulle, and the Nazi occupation. Last, though by no means least, should be added the First World War battle of Verdun.

It reached its mid-point 80 years ago this weekend, and is embedded in the French psyche as the ultimate reason why today's entente with Germany, and the existence of the European Union are not only desirable, but so utterly essential.

Verdun, fought through the ice and snow of winter, the damp and rain of spring and autumn and the blazing heat of summer, at a cost of almost 400,000 young French lives, is a word that has only to be mentioned to elicit the immediate response: "Never again."

It conjures up for French people the same images of hell - the mud and damp of the trenches, the rotting boots and lice, the unburied bodies, the moaning of the injured who could not be rescued - that are so familiar to Britons from the letters and poems of the period.

But for the French there is one difference: not only were the soldiers and the questionably competent generals theirs, but also the land, land that is now strangely hilly and green, with mounds and bushes and trees that look too new and young for the landscape. You can scarcely drive a mile without finding the entrance to a bunker or fort, the remnants of a trench, or a ruined village, where only a few stones remain to tell of what was once there.

The town of Verdun itself nestles in a bend of the river Meuse, surrounded by the undulating countryside of the Ardennes, a classic border town clustered around a massive, part-hidden fortress, and topped with a double- towered cathedral. At first sight, it looks like any other flourishing town in northern France: a bustling high street, an abundance of small shops and cafes, and a liberal scattering of north European and American touristsconsulting their maps.

Even in the bright light of early summer, there is a grimness and stoicism that betrays its battle-scarred past. There are narrow streets where the sun scarcely penetrates. The stone is cold and oppressive. A UN and Europe- sponsored world centre for peace in the former episcopal palace is deserted.

In the lower town, a bulky victory monument is wedged between the little houses of the high street. The tourists are there to see the battlefields and the memorabilia of war. War dominates Verdun still. For the 80th anniversary it has opened up its massive citadel, taking visitors eight at a time in little carriages through some of the chambers and passages where a dwindling number of defenders held out, despite lack of food, water and ammunition, until their surrender.

Reconstructions of the underground bakery and mess (stacks of baguettes; wine bottles and napkins on every table) show a French sense of priorities that endures. But the final tableaux, which present death and glory and patriotism as sombrely relevant for the France of today, drive home the message that Verdun for France is more than a battle. One of the last tableaux reproduces the ceremony at which, in 1922, a French soldier was detailed to choose from seven unidentified coffins draped in the tricolour which one was to be buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as France's unknown soldier.

Tomorrow, President Jacques Chirac and other French dignitaries will be in Verdun for a series of ceremonies centred on the French national cemetery and ossuary at the Fort de Douaumont where the names of French soldiers and the villages, towns they came from, are inscribed on every brick. Below, stretch line after line of white gravestones across the hillside and beyond, the endless landscape that soldiers still describe as "ideal battle country".

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with the last historic meeting at Verdun, in 1984, when Mr Chirac's predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, walked hand in hand with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany among the graves of that same cemetery in a gesture of reconciliation that made headlines around the world. Mr Chirac has chosen a different symbol. Tomorrow, he will address an audience of 3,000 French and German teenagers with his own message of reconciliation: a message addressed to the future of the two old enemies, not to their past.

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary