The Twentieth Century Society

Champagne & Argonne Introduction

Find descriptions and photos of individual memorials using the map and search box on the war memorials home page.

The first two tours examining the architectural consequences of the Great War of 1914-1918 are based on Arras and Ypres and look primarily at the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission along the line of the Western Front that was largely manned by British troops. This tour, based on Reims, looks further east, to Champagne and the Argonne and the section of the Western Front which was held by the French army for most of the war. It includes two notorious sectors: the Chemin des Dames and Verdun. Although we shall see a few British cemeteries and two of the smaller and less distinguished Memorials to the Missing, most of the cemeteries and memorials we will visit are French and American, as it was to this part of the Front that the first American troops were sent in after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917.

The areas we are visiting saw fighting from the beginning to the end of the war. the initial German invasion which swept through Belgium and France towards Paris in the Autumn of 1914 was halted by the First Battle of the Marne, well south of Reims. The Germans then retreated and, in a series of outflanking manoeuvres, both sides dug in, with the Germans usually creating defensive positions on higher ground. Unfortunately for the French, the front line ran just north of Soissons, Reims and Verdun, leaving the two former cities subject to continual bombardment. In September 1915 a French offensive in Champagne coinciding with the British attack at Loos produced huge casualties but no gains and failed to end the entrenched stalemate on the Western Front. In February 1916 von Falkenhayn launched a massive assault on the fortress of Verdun. Intended to bleed France dry, it proved equally suicidal for the Germans as the French under Pétain resisted to the death. The Allied offensive on the Somme in July 1916 relieved the pressure on Verdun and by the end of the year counter-offensives regained most of the lost, devastated territory. General Nivelle’s disastrous and costly offensives to the west and east of Reims in April 1917 eventually provoked mutinies in the French army, and it was the British further west who bore the brunt of the fighting for the rest of the year. In 1918 an increasingly exhausted Germany played its last card with Ludendorff’s initially successful offensive against the British in March and April. In May 1918 the Germans attacked the British and French west of Reims and broke through, eventually penetrating as far as Chateau-Thierry on the Marne. But in July came the Second Battle of the Marne as the Allies – now reinforced with increasing numbers of fresh American troops – counter-attacked and the Germans were steadily driven back. In September the Americans under Pershing attacked at St Mihiel south-east of Verdun and broke through. Steady German retreat followed until the Armistice was agreed in November 1918.

Then followed the task of burying and honouring the dead. France had lost 1.4 million – dead – mostly on the Western Front; Germany 2 million; and the United States 117,000. The other fighting powers, partly out of necessity, adopted rather different solutions to those adopted by the British, under the influence of Edwin Lutyens (as discussed in the notes for the two earlier tours). The Imperial War Graves Commission’s policy was to create cemeteries where the casualties were busied, resulting in almost a thousand war cemeteries along the line of the Western Front. The Commission also adopted a standard secular headstone, thus avoiding the unfortunate different treatment given to Jewish and Islamic graves in the French cemeteries. The French decided to concentrate burials into a series of large nécropoles nationales, often burying the huge number of unidentified bodies in ossuaries. These cemeteries, created by the Service des Sépultures de Guerre after 1919, are often huge, with no buildings or attempts at landscaping to temper the chilling bleakness of endless rows of concrete crosses with small tin labels attached. One supreme exception is the huge ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun, perhaps France’s principal monument of the Great War – but that was the result of an independent initiative.

Under the Treaty of Versailles, the French gathered the equally large numbers of German dead in France into concentrated cemeteries and mass graves. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge was created in 1919 but only in 1926 was agreement reached with France to lay out permanent cemeteries, and in France these were subject to many restrictions (less so in Belgium). These cemeteries, with their dark stone walls and grave markers and careful planting of oaks, were designed under the direction of Robert Tischler, but many of them were only “finished” well after the Second World War.

In terms of the ratio of cubic mass of stone to the number of casualties, the most extravagant and expensive cemeteries are those created by the American Battle Monuments Commission after it was established in 1923. All the large American cemeteries, laid out with white marble crosses, have chapels designed by distinguished American architects, usually Beaux-Arts trained (mostly recommended by Paul Cret). The United States also adopted the policy of erecting specific battlefield monuments (as the British had initially proposed, but these evolved into into Memorials to the Missing). These, again, were designed by distinguished architects, notably Paul Cret and John Russell Pope, in an ambitious Classical manner, although they may well seem a little pedantic compared with the creative development of the Classical tradition pursued by Lutyens for Britain. The tour includes most of the principal American cemeteries and memorials, with the notable exception of those at St Mihiel and Montsec.

The French, though various initiatives – official and private, secular and religious – also erected battlefield monuments, and these – along the length of the Western Front we are visiting – are remarkable for the large-scale use of expressive sculpture. The tour  unfortunately cannot encompass the most extraordinary of them all: the memorial to the First Battle of the Marne at Mondement south of Reims, which is a gigantic “menhir” of concrete and granite, 35.5 metres high, bearing a winged figure of Victory flying through clouds and lightning and embellished at ground level with an incised frieze depicting Marshal Joffre and his soldiers. But what is included is remarkable and poignant enough.

Gavin Stamp

BIBLIOGRAPHY

In addition to information culled from the numerous and ever expanding web-sites devoted to the First World War, the following publications were particularly useful in compiling the notes: J.-M. de Busscher, Les Folies de l’Industrie (Bruxelles, 1981); [Alexandre Niess], Cimetières militaries et monuments aux morts de la Grande Guerre: Marne (Paris, 2005); Elizabeth G. Grossman, ‘Architecture for as Public Client: The Monuments and Chapels of the American Battle Monuments Commission’ in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, xlii, May 1984; Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War, 5th ed. (London, 1986); John Keegan, The First World War (London, 1998); Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (Cambridge, 1995).