22 December 2007

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The weekend of 7-9 December, BCA took us on an excursion to Metz-Verdun, where we met the students from the BCA site in Marburg, Germany to learn about World War I. We visited battlefields and forts, villages that were taken and retaken and destroyed, the cemetery and ossuary, and the memorial museum. It was a gray and rainy weekend…an apt backdrop to our visit.

Friday night, however, started on a lighter note: Living on the euro and continually cooking for yourself, you come to really appreciate restaurant meals for which BCA foots the bill. Take this one, for example:

Mmm…much more appetizing than Leslie’s “t√™te de veau” (cow’s head).

Saturday began with a visit to Fleury, or rather, the site where Fleury used to stand. Switching hands something like fourteen times, the village was to no surprise destroyed, and today plaques mark the former location of roads, the bakery, the school, etc. It was a sobering place. Given the “lunar landscape” left behind by trench warfare and many, many exploding shells (though the surrounding forest is still filled with unexploded shells, and therefore is mostly off-limits), everyone was certain that nothing would ever grow again on this infernal ground. Today, of course, the ground is green with moss and bushes, and trees shade the pockmarked countryside, pits filled with water. But the site was eerily silent, everyone lost in their own thoughts, trying to imagine the sights and sounds of war in this place, trying to grasp what is so precious that humankind would go this far—on the way, destroying that which is so precious.

After visiting the memorial museum, we stopped at the Trench of Bayonets, a line of soldiers who had been preparing to climb out of their trench, bayonets at the ready, when a shell exploded nearby and buried them alive. After the war, a farmer was plowing this field and came across this strange line of bayonet points sticking up out of the ground. The site was memorialized, leaving the soldiers where they lay—although the bayonets were stolen from the site a few years ago.

Fort Douaumont followed. Built to hold 630 soldiers, it’s an incredible underground labyrinth of tunnels, living quarters, mess halls, storage rooms, and gun turrets peaking just above the crest of the hill. It is nothing but damp, cold, somber, and creepy. The pictures speak for themselves:


The ossuary, which holds all the bones of soldiers (French, German, or unidentified) collected from the battlefield at the end of the war, reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery. We lit candles, watched a film, and walked around the field of crosses. You can see the bones if you look in the lower windows of the building. Nothing confirms one’s commitment to pacifism more than visiting a graveyard of war.

As for the town of Metz, which is where we stayed during the weekend: if you have a chance to visit, be sure to see the stained glass windows of Chagall in the cathedral, the gargoyles that decorate the Esplanade fountain, and the fourth century (possibly the oldest) church St. Pierre-aux-Nonnains. But sight-seeing is not quite so pleasant in this cold and rainy December weather.

More to come...

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