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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Banigan

The Nine Ghost Villages of Northern France

Over 300 days during World War One, these villages were completely wiped out – along with hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers – during the Battle of Verdun. I wrote about them for BBC Travel. Below is an excerpt of the piece and a few photos.

Trails through France’s Red Zone follow the trenches dug by soldiers during World War One’s 300-day Battle of Verdun (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

I was walking with a few friends on a mossy forest path through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, a small village nestled in the pastoral landscape of north-eastern France. It had rained heavily the night before and a fine mist still hung in the air. A cacophonous flock of birds hid in the lush canopy above my head, their lively song juxtaposing the deep silence of the tens of thousands of unknown soldiers who lay in the hallowed ground below my feet.

During World War One, French and German soldiers completely razed nine villages during the Battle of Verdun, the longest and one of the fiercest artillery battles of the war. Raging for around 300 days and nights in 1916, troops used giant guns – including Germany’s infamous ‘Big Berthas’ – to rain a never-ending barrage of shells over the combat zone. The shells contaminated the earth so badly with lead, arsenic and lethal poison gas, France determined that most of the villages couldn’t be rebuilt. Casualties of war, it was said they had ‘died for France’.

Over the last 100 years, only one of the destroyed villages has been reconstructed. Another two have been partially rebuilt, but the remaining six, including Fleury-devant-Douaumont, sit uninhabited within France’s Zone Rouge, or Red Zone.


The cemetery at the Douaumont National Necropolis and Ossuary contains the graves of more than 15,000 soldiers who perished during the Battle of Verdun (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Debris from the Battle of Verdun, including dog tags, shells and silverware, can still be found in the forests of the Red Zone (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Museums like Romagne ‘14-‘18 and the Mémorial de Verdun preserve the stories of soldiers who fought in the Battle of Verdun (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

In this open-air memorial, life finds a way. (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Today, nothing remains of Fleury-devant-Douaumont except for stone ruins of the foundations of a few buildings and ground pocked by bombs (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

A small chapel was constructed near Fleury-devant-Douaumont after the war as a place to pray and remember the dead (Credit: Melissa Banigan)

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