HISTORICAL JOURNEYS: Craters of the Moon and Other Traces of the Great War

In this photo essay, Maddie Lazarski, a recent History graduate, reflects on how the experience of visiting sites associated with the Great War in January 2015 helped her grasp its lasting effects.  The tour guide in Verdun, as the essay notes, compared the land around the battle sites to the surface of the moon.


Landscape near Verdun.

After visiting various sites in Verdun and the Somme region in France, and Ypres, Belgium, I felt that a photo journal was the best way to display my feelings about what I learned and how it affected me.  Reading and learning about something is completely different than actually being there to physically witness it.  This is the primary lesson that I learned on our study tours.  After reading and learning about World War I for years, I knew that it was destructive for Europe, but I had underestimated just how much.  Four years of brutal warfare caused damage that cannot be adequately described by words alone.  Being in the places where these horrible battles took place was an experience that I will never be able to replicate.  I was finally able to see what these soldiers and civilians had witnessed and to understand why WWI is known as the Great War.  One hundred years later, and its effects are still very obvious throughout France and Belgium.


The shells that were used in WWI caused extreme damage to the landscape.  When we visited Verdun, our guide prefaced the tour by talking about how some areas almost look like the moon.  When I got out of the bus, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  It was a completely different experience than just reading about the damage to the landscape.


This is a real trench that was used during the Great War.  Being able to stand in the trench helped me to put myself in the place of the soldiers as they were travelling from one location to the next.  The dreary, rainy weather also helped me to better understand what they went through.


The bones of 130,000 unknown soldiers are laid to rest at this Ossuary.  It was incredible to actually see the sheer volume of the men who could never be buried by their families.


Fleury is one of nine towns in and around the area where the Battle of Verdun took place that was completely destroyed and abandoned.  The only thing in the town was rebuilt was the chapel that is pictured.  There are markers around the church that label where roads, homes, and farms used to be.  It was really incredible to see how much the war affected civilians as well as soldiers.


Though the United States suffered far fewer casualties than the rest of Europe, there were still many young lives that were lost.  Along with the monument to American soldiers, the cemetery helped me to understand the importance of American troops in the war.  Our tour guide talked about how in some ways they saved the French.


The Reims Cathedral was destroyed by the Germans in WWI and it was rebuilt shortly after the war ended.  It is where French kings were crowned and was full of culture and history.  It was shocking to me that they would destroy such an important location and really attested to the brutality of the Great War.


At each cemetery for soldiers that fought with the United Kingdom, there is the common theme of the cross of sacrifice and the stone of remembrance.  On the stone are the words, “Their name liveth for evermore.”  I felt that it was a beautiful way to remember the soldiers who gave their lives in the war.


This is one of many graves of unknown soldiers that fought in the Great War, this one located in the Somme region of France.  The amount of headstones that said only “A soldier of the Great War, Known unto God” was impressive.  Sometimes it was possible to identify the rank or nationality of a soldier, but this was not always the case.


The Thiepval Memorial Gate lists the names of 72,000 Anglo-French soldiers that died in the Somme region and were never recovered.  The arch was massive and completely covered with names.  I was shocked to see how many people in that region alone were not recovered.


When burying the known soldiers, the family had the option of paying to add a small inscription.  These were some of the most impactful aspects of the trip for me.  It was heartbreaking and beautiful to see the ways that families chose to remember their sons, brothers, and husbands.  The inscription on the left reads: “Tread softy, our dear hero boy sleeps here” from the soldier’s father, mother, and brothers.  The inscription on the right says: “Another life lost, hearts broken for what.”  It made me think about the meaning of the war and whether it was worth it to lose so many lives.  In the end, I believe that they fought for a noble cause, but it is hard for me to rationalize the loss of so many young men.  Seeing the amount of graves and the moving transcriptions was an experience unlike any other.  It made me feel closer to the soldiers and witnesses than anything else that I saw on these tours.


This is a shelter made from concrete, located near Flanders Fields.  It was crooked, dark, depressing, and small.  But it was the best protection from shells that soldiers could get.  These areas were reserved for medical care, high-ranking officers, kitchens, and bathrooms.  When I walked into the shelter, I was shocked at how low the ceilings were and how depressing the atmosphere was.  I could only imagine what it was like with shells raining down outside in the middle of a battle with wounded, dying soldiers being carried in to be cared for.


The German cemetery at Langemarck in Belgium had a drastically different atmosphere than the other cemeteries we visited.  The gravestones were flat on the ground and did not have inscriptions.  The coloring of the whole cemetery was dark and depressing as opposed to the light, beautiful places of remembrance that were created for the French, Americans, British, and others.  I really felt the anger and sadness of the French at this cemetery.  These were the people who attacked them and brutalized their land, but they still honored them in death.


Similarly to the Reims Cathedral, the Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium is an ancient building (constructed in the 1200s) that was destroyed by the Germans and later rebuilt.  It furthered my understanding of the destruction that took place during the war.  Nothing was off limits.  Though the building is still beautiful and historic, it is not the same as it was before.


The Menin Gate in Ypres is very similar to the Thiepval memorial, covered with names of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered (54,000).  What really struck me was the fact that every night at 8 pm, a ceremony, “Last Post,” is held to honor the victims.  Though it began 100 years ago, the war is still so real in Europe.  This is something that we are unable to experience in the United States, as we have never had such a destructive war at home.

About Stephen Norris