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Ghost villages of Verdun recall savagery of 90 years ago

Published on April 08, 2008

   Mayor Jean Lavigne presides over a ghost community near here inhabited only by memories of the nightmare 92 years ago when nine French villages were buried in a hail of artillery fire.   For we are near Verdun, scene of one of the fiercest, longest and bloodiestbattles of World War I, a titanic clash between French and Germans thatdragged on for 10 months throughout 1916, claiming a quarter of a millionlives and leaving an estimated million more wounded.   Cumieres and the other eight communities were never rebuilt. But the bittermemory of their fate has been kept alive through nine decades.   Lavigne has no villagers to administer in Cumieres, now nothing but alonely stretch of woodland, its eery stillness occasionally punctuated by thecry of a heron.   Instead, he is here to administer to the past, keep it alive, burnishmemories and preserve the dignity of what has become a monument to humantragedy on a mass scale.   "Just imagine a tonne of shells landing on every square metre here," saidthe 65 year-old mayor, recalling the fate of conscripts on the front lineformed by these evacuated villages.

   "Youngsters, just 20 years-old.  Pulverised. It was that madness, that
maelstrom, that brought me here."
   The losses on both sides were mainly, as he says, very young men, some
scarcely more than boys.
   The nine villages lay on a front line about 25 kilometres (15 miles) long,
forming a defence north of the city of Verdun not far from the borders with
Belgium and Luxembourg. The inhabitants were evacuated in 1915. Three years
later nothing remained but rubble, craters, unexploded shells.
  
       — ‘It would take centuries to clear the explosives’ —
  
   "It would take centuries to clear all the explosive left here," says the
mayor.
   In 1919, the French authorities declared the area uninhabitable, bought the
land from its owners, began clearing unexploded ordnance, reforested
two-thirds, and re-designated this a place of remembrance.
   Only a handful of folk remain domiciled on the sites of the former
villages, seven in one commune, 75 in another. 
   But the sites of the remaining seven empty villages are all formally
administered by mayors, including Lavigne, appointed by the local prefect or
regional government officer.
   Even without a public, Lavigne observes time-honoured formalities,
including donning on special occasions the badge of French civic authority, the tricolour sash worn diagonally across the body — though occasions are rare and he has been known to put it on the the wrong way round.
   Despite no community to nurture, he and fellow mayors have plenty to do, including supervising the maintenance of roads and chapels reconstructed in the 1930s, trimming public garden spaces, and sometimes calling in bomb disposal squads when unexploded shells resurface, as they continue to do even today, 90 years on, in the northeastern sector of France that became the theatre of war known as the western front.
   And of course there is the duty of remembrance, honouring the dead of that
maelstrom.
   Mayor Gerard Gervaise of Haumont plans to erect a monument to hundreds of
French colonial troops from Senegal who died in battle near the village.
   The eternal flame of remembrance at the village Bezonvaux is tended by 86
year-old Jean Laparra who wrote a book about the fate of this community and
was instrumental in restoring the war memorial there. Meanwhile his son, mayor
of the village of Fleury, also keeps alive the flame of memory of this tragic
chapter of French and European history.
   Marie-Claude Minmeister, mayoress of Douaumont, says she is "possessed by
its overwhelming past," and as both a mother and official able to preside at
civil marriages, was glad to marry both her sons in such a village.
   Mayor Bernard Bertrand, presiding over 75 citizens at Vaux, says: "I came
here because of the area, the calm and peace, the forest.
   "Then I identified totally with my community, making it my own, the history
of these people who had lived peacefully, yet lost everything."

Annick Benoist

AFP