Origin of the city of Verdun
Verdun, the name of a citadel, but also the name of the deadliest battle of WWI.
The largest city in the Meuse department, it has always been coveted because of its strategic location, a stone’s throw from Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
The Gaulish stronghold of Verdodunum developed over 2,000 years ago.
However, Verdun appeared in the history of France in 843AD, when the Charlemagne’s empire was divided between his 3 grandsons, at the death of their father Louis the Pious.
The frontiers of their respective kingdoms changed over the centuries.
However, they correspond roughly to present day France, Germany and Lorraine.
The land Lothaire inherited became known as Lotharingia (Lothaire’s land), present day Lorraine.
Verdun became a Free Imperial City of the Holly Roman Empire from 14th to the 16th century.
The city had been fortified since ancient times.
However, Marshal Vauban built the Citadelle in the 17th century.
Verdun remained an important garrison town until the 18th century.
The Prussians captured it, however, at the beginning of the French Revolution.
They indeed attempted to march on Paris, but were defeated at the Battle of Valmy on September 20, 1792.
They attacked it again during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71; Verdun was the last stronghold to surrender.
Germany annexed Alsace and part of Lorraine on May 10, 1871 with the Treaty of Frankfurt.
The Meuse remained French, however, Verdun was located a mere 45kms away from the German border!
Ten defense forts were immediately built around the city in order to protect the region.
Between 1880 and 1914, a second defense belt was built in a 45km perimeter.
It included 43 new forts and strongholds.
This gigantic line of defense, centered on the underground citadel of Verdun, included Douaumont and Vaux.
These two forts played a prime role during the Battle of Verdun from February 21 to December 20, 1916.
Verdun was the epicenter of this conflict that cost the death of thousands of soldiers.
Indeed, the Germans positioned themselves on 3 sides of Verdun and therefore isolated the citadel in a salient.
Verdun Citadel open to the public
Verdun and its region attract some 500,000 visitors each year.
The city boasts a rich military, religious and historical heritage and many impressive landmarks.
The old Citadel of Verdun is still the property of the French army.
The 4 km of underground galleries, dug under the citadel between 1886 and 1893, were extended to 7km during WWI.
A whole infrastructure was also put in place in order to accommodate up to 2000 soldiers.
This included ammunition and powder magazines, a telegraphy and telephone station, a water supply network, but also a mill, a bakery, kitchens etc …
These galleries are today open to the public.
Verdun’s 14th century rampart has long gone, but several gates have remained.
- Porte du Châtelet or Porte Noire or Porte Champenoise dates from 12th century, but its machicolations from the 14th-15th centuries.
It was widened during WWI to allow the passage of vehicles.
- Porte Chaussée or Tour Chaussée was built in 1380 and consists of 2 round twin towers.
- The round Tour de l’Islot flanked the walkway that once run along the river.
- The Horseshoe-shaped Tour du Champ was severely damaged during the fighting of 1792 (French revolution).
- Tour des Plaids or Tour de la Plaidoiresse is also horseshoe-shaped and opens towards the city to prevent attackers from taking refuge inside. It takes its name from the hearings or plaids that took place in the nearby Sainte-Croix Church.
- Porte Saint-Victor was built in the late 17th century to replace a 300-years old gate.
- Porte Saint-Paul is the most recent as it was erected in 1877 for the railway line.
Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Verdun
Verdun might be a former citadel and garrison town, but it also boasts an impressive religious heritage.
This includes the cathedral which was consecrated in 1147 and is the oldest cathedral in Lorraine.
It is also the largest Romanesque cathedral in Eastern France despite being rebuilt in Baroque style after the fire that destroyed it in 1775.
Many original architectural features were indeed discovered when it was restored after WWI.
Episcopal Palace and Hôtel de la Princerie
Robert de Cotte, the architect of Louis XV, built the Episcopal palace in 1724.
The building is considered the most prestigious episcopal palaces of Lorraine and has been hosting the World Centre of Peace, Freedom and Human Rights since 1994.
The 16th century Hôtel de la Princerie was the residence of the princier or primecier, the cathedral’s first archdeacon and 2nd most important after the bishop.
The building has been home to the Museum of Art and History of the City of Verdun since 1932.
Verdun erected several monuments to the memory of the soldiers who fell during the Great War.
- Monument à la Victoire et aux Soldats de Verdun was unveiled in 1929. The architect Leon Chesnay erected it on the site of the Collegiate Church of Magdalene, right in the heart of the city. It flanks the Roman fortifications that were discovered in 1916. A statue representing the Emperor Charlemagne, dressed as a warrior, leaning on his sword and looking towards the east tops it.
- Monument aux Enfants de Verdun Morts pour la France faces the Porte Chaussée. Created by the architect Forest and the sculptor Grange, it was unveiled on November 1, 1928. It represents 5 soldiers, an infantryman, an engineer-sapper, an artilleryman, a rider and a soldier from the Territorial Army. They stand shoulder to shoulder to symbolize the motto of the Soldiers of Verdun: “On ne passe pas”
- The Netherlands gave the Monument de la Hollande Amie to the City of Verdun in 1920.
- The Monument de la Voie Sacrée et de la Voie de la Liberté is the first memorial you come across when arriving in Verdun from the west. It stands at the crossroads of the routes that link Verdun to Bar-le-Duc et Argonne.
Verdun was the epicentre of the battle that lasted from February to December 1916.
This battle was one WWI’s deadliest and tragically ended in an astronomical number of casualties!
The remains of the Soldiers who died now rest in the 19 national cemeteries of the area, including 3 in Verdun.
- The Nécropole Nationale de Bevaux was open in 1916.It contains the graves of 3,107 soldiers of the Great War and 485 Soldiers killed during WWII.
- The Nécropole Nationale du Faubourg-Pavé was open in 1914. It contains the graves of 5722 Soldiers – 5095 French, 14 Russians, 1 Belgian and 1 Romanian – killed during WWI. It also contains the graves of 602 French, 7 British, 1 Polish and 1 Belgian Soldiers of WWII.
- A section of the cemetery, Le Carré des 7 Inconnus, contains the graves of 7 Soldiers ‘shortlisted’ during the ceremony that took place on November 10, 1920 to select the Unknown Soldier. The remains of the Unknown Soldier who was ‘chosen’ were placed under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
- A monument dedicated Aux Victimes de la barbarie Allemande 1914-1918, 1939-1945 was placed by the cemetery entrance.
- Finally, the Nécropole Nationale de Glorieux was open in 1916. It shelters the remains of 4,246 Soldiers of WWI, among which 4244 French and 2 British.
Other sites of the Battle of Verdun:
Sacred Way – Douaumont Ossuary and National Cemetery – Abri 320 – Bayonet Trench – Fort of Douaumont – Fleury-devant-Douaumont “Village Détruit – Maginot Monument in Fleury-devant-Douaumont
Coordinates: Lat 49.159876 – Long 5.384423