We started off at the Memorial of Verdun, not only an impressive edifice from the outside but an unexpectedly cavernous museum beneath.
When I think about the First World War, I generally picture British soldiers in khaki and German ones in field grey. The fighting around Verdun largely involved French and American troops, so I got used to representations of the French poilus in their light blue uniform and funny caps. At least one member of our party changed their opinion of the French military in light of their deeds around Verdun.
Bikes under the gun:
Near the museum is the village of Fleury. Like every other town in France, it has its name on a smart sign with a red border, indicating that you need to drop your speed to 50kph. But there's nothing there. Fleury is one of nine villages détruits, ghost towns reduced to rubble in the fighting which retain their status as living-places, and have an administrative council, but exist only as memory and memorial.
The afternoon's sites were no more than ten minutes' ride apart; pleasant, easy riding on sunny country roads.
I was ghoulishly keen to see the Trench of the Bayonets, where the bodies of soldiers buried alive were discovered after the war thanks to their bayonets sticking up from the soil.
I had been led to believe that one could still see bayonets (or at least replicas, since bastard souvenir-hunters nicked the originals) poking out of the graves, but to my great disappointment there were only crosses and a rather horrid concrete monument.
On to Fort Douamont, one of several forts surrounding Verdun. The amazing view from the top made it obvious why the Germans were so keen to take these outdated structures:
Throughout our travels we had been able to glimpse the white tower of the Ossuary, and closer up we had seen the sheer number of crosses stretching away down the slope:
Inside it was cool and peaceful, with the names of the missing inscribed on the walls.
One of my favourite stops of the weekend was a brief one at a crossroads to look at the Wounded Lion, who marks the furthest point of the German advance. Erosion has made his limestone features even sadder as he lies with his claws out.
Last of all we visited another fort, Vaux, and looked around the inside. Here the French troops held out valiantly under terrible conditions of hunger, thirst and enemy attack; so valiantly that when they finally surrendered, the German soldiers presented arms to them as a gesture of respect.
The occupants also, apparently, slept in double or possibly triple beds. Cosy.