Goddess of Victory or Angel of Sorrow: French Commemoration and the Kemmelberg - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 31 August 2015

Goddess of Victory or Angel of Sorrow: French Commemoration and the Kemmelberg

For a country partial to ceremonious grandeur, French military cemeteries and memorials are often rather understated. Yes they have the grand national memorial at the Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun but on the whole, their smaller memorials at individual sites tend to be more reserved and simple in design. They certainly lack the classical architectural style and symbolic resonance which is at the core of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's commemoration ethos.

Of course, this is largely to do with the position of France as a nation in 1919 compared with that of the British Empire. Despite being financially ruined by the war, the French government had to commit itself to the rebuilding and restructuring of its country in order to move forward as a nation. This left little money and resources to be used on memorialisation. Not only were hundreds of towns and cities in northern and eastern France destroyed, but thousands of refugees from these areas had to be rehoused and provision had to be made for widows and wounded veterans.
A family in a make-do shelter, Saint-Paul-Aux-Bois, 1919 (photo source)
French finances were helped a little by the Treaty of Versailles which demanded that the Germans pay reparations - money to cover the cost of reconstruction - to the Allied nations, but this money was slow and the final payment only received in 2010. The French Federal Budget of 1920 was forced to increase taxes by 50% to help keep the country going but it was another decade before stability would begin to be achieved and in the meantime most permanent commemoration, especially burials, had to begin.

As a result of this lack of money and resources, French memorials and cemeteries are smaller and more simple than their British counterparts. This can clearly be seen in the comparison of their headstones. All French headstones are made from concrete; a clear contrast with the brilliant white of the British Portland stone ones, and are visibly smaller. A small metal plaque is attached to each one, bearing the soldiers' details along with the phrase 'mort pour la France': died for France. Nowhere is this contrast between them clearer than in the Anglo-French cemetery at Thiepval.
British headstones in front, with French crosses behind (photo source)
 These thoughts on French commemoration all came from a visit I made this week to the French monuments on the Kemmelberg in Belgium. This hill was of strategic importance throughout the First World War. Located south-west of Ypres, it's high elevation (155m which is very high for such a flat region!) gave its occupiers an important view across the Salient and over to the Messines Ridge. The French troops, supported by the Commonwealth, put up a valiant effort to occupy and defend the hill throughout the war, until the Germans won control during their Spring Offensive of 1918. It was recaptured by Commonwealth troops in August.
The Germans on the Kemmelberg in 1918 (photo source)
On the north side of the hill is a cemetery to the 5,237 Frenchmen who died defending the Kemmelberg, or Mont-Kemmel as the French refer to it. In typical French style all of the bodies, 5,294 of which are unknown, are buried beneath one ossuary with one stone memorial marking them. The front of the memorial carries the names of the 57 known French soldiers.

In a British cemetery, both known and unknown bodies are commemorated with the same individual headstones. Those who are unknown are marked simply as 'known unto God'. Occasionally a small number or 'several' unknown soldiers are buried together and commemorated with one headstone, but it is never done with the ossuaries that are used by the French. The French style definitely saves both material and space, although to achieve this it sacrifices the individuality of the burials and its plain design loses the significance of the scale of sacrifice.

The Kemmel Ossuary is indicative of the French plans that were based on necessity and laid out by the technicians of Les Ministere des Pensions, as opposed to the British ceremonial designs by the famed architects of the Empire. The icon of France, the Coq, is present on top of the monument, but it is small and lacks the grandeur and craftmanship present in memorials such as the Brooding Soldier memorial to the Canadians who served in Belgium or the Mametz Wood dragon to the 38th Welsh Division.
The Mont-Kemmel Ossuary
At the top of the cobbled hill is a French memorial to all who served in the area throughout the war. As you approach it up the steep climb from the ossuary it looks impressive and certainly would have been a spectacular sight from the villages below in the years after the war when all the hill's trees had been destroyed. However, it is still small on the scale of the Commonwealth memorials and the stone is quite grey in colour (and dirty in the picture below, although maintenance was going on). The memorial was sculpted by Adolphe Masselot and is often referred to as the 'The Angel of Kemmel'. However, the angel's robe is Greek and she is also described as Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory. 
Goddess Nike, or The Angel
The two names convey very different sentiments about the memorial and the French commemoration of the Kemmelberg, as well as demonstrating the wider problems with the French memorialisation of the war. Are they celebrating a victory or commemorating the destruction of a region and a generation? For Edwin Lutyens and the architects of the Commonwealth, the supreme sacrifice of so many soldiers plays into their narrative of a strong and righteous Empire, evoked by grand classical memorials. But for the French, this isn't so clear, and its legacy its conflicted between national pride and sorrow, as with the Goddess or Angel of Mont Kemmel.
Thr Kemmelberg's other fame, her cobbles


Kathryn

All photos are credited, unless they are my own.

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