Verdun, Before and After

A beautiful town brought to ruin

The remains of a church, northwest of Verdun (Corbis)

The Verdun I saw in April 1913 was an out-of-the-way provincial city of little importance outside of its situation as the nucleus of a great fortress. There were two cities—an old one, la ville des évéques, on a kind of acropolis rising from the left bank of the Meuse, and a newer one built on the meadows of the river. Round the acropolis Vauban had built a citadel whose steep, green-black walls struck root in the mean streets and narrow lanes on the slopes. Sunless byways, ill paved and sour with the odor of surface drainage, led to it. Always picturesque, the old town now and then took on a real beauty. There were fine, shield-bearing doorways of the Renaissance to be seen, Gothic windows in greasy walls, and here and there at a street corner a huddle of half-timbered houses in a high contrast of invading sunlight and retreating shade. From the cathedral parapet, there was a view of the distant forts, and a horizontal sweep of the unharvested, buff-brown moorlands …

The Verdun I saw on March 24, 1916, after a month of explosive shells and incendiary bombs, was almost half in ruin. Almost every house was bitten and pockmarked with fragments of shell. A large number, disemboweled by projectiles, had fallen into the street. Incendiary shells had done the greatest damage, burning great ugly areas in the close-packed streets.

Opening on rue Mazel, by some miracle untouched, was the gay shop window of a military tailor, and in the window stood a mannikin dressed as a lieutenant. With hand raised to salute, of irreproachable tenue, the dummy surveyed the scene of desolation with inane eyes. Shells have scarred the steep walls of the citadel, and dug great craters in the enclosure at the summit. Many times in a day shells start new fires … The smoke of the artillery hangs low on the buff-brown moor. There are German assaults at Malancourt and toward the Hauts de Meuse. But the great attack is over. Both sides know it. Verdun is beyond all question out of danger.

Originally titled "Verdun"