The Glorious Dead:

Six Memorials to the Great War, 1914-1918


The final report and lecture in fulfillment of the Francis  J. Plym Traveling Fellowship in Architecture, 2003-4





World War I, a.k.a. the First World War, the Great War, the War of the Nations, and the War to End All Wars, was a world conflict that began in June of 1914 as a result of the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.  A complicated treaty alliance system, intended to safeguard against nationalistic aggression, obligated one country after another to mobilize alongside their allies, which then ultimately led to war.  When the fighting began, almost everyone believed the war would last only for a few months.  Instead, it was the scene of unprecedented suffering and loss of life.  Old tactics of mass frontal attack were unevenly matched against advanced weaponry capable of mass destruction.  During the central phase of the war, this inability to mount successful offensive campaigns created sophisticated systems of fixed trenches and battlements.  Unbelievably, the tactics of frontal assault against these highly fortified positions remained the same, and the mass carnage increased.


After four years of senseless butchery, the Allied Powers (led by Britain and France, and, after 1917, the United States) signed an armistice with the Central Powers (led by GermanyAustria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) that ended the war at 11 AM on November 111918.  Of the 67 million men who went to fight, one in every six was killed.  Of the remainder, approximately half were wounded.  On the Western Front alone, 4 million men had died in their ditches.  The war transformed the political and social framework of the western world forever.


The following essay describes some of the ways that the places and events of the Great War were physically memorialized in the years following the Armistice.  It examines how the many instances of death and suffering were transformed into constructed forms of reconciliation, which both borrowed from established symbols, and also suggested new ways of expressing the incomprehensible.




Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing

Ypres, Belgium


Ypres was once a centre of the Flanders wool trade,  becoming one of the most important European city-states of the 13th Century.  The First Battle of Ypres in late 1914, marked the beginning of a stabilized “Western” front and the beginning of trench warfare.  The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) dug in around the low ground to the east of Ypres and awaited the German attack.  This battle is distinguished by the infamous "Massacre of the Innocents,” where Eight German units of enthusiastic former students marched, singing with linked arms, directly into the machine guns of the British force. 


The Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 marked the first time Germany used chemical weapons on a large scale - 168 tons of chlorine gas were released over a four-mile front. The gas affected the lungs and the eyes causing respiration problems and blindness.  Around 5,000 troops died within ten minutes by asphyxiation creating a huge gap in the BEF lines. The Canadian Division reinforced the gap, using urine-soaked handkerchiefs as primitive gas masks.


The Third Battle of Ypres, a.k.a. the Battle of Passchendaele, occurred in late July, 1917.  The British army fired off over 4,000,000 shells along a twelve-mile wide front, and then had it’s infantry wade through the waterlogged ground in front of sustained machine-gun fire during the rain. An unknown number of soldiers also drowned in the deep "liquid mud” before they could be rescued.  In addition, Germans used mustard gas for the first time. 


By the time of the Fourth Battle of Ypres, in March of 1918, the city was a heap of rubble.  Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions for Britain, said of Ypres: “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world,” and suggested the purchase of the entire ruins of Ypres and then turning it into a memorial to the British Empire and their participation in the war. 


The citizens of Ypres decided differently, and reconstructed their city in a traditional style, possibly as the best way to blot out the recent past. The Belgian Government offered the British a location for a more modest memorial along the ancient city wall at the start of the infamous Menin Road, over which tens of thousands of BEF troops passed towards the front line, many of them never to return. 


The British Government decided that the memorial should commemorate the Missing who had died in the fighting around Ypres, but who had no known graves. The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, combines the architectural images of a classical victory arch and a mausoleum, and is inscribed with the names of the 54,896 officers and men. The Menin Gate Memorial is one of the most visited Great War Memorials on the Western Front because it is literally embedded into the structure of the city wall. The Menin Road is still an important thoroughfare and traffic and pedestrians pass under the gate as part of the daily life of Ypres.


Formally, traditional motifs create both a physical and transcendental passageway.  The classical triumphal form of the memorial differs from its gate-like prototype in that it is stretched into a tunnel form.  This expanded solution was undoubtably chosen allow the inscription of more names into the surfaces.  Along the tunnel periodic occulii illuminate the vault and symbolize spiritual ascent.  


The Menin Gate was dedicated in 1927, on the ten-year anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres. One of those in attendance at the unveiling of the Menin Gate was the artist Will Longstaff.  He had worked as a war artist on the Western Front, and was temporarily blinded by mustard gas.   On the night after the unveiling, he had a dream about British soldiers rising out of the ground, passing out of Ypres and into eternity.  This inspired the painting The Menin Gate at Midnight.  This painting is one example of the wide-spread interest following the war in spiritualism. Among the many grievers who attempted to contact the dead was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He attended several séances in an attempt to contact dead relatives, and also became interested in spirit photography.





Trench of Bayonets
Verdun, France

The Battle of Verdun marks a German offensive and French counter-offensive that lasted most of 1916.  The German aim was to kill as many French soldiers as possible, to “bleed France white,” thereby demoralizing and forcing France to come to terms at the negotiating table.  The French understood that the defense of Verdun would result in many French casualties, but were determined to inflict the maximum damage to the German invaders in the course of these losses.  By December when the battle ended, almost one million casualties had been incurred in roughly equal numbers on either side.


The Germans first attacked on February 21,1916 with 1,400 guns packed along an eight-mile front.  100,000 shells poured into Verdun every hour. Three days later, the German infantry started their advance onto the fortresses in the hills east of Verdun. On February 24, German troops succeeded in over-running the French second line of trenches.  However two outer forts continued to hold out. 


For more than a hundred days, the German army was within 300 yards of one of these forts: Fort Vaux, launching 10,000 high-explosive shells onto the fort every day, or an average of one shell every nine seconds around the clock.  By June 1 the fort was surrounded.  Attackers climbed the roof and pumped flames and gas into the fort.  Finally, out of water, the French defenders surrendered on June 6.    


One hundred years later, the scarred landscape remains to contextualize the battlements and underground tunnels.


While Fort Vaux was under siege the 3rd company of the 137th French Infantry Regiment was ordered to defend its ground near the Thiaumont Farm at all costs.  In anticipation of a German charge, the troops fixed bayonets for close-in combat. While they crouched in the trench, heavy German artillery bombarded their position, which, weakened by previous artillery batterings, collapsed on the defenders burying them alive, presumedly leaving only their bayonets protruding.  This eerie discovery spawned the patriotic myth of the brave men that had remained at their posts until buried alive. 


In 1919 an American banker, George Rand, visited the battlefield and was impressed by this phenomenon, and provided money to construct a memorial shield over the site to protect it against the elements and souvenir hunters.  Verdun veteran Andre Ventre was chosen as the architect.  Ventre concluded that the most fitting memorial was the site itself, unembellished, and unchanged, simply covering the site with a concrete shell.  


This monument has spawned many interpretations and disputes over the years.  The originality of the story behind the bayonets has always been debated.  It is potentially the wrong site for where the regiment was stationed.  It is also important to note that bayonets were often used to mark the position of hastily buried solders - field markers for later retrieval of the corpses. Jay Winter author of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning… sees it as a special kind war memorial: “a tomb frozen in time and preserved not by, but from art.”  My own view is that This field of bayonets foreshadows the intentions of Conceptual Art, wherein the idea or concept is the overriding importance of the work.


Despite these inconsistencies, the preservation of battlefield scars seen at various sites around Verdun are some of the most visceral memorials left to us by earlier stewards of these landscapes.  They help to evoke the feeling shared at the time by Europeans that they were all living atop a mass grave.





Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

Thiepval, France


In spring of 1916 the British launched an offensive at the Somme River to ease the pressure off of the French army at Verdun.  The initial attack took place on July 1, at 7:30A.M.   By noon that day 40,000 British soldiers had been wounded and 21,000 killed, many within sight of their own trenches.  


In one engagement, thirteen divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive to capture the village of Thiepval.  Losses were catastrophic and the initial attack was a failure. In the following weeks, huge resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to break through.  At the end of September, Thiepval was finally captured. 


Because armies in those days did not provide identification tags, many battlefield burials remained anonymous.  The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing commemorates British soldiers who fell here during the battle and were listed as missing in action. 


The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was built between 1928 and 1932. It contains the names of 73,357 British and South African men who have no known grave and who fell in the battle near Thiepval. 


Lutyens chose geometry to express the inexpressible nature of war and its human costs.  A progression of expanding triumphal arches extends upward, from smaller arches with smaller areas of emptiness to larger arches with larger area of emptiness, to the largest arch at the center of the monument, to nothing at all.  Formally, it multiplies like a cell, dividing and duplicating itself.  This  results in the largest British war memorial in the world.  It should be pointed out that multiplying the arches was also used as a device for increasing the number of support surfaces to bear the all of the names.  Sixteen supports bear names on fifty-six of the sixty-four faces. Only the northern and southern exterior surfaces are blank.  Lutyens utilized a personal system of arch proportion (2.5 high:1 wide) to create, as Jay Winter observes “an embodiment of great elemental mass enclosing huge areas of nothingness, an abstract representing the sorrow of war death.“


At Thiepval, Lutyens created a monument that generates unease, even repulsion, and has inspired animated interpretations. Stephen O’ Shea in Back to the Front writes: 


It is an ugly structure, dominating the hill like a grotesque red-and-white crab, its mouth gaping in horror… The ugliness is intended.  At first glance, visitors may perceive they are seeing a creature warped by dread and dismay at the memory of the catastrophic things that happened at its feet 86 years ago.  But then the monument’s more distressing reality becomes manifest: The manic eyes and wide open mouth are the face of Death itself, its maw yawning to suck in the soldiers who so futilely stormed the slight hill it crowns.  The closer you get to it, the more repulsive it becomes.  150 feet tall it must have been intended as an eyesore, a Cyclopean blight on an already blighted landscape.






Redipuglia Military Sanctuary

Redipulia, Italy


The sixty mile long valley of the Isonzo River in Western Italy was one of the greatest killing zones of the First World War.   Four battles between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces were fought on this front in 1915, five in 1916 and two in 1917. In all, a half million soldiers would die along the Isonzo. The Redipuglia War Memorial, Italy's largest war memorial, rises just inland from the Gulf of Trieste.


The memorial was designed by the architect Giovanni Greppi and the sculptor Giannino Castiglioni and was inaugurated on 18 September 1938 by El Duce Benito Mussolini.  It contains the remains of 100,187 fallen soldiers, 60,330 of whom are unknown. 


In this hyper-monumental form, the remains are deployed similar to that of a great military force cascading down a hillside. At the base of the hill, and the front of the memorial, is the tomb of the head of the army, the Duke of Aosta.  His tomb is followed by five black granite blocks marking the remains of his five generals. Rising up the slope are the remains of 40,000 known soldiers who fell during the war inscribed with individual bronze. On the topmost terrace, in two large common graves that flank the votive chapel, lie the remains of 60,000 unknown soldiers surmounted by three large bronze crosses.  This symbol from Calvary represents the hope of ascension to God in the afterlife. Behind the votive chapel is a small museum and gift shop and observation deck overlooking the battlefield.


The overall impression is immense and sublime. It consists of twenty-two white limestone terraces, each one a 150 yards long and 20 feet deep. The most eerie aspect is the Roll call of the Dead: the endlessly inscribed word ‘Presente’ replaces the silenced human voices. 





















Mount Grappa Military Sanctuary

Mount Grappa, Italy


In 1917 and 1918 the Austrians and Germans saw the capture of the Mount Grappa massif, the southern portion of the Alpine Mountain range, as the key to flanking the entire Italian defensive line, cutting the Italian forces in half.  On 16 November, 1917 the northern edge of Mount Grappa became the front line.  In mid December 1917 Austro-German forces with two thousand artillery pieces attacked to take control of the Grappa summit.  The outnumbered, outgunned, Italian Army fought with rifle and bayonet counterattacks, hurled hand grenades and finally without ammunition, the mountain's stones.  The Italian line held.  In June 1918, the Austrians attacked again, and despite being outnumbered two to one, the Italian line still held.  By the end of fighting, Austrian losses were close to 280,000 including over 135,000 atop Grappa. Italian casualties totaled nearly 100,000 with 38,000 on the mountain. 


The Military Sanctuary rests at the summit of Mount Grappa 5,800 ft above sea level.  The main access is via the Cadorna Road, constructed between 1916 and the 1917 by General Luigi Cadorna to access the front lines, and planned so that it was protected from the fire of artilleries that came from the north.  


The entire mountaintop is an Italian national monument.  At its summit is the Sanctuary, designed in 1935 again by the team of Greppi and Castiglioni.   The remains of 12,615 soldiers, of which 10,332 are unknown, are entombed in from five concentric bands of mausoleum, each five meters high. At the top is the Madonna of the Grappa Chapel, which contains a statue of the Madonna that was crippled by an enemy grenade in January 1918.   The result is a constructed mountain with bronze capped chambers (hive-like) each containing the remains of a soldier.  


At the top of the mound the Heroic Way runs for 250 meters between two rows of stone blocks inscribed with the place-names of the many battles near the Grappa. 


The resulting giant geometric burial mound is simultaneously empty and powerful.  Its setting is full of mist and mystery.  A huge empty human construction seemingly at the end of the earth.   A surreal Felliniesque movie set. 

















The Parents
Roggevelde German War Cemetery, Belgium


Before discussing the sculptural war memorial entitled “The Parents,” it is important to introduce the artist, Kathe Kollwitz.  She was born in 1867 in Konigsberg Germany, and grew up under the influence of her maternal grandfather, Julius Rapp, a dissident Protestant minister who founded a Free Congregational Church that emphasized morality, intellect, and duty.  In interviews Kollwitz recollected that her fondest childhood memories were of home study and of playing amidst the unloading flat barges along the Pregel River.  From these early experiences she developed both a love of the arts and a deeply rooted social conscious.  At age 14 she began her formal studies in painting and engraving with artists in Konigsberg.  At age 17 she left home to begin studies at the Women Artists’ School in Berlin.  She soon realized that true artistic talents lay in graphic media, and was determined to use her talents to portray the lives of workers. 


In 1891 she married Dr. Karl Kollwitz and moved with her husband to a neighborhood in Berlin that was close to his clinic, which provided health care to working-class families. She would use patients, neighbors, and even her son Peter as models in her art (An example has Peter quietly posed in a 1903 life study entitled the Dead Boy).  She became progressively committed to using her art as social commentary, and established a reputation as advocate for the downtrodden.


As soon the war broke out in 1914, her son Peter, then a 19-year old student in Berlin, volunteered.  Kathe supported Peter's decision, knowing that her son had volunteered with a “pure heart, filled with patriotism, love for an idea, a commandment.” Two months later, in October 1914, Peter was killed in the First Battle of Ypres, the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ described at the beginning of this text. 


Kollwitz was informed of her son's death on October 30, and to a friend she admitted, “There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.”   By December she had formed the idea of creating a sculptural memorial to her son, with his body outstretched, 'the father at the head, the mother at the feet,’ to commemorate 'the sacrifice of all the young volunteers.’  She was dissatisfied with the initial attempts, but continued to develop the project.  Her diaries from those years indicate that the creative work on the memorial helped her through the process of bereavement.  She describes being drawn to the possibility of establishing a connection through art “between the physically alive person and the essence of someone physically dead.”


Kollwitz completed the memorial eighteen years after her son's death. Her work was exhibited in the National Gallery in Berlin and then transported to Belgium, where it was placed in the Roggevelde German War Cemetery adjacent to her son's grave.  The memorial is intended as a family reunion, and its stated intention was to emphasize healing through grief.  It was also intended in a larger way to express the sense of guilt and remorse felt by the older generation over the responsibility for the slaughter of the young.  The pilgrimage of one mother and father to their son's grave stands for millions of others. 


Timeless and simple.







For the generation that passed through the trauma of the war, the meaning of these war memorials was as much existential as artistic or political, as much concerned with the mediation of individual loss and bereavement as with collective representations, national aspirations, and destinies.  What was amazing to me as I visited these memorials so many years after their commemorations, is how extraordinarily sad and moving the experience continues to be.  Whether it is the ruptured earth of Verdun, the vulgar proportions of Thiepval, or the evocation of grief seen in the representation of two aging parents, these memorials continue to move.  Each has the ability to transcend the particulars of specific events and rituals to express more universal truths about the human condition. They can evoke a sublime experience, transporting an individual from the ordinary to a more spiritual, contemplative realm. 


This is the highest aspiration and the greatest achievement for any memorial.





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