Douaumont ossuary and museum
More background info:
for the military background see Verdun
As soon as the armistice was signed and WW1
was thus over, the battlefields of Verdun were visited by its bishop, Monsignor Ginisty. It was on his initiative that the thousands of unidentifiable bodies he found all over the scarred battlefields should find a dignified final resting place. The first symbolic cornerstone for the future ossuary was laid by Ginisty and Marshal Pétain (see Verdun
) in 1920.
Around the same time an architectural competition was launched as well as a fundraising campaign. Construction lasted from 1924 to 1932. Some unidentified human remains from the battlefields were meanwhile stored temporarily in a chapel. From 1927 onwards these were transferred to the as yet unfinished ossuary. On completion it was officially inaugurated in 1932 by the French president.
The ossuary in the basement of the monument contains the remains of some 130,000 unidentified soldiers from both sides. And it is still growing. To this day, whenever more human bones are found in the former battlefields of Verdun they are added to the ossuary.
The central tower, donated by the USA
, has at its top a bell and a beacon light that at night sends a red and white light over the former battlefields. Hence it is sometimes also referred to as a “lighthouse” – see also Notre Dame de Lorette
Both the latter and Douaumont claim that their war cemetery, or “national necropolis” is the largest such French cemetery. At Douaumont, inaugurated in 1923, there are over 16,000 (named) graves, while Notre Dame de Lorette has some 20,000, but not all named, and a smaller ossuary. Regardless of the numbers, Douaumont is certainly the much more visually impressive site out of these two.
In 1984, Douaumont was the location of a joint remembrance ceremony attended by the then French president François Mitterrand and German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who laid wreaths and even held hands in silence for minutes in the rain – all symbolic of the process of reconciliation between the two countries, which used to be arch-enemies for centuries, that was begun in the 1950s.
What there is to see: You have to concede that the architects who designed this place have succeeded in giving it an immediately solemn aura. Even though Verdun was the last bit of my extensive explorations of the Western Front that I undertook in the summer of 2016 and I was beginning to feel a little “battle-tourism-fatigue”, this site still left its mark. Size matters in this respect too.
The necropolis is a sea of over 16,000 white stone crosses, subdivided into 31 sections in two halves with an open meadow between the two in the middle. I noticed that some of the crosses have more than one name on them. Red roses are planted in front of every single cross.
Towering over the sea of graves is the main monument, the ossuary and tower. The ossuary is in the basement of a 450 feet (137m) long structure, rounded at the ends and with a rounded roof to look like a “tube”. In the centre stands the 150 feet (46m) tall tower with windows at the top through which at night a beacon of light shines over the former battlefields.
To go inside you have to pay an admission fee (see below
). This includes an introductory film screened in the cinema room every half hour. If you’ve just missed the start of a screening you can just as well go up the tower first. To go up there is a lift, to get down you take the stairs.
From the top of the tower you can look out of the windows on all four sides affording great views over the forested ex-battlefields and the war cemetery and ossuary at the foot of the tower. A warning sign advises that the big bell at the tower’s top will ring at 12 noon (and 6 p.m., although by that time no visitors will be up here – see below).
On the floors beneath as well as at the very bottom there’s a small museum exhibition with displays of helmets, soldiers’ personal belongings found in the battlefields, guns, hand grenades and a soldier dummy.
Also at the bottom of the tower is a fairly large shop selling souvenirs, postcards books and such like.
From there you get access to the inside of the “cloister” above the ossuary basement. Inside the stained-glass windows drench the interior in orange light. At each end an eternal flame burns. The walls and vaults are covered with plaques commemorating individual known soldiers who fell at Verdun. There are also some for those who died in WWII
’s colonial wars (e.g. in Algeria
). The north-western side of the “cloister” has a string of alcoves with symbolic tombs. Branching off the central part is a memorial chapel in a Romanesque-Byzantine style.
Back outside walk along the rear (north-western) side of the ossuary and peek through the windows at ground level. Through these you can see into the actual ossuary: those bones of the 130,000 unidentified soldiers stored here. Some views are just of unordered heaps of bones and skulls, others haves skulls grouped together and some feature neatly stacked femurs. The sheer mass of skeletal remains is by far the grimmest aspect here. It really hammers home the futility of the industrialized mass slaughter that WW1
On the other, south-eastern side of the ossuary take note of the inscription “Pax” (‘peace’) above the central arched doorway. Opposite this, on the terrace overlooking the necropolis, is a bronze plaque that commemorates French president Mitterrand’s and German chancellor Kohl’s joint ceremony here in 1984 (see above
) and declares “we have reconciled, reached agreement and become friends”.
All in all
, this has to rank as one of the most significant, and darkest, sites associated with the “Great War”. The ossuary and the necropolis underscore the scale of the mass death that the Battle of Verdun brought. There’s a dark and deeply sombre atmosphere all round. The museum inside the tower and its base, however, is just a small add-on and can in no way compete with the outstanding Mémorial de Verdun
just down the road.
in the northern half of the former battlefield in the hills north-east of Verdun
, a good mile (1.7 km) north-west of the Mémorial de Verdun
Access and costs: quite easy only by car; museum/tower reasonably priced.
Details: The Douaumont necropolis, ossuary and museum are on the main north-south road, the D913, that leads through these hills north-east of Verdun. The main road leads past the necropolis on its southern side, while the D913C splits from it and leads north to the a large car park behind the ossuary.
There is only very limited public transport, apparently, namely by shuttle bus (see under Fort Vaux
) between the main Douaumont
sites and the Tranchée des Baïonnettes, departing from the Mémorial de Verdun
hourly from 10.15 a.m., daily between June and September, only at weekends in April/May and October/November. But you’d first have to get to the Mémorial. And since this would force you into the hourly intervals, though, it is quite inconvenient; so you really rather need your own vehicle to get here.
The open-air parts of this site are freely accessible at all times.
The entrance to the inside is at the north-eastern wing of the ossuary. Opening times: in July and August daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., April to June from 9 a.m. on weekdays; reduced opening times between February and March as well as between September and November, when there is a one to two hour lunch break and closing time is earlier (5 or 5.30 p.m.); last admission to the tower one hour before closing time. In December and early January only open in the afternoon (2 to 5 p.m.), and closed altogether on 25 December, 1 January and between 8 January and 2 February. One source I saw also said closed all of November.
Admission: 6.50 EUR (a few concessions apply). This includes the lift up the tower and the 20-minute film. For the latter you can borrow audio guides with translations of the French narration of the film in English, German, Dutch, Russian and Chinese.
Time required: around an hour and a half, or perhaps a bit longer if you want to reflect more and explore the cemetery at greater length.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Douaumont
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Douaumont
- Douaumont ossuary 01 - central monument to the battle of Verdun
- Douaumont ossuary 02 - cemetery
- Douaumont ossuary 03 - going up the tower
- Douaumont ossuary 04 - at the top
- Douaumont ossuary 05 - bell
- Douaumont ossuary 06 - warning sign
- Douaumont ossuary 07 - looking down from the top
- Douaumont ossuary 08 - overlooking the cemetery
- Douaumont ossuary 09 - going back down
- Douaumont ossuary 10 - in the museum part
- Douaumont ossuary 11 - exhibits
- Douaumont ossuary 12 - dummy soldier
- Douaumont ossuary 13 - back at the main ossuary
- Douaumont ossuary 14 - inside
- Douaumont ossuary 15 - chapel
- Douaumont ossuary 16 - symbolic graves
- Douaumont ossuary 17 - the real bones are below the main hall
- Douaumont ossuary 18 - cluster of skulls
- Douaumont ossuary 19 - femurs
- Douaumont ossuary 20 - on the side of one of the wings
- Douaumont ossuary 21 - central wish
- Douaumont ossuary 22 - the sheer numbers of dead blur into the incomprehensible