The Mémorial de Verdun is one of the most significant WW1
museums in the world. It was first established in 1967, on the initiative of one Maurice Genevoix, an ex-serviceman and member of the Académie française.
Four and a half decades later it was decided that the museum was in need of modernization and an upgrade. So it closed in 2013 and work was begun. It went beyond just renovation but also included physical expansion of the space available by adding another floor, and a large foyer to house the museum shop, ticket office and a visitor information centre. The extra floor on top of the building provides space for a classroom, a temporary exhibition hall, terraces overlooking the actual former battlefields, and a documentation centre, where visitors can (by appointment) get access to thousands of books and original documents pertaining to the Battle of Verdun
The main permanent exhibition, while retaining original displays and artefacts, was greatly extended and enhanced by new installations along with audiovisual and interactive elements. The new museum opened in time for the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of Verdun in February 2016.
What there is to see: As you approach the entrance to the museum from the north or south car park you pass a French field gun on open-air display. Going by older photos, there used to be more and bigger guns and other objects on display in front of the museum. This has been totally changed in the revamp of 2013-2016 (see above). The entrance is at a lower level underneath the new square in front of the main building. At this underground level you find the museum shop, lockers, toilets, and of course the reception/ticket counter.
The permanent exhibition inside is spread out over two levels around a central battlefield display arrangement (see below). All texts and audio tracks are in French, German and English.
The circuit through the exhibition is mostly organized thematically rather than chronologically, with different aspects picked out one after the other. There is no strict order in which to go through the displays, which I don’t mind and actually welcome as extra flexibility. But I know from online reviews that some people find this confusing (or even “chaotic”, which I think is going too far). The space is well filled and a bit limited in some places. This could be a problem if large numbers of visitors, especially tour groups, are present. But at the time of my visit at the end of August, there were no big crowds and I was able to move about freely.
The exhibition looks at Verdun in the early phase of the war
(the ‘war of movement’, soon giving way to digging in and the onset of the ‘war of attrition’ – cf. Yser
), when Verdun
found itself on a salient bulging into the German front line, thus almost surrounded on three sides, with some communication and supply lines cut off.
A side room to the right of the main exhibition hall is called the “Sacred Way”, and this is about the logistics of keeping the front supplied. This is visually very effectively illustrated by a stretch of muddy track – with fake mud made from a rubbery material that looks quite realistic. On this track you see soldiers’ footprints and track marks of the supply wagons, with displays of carts, a car, a field kitchen and artillery. Stacks of shells complement the latter. Large projections on to the walls provide period footage, and the relevant soundscape comes from hidden loudspeakers.
The lower floor concentrates mostly on the troops in the battlefields and the conditions they found themselves in. Both sides, the French and the German, are treated equally here. There is no jingoism in the narrative and very little glorification (except where particular “heroism” is mentioned).
Apart from an overview of the stages of the battle
, including an animated relief map of the lands around Douaumont
, exhibits comprise clothing/uniforms
, gas masks
, trench art
, and much more. The problems of communication
are highlighted here and there is an interactive exhibit where you can “hack” inter-trench communications. There are also audio stations and some interactive screens. The topic of relief from front-line service is picked out too. A large historical scale scene called the “Ramel Diorama
”, with tin soldiers moving away from the front while others are sent to it, illustrates this exchange.
The fate of the villages destroyed in the battle and never rebuilt, such as the village of Fleury right at this location, are also presented. The metal cockerel from the bell tower of the church in Fleury is a relic on display here.
Another special section deals with actual live animals in war. From the hundreds of thousands of horses to donkeys, mules and carrier pigeons (Vaillant from Fort Vaux gets a particular mention here!). Special dogs also feature, as they were good at providing warning of gas attacks and even literally sniffing out spies. Less welcome animals come up too, especially the rats that infested the trenches.
The topics of soldiers being sent to the front – and hoping to be relieved from it after a week or so (if they had survived) plays a big role too. Many personal items of soldiers are on display here: packs of tobacco, papers, sewing kits, personal photo cameras, and so on.
In the central part of the hall is the “battlefield installation”, a kind of cage in which the tremendous horrors of the battle, especially the constant shelling are illustrated. It’s a mix of 3-D objects, such as trench mortars and machine guns, and projections on to a three-tiered large area standing at a ca. 45-degree angle. Images and moving footage of the shelling are seen, enhanced by sounds trying to convey the constant pounding of the battlefields by shelling.
The latter is also picked up in a section about shrapnel, including a display of such metal pieces arranged in such a way that it looks like a shell explosion frozen in mid-detonation with metal pieces flying in all directions suspended in mid-air.
Beneath the angular central battlefield projection is a room referred to as the “crypt”. Here an impression of the cramped and horrible conditions the soldiers endured in the trenches is conveyed, including the omnipresent mud. At ground level, and only visible if you crouch down, is a recreation of what the battlefield looked like in no man’s land. The term “crypt” becomes more fitting here because the display also includes a couple of recreations of semi-decomposed dead soldiers lying in the mud between broken pieces of wood, empty shells, barbed wire and other debris. This is by far the grimmest and darkest part of the museum.
Behind the “crypt”, stairs lead up to the upper level (there’s a lift for people with mobility issues too). Here you come face to face with the two biplanes, one French, one German, that are suspended from the ceiling above the central battlefield installation below from where you will already have seen them overhead. The topic of aviation in the Battle of Verdun, where the notion of the “flying ace” was born, is naturally a special topic here.
Otherwise the upper section is mostly about aspects behind the front line, e.g. the military command, the postal service, propaganda and the press, families left behind at home as well as death and mourning. Also picked out are less often discussed topics such as the friendships formed between comrades and the food that the soldiers had to contend with (a German field kitchen is on display here).
Temporary leave from service, though much desired by soldiers, is explained as often being difficult, due to the knowledge that they would have to return to the front and the impossibility of conveying to family members their experiences there. The role of women is another side aspect, including the high expectations soldiers returning from the front had, which also spawned a lot of prostitution around the train stations that the soldiers were carted to.
One of the most interesting sections in this part of the exhibition focuses on the medical side, both in battle, with dressing stations, field hospitals and triage as the war raged on, and in terms of the long-term after-effects. Some very grim exhibits here include pieces of skin that had come off a soldier after a poison gas attack and labelled by himself, or an X-ray of a bullet embedded in a foot. Trench foot is another condition mentioned here. The various mutilations and disfigurements as result of shelling and gunshot wounds are a special angle here and provide more grim material, both in illustration form and in displays of prosthetics. The psychological damage, then simply known as “shell shock”, is covered in this section as well.
And then there is the topic of death
– its omnipresence on the battlefield and the soldiers’ constant fear of death, as well as the issue of the dead simply left decomposing in no man’s land, because it was impossible to retrieve the bodies for burial. Shells also often blew already dead bodies to pieces or “exhumed” already buried corpses. No wonder so many soldiers ended up “missing” (cf. Douaumont ossuary
The last but one section of the upper-floor part of the exhibition asks the question “What purpose did the battle serve?”. It kind of takes stock. It states the huge number of casualties and the ca. 300,000 killed, and contrasts that with the fact that ultimately it had little effect on the Western Front, it basically just re-established the status quo, and even a hundred years later the scars on the landscape are still visible and the reminders of the war are still painful. An add-on briefly mentions the final part of the war with the involvement of the USA and the eventual Allied victory.
The last section on this floor then looks at the commemoration
of the Battle of Verdun
, again on both sides, and also takes in the local monuments (such as the Douaumont ossuary) and the history of this museum.
Another set of stairs then leads to the top floor, where the exhibition ends in a row of workstations where you can access more information by means of computer touchscreens. This is also where the room for temporary exhibitions is located. These change regularly. Also up here is the documentation centre, the classroom (for study groups) and a cafeteria. Glass doors lead out to three terraces overlooking the former battlefield and allowing views north towards the ossuary of Douaumont
All in all
, I found this the most wide-ranging, eye-opening and visually engaging of all the WW1
museums I saw on my field trip along the Western Front in 2016, from the Yser Tower
, the Somme
. Even though I visited this museum on my last but one day of the WW1-themed part of the trip, and I was feeling serious “battlefield-tourism-fatigue”, this museum still fascinated me greatly. Given all that I would even class it as above the also excellent In Flanders Fields Museum
or the Historial de la Grande Guerre
Access and costs: easy only by car; not too pricey
Details: To get there you ideally should have your own means of transport, so a (hire) car or motorbike (cycling there would be tough given the gradients in this hilly terrain). To the north, west and south of the museum is a car park for about 70 cars and spaces for 5 or 6 coaches or camper vans. Parking is free.
There does not seem to be any public transport – or at least not any longer: I found a mention on an online travel forum that a shuttle bus from the Verdun tourism office was discontinued in 2018. The leaflet I picked up at the museum in 2016 still mentioned a “shuttle service from Verdun town council” but gave no details as to schedule or prices. I haven’t been able to find out more about the current situation. So other than coming by car or going on a guided tour that includes transport, a taxi is probably the only means to get you there (ca. 40 EUR), but doing it that way you’d lose the flexibility of a (hire) car and the option of seeing all the other important sights of Douaumont
The Mémorial has the following opening times: daily from 9.30 a.m. to 7 p.m., in the off season (September to June) closing time can be an hour or two earlier; last admission an hour before closing. So better make sure to get here early enough in the day! Some sources say closed in November, others say from mid-December to mid-January (the latter is the more customary annual closure time in France).
Admission: 12 EUR (7.50 EUR for under-16-year-olds, students, unemployed persons and military personnel). This includes the temporary exhibition. The latter can also be visited solo (for 5 EUR / 2 EUR).
Time required: At least an hour and a half, but if you want to read everything and explore the museum to the max then you may need much longer than that, possibly 3-4 hours even.
- Memorial de Verdun 01 - museum building
- Memorial de Verdun 02 - gun outside
- Memorial de Verdun 03 - shells
- Memorial de Verdun 04 - guns and gear
- Memorial de Verdun 05 - in fake mud
- Memorial de Verdun 06 - rubbery fake footprints in the mud
- Memorial de Verdun 07 - mortar
- Memorial de Verdun 08 - multi-media battlefield recreation
- Memorial de Verdun 09 - trilingual narration
- Memorial de Verdun 10 - communications equipment
- Memorial de Verdun 11 - carrier pigeon
- Memorial de Verdun 12 - interactive hacking-trench-communications game
- Memorial de Verdun 13 - semi-hidden silent after-the-battle reconstruction
- Memorial de Verdun 14 - complete with unclaimed corpses
- Memorial de Verdun 15 - helmeted skull
- Memorial de Verdun 16 - food section
- Memorial de Verdun 17 - supplies
- Memorial de Verdun 18 - rats
- Memorial de Verdun 19 - entertainment section
- Memorial de Verdun 20 - bugles
- Memorial de Verdun 21 - early days of aviation in war
- Memorial de Verdun 22 - fighter biplanes suspended from the ceiling
- Memorial de Verdun 23 - modern and varied exhibition
- Memorial de Verdun 24 - medical section
- Memorial de Verdun 25 - prosthetics and skin afflictions
- Memorial de Verdun 26 - mustard gas skin
- Memorial de Verdun 27 - broken face
- Memorial de Verdun 28 - x-rays of bullets embedded in bones
- Memorial de Verdun 29 - mourning widows
- Memorial de Verdun 30 - memorial room
- Memorial de Verdun 31 - temporary exhibition section
- Memorial de Verdun 32 - additional workstations
- Memorial de Verdun 32 - at the top
- Memorial de Verdun 33 - view north towards the ossuary