Let me tell you about the Douaumont Ossuary.
The ossuary is surrounded by 16,000+ graves, so it sits smack dab in the middle of the largest WWI cemetary in France. There’s even a section for Muslim soldiers, facing Mecca. Inside, the walls, the alcoves, the ceiling, are all covered with memorial plaques naming deceased soldiers. It’s absolutely lovely.
Outside, it’s not quiet as warm — it feels very much like a fort or a military building. (As it should do, since it was initiated by the man who would later build the Maginot Line.)
See those little square windows, just below the gridwork? Those look into 46 rooms, which collectively represent regions in the 20km area around the battle of Verdun.
If you walk up and peer into those windows, this is what you’ll see:
An approximate total of 130,000 French and German remains are piled beneath the two wings of the ossuary. Some of the longer bones are stacked, as in the photograph, but most of them are unsorted, and the majority are unknown and unnamed by the plaques in the hall above.
The soldiers who lie here represent only a tiny, tiny percentage of the 9.7 million military casualties. Many people nowadays feel that the ossuary is macabre, distressing, monstrous — but that’s the point. It should be monstrous. It needs to be monstrous. The clean-cut, sanitized war cemetaries you can find all over Europe are beautiful and respectful, yes, but they are to some extent a myth; beneath many of those crisp white crosses are mass graves. Here, in Douaumont, the designers of this monument were brave enough to show the truth: here, look, this is industrialized warfare, this is the reality.
I think it’s hard for us to really grasp the death toll of WWI without seeing something like this, especially those of us who look back on the world wars from across a vast bridge of years. I find the numbers hard to comprehend, without visual context.
There is the context. No cemetary, no memorial, no list of statistics will ever bring the war home the way this structure does — nothing else will make me understand the way I did when I first saw the rooms beneath Douaumont.