The First World War caused the death of around 10 million soldiers. The second world war 18 million. The bloodsheds of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 thus left devastated countries and traumatized societies. The mechanization of the fighting, the atrocities committed, had lasting effects – which the governments involved then sought to manage each in their own way through memorial sites.
On the subject, the English opened the fire in 1915, creating even during the battles a commission to register the graves. This changed in 1917 into Imperial War Graves Commission. The first architects consulted this year were Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) and Herbert Baker (1862-1946). These builders had already cooperated together – not without clashes – to the New Delhi complexes, signifying with pomp and circumstance the British colonial power in India. Reginald Blomfield (1856-1942) joined them in 1918. This trio groped for funeral dignity in a conflict that had become barbaric by its murderous relentlessness.
Although deeply affected by the macabre explorations of the front, their divergent conception of architecture remained actually always a casus belli between them. While Lutyens and Baker agreed on the need for a general theme to guide the cemeteries design, and on variations in scale, they nevertheless differed on symbolism. Baker pleaded for a cross suggesting the Crusades (implied: the modern Germanic enemy equates to the Muslim adversary in the Crusaders' struggle for Christian holy places), while Lutyens insisted on seeking a specific form that does not depend on the only Christic heritage. This debate continued with speckled florets their quarrel over their respective buildings in New Delhi... The Commission ruled in favor of the Cross of Sacrifice determined by Blomfield, with its vertical silhouette and bronze sword. Several modules were studied, depending on the scale of the cemeteries. But Lutyens preferred to draw a Stone of Remembrance, forming a sort of ecumenical altar, going beyond distinctive religious symbols – which could bring together the memory of all soldiers behind a universal symbol. The abstract simplicity of this device achieves a remarkable evocative power, which makes this work the worthy twentieth-century equivalent of traditional religiosity. Faced with these strong propositions, Baker failed to provide an answer that was immediately identifiable or adaptable to the various sites – often preferring cemeteries in the form of cloisters. Its Italian or medieval references seem paler, even if they too know how to inspire meditation.
Literary Adviser to the Commission, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) – author of The Jungle Book and whose son had just died in the fighting – selected a quote from the Ecclesiasticus, to be engraved on each stone of remembrance: "Their name liveth for evermore". Kipling also determined the inscription for the unnamed graves: "Known unto God". In addition, the landscape treatment of the cemeteries received special attention. These architects having all built large rural homes knew the value of a park that showcases architecture. Lutyens had notably cooperated with the landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) to harmoniously link natural and mineral effects.
The most difficult part was undoubtedly to define a catharsis commensurate with the conflict, relying nonetheless on ancient commemorative architectures. In this logic, Blomfield, signed in Belgium the Menin Gate at Ypres in 1927 – inserting in the city ramparts an effective condensate between old fortified gate and commemorative site. The architect recycled the city entrances in the form of a Roman triumphal arch – a common canvas since the Renaissance – while gluing this glorification rather well to the most melancholy high terrace with its colonnade overlooking the lawns. However, in this appropriation of the past, Lutyens achieved a much more imaginative formal overhaul. If he too initially envisioned an urban setting, in Arras, for his commemorative arch, he had to re-evaluate his choices. Because the exchanges with the French authorities – represented by Emmanuel Pontrémoli (1865-1956), the Grand Prix de Rome 1890, another connoisseur of antiquity – resulted in a new location. Indeed, Lutyens ultimately placed in 1928 his Arche in Thiepval. In short, visible from far away in the Somme fields. This rural environment multiplies the original character of the monument and its ingenious pyramidal superposition of several arches. Epic mass, geometric simplicity, reinvention inspired by ancient sources: a brilliant work of severe majesty.
In addition to many other smaller funeral enclosures, Lutyens also built in 1935 the large Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux. Here two solemn entrance pavilions seem to be guardians of this city of the dead, watched over by a tower over the landscape... Lutyens' taste for the traditional forms metamorphosis sometimes led him to bizarre funeral celebrations, as in the Etaples cemetery, where the platform surrounding the Stone of Remembrance has two curious little triumphal arches surmounted by cenotaphs. Each framed by stone flags! This derivative of its London cenotaph almost reaches memorial surrealism.
Like rival generals in pursuit of glory but conscious of serving the same cause, these three architects laid down their arms. They effectively coordinated a common front that best celebrated the memory of those who died for the Commonwealth. They surrounded themselves with other builders, who either adapted the principles laid down to each site or refined personal solutions. Among them: Robert Lorimer (1864-1929), Charles Holden (1875-1960), John Reginald Truelove (1886-1942), William Cowlishaw (1869–1957), Wilfrid Clement von Berg (1894-1978). The younger ones had fought at the front – before erecting the last home of their brothers in arms. Some developed in these funeral projects their previous Art and Crafts approach; others – like Holden – experimented with more Art Deco forms.
Although under English control, Canada preferred to organize a competition in 1920 to create its main memorial at Vimy. The proposal by sculptor Walter Allward (1876-1955) was selected for the evocative qualities of its pylons symbolizing France and Canada. The funeral monumentality of the piles overlooking the crête once so disputed by the belligerents remains well suited to the mourning of the many victims. Beyond architecture, between standardization and variations, the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission provided an effective commemorative framework.
The USA imitated England, creating in 1923 their American Battle Monuments Commission. Less strict procedures allowed for more varied responses – in the hands of experienced builders such as Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), Paul Cret (1876-1945), Egerton Swartwout (1870-1943), Louis Ayres (1874-1947), John Russell Pope (1874-1937). Apart from Cret, a French citizen directly trained according to the Beaux-Arts methods, all learned the trade either in American universities or with the large New York agency of McKim, Mead & White. Only Pope completed his training at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, after his studies at Columbia. Their knowledge of public programs made them trusted architects. Besides his many Gothic Revival churches, Cram had previously served the US Army, having co-signed in 1902 with his partner Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924) the West Point Military Academy.
Cram built first the American cemetery near Fère-en-Tardenois, using a simplified neo-Romanesque style. At the end of the main alley, arcades give a relative monumental dignity to the whole, with an open-air altar, inspired by medieval churches. Then, he adopted a similar style for the Bois Belleau cemetery. The slope of the hill brings a more dramatic character – underlined by the neo-Romanesque tower of the chapel. Cram stayed true to proven stylistic formulas, modernizing just a few details. At the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, Louis Ayres – partner of the great York & Sawyer agency; Edward York (1863-1928) & Philip Sawyer (1868-1949), who partly erected the Washington Federal Triangle – also employed a neo-Romanesque genre schematized for the Meuse American cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. However, his spatial arrangements were more imaginative, using the valley as the only access route – magnified by a lawn and a fountain in the central axis. The slopes of the hill are also put to good use; on one side wood with a service lodge in the center; on the other, the tree-lined path leading to the chapel. This religious facility has a neo-Roman genre certainly close to Cram's formulas, but which Ayres took care to draw in a somewhat modernized style.
In 1929, Cret pushed further this spatial and formal research into the Château-Thierry Memorial. Having fought at the front and even obtained the Croix de Guerre, he knew the harsh realities of war. So he sought to transcend the memory of the conflict by a monument with marked hieraticism, preferring massive and abstract volumes. This epic solution dominates the edge of the plateau, looming over the landscape. Here he displayed a stripped classicism, akin to the Folger Shakespeare Library he was then building in Washington. A syncretic approach that he helped to propagate in the United States. This approach having been also that of many architects serving totalitarianisms, the work of Cret then undergoes certain ostracism because of these unfortunate formal echoes! However, American memorials always hesitated between a partial acceptance of modernity and the permanence of academic solutions. Consequently, Swartwout placed in 1927 an impressive tholos on the Butte de Montsec. Majestic circle of columns suddenly transforming this isolated corner of France into an unexpected Greek acropolis ... Finally, John Russell Pope erected in 1935 in Montfaucon-d'Argonne an enormous Doric column, which also seems escaped from antiquity...
The Second World War hardly changed these memory habits since the Americans maintained their aesthetic preferences. Just above Omaha Beach, the essential site of the 1944 Normandy landings, the Colleville-sur-Mer memorial was created in 1956. Designed by John Frederick Harbeson (1888-1986), a former partner of Cret, this vast cemetery retains classic features, and an Art Deco language for an exedra and a circular chapel. Also in Normandy, the American cemetery at Saint-James, designed at the same time by William Aldrich (1880-1966), has a neo-Romanesque chapel inspired by local churches. Method identical to that used by Cram at Bois-Belleau to celebrate the deceased of the previous conflict ... Despite the emotion that permeates the place, these works maintained approaches defined nearly thirty years earlier. Lack of commemorative reinvention? Lack of creative renewal? These cemeteries were remembered beyond their artistic value, first for patriotic reasons.
The vanquished had a reflex similar to that of the United Kingdom. For Germany created the Volksbund Deutscher Kriegsgräberfürsorge association in 1919, with the architect Heinrich Straumer (1876-1937) as a founding member. Primarily an author of villas, in 1926 he found in the landscape architect Robert Tischler (1885-1959) the one who would lead the creation of German cemeteries until his death, defining their essence. If the Allies preferred necropolises with rigorous orthogonal geometry, the Germans chose a more flexible landscape approach. In the Meuse, his work in Brieulles or Nantillois among others, his plantations appear to be almost forests in their natural state, while low walls with rough stones underline the sepulchral gravity. This created melancholic places of meditation.
However, this humble funeral introspection ended up colliding after 1933 with the Nazism hawkish and vengeful discourse. For a while, the association instrumentalization by the Nazis hardly changed the situation. But the outbreak of World War II and the initial victories of Hitler’s troops called for other responses. Willing to express his domineering triumphalism, the dictator commissioned in 1941 Wilhelm Kreis (1873-1955) to design colossal Totenburgen in the occupied territories. This in Norway, Poland, Ukraine, Greece. A respected architect, Kreis had distinguished himself before the First World War by his primitivist Bismarck towers, before evolving his style during the 1920s – sometimes incorporating expressionist elements. But Hitler's dignitaries alternated between his sidelining – as a result of his ties to Jewish bosses under the Weimar Republic? – and the will to make him the servant of their dark plans.
This builder was therefore a trophy for the regime. His projects for Nazi necropolises continued his earlier works – as Kreis resumed the style of his Wilhelminian period, inspired by ancient sources such as the Mausoleum of Medracen in Algeria, early Christian like the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, or medieval such as the Castel del Monte in Andria. Between pyramidal cones, mineral domes and fortified structures, these inspirations would have allowed solemn celebrations. These ancient or Germanic references added to the patriotic or racial content demanded by the Third Reich. Only the oversized scale changed essentially – evidence of the Nazi megalomaniac delirium. The collapse of Hitler’s regime condemned Kreis’s oppressive visions to remain paper charms.
In fact, the German defeat brought to the fore Tischler, who built other cemeteries in line with his previous achievements during the interwar years. In 1959, in Orglandes in Normandy, his last memorial site, was marked by a fairly regionalist bell tower. Here a rough masonry gives relief to very sober geometric shapes. Tischler’s death prompted the FRG to find his replacements. Thus Paul Schmitthenner (1884-1972) built the Bourdon cemetery in 1960. A delicate case, since this architect had been a pronounced anti-Semite Nazi – which resulted in is firing of his university post after the dictatorship fall. The appeal to this creator with a sulphurous past aroused some gnashing of teeth. All the more so as Schmitthenner also used dated formulas, according to a logic quite close to Kreis and his Nietzschean visions… Despite Bourdon's more modest volumes, other answers were called for.
This was made possible by Johannes Krahn (1908-1974) – whose experience in modernized religious architecture, inherited from his master Dominikus Böhm (1880-1955), was more in tune with new commemorative and political needs. Near Mont-Saint-Michel, Krahn, therefore, designed the necropolis of Mont-de-Huisnes in 1963: a vast abstract memorial circle. His other cemeteries in Brittany, Pornichet and Ploudaniel-Lesneven developed this vein during the 1960s. Between the continuation of Tischler's sense of landscape, and modernization of architectural elements, Krahn found an appreciable memorial balance. The whole offering decent burials to the soldiers, while abandoning the hints of war thanks to the return of a sober Christian symbolism.
The choice of the English, Americans and Germans not to repatriate the bodies aroused strong political and social opposition – which was not, however, sufficient to call into question the principle of large memorials-cemeteries. Many of the essential fights of the two world wars having taken place on its soil, it was easier for France to organize the return of the remains to families. This helped to create a social ritual of republican spirit. Thus, sacrificed soldiers are now celebrated each year on November 11 and May 8 in front of the more or less elaborate monuments to the dead raised by the municipalities.
Besides these simple commemorations, France erected some vast memorial-cemeteries – often on the initiative of Catholic dignitaries. That of the Douaumont ossuary commemorates the very significant battle of Verdun. A competition was launched in 1923, won by the team of Léon Azéma (1888-1978), Max Edrei (1889-1972) and Jacques Hardy (1889-1974). Grand Prix de Rome 1921, Azéma had a great official career, and this trio cooperated several times in Egypt. For this chthonian memorial, the team found an effective balance between reminders of Romanesque churches, formal abstraction, and even evocation of the fortified casemates of a conflict buried under the trenches... Here the architectural work marries well a Catholic sanctuary and military memory.
Likewise, the Notre-Dame de Lorette necropolis was signed in 1925 by Louis-Marie Cordonnier (1854-1940). This fervent Catholic (then the author of the Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux basilica) had known how to combine local power (through his neo-Flemish town halls), national institutions (via his role in the reconstruction after 1918), and international prestige – thanks to his The Hague Palace of Peace. A campanile evokes the medieval lanterns of the dead, with a relative acceptance of the most modern Art Deco forms, while a neo-Romanesque chapel adapts the eclecticism of the previous century. The Dormans memorial, celebrating the Battle of the Marne, completed in 1931 by Georges Closson (1865-1945) depends even more on memories of Gothic religiosity.
However, France also sought memorial experiences off the beaten track. An example: the astonishing Monument de la Marne à Mondement, begun in 1929. This is the joint work of the architect Paul Bigot (1870-1942), Grand Prix de Rome 1900, and the sculptor Henri Bouchard (1875- 1960), Grand Prix de Rome 1901. This duo cooperated in several commemorations of the conflict, in which the second participated in the camouflage sections. For Mondement, they used a metal structure, hanging a concrete skin mixed with pink aggregates from Moselle – a department annexed by Germany in 1871, and recovered by France in 1918. Even the material has a patriotic reason! On this titanic artificial block, a stylized Victory flies over the storm to proclaim the French triumph… Mondement seems a colossal milestone, alluding to the battle of the Catalaunic fields – which opposed the last Roman armies to the Huns invasions… Tacitly more historical register, even ideological, suggesting the eternal Latin resistance to barbarian invaders!
However, the architects of the French commemorations are striking by their unequal status. Grands Prix de Rome, Azéma and Bigot each embodied academic teaching in their own way. Captured during the war, Azéma always remained sensitive to the memory of the conflict. Bigot's more whimsical imagination often put him at odds with state orders. Provincial cumulating honors, Cordonnier reassured both ecclesiastical and republican circles. By comparison, Closson looks like an old man whitewashed by the trials of a career in the shadow of more prestigious colleagues. The Christian heritage marked most of their works, as if through a new alliance between the sword and the cross the country healed the war scars by reconciling itself with religion.
Italy had a reflex similar to France, erecting either municipal monuments or large commemorative complexes. The Genoa triumphal arch designed in 1924 by Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960) remains a fascist update of its ancient Roman predecessors. As for the Monument to the Fallen in Milan, built in 1926 by Giovanni Muzio (1893-1982), like Kreis in Germany, it returns to early Christian sources. This established a melancholic or even anachronistic monumentality.
However, the two most imaginative Italian sites of memory were signed by a much less recognized architect: Giovanni Greppi (1884-1960). In 1932, he erected the Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa, and in 1935 the Sacrario Militare di Redipuglia. Two dantesque arrangements of the mountainous slopes, reconfigured in titanic staircases celebrating the deceased Italian fighters. Here the mountains become finally altars of the dead...
And the USSR? Its various about-faces of memorial strategies alone deserve a separate story.