Verdun (Dennis Aubrey)


As the son of an American soldier, I moved all the time as a child. Seven of my first fifteen years of life were spent in France, two in Verdun. Verdun created the strongest impression on me of perhaps any place that I’ve ever lived. The World War I battlefield are just a few miles from the Desandrouins Barracks where I went to school for ninth and tenth grades. The ride from the town of Etain where we lived was twenty kilometers. From the bus that took us to and from school, we could see on the side of the road row after row of graves of soldiers killed in that battle, marked with white crosses for the French dead and black crosses for the Germans.

Entrance to Fort Souville in 1916, Verdun (Meuse). This area was once completely wooded. (Photo in the Public Domain)

Visits to the battlefield with my father were a regular occurrence and Alistair Horne’s “The Price of Glory” was our principal guide to the events of 1916. Petain, Driant, von Falkenhayn, and Mangin were titanic figures from a legendary past. The calculus of death – 60 million shells fired on this battlefield in ten months, the slaughter of a million men – in the cataclysmic struggle over this small section of France shocked, sickened, and fascinated me.

The imagery used to describe the horrors of trench warfare conjured up the mechanization of death, a factory grinding soldiers into dust and mud, or a bestial living thing feeding on bleeding humanity like Kronos devouring his children.

Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823), Francisco de Goya (Painting is part of the collection of the Prado Museum, Madrid)

I have spent a lifetime reading military history and spent much effort trying to understand the absolute futility of World War I, the “War to End all Wars”. Many books do a brilliant job describing a futility apparent to every person who participated in the conflict, but it never made sense until I read the brilliant “Prelude” of Jules Romain’s novel “Verdun”. Romain lays out simply and clearly how the apparent insanity of the war was the result of reasonably intelligent men taking reasonably intelligent steps to address the colossus of war that confronted them.

“Prelude” taught me that it is impossible to judge history, but only to try to understand and represent it. Men and women throughout time are confronted with forces that are beyond their control, and in trying to control them, they create forces that are just as dangerous and often completely self-destructive. When these forces overtake them, the politicians and military leaders resort to lies and propaganda. The First World War was presented as the “War to End all Wars”. The truth is different. Having cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the powers responsible concocted a fiction to justify the hideous slaughter – a slaughter that had developed from a conflict whose meager justifications had disappeared in waves of blood and gore.

I have written about the sack of Béziers in the 13th Century. This horrifying slaughter of innocents was conducted by the army under the titular control of one of the most holy men of his time, Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux and head of the Cistercian order. It is likely that in today’s world he would have been tried as a war criminal for the actions of his soldiers.

People condemn the institutions for the faults of the people. So many people point to the abuses conducted in the name of religion and the church and censure both. But the horrors of World War I were the result of the application of the principals of rationalism to political and military practice. Are rationalism and the scientific process responsible for the war? Some people believe that they are. Or are humans responsible and it is just more convenient to blame the ideals?

Collegiale Saint Lazare, Avallon (Yonne) Photo by PJ McKey

Alain de Botton has written in his book “Religion for Atheists” that “Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”

I would add that we also have no way to define ourselves or our place in the universe. Atheism, nihilism, and agnosticism offer us little. Atheism defines itself in the rejection of deities, and if there is one thing we know about life, it is that it is affirming. Agnosticism claims that the truth of religion and god can simply not be known which is a realistic stance. Nihilism purports that morality does not exist and existential nihilism states that life exists without meaning.

Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges (Seine-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But people both seek and find meaning in their life. Whether that meaning is universal or eternal does not matter. It exists, and its very existence points to a larger meaning, like a shadow points to an object between the wall and the sun.

L’Abbaye de Silvacane, La Roque d’Anthéron (Bouches-du-Rhône) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

23 responses to “Verdun (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I should probably apologise for this post. PJ was gone for a week and it is a mistake to leave me alone for that time. She came home and saw the Goya painting on my screen – she could only shake her head.

    • Dennis, Please tell PJ that there is one person in the universe who, like her, was disturbed by the Goya piece, BUT in the most profound way. A powerful way. I’d never seen this painting. It describes in the obscenest way the obscenity of war you were describing. I am often torn between sharing such things and posting them, but I’m not a Steve Martin “Happy Feet” kind of guy.

      Your reflections on religion, atheism, agnosticism, rationalism, nihilism and existential nihilism – coupled with your observation that we cannot judge history but only seek to understand it – are packed with profound insight and questions. I’ve been away from the blog for some six weeks now working on a book and traveling across the U.S. for three weeks. Thank you for a post that reminds me again that I am not alone in the world. Gordon

      • Gordon, welcome back, it was a pleasure to see your comment on the post.

        I guess it is not a good thing to leave me alone for so long – we have just instituted a 3-300 rule. PJ is not allowed to go away for longer than three days or more than 300 miles. In her absence I started thinking about Verdun and all that happened there. I’ll never forget the first time (or any time) that I saw the Ossuaire on the battlefield. The bones of 100,000 unknown soldiers were collected and deposited in crypts according to the location where they were found. There were windows so that one could look in and see the bones. Recently they have closed up the windows inside the Ossuaire and you can only see the bones by walking around the outside and looking in.

        There is a statistic that I read about this battlefield that measures approximately 7 miles by 4 miles. Over the course of the battle – February 1916 through August 1918, shells fell on the ground at a rate calculated as one per square centimeter. Imagine. Even now, almost a hundred years after the start of the battle, the ground is scarred and pocked by shell holes. There were nine communes in the battlefield proper that were ground to dust. Six were never rebuilt but remain on the list of communes in France as a memorial. All that remains of one that existed below Fort Douaumont is a plaque in the ground that reads “Ici etait Fleury” (Here was Fleury).

        Made quite an impression on a 14 year old boy.

      • Once again, Dennis, you’ve taken me deeper into history with a rare existential candor. Do you have photographs of the Ostuaire? Have your posted them? Or will you post them? But then, if you haven’t already, it’s probably too late after the newly instittued 3-300 mile rule. Clearly your experience at the age of 14 has set you on a life-long course – a search through darkness for light where it makes its appearance. It’s a blessing to others who view and read Via Lucis. Author Frederick Buechner once wrote that “your vocation is the place where your own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Clearly, you and PJ have discovered your vocations.

  2. I have never experienced the battlefield of Verdun or truly comprehended the horror of that battle – until now.
    Your post is both disturbing and enlightening.
    Like the “shadow” that you speak of, your post’s message for me points to something more – to something more powerful and beautiful than mankind can imagine.
    Victor Frankl affirms for us that even in the midst of the horrors of the concentration camp his fellow inmates, who were able to find meaning in life, were the ones who survived.
    A key characteristic of the survivors was that in the midst of all the hate and filth they kept alive the memory and reality of their love for another person.
    Love for another is what ultimately saved them and will save us.
    Maybe our faith in the “Shadow” that we cannot see is our best way to express our love for the One that is both the Light and the Shadow, and whom we will meet when we pass through the sacred doorway (like the red door in your last photo) at the end of our lives. Thank you for a very important post.

    • To find meaning in the concentration camps almost defies belief … Elie Wiesel writes of the “Trial of God” where three inmates put God on trial for being oppressive to the Jewish people. Apparently he witnessed this when he was incarcerated in Auschwitz. Imagine such a thing, to try to find meaning even by putting God on trial.

  3. Admittedly, the Goya painting is hard to take, but then so is what it represents. I look away, but still feel it in my gut.
    This was a fascinating post. I very much enjoyed the historical content and your related musings.
    I kneww someone who spent several years in a concentration camp. He barely survived and rarely spoke of it. However, he seemed to see inside me in a way that others did not, as if his strong and tested soul knew mine. I’ve always found that fascinating, and inexplicable. There are so many things in this life that are like that. Thanks for your thoughts here. ~ Lily

    • Lily, years ago I was involved in things theatrical, and our company rehearsed in a building in a Los Angeles public park. There was a small music hall and an amateur orchestra used to play, mostly elderly Jewish residents of the neighborhood. Before rehearsals I would sit in the back of the hall and listen to them when I could, and chatted occasionally with a few of them. One woman especially would take the time to talk to me. We’d sit on a park bench and exchange a few words. One afternoon she pointed something out in the distance and I saw a tattoo on the inside of her left arm – numbers. She saw me looking and told me that she and her family had been sent to Auschwitz. She said that her parents, her sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins had been sent to camps and she was the only one who survived. Her words left me shaken and I didn’t know how to reply. All I could manage was, “How did you survive?” She said simply and shatteringly, “I was pretty.” I’ve never heard those words since without thinking of this woman.

      • Dennis, the woman’s story will stay with me now, too.
        Thank you for taking the time to tell it, so sad but… I hope she found happiness. We know that she had the solace of music and nature, at least.
        ~ Lily

      • Lily, there is always a bit of shame when I think of this. At the time I was young and arrogant, caught up in my own artistic world. I watched that orchestra from “on high”, smiling at the players who slept in the middle of rehearsal. Her story shattered my insular self-involved little world.

  4. Dennis, that Goya painting is featured on the cover of Teofilo Ruiz’s book called “The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization” where he addresses many of the questions you raise–how humans respond to disaster and catastrophe both natural and manmade. I’ve just selected it for an interdisciplinary humanities reading group this fall and look forward to reading it with other faculty. You might find it interesting as well. Thanks for raising important issues. I am constantly confused by my powerful response to Romanesque churches when I believe none of the notions that the people responsible for them in the Middle Ages were inspired by faith.

    • Janet, personally, I am convinced that the people responsible for the churches were inspired by their faith. There are too many details of perfection to be otherwise. I am very interested in why you believe otherwise. Thanks for the reference to the Ruiz book, I just ordered it.

  5. Dennis, that Goya painting is featured on the cover of Teofilo Ruiz’s book called “The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization” where he addresses many of the questions you raise–how humans respond to disaster and catastrophe both natural and manmade. I’ve just selected it for an interdisciplinary humanities reading group this fall and look forward to reading it with other faculty. You might find it interesting as well. Thanks for raising important issues. I am constantly confused by my powerful response to Romanesque churches when I believe none of the notions that the people responsible for them in the Middle Ages were inspired by faith.

    • Ann, PJ was gone for too long; I started thinking about Verdun when we lived there and how it made me feel, and this came out. PJ came back to see on my computer screen the Goya and the possibly more terrifying Rubens version of Saturn devouring his child. For the sake of anybody who reads the blog, I won’t post it, but it is easy to Google. Maybe this will keep her close for awhile. I did go to a dark place though, no question.

  6. What a nice article! I was delighted to read these insightful and touching lines! As an architect as well I also appreciate when someone is able to dig the life behind stones, form and styles and bring a fresh perspective. Thanks!

    • Tania, thank you for your kind words. The architects perspective on these churches is often quite interesting. PJ and I are intent on exploring the movement that created these magnificent churches and try to see their reflections across to our times. We welcome your commentary any time.

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