The Douaumont Ossuary: Memorial of the Battle of Verdun

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A few days before the Armistice of November 11, 1918, I propose you discover a place of memory in Lorraine: the Douaumont Ossuary. Located a few kilometres from Verdun, the monument evokes the memory of the soldiers of the terrible battle of Verdun in 1916. More than a hundred years later, Verdun cannot be forgotten!

Verdun: Lest We Forget!

The name of Verdun evokes for me the memory of these veterans of the First World War who came to tell about their war memories in my elementary school.

Les Poilus [Public Domain]

French soldiers during the war [Public Domain]

The old men in their eighties were at the time the last surviving Poilus* in France… And I wondered what would happen to the memory of the First World War and the battle of Verdun after their disappearance.

*Poilu refers to the French soldiers who fought during the First World War.

A memory still very much alive

It is clear that the memory of Verdun is still very much alive today.

A century has passed since the Great War and the traces of the fighting that took place in Verdun have not yet completely disappeared. The terrain is still disturbed and, in some areas, the vegetation has not completely reclaimed its rights. Moreover, the land that was no longer suitable for cultivation has been reforested.

Village of Douaumont © French Moments

The site of the former village of Douaumont still bears the scars of the Great War © French Moments

The memory was recently maintained by the large-scale media tributes of the commemoration of the 100 years of the war (2014-2018). Tour buses still fill the parking lots of the memorial sites in Verdun as well as in the sites of northern France. And then, the French have kept November 11 as a public holiday in the national calendar.

Why visit Verdun?

And yet, I have long hesitated to discover the sites of the Battle of Verdun. Maybe because these places carry a strong emotional charge… and then, personally, I am more attracted by beautiful monuments, magnificent landscapes and not by cemeteries!

But last year, I had the opportunity to go to Verdun. And I agreed to go there.

Verdun by the Meuse River © French Moments

Verdun by the River Meuse © French Moments

Once there, I had an appointment with this dark period of French history. Yes, I will remember Verdun for the rest of my life!


The history of the Douaumont Ossuary

The ominous building of the ossuary was built in memory of the 300,000 French soldiers who fell in the defence of Verdun. It was intended to gather all the bones collected on the various sectors of this battlefield. To this end, it houses the unidentified remains of approximately 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell during the battle.

A bishop at the origin of the project

As a reminder, the Battle of Verdun took place from February 21 to December 19, 1916. There were 700,000 French and German victims, including 300,000 dead.

The armistice ending the Great War was signed by the belligerents on November 11, 1918, in the clearing of Rethondes, in the forest of Compiègne.

It was in the aftermath of the war that the bishop of Verdun, Mgr Charles Ginisty (1864-1946), submitted the idea of building an ossuary.

Mgr Charles Ginisty (1864-1946)

Mgr Charles Ginisty (1864-1946)

The Catholic prelate had walked the battlefield littered with corpses and wished to give a decent burial to the soldiers and allow their families to gather.

In February 1919, the third anniversary of the Battle of Verdun was commemorated at the Trocadero in Paris. This was the occasion for Mgr Ginisty to officially suggest his project for the Douaumont Ossuary, referred to as the “Cathedral of the Dead and Basilica of Victory“.

Great names of the time supported the project: Marshal Ferdinand Foch, President Raymond Poincaré, MP Victor Schleiter. But also Marshal Philippe Pétain, nicknamed the “Victor of Verdun”, was appointed honorary president of the realization committee.

International financing of the project!

In 1919, a plank barrack was built on the Douaumont site. It was a temporary ossuary, the time to collect the funds needed to build the monument.

The temporary ossuary of Douaumont [Public Domain]

The temporary ossuary of Douaumont [Public Domain]

Bishop Ginisty and his committee began to look for the necessary funds to build the future monument.

To do so, the bishop of Verdun surveyed France and travelled abroad from 1919 to 1932. He was successful, as 122 French cities and 18 foreign cities pledged donations, including Canada in 1925 and the United States in 1928. The façade of the memorial contains the coats of arms of the cities that contributed to its financing.

The Douaumont Ossuary © French Moments

The coat of arms of the cities which financed the monument © French Moments

An architectural competition was held to design the final monument. A trio of architects won in 1923: Léon Azéma (First Grand Prix de Rome 1921), Max Edrei and Jacques Hardy.

12 years to build the ossuary

On August 22, 1920, Marshal Pétain and Bishop Ginisty laid the first two stones.

Then, on September 17, 1927, 52 coffins corresponding to the sectors of the battle of Verdun were transferred from the temporary ossuary to the large ossuary still under construction.

Finally, the inauguration of the Douaumont Ossuary took place on August 7, 1932, in the presence of the President of the Republic Albert Lebrun and many French and foreign dignitaries, veterans and families of missing soldiers.

To this day, the Douaumont Ossuary is the most important French monument erected in memory of the 1914-1918 war.

A symbol of Franco-German friendship

On September 22, 1984, the Douaumont Ossuary was the scene of a historic moment and emblematic of Franco-German reconciliation: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands.

In front of the ossuary, the French President and the German Chancellor held hands during a tribute to the fallen soldiers of the First World War. On the same day, a hundred young French and Germans planted sycamore maples as a symbol of the friendship between the two countries.

30 years later, on February 9, 2014, the name of a German soldier, Peter Freundl, was added for the first time to those of French soldiers engraved on the vault of the ossuary.

The 90th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918

On November 11, 2008, the ossuary hosted the commemorations of the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.

Many political personalities were present:

  • the French president Nicolas Sarkozy,
  • the president of the German Bundesrat Peter Müller,
  • Prince Charles of England and his wife Camilla,
  • Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg and his wife María,
  • the President of the European Commission José Manuel Durão Barroso, and
  • President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pöttering.

For the first time, the ceremony was held without a French survivor of the First World War (Lazare Ponticelli, the last soldier, died a few months earlier, on March 12, 2008, at the age of 110 years and 96 days).

In 2016, François Hollande and Angela Merkel took part in the commemorations of the Centenary of the Battle of Verdun at Douaumont.


Visit of the Douaumont Ossuary

After a visit to the old town of Verdun and its beautiful cathedral, we headed to the Douaumont Ossuary. This one is located at the limit of the communes of Fleury-devant-Douaumont and Douaumont-Vaux.

When you arrive at the site by the D913, you can see the Tour des Morts (tower of the Dead) perched on the top of a hill.

The parking lot is located around the back of the building.

As you drive around the monument, you will see bones through glass windows from the outside. These are the remains of thousands of unidentified soldiers.

The remains of thousands of unidentified soldiers at the ossuary © French Moments

The remains of thousands of unidentified soldiers at the ossuary © French Moments

The façade of the ossuary

The monument is inspired by Romanesque art.

The Douaumont Ossuary © French Moments

The Douaumont Ossuary © French Moments

On the façade of the monument, you can see the coats of arms of the cities that financed its construction.

The large bronze door is decorated with a sword and two palms on either side. Above it is the word “PAX” (“peace” in Latin).

The Douaumont Ossuary © French Moments

The Latin inscription “Pax” at the gate © French Moments

The transverse gallery

This vast monument includes a transverse gallery 137 meters long known as the cloister. The 18 bays each contain two sarcophagi made of pink granite from Perros-Guirec in Brittany.

The gallery of the Douaumont Ossuary © Zairon - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The gallery of the Douaumont Ossuary © Zairon – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

On each side, the gallery ends with an apse containing five tombs.

The chapel

Under the central vault of the monument is the Catholic chapel. It is here that the Bishop of Verdun, Mgr Ginisty, who initiated the ossuary project at Douaumont, is buried.

The chapel of the Douaumont Ossuary © Zairon - licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The chapel of the Douaumont Ossuary © Zairon – licence [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

George Desvallières designed the stained glass windows of the memorial.

The Tower of the Dead

In the centre of the building stands the Tower of the Dead, 46 m (151 ft) high. It serves as a lookout and is shaped like a shell.

The tower of the dead © French Moments

The tower of the dead © French Moments

Each of its four sides contains a cross. These four cardinal points of stone symbolize the universality of the drama of war.

On the first floor of the tower, a small war museum has been set up.

At the top (204 steps), you will discover a general view of the site through the windows. Orientation tables allow you to identify the different sectors of the battlefield.

The Douaumont Ossuary © French Moments

The top of the Tower of the Dead © French Moments

Louise Anne Charlotte is the name of the 2042 kg bronze bell. Cast in 1927 in Orleans, it is one of the largest in the Meuse department. The procession of the bell, from Paris to Douaumont, passed through Meaux, Soissons, Reims, Nancy, Metz, Saint-Mihiel and Verdun.

Finally, the tower also serves as a lantern for the dead. From the top, four rotating lights, alternately white and red, illuminate the battlefield.


The national necropolis of Douaumont

Opposite the ossuary, the national necropolis of Douaumont gathers 16,142 graves of French soldiers.

The Douaumont Necropolis © French Moments

The Douaumont Necropolis © French Moments

The creation of this national cemetery dates from 1923. Part of the territory of the commune of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, it covers a parcel of land of 14.438 hectares.

The inauguration of the national necropolis took place on June 23, 1929, in the presence of the President of the Republic Gaston Doumergue.

16,142 graves of French soldiers

The military cemetery contains 16,142 graves of French soldiers, mostly Catholics, including six from the Second World War.

The individual graves are aligned in rows that reconstitute the alignment of an army.

The vast majority of the graves are Christian. They take the form of a white Latin cross. A red rosebush precedes each grave and brings a touch of bright colour and contrast with the white of the cross.

The Douaumont Necropolis © French Moments

The roses were still in bloom at the end of October © French Moments

In the centre of the necropolis stands a flagpole that permanently bears the Tricolour, the national flag of France.

French flag at Douaumont © French Moments

The French flag at the Douaumont Necropolis © French Moments

The necropolis also includes a square of 592 headstones of Muslim soldiers. The star and the crescent can be recognized above the inscription “ci-gît” (here lies) in Arabic.

The two memorials to Jewish and Muslim soldiers

The necropolis shelters two memorials dedicated respectively to the soldiers of Jewish and Muslim confessions.

Since its inauguration in June 2006 by President Jacques Chirac, the Muslim memorial is located to the east of the cemetery. It takes the form of a 25-meter long white stone ambulatory, in Islamic style, with a kubba.

The Douaumont Necropolis © French Moments

The Muslim memorial © French Moments

To the west of the cemetery is the monument dedicated to soldiers of the Jewish faith. Built in 1938, it is decorated with the Tables of the Law engraved with Hebrew letters.


Find out more about the Ossuary of Douaumont

Reference sites



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A pin for Pinterest

Douaumont Ossuary of Pinterest © French Moments

Do you know of other must-see ossuaries or necropolises in France? Tell me about them in the comments below 🙂


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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