Towards Disappearance

James Francken

  • Matyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane by Sarah Farmer
    California, 323 pp, £19.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 520 21186 3

‘Passerby, go tell other peoples that this village died to save Verdun so that Verdun could save the world.’ President Poincaré’s declaration, inscribed on a simple marker, set in stone those memories of French resistance to German aggression in World War One that he hoped would be indelible. By 1920, defences along the Verdun salient were mouldering away, the battlefields being pillaged for copper and steel. The sacrifice made by the 3rd Company of the 137th Infantry Regiment, buried alive by German bombardment while holding their line of trenches, was a fading legend. The soldiers’ bayonets, which protruded from the earth above their upright bodies, had been hacked at, pieces taken away as souvenirs; some had been stolen. An American banker donated 500,000 francs towards the preservation of what has become known as the Trench of the Bayonets. Deciding that ‘nothing could typify the tragedy and heroism of the bayonet trench better than the trench itself,’ the architect of the Verdun monument designed a concrete covering for the site which would stave off decay. He guaranteed that it would ‘last for at least five hundred years’. The authenticity of what was preserved is uncertain: exploding howitzer shells could not completely fill a section of trench with earth; the trench is more likely to have been covered over by other soldiers out of respect; the bayonets may have been planted to mark a mass grave. But the significance of the site was assured, given Pétain’s status as the ‘Victor of Verdun’ and France’s saviour, according to the young Captain Charles de Gaulle – wounded and taken prisoner under Pétain’s command – ‘when a choice had to be made between ruin and reason’.

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