Potatoes as earth, bacon as salt, cheese as milk; basic and warmby Wendell Steavenson / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: How Britain learned to cook
Verdun in February. The 100-year anniversary of the pyrrhic French victory of the First World War. We stood miserable, sodden and aghast at the hill of Mort Homme where 10,000 Frenchmen fell, valiantly defending their flank. The land is still pocked with shell holes. The whole area—a long front, 25km or more of strongholds and bunkers along ridges overlooking the Meuse valley—is covered with woods that were planted after the war to preserve, commemorate and, perhaps even hide, the scars left by zigzagging trenches.
Tramping through the fluorescent moss undergrowth, the bumps and hollows of the front line and the charnel tunnels of the massive underground forts, the atmosphere of death was palpable. You could taste it in the damp air, metallic, organic, thick and rich. Our boots sucked at the clammy clay mud and our breath puffed smoke in the frosty air. We fell silent at the famous Skeleton Memorial, a death’s head soldier carrying the flag of France and the words engraved below him: “Ils n’ont pas passe” (They did not pass). I stared up at this agony and watched as the grey stone flashed luminous and white and then died back to shadow. It must have been a trick of the sun, but the sky was completely overcast.
The Germans launched a surprise attack on the French at Verdun on 21st February 1916. It has been said that General Erich von Falkenhayn wanted to draw the French into a battle of attrition, but the truth is, like so much of the First World War, no one really knows what the hell they were thinking. The French were initially driven out of their forts, but held the line and over the course of 10 months of bitter fighting pushed the Germans back again. Including the dead, wounded, missing and captured, there were one million casualties. The conditions were terrible—muddy craters deep enough to drown in, trees smashed to matchwood, limited water supply and constant artillery bombardment. Provisions were extremely difficult to get. Porters had to carry cauldrons of soup through the trenches under gunfire; often when they arrived the cauldrons were more like a colander and the soup had drained out. Over the course of the battle, villages…