When I was ten years old, my family moved from central Missouri to Louisville, Kentucky. It was a big move for many reasons. We moved from a small town of 1,500 people to a metro area of nearly 1 million. The farm community where we lived was not very diverse; Louisville certainly is. Our home in Tipton, MO, was on a small street leading to the school, but our home in Louisville was located on one of the busiest streets in the city. So many changes.
Perhaps the most challenging transition was leaving all of our family behind. When we arrived in Louisville, our new church family helped us move into the parsonage. That day, I met an older woman that greeted me with a big hug and a heavy accent. She told me that she would now be my Mamaw and her husband would be my Tot (grandpa). From 1988 until her death a few years ago, Mamaw was good to her word.
I loved hearing Mamaw and Tot’s stories. He was a WWII vet that guarded Eisenhower in London. She was a woman of Ukrainian descent who lived in France. It was from Mamaw that I first heard of a small town in northeastern France called Verdun. Mamaw’s hometown. She told me countless stories of her and Tot’s war experiences. Her life under German occupation. Of her brothers that were part of the French underground. Even a story where she purposely poured hot coffee on a German General because he sent one of her brothers to a concentration camp. In time Verdun was liberated, and she met Tot.
As a child, I never realized that I would study Verdun so extensively. For such a seemingly insignificant town, Verdun left an indelible mark on world history. In 843, the Treaty of Verdun broke Charlemagne’s empire into three parts following the war between Verdun and surrounding cities, and King Clovis I. Clovis was the first King of the Franks to unite all Frankish peoples. On August 20, 1792, the Battle of Verdun occurred. The French lost this battle to the Prussians (later part of Germany). After England declared war on France in 1802, Napoleon demanded that British subjects be moved to Verdun. (See Smithsonian Magazine’s May edition article: Roget Gets the Last Word.) Again in 1870, Verdun held a key position for the capture of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, July 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871.
During WWI, Verdun was surrounded by trenches…miles of trenches. From February 21 to December 18, 1916, the battle of Verdun raged. This battle is one of the worst offenses of the war, let alone the Western Front. It was the most protracted battle of World War I. According to one source, Germany suffered 336,000–355,000 casualties and 143,000 killed. While France suffered 379,000–400,000 casualties, 163,000 killed, and 216,000 wounded. This small town with a current population of just over 18,000 (2015) also played a role in World War II. Though indeed not as infamous as its part in the Meuse offensive of 1916. Still, Verdun sits at a strategic point, opening the way to Paris for her German enemy.
World history supplies us with an endless list of people, places, and events of significance. Perhaps there is no other tiny town that has such a monumental history. In many ways, Mamaw’s life parallels her hometown. She, too, lived through significant, life-changing events. Just like her city, she overcame and became stronger for it. This little town has had a significant impact on the history of Europe. I have been within 100 miles of Verdun. On my next trip to Europe, I hope to see the little town of the little lady that impacted me.