DOUAUMONT

Unlike the British and some Commonwealth countries who built many memorials to the missing on their sectors of the battlefields, the French never followed this example, and the nearest they have to such a memorial is the enormous one at Douaumont.

Douaumont is just down the road from Verdun, where military brutality almost literally bled the French army dry. Here the bones of 130,000 unknown young men gather dust and an occasional glance from a passing tourist. Above them the marbled hall, which echoes even to the footfall of trainers, is bathed with blood-red light from the stained glass window. Here, in a dark alcove ignored by most, is the statue of Silence which in 1919 stood plainly outside the front door of the provisional ossuary. Slightly bigger than life-size, the figure of a woman with a shawl over her head holds a silencing finger to her lips. The message – that the truth about the futility of the war is best not uttered – is hard to miss. Now, lost in its alcove’s shadows, even this 85-year-old injunction is fading from sight. The awfulness that should not be spoken of has become as irrelevant as the words carved on the skirt of Silence: Aux Heros Inconnus. Such words are inscribed in one language or another on war memorials and in war cemeteries round the world. They have proffered heroism as the prevailing, false, and irrelevant explanation of the war – a war in which these dead soldiers have been stripped even of their names.

The central tower has a lamp which flashes at night across the former battlefields.

Douaumont is also the largest of the Verdun cemeteries and like most French cemeteries, is a concentration cemetery to which bodies were brought in from all over the battlefield between 1920 and 1936.

General Petain who fought off a German attack on Verdun in 1917 wanted his ashes to be scattered here, or to be buried amongst his men, but his leadership of the Vichy Government in the Second World War made this politically impossible.