The ghost villages of Verdun
By Vincent Kessler
The year 2014 brings together the past and the future for France. It is a time of local elections, and it is also the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
The Battle of Verdun in northeastern France was the longest battle of the so-called Great War, lasting some ten months from February to December 1916. It was also one of the most murderous.
After the 1870-71 war between France and Prussia, which ended with the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans, Verdun was at the eastern edge of France. The city was fringed by hills – hills in which a network of forts was built to protect the border.
During the First World War, the Germans wanted to make a massive attack on a target that had great historical significance for the French, and they thought that weakening France around Verdun could change the face of the war.
On February 21, 1916, they started the assault with a huge bombardment. A charity named “The Western Front Association” writes that during the initial stage of the Battle of Verdun, Germany fired more than a million shells.
Ten months of fighting saw German and French troops being pushed backwards and forwards, and by December 1916 the French had retaken almost all the territory that had been lost. German troops did not come through, but nine villages had been utterly wiped out. An estimated 300,000 French and German soldiers were killed and over 450,000 were injured.
It is very hard when you arrive in the area now to have any idea of what the countryside looked like before the war. People say that each square meter of the battlefield was hit by a shell and the village of Fleury alone was struck by 90,000 tons of bombs in one day, according to its mayor. Most houses were completely destroyed; their former locations are now marked only by signs.
The bombings sculpted the landscape, pockmarking the ground with craters. The area was later designated a “red zone” meaning that any construction or digging was prohibited, since the ground had been left filled with tons of leftover shells and ammunition, as well as bodies of those who died.
After the war, it was decided that the villages should not be rebuilt, and most have remained without any inhabitants. But nonetheless they are still administered by unelected mayors, who are chosen by local authorities after a law was passed in 1919, symbolically maintaining their administrative existence.
To be designated as the mayor of one of these villages, “candidates” must send a letter to the local authorities, explaining why they want the post. For the most part, family history and a sense of attachment to the villages is the reason for a mayor’s selection. Being designated a mayor has also become a family tradition for some, passed down from grandparents to children or grandchildren.
Francois-Xavier Long, a doctor from Verdun, became Mayor of Louvemont after proving his great interest in history and military medicine. His village is completely uninhabited.
The village of Ornes, on the other hand, is located on the very edge of the “red zone” and part of its territory spills over to the other side. Though the village proper was destroyed and has not been rebuilt, there are now a few people who live just outside the “red zone” within its bounds. This means that after simply having been selected as mayor for the past decade, Charles Saint-Vannes will actually face his first proper election in 2014. He was born in his village and, as the Mayor of Ornes, is the successor to his father and mother.
After learning about all these battles, bombings and deaths, discovering these hills shaped by war, and seeing the monuments dedicated to soldiers, the most surprising thing I noticed as I walked through these villages was the feeling that they gave me. It was a feeling of peace.