Mon­u­ments to the dead

The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion cel­e­brates its cen­te­nary this year. Gavin Stamp con­tex­tu­alises its work by look­ing at the way in which other na­tions com­mem­o­rated their dead

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Gavin Stamp on the cen­te­nary of the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion

The Im­pe­rial—to­day, the Com­mon­wealth—war Graves Com­mis­sion was es­tab­lished a cen­tury ago this year. The strug­gle of its founder, Sir Fabian Ware, to give dig­ni­fied burial to the First World War dead of the Bri­tish em­pire is now well known. So too is the suc­cess of the Com­mis­sion in cre­at­ing war ceme­ter­ies and Memo­ri­als to the Miss­ing of a high ar­chi­tec­tural stan­dard and of great and serene beauty by em­ploy­ing some of the best ar­chi­tects in the coun­try—above all Sir ed­win Lu­tyens.

What is rather less well known—at least, in in­su­lar Bri­tain—is the way in which the other fight­ing pow­ers re­sponded to the chal­lenge of bury­ing and com­mem­o­rat­ing their own vic­tims of mass in­dus­tri­alised slaugh­ter. Com­par­isons are in­struc­tive.

No other war ceme­ter­ies ap­proach the Bri­tish ones in terms of the care taken over hor­ti­cul­ture and land­scap­ing, but the wis­dom of Ware and the Com­mis­sion in the poli­cies they adopted is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in the de­sign of the stan­dard Bri­tish head­stone. It was de­cided that all in­di­vid­ual graves should be marked by an iden­ti­cal sec­u­lar head­stone, re­gard­less of the rank, re­li­gion or race of the ca­su­alty.

This pro­duced much con­tro­versy in Bri­tain, with many griev­ing rel­a­tives want­ing the com­fort of the Chris­tian cross. The Com­mis­sion, how­ever, recog­nised that Jews, Mus­lims, hin­dus and men of no re­li­gion had also been fed into the slaugh­ter. even­tu­ally, a com­pro­mise was reached in that a Cross of Sac­ri­fice was also raised in most Bri­tish war ceme­ter­ies.

In con­trast, France, Ger­many and the USA placed a cross over in­di­vid­ual graves,

with the re­sult that the reg­u­lar lines of head­stones are bro­ken by the oc­ca­sional Star of David or Is­lamic ogee-arch shape, which can seem a painful re­minder of cul­tural di­ver­sity and dis­cord.

An­other sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in pol­icy be­tween Bri­tain and other na­tions was that it was de­cided to leave most ca­su­al­ties near where they fell and were buried. In con­se­quence, there are few large Bri­tish ceme­ter­ies of the First World War. What now seems ap­palling about them is not their size, but their num­ber, for there are more than 900 Bri­tish war ceme­ter­ies along the line of the West­ern Front in France and Bel­gium. They vary in size and, sub­tly, in their ar­chi­tec­ture within the ac­cepted Clas­si­cal tra­di­tion. Other na­tions, in con­trast, ex­humed the many, many bod­ies af­ter the hos­til­i­ties and con­cen­trated them in huge ceme­ter­ies or in mass graves.

It is, per­haps, too lit­tle ap­pre­ci­ated how great were the prob­lems faced by France in 1918. The coun­try was im­pov­er­ished by four years of war, which had drained it of both re­sources and men—france’s death toll, at 1.4 mil­lion, was half as much again as that of the Bri­tish Em­pire. Fur­ther­more, much of north­ern France was dev­as­tated, churned up by years of shelling and with the ground still full of un­ex­ploded shells and bombs.

No won­der, there­fore (as it was re­ported in 1926), that ‘the French au­thor­i­ties were dis­qui­eted by the num­ber and scale of the Memo­ri­als that the Com­mis­sion pro­posed to erect in France’ and by the ‘grandiose’ mon­u­ments the Amer­i­cans and the Cana­di­ans wished to build on French soil. Ware was sym­pa­thetic to France’s dis­quiet and predica­ment and, in con­se­quence, re­duced the num­ber of the pro­posed Mon­u­ments to the Miss­ing (Lu­tyens’ ex­tra­or­di­nary three­d­i­men­sional arch de­signed for St Quentin was then moved to Thiep­val on the Somme).

France’s pol­icy was to re­bury her iden­ti­fied and uniden­ti­fied dead in large nécrop­oles na­tionales, laid out by the Ser­vice des Sépul­tures de Guerre af­ter 1919. Many are huge, bleak and fea­ture­less, with rows and rows of con­crete crosses bear­ing the names of the dead on stamped tin­plate la­bels. The largest of these, at Notre-dame de Lorette near Ar­ras, where a pil­grim­age chapel once stood, is more re­ward­ing ar­chi­tec­turally.

Some 40,000 men were re­buried here, with the uniden­ti­fied placed in an os­suary be­low a tall lan­tern tower and 24,000 in marked graves. In the cen­tre is a basil­ica, in a mod­ernised Byzanto-ro­manesque style, built in 1921–27 and de­signed by Louis-marie Cor­don­nier and his son Jac­ques, the ar­chi­tects of the basil­ica at Lisieux. It is a dis­con­cert­ingly con­ser­va­tive build­ing for its time, sug­gest­ing per­haps that, in the throes of a na­tional trauma, many French ar­chi­tects did not know quite how to re­spond to such a melan­choly, ter­ri­ble chal­lenge.

A rather dif­fer­ent so­lu­tion was ar­rived at fur­ther east, at the ‘minc­ing ma­chine’ of Ver­dun, where, over a pe­riod of al­most a year, 250,000 men, on both sides, had per­ished in a ghastly war of at­tri­tion. The prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tec­tural con­se­quence here was the huge os­suary at Douau­mont, over­look­ing a nécro

pole na­tionale with its 15,000 graves (Fig 1).

‘It isn’t seemly to pret­tify with flow­ers the mass deaths of all these young men’

This bar­rel-vaulted struc­ture, with curved ends and sur­mounted by a light­house tower, has some­times been com­pared to a gunem­place­ment, a fort or even a sub­ma­rine.

Com­mis­sioned not by the state, but by a com­mit­tee of vet­er­ans and oth­ers con­vened by the Bishop of Ver­dun, it was built in 1920–32. Its pur­pose is hor­ri­bly sim­ple: in it are de­posited the bones of 130,000 uniden­ti­fied vic­tims of in­dus­tri­alised slaugh­ter, with the in­dis­tin­guish­able re­mains of French and Ger­man sol­diers in­evitably mixed.

Tinged by the Art Deco of the 1920s, this novel if sin­is­ter struc­ture was de­signed by Léon Azéma, Max Edrei and Jac­ques Hardy (Azéma was later one of the de­sign­ers of the Palais de Chail­lot in Paris). It is dif­fi­cult to cat­e­gorise it stylis­ti­cally. For Jonathan Meades, Douau­mont is ‘shock­ingly in­ap­pro­pri­ate… a friv­o­lous mis­take’ be­cause of the use of a style that was es­sen­tially the­atri­cal. How­ever, it does rep­re­sent a brave at­tempt to use a new, mod­ern style for a ter­ri­ble pur­pose on an un­prece­dented scale.

The main­stream, French Clas­si­cal tra­di­tion is hardly ev­i­dent in the French ceme­ter­ies, but it was main­tained by con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects, so many of whom had stud­ied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Sev­eral of those com­mis­sioned by the Amer­i­can Bat­tle Mon­u­ments Com­mis­sion—es­tab­lished in 1923 to deal with the con­se­quences of the USA’S late en­try into the con­flict—had been trained in Paris and the most dis­tin­guished of them, Paul Philippe Cret, was French by birth.

Cret, who had em­i­grated to Philadel­phia, was re­spon­si­ble for the huge Aisne-marne Amer­i­can Mon­u­ment at Château-thierry, com­mis­sioned in 1926, a dou­ble colon­nade of square fluted piers in that stripped Clas­si­cal man­ner that would be­come the true in­ter­na­tional civic style of the 1930s (Fig 3).

The Meuse-ar­gonne Mon­u­ment on the Butte de Mont­fauçon, a colos­sal Greek Doric col­umn, is an­other over­ween­ing Beaux-arts Clas­si­cal mon­u­ment, the work of John Rus­sell Pope, the ar­chi­tect of the Na­tional Gallery and the Jef­fer­son Memo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, DC (and the Du­veen Gallery in the Bri­tish Mu­seum).

As for the Amer­i­can war ceme­ter­ies them­selves, they are per­haps em­bar­rass- in­gly lav­ish and well ap­pointed com­pared with those of the French nearby. The cross grave­stones in these large, for­mally laid-out gar­dens, are of white mar­ble, not con­crete, and the memo­rial chapels were equally ex­pen­sive and im­pres­sive. Some­times Ro­manesque rather than Clas­si­cal in style, these were de­signed by a range of ar­chi­tects in­clud­ing A. L. Har­mon, the New York sky­scraper de­signer; Louis Ayres, who was re­spon­si­ble for sev­eral piles in the Fed­eral Tri­an­gle in Wash­ing­ton; and Ralph Adams Cram, the Bos­to­nian An­glophile Goth­icist.

Italy, which also en­tered the war later, com­mem­o­rated her dead in a man­ner quite un­like that adopted by any other na­tion. Thanks, in part, to the cal­lous in­compe-

tence of the com­man­der-in-chief, Cadorna, the fe­ro­cious, avari­cious cam­paign Italy waged against the Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian em­pire on the moun­tain­ous fringes of the Veneto pro­duced huge ca­su­al­ties, some 651,000 in to­tal. The Com­mis­sari­ato Gen­erale Ono­ranze Caduti in Guerra was founded in 1919, but, owing to eco­nomic ex­haus­tion and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, lit­tle was done un­til af­ter Mus­solini’s Fas­cist govern­ment took power in 1922.

Even­tu­ally, it was de­cided to re­bury most of the dead in huge mon­u­men­tal os­suar­ies, of­ten with a chapel or a tem­pio-sacrario, which were in­tended as pil­grim­age sites and to en­cour­age a pa­tri­otic cult of the dead. Lit­tle known out­side Italy, these are ex­tra­or­di­nary build­ings, aus­tere and mon­u­men­tal, and sev­eral of the sites were con­ceived as ‘archi-scul­tura’ as much land­scape as ar­chi­tec­ture.

Two, in par­tic­u­lar, were cre­ated by the part­ner­ship of the ar­chi­tect Gio­vanni Greppi and the sculp­tor Gian­nino Castiglione. One, Redipuglia in Gorizia prov­ince

(Fig 4), be­came the na­tional site of mourn­ing: a gi­ant stair­case or se­quence of ter­races con­tain­ing the bones of some 100,200 men; the other, on Monte Grappa, some 5,800ft above sea level at Tre­viso, has a con­i­cal ter­raced os­suary-cum-chapel con­tain­ing the bones of 12,600 Ital­ian sol­diers at the end of a moun­tain-top ax­ial path lined with free-stand­ing plinths bear­ing the names of bat­tles (Fig 2). For all their Fas­cist associations, these sacraria are some of the most orig­i­nal and re­mark­able struc­tures of their time to be found any­where.

Fi­nally, there are the memo­ri­als of Ger­many, so many of whose two mil­lion dead lay, like those of Bri­tain, in for­eign lands— if for rather dif­fer­ent rea­sons. At Quero in the Pi­ave val­ley, there is a dark stone castle­like os­suary, tough and yet beau­ti­fully de­tailed, con­tain­ing the bod­ies of Ger­man and Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian troops, which is very dif­fer­ent in style and mood from both the grand Ital­ian os­suar­ies and the nearby Bri­tish ceme­ter­ies in the moun­tains de­signed by Sir Robert Lorimer. Built in 1936–39, it is an ex­am­ple of the

Toten­bur­gen or fortresses of the dead de­signed by Robert Tis­chler, chief ar­chi­tect of the Volks­bund Deutsche Kriegs­gräber­für­sorge un­til his death in 1959.

The Volks­bund was founded in 1919 and faced the chal­leng­ing task of deal­ing with the gov­ern­ments of na­tions Im­pe­rial Ger­many had in­vaded. France de­clined to let the Ger­mans build memo­ri­als on her soil, only to cre­ate con­cen­trated ceme­ter­ies; Bel­gium was more ac­com­mo­dat­ing. At the Sol­daten­fried­hof at Lange­marck, north of Ypres, Tis­chler was able to de­sign an im­pres­sive dark-red sand­stone lodge in a rugged Arts-and-crafts man­ner. Be­hind this is the Kam­er­aden­grab, a mass grave con­tain­ing some 25,000 bod­ies, sur­rounded by bronze stele bear­ing names. Be­yond are the graves of a fur­ther 10,000 dead.

Orig­i­nally, the graves in such ceme­ter­ies were marked by wooden crosses; more re­cently, these have been re­placed by steel, Mal­tese crosses or square slabs of grey gran­ite.

Sur­rounded by oak trees to give a dis­tinc­tive Teutonic char­ac­ter, Lange­marck is a dark place, the last rest­ing place of the thou­sands killed in the first Ger­man as­sault on Ypres in 1914. This was the so-called ‘Massacre of the In­no­cents’ as so many were young vol­un­teers and stu­dents. Fur­ther north near Dix­mude is the Ger­man ceme­tery at Vlad­slo, where bod­ies were con­cen­trated af­ter the Sec­ond World War (Fig 5). Here is one of the great works of art that re­sulted from the First: two poignant sculp­tures of the Trauern­den El­tern­paares—the Mourn­ing Par­ents— by that coura­geous artist, Käthe Koll­witz. They over­look a sea of flat gran­ite squares, un­der each of which lie eight bod­ies, in­clud­ing that of her own son, killed in 1914.

The fig­ures were orig­i­nally in­stalled in the Ger­man ceme­tery at Roggeveld, since re­moved. Koll­witz was present when they were first set up in 1932 and she wrote in her di­ary: ‘The Bri­tish and Bel­gian ceme­ter­ies seem brighter, in a cer­tain sense more cheer­ful and cosy, more fa­mil­iar than the Ger­man ceme­ter­ies. I pre­fer the Ger­man ones. The war was not a pleas­ant af­fair; it isn’t seemly to pret­tify with flow­ers the mass deaths of all these young men. A war ceme­tery ought to be som­bre.’

Fig 1: The Douau­mont Os­suary in the Fleury-de­vant-douau­mont Nécrop­ole Na­tionale. This bru­tal struc­ture con­tains the bones of some 130,000 men—mostly French and some Ger­man—who per­ished in the ‘minc­ing ma­chine’ of Ver­dun from 1916 on­wards

Fig 2: The Sacrario di Monte Grappa, 5,826ft above sea level in Italy, the most ex­tra­or­di­nary and orig­i­nal of these es­says in memo­rial land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture

Fig 3: The Aisne-marne Amer­i­can Mon­u­ment at Château-thierry by Paul Philippe Cret, the French-born Philadel­phia ar­chi­tect and mas­ter of stripped Clas­si­cism

Fig 5: The fig­ures of the Mourn­ing Par­ents by Käthe Koll­witz, first un­veiled in 1932 and now in the Ger­man war ceme­tery at Vlad­slo in Bel­gium. Her own son Peter, killed at the age of 18 in 1914, lies un­der one of the many square, flat grey gran­ite...

Fig 4: The Sacrario di Redipuglia, Italy’s na­tional site of mourn­ing for her war dead. Built in 1935-38, its repet­i­tive climb­ing ter­races con­tain the bones of more than 100,000 men

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