André Ruiter Historic Landscapes

Verdun 1916

Traces of the Battle of Verdun

About the project

In 2009 I visited the battlefield at Verdun in Northern France for the first time. At the time I was working on a photo project about the New Dutch Water Line and discovered that the combination of landscape photography and history inspired me. I wanted to develop further in this direction.

I knew little about the First World War, but the name "Verdun" was as a synonym for the horrors of the war. The German offensive, intended to bleed the French army to death, would result in the longest battle in history. At the end of the battle, the frontline was almost in the same place again, but at the cost of more than 750.000 dead and wounded.

On my first trip, I visited the sites many will visit during a brief introduction to the battlefield. The Bois des Caures where the battle began, the forts Douaumont and Vaux and some "villages détruit"; villages destroyed during the battle and not rebuilt after the war.

I was impressed by the enormous destruction, theses traces are still not been erased after a hundred years. The landscape is dominated by countless impact craters and trenches, scattered with the remains of destroyed forts that lay in a ring around the city of Verdun. It were these forts, ouvrages and abris that fascinated me the most and would form the common theme of the photo project.

In the years that followed I visited the battlefield with some regularity. Usually during the fall, because then it’s quiet. The few tourists can only be found around the well-known fortresses and monuments. You rarely meet anyone in the woods. The overgrown Bois Fumin was the scene of heavy fighting. The remains of two battered abris are silent witnesses. Here, the metal sticks out of the ground, there are still many unexploded grenades and I found the remains of a soldier's shoe. During fog, the atmosphere here was impressive.

When I got home, I studied the story behind the battle. About the incessant artillery shelling that turned the battlefield into a meat grinder. The mighty Fort de Douaumont, which was captured by the Germans without significant resistance, but attempts by the French to reclaim it would cost tens of thousands of lives. The summer heat that caused soldiers to drink form shell holes filled with corpses ...

It kept me making new plans to go back. I had to record this story. On the battlefield I tried to imagine what it must have been like in 1916, but I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to imagine.

Sometimes it felt strange; photographing on locations where so many horrors have taken place and then working on composition and lighting. Then, euphoria when I had captured the desired images during a misty morning. I often visited one of the many cemeteries at the end of the day. It reminded me why I was here. The enormous number of casualties is hard to imagine, but on the cemetary they have a name, although this applies to the minority because of most of time only remnants have been found. They rest in anonymous mass graves and the charnel house at the honorary cemetery.

I often visited Fort de Souville. Here the German offensive was halted, but not before the fortress was almost completely destroyed by tens of thousands of shells. The story is intriguing: a French lieutenant and his company took cover in the fortress from the massive shelling. On arrival he saw the deplorable condition of the fort and organised its defense. During the attack that followed, German soldiers could see the lights of Verdun from the fortress, but they would not get further. The attack was repulsed and the outcome of the battle was partly determined by the determination of a French lieutenant.

The few remains of the fort are hidden in the forest. Ironically, the entrance gate is still standing proudly. It’s still my favorite photo from the project.

Many forts are still owned by the French army and are off limits. These are dangerous ruins. The temptation to visit them was great, but fortunately common sense prevailed. Of the fortresses Tavannes and Saint-Michel, I have only recorded the caponiers at the far corners of the fort.