The citadel as such goes back to the 17th century, but the underground tunnels were not dug until the late 19th century, when the whole region of Verdun was intensively fortified (see Douaumont
, Fort Douaumont
and Fort Vaux
). By the beginning of WW1 some 2.5 miles (4 km) of tunnels were completed, by the end of the war it extended to almost 4.5 miles (7 km).
The tunnels were used for ammunition storage and also served as a mill, a bakery, barracks for soldiers before they were sent to the front and, most significantly, a communication and command centre. In other words, this was the nerve centre of the co-ordination of the battle for the French side, the place where the communication lines from the rear to the front and the forts came together.
Below some 53 feet (16m) of rock and bricks, this place was safe even from the heaviest German artillery and the high command could direct the actions at the infinitely less safe front line and outer forts that came under attack. It was also here, to the citadel, that the carrier pigeons would home, including the last pigeon from Fort Vaux
, Vaillant, who was injured by poison gas and gunfire but made it to the citadel. The message the pigeon carried asked for reinforcements, but those never came and the fort was lost to the Germans three days later.
After the war, on 10 November 1920, a ceremony was held at the citadel to choose one of eight recovered but unidentified dead bodies of French soldiers to become the one to be buried underneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris
in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the choosing ceremony, the coffins were lined up in two rows and one soldier was given the task of picking one out of these eight. For that he was given a bouquet of flowers to place on one of the coffins. He chose No. 6.
In 1924, the citadel was declared a national monument.
Between 1940 and 1944, during the Nazi
German occupation of France
, the Gestapo
apparently used a building (no longer standing) just outside the citadel to hold prisoners before their deportation to camps further east. At least that’s what a plaque on one of the citadel’s ramparts claims, but I haven’t been able to find out more about this.
Similarly, I have not been able to find out when the underground tunnels were first made accessible to the public. It may have been 2009, and some modernizations were made in time for the centenary of the Battle of Verdun
in 2016. More changes may have occurred more recently.
What there is to see: Here I am describing my visit back in August 2016. Online reviews from up to mid-2020 were pretty much in line with what I experienced, but looking at the official website now, in summer 2021, I notice some changes (but haven’t found any newer reviews that would cover those).
There seems to be a new installation outside the citadel tunnels, a long shiny wall of black-and-white WW1
-era photos and some texts. And the wagons that go round the automated tour inside the underground tunnels look different. There is also talk (and photo evidence) of there now being ‘virtual reality’ (VR) goggles worn on the rides, for some ‘augmented reality’ features. Whether that makes the tours any better, I cannot judge. I do have my doubts, though. I find those in-vogue VR elements a bit forced and not a substitute for proper place authenticity and a good, factual, sober narrative. Moreover, the flowery description on the tourisme-verdun website suggests that the narrative is now more focused on a few individuals and even more on the unknown soldier choosing ceremony (see above) than before. And in my feeling that’s not boding well …
But here’s what I got at the “citadelle souterraine” (French for ‘underground citadel’) in 2016 (current up to at least mid-2020):
The entrance was directly below the citadel’s ramparts, leading into a tunnel. The ticket desk appeared on the right, opposite were a few exhibits, including a dummy in a French uniform and kit and some blow-up black-and-white photos taken inside the underground citadel in 1916. Then we queued up to board the little red electrified automatic wagons for our ride around the underground citadel. There were seats for up to nine people, but ours wasn’t full.
Then the wagon rolled off and went past large photographs, screens with animated scenes, some hologram animations, and life-size reconstructions, e.g. of the bakery and the ammunition store. All the time a loud narration in French played, together with dramatic music.
For non-French-speaking visitors, headphones were given out that played translations in English (or other languages), but it was hard to hear that narration, because it was largely drowned out by the loud original. In the end I gave up even trying to follow the English on the headphones. It wasn’t that there was much in the way of information in the narration anyway. It was all just over-emotionalized, and over-glorified. Fittingly there were several stages in the “show” that were dominated by flags. Hanging from the ceiling or being dragged up as the wagon approached them, one after the other. I would have preferred some topical coverage over such cheap flag parades.
A particularly long screen sequence showed a re-enactment of a trench scene, including the recovery of a wounded soldier being seen to by a pair of stretcher bearers, with lots of shouting and running around in the crowded narrow trenches. All accompanied by overdramatic music. I don’t think the soldiers in the trenches would have heard much pathos-laden French horn music, but so what … The re-enactment at least looked halfway realistic. Deceptively it started in colour and then went into black-and-white suggesting (wrongly) that this might be historic footage.
At three points the wagon stopped and we had to get off to wander through some walk-through exhibition parts. This included a hall with dummies in various uniforms in glass display cases, and also the usual collections of rifles, helmets, water flasks and whatnot. One part was an artificial grove of “trees” (why that, I have no clue), another was walking past large blow-up photos of soldiers – not real ones, but more like the actors in the re-enactment earlier.
The supposed “highlight” is a recreation of the ceremony in which the Unknown Soldier was chosen in 1920, with two rows of coffins with the French flag draped over them and various dummies standing around the coffins. One dummy was in the middle of placing that bouquet of flowers on coffin No. 6 (see above
). This was patriotic glorification and sentimentality overload for me. At the rear wall of this scene the words “on ne passe pas” (‘they shall not pass’), famously a command to the French troops to stand their ground made by a commander during the battle (see Verdun
); why it reappears here for a scene in 1920 I do not know. Maybe it really featured, maybe it’s just another overdramatic element of pathos.
Very little was told about the citadel and the underground tunnels themselves, though we did get to see some unfinished tunnels that gave an impression of the digging efforts. At the end we got off the electric wagon one final time and walked though the last one of the traditional exhibition parts.
Overall, I found this an absolutely awful “experience”, part fun-fair-like ride for kids, part pompous, pathos-laden patriotic over-glorification for French jingoism-inclined adults. But for foreigners with a genuine interest in history, this could hardly have been worse. At the same time it was technically flawed (the earphones) and everything looked cheesy and cheap. Information about the Battle of Verdun and the citadel was as scant as vegetarian dishes on an average French restaurant menu (i.e. barely in evidence at all).
Honestly, this commodification
of the citedelle souterraine was for me easily the single worst element of my eight days of exploring the Western Front of WW1
in August 2016. But I know from reading online reviews that opinions differ. Some reviewers seem to have enjoyed the experience and described it as “immersive” (it was, but not in the right way, I would counter-argue) and “moving” (ditto). Anyway, it may all be quite different now with the VR additions, although whether that helps with conveying a realistic impression of what the topic of this site is, seems doubtful. I maybe should give it another chance now, but to be frank I’d be more than hesitant.
So if you have plenty of time and spare cash and don’t mind such cheesy commodifications, then do go. If you are short of time and in any case more after an adult-oriented, accurate and comprehensive coverage of the Battle of Verdun
in general, then rather give this a miss and go to the Mémorial de Verdun
and the other sites around Douaumont
on the southern side of the citadel, off the D34A, Avenue du Soldat Inconnu, about half a mile (700m) from the city centre of Verdun
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; rather expensive.
From the centre of Verdun
it’s walkable in under ten minutes. Just carry on in a westward direction along the main road south of the upper town and past the cathedral on Rue de Ru, then past the car park and the entrance is on your right.
If you’re driving, take the same route from the east (city centre), or, if coming from the west, turn off the D330 to the east and shortly after you come to the larger of the two car parks on your left. There’s another, smaller car park just past the entrance to the underground citadel, so slightly more convenient.
: daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in July/August, only to 6 p.m. from April to June and in September/October, only to 5.30 or 5 p.m. for the rest of the year; except for annual closing time, which isn’t fully clear. Normally it’s January in France
, often starting already a week or so before Christmas. One Verdun tourism source, though, said the citadelle souterraine is closed in November.
Admission was 9 EUR until recently, but now the official website says 15 EUR! (Some concessions apply to students, unemployed and children.) Maybe this raised price reflects recently introduced changes to the tour features (VR elements, etc.). But frankly, even the 9 EUR before was rather steep for what you get. Think carefully whether you really want to invest so much money in something that has the potential to disappoint deeply.
NOTE that it is always cold in these tunnels, year-round about 7 degrees Celsius; so if you’re going in summer make sure to bring a warm jacket and maybe a woolly hat too!
You can just turn up and wait for the next tour on the automated wagons, but if it’s in high season and coachloads of tour groups are there you may have to wait quite a while and there’s the possibility that you may not get on a tour at all. Go a bit off season, in contrast, and there shouldn’t be that problem. I went at the end of August and only had a very short wait. If you want to make absolutely sure, you can also book a space ahead of time through the Verdun tourism website.
Time required: The Verdun tourism office website says an hour and a half in total, of which a good half hour is on the automatic wagon, the rest is for an intro and for the walk-through parts. I’m sure my visit back in 2016 was a bit shorter, and I don’t remember any separate intro. But things may well have changed in this regard too.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Verdun
The “upper” citadel, i.e. the actual citadel above ground, has been made accessible too, with restrictions, in the past decade or so, albeit only by guided tour (in French). Much of the old structures and the ramparts are atmospherically overgrown so should appeal to those who are into abandoned places. These tours take place only on select weekend dates at 2.30 p.m. and cost 7 EUR; for contact and pre-booking consult the tourisme-verdun.com website.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Verdun
- citadelle souterraine 1 - entrance
- citadelle souterraine 2 - tour by automated fun-fair car
- citadelle souterraine 3 - rolling through the audiovisual show
- citadelle souterraine 4 - not all of it is self-explanatory
- citadelle souterraine 5 - patriotism galore
- citadelle souterraine 6 - walk-through exhibition part
- citadelle souterraine 7 - standard exhibits
- citadelle souterraine 8 - uncommodified tunnel
- citadelle souterraine 9 - in the foyer