At eleven minutes after eleven a.m., one hundred years ago today, one of the many great mass murders that have torn the European continent ground to a fitful stop.
But it doesn't really affect me.
But for many of the peoples of Europe it was a stone in the chest. It wasn't just four years of ruin and merciless hatred; the Great War dominated political, and many personal, lives for decades.
And some places the War still has not ended; immense mines still lie in uneasy sleep beneath the soil of France.
And there is the Zone Rouge.
And that brings me to the tale I want to tell today.
As an American of the 21st Century I cannot do justice to the horrors that ended a century ago today So, instead, let me tell you the story of the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.
In August 1914 the village was just another little farming town in the wooded hills east of Verdun. The census of 1913 had recorded 422 inhabitants: Three innkeepers, a baker-confectioner, M. Simon - who was carpenter, cartwright and cabinetmaker - a shoemaker, three seamstresses, a builder, a tinsmith, five masons, a blacksmith, a baker, M. Tardivat the "inspector of works", a tobacconist (who may also have been the baker, the grocer, and one of the innkeepers or the brother of one of them), and six farmers who owned the land they farmed. And, of course, their wives, daughters, sons, and the various landless laborers who worked for them.
The village lived like the others around it; from farming and vinticulture, and timbering from the wooded hills where the lean gray wolves still watched from the shadows under the trees as they had in Merovingian times.
The fighting of 1792, 1814, and 1870 had passed Fleury by; all that touched it were the sons who returned with tales of battles far away...or never returned at all and were mourned in the old stone church.
Even the battles of 1914 were fought to the north and east, and the families continued to sow and harvest with, perhaps, no more than a nervous glance to where the night-horizon was lit with gunfire. All of that ended on 21 FEB 1916.
It was snowing that morning. The horizon lit with gunfire as the order came from the military district to evacuate. The villagers piled what belongings they could into carts and wagons and walked or rode southwest as the sky between the louring cloud and the frosted hills burned behind them.
They never saw their homes again.
The "powder magazine" (La Poudrière, described as "...an advanced artillery munitions dump to more quickly supply the field and fortress batteries between Douaumont, Thiaumont, Froideterre and Fleury-devant-Douaumont as well as some secondary munitions dumps...") located near the village was fought over again and again.The village site was finally retaken on 18 AUG, when after ten days of hard fighting Moroccan infantry went in singing the Marseillaise and held.
The site of Fleury is the photo at the head of this post. As you can see, the ruins of the little town have almost disappeared in the succeeding 100 years; only the shellholes remain.
The debris of warfare, particularly the massive amounts of unexploded ordnance including phosgene and chlorine gas shells, had made the entire area next to uninhabitable and certainly unfarmable.
After initial attempts to clear away the mess the Third Republic made the decision to let the Red Zone return to wilderness. Tree plantations were established, and the area let slowly regress into forest and meadow. The grass grew long in the cratered fields, the young poplars and maples formed doghair copses that welcomed back foxes and coneys.
The area is now managed by a municipal council of three members appointed by the prefect of the Meuse department.
Much of the rest of the old Western Front has physically recovered from the wounds inflicted in the Great War. Even other areas within the old Red Zone have slowly been reclaimed, becoming farms and homes, towns, and even parts of cities as St. Quentin, Soissons, and Loos slowly grow with the new 21st Century.
The old days still take their toll, however; the occasional buried round - the "iron harvest" - is encountered by a disk harrow with unpleasant results, or, less violently, is seen placed carefully alongside the road verge to await the arrival of the Département du Déminage disposal teams.
The old border is a peaceful sort of place where the business of human life seems never to have paused. The old wars seem hard to imagine as lorries full of German machine parts roar west to Brest or French artisan cheese north to Brussels.
The village is tenanted only by the past, the only dweller the silent sleekness of the marten, the only passersby the ghosting wings of the thrushes.
The rustling passage of the hedgehog is all that recalls the lumbering walk of M. Body the grocer, and the owl-eyes the hooded glance of Mlle. Alpert the seamstress, gone these hundred years never to return.
And since the day wouldn't be commemorated correctly without some sort of poetry, here's a war song to listen to while you read the tales of battles long ago.