The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

War Memorials in Flanders and Picardy

The first itinerary examines the architectural consequences of the Great War of 1914-1918 in Belgium, that is, that is, the war cemeteries and memorials to be found along the section of the Western Front around the Ypres Salient.

The original c20 Society tour was made in 2007 and coincided with the 90th anniversary of a campaign which has come to seem a polemical tragedy equal or greater to that of the Somme; that is, the Third Battle of Ypres – better known as the futile muddy slaughter of Passchendaele. Following earlier success at Messines, Field-Marshall Douglas Haig launched his offensive on 31st July 1917 after fifteen days of shelling the German lines. After initial gains, torrential and incessant rain combined with the artillery bombardments to turn the battlefield into a quagmire in which many men drowned. But Haig persevered.

By the time the rubble that was Passchendaele village together with several miles of mud was taken in November and the offensive was halted, 70,000 British Empire soldiers had been killed and over 170,000 wounded. The military historian John Keegan has written of “Haig’s profligacy with men. On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond”. It was after the fighting was over that Haig’s chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Sir Launcelot Kiggell, is said to have visited the battlefield for the first time and then burst into tears, exclaiming “Good God! Did we really send men to fight in this?”

This first tour explores the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission in and around Ypres (Ieper) which, standing in its exposed Salient in the front line, remained in British hands for almost the whole war – at huge cost. French, Belgian and German war cemeteries will also be visited. Most of the casualties buried in these cemeteries were victims of a series of so-called battles or offensives which amounted to a war of attrition. The First Battle of Ypres (October-November 1914) saw the initial German assault on Ypres resisted, as did the Second Battle of Ypres (April 1915). The Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) was Passchendaele. In April 1918 the Germans launched another offensive towards the Channel ports following their remarkably successful offensive on the Somme the previous month. This, the Battle of the Lys, took some of the high ground south of Ypres and threatened a British withdrawal. After this offensive ground to a halt, a series of Allied attacks drove the German armies back towards the north-east until the Armistice was declared on 11th November 1918.

The second itinerary examines the work of the I.W.G.C. in France, around Arras and Albert. The original c20 Society tour took place in 2006 and coincided with the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a campaign waged with such a huge loss of life to what seems so little end. The losses in particular on the first day of the battle – 1st July 1916 – retains a powerful hold on the British historical imagination and conception of the war. It was on the Somme that the great volunteer army recruited by Kitchener first saw action – and was decimated. The tour explores the section of the Western Front from Neuve Chapelle and Lens in the north past Arras and Albert to Péronne on the Somme to the south. French and German war cemeteries will also be visited. Most of the casualties buried in these cemeteries were victims of the series of offensives launched in these areas which usually resulted in small territorial gains and huge casualties; that is: at Neuve Chapelle (March 1915), the Battle of Loos (September 1915), the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916), the Battle of Arras (April 1917), the Battle of Cambrai (November 1917) and the German offensive launched by Ludendorff in March 1918 which, unlike the earlier campaigns, succeeded in breaking through the fortified, static trench system which characterised the war. After this offensive ground to a halt, a series of Allied attacks drove the German armies back towards the north-east until the Armistice was declared on 11th November 1918.

After 1918, Britain was faced with the problem of honouring and caring for the bodies of her war dead. Perhaps ten million – including civilians – died in the First World War. Britain and her Dominions lost a million dead, France 1,700,000, Germany two million. In Britain, the Imperial War Graves Commission had been established in 1917, principally owing to the heroic efforts of its vice-chairman, Sir Fabian Ware. Before the war cemeteries could be given permanent treatment, principles had to be established. These were that no bodies should be exhumed for reburial back home, that no distinction should be made between officers and men or by social rank, and that adherents of different religions should be given equal treatment. In consequence, the British cemeteries were given a distinct secular character (in contrast to, say, the French war cemeteries or to many war memorials back home), although this was, at first, highly controversial. The desire of Ware and the Commission to avoid overt Christian symbolism met with strong opposition, and the matter was finally settled by Parliament in 1920. A compromise was reached however in that every cemetery contains a free-standing CROSS OF SACRIFICE, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, as well as the STONE OF REMEMBRANCE or Great War Stone, an altar-like monolith designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had a very strong influence on the appearance of the British cemeteries and whose secular approach to honouring the dead was exemplified by his Cenotaph in Whitehall (1919-20).

It is a common solecism, committed especially by film-makers, to imagine that the enormity of the losses of the Great War is represented by seas of crosses in vast cemeteries. In fact, very few of the British cemeteries contained more than a few thousand graves while the bodies are marked by standard headstones of secular character. What is terrible about the British cemeteries is not their size but their number: there are almost a thousand of them along the line of the Western Front in Belgium and France. To design so many cemeteries, to give each a distinctive character and to arrange for their landscaping and planting, was a colossal task. The basic design work was undertaken by four eminent men who were appointed Principal Architects for France and Belgium (for there were also architects required in Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Palestine and elsewhere): Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker, Blomfield and, a little later, Charles Holden. Much of the work, however, was undertaken by the team of younger Assistant Architects in France who were mostly men who had served in the war. Experts on horticulture were also employed to give the cemeteries the English garden character which is so distinctive and consoling.

Most of the cemeteries were completed by the mid-1920s, but over half of the British Empire casualties still remained uncommemorated: the Missing, those whose bodies were never found or identified. There were over half a million of these: 517,000. It was decided that the name of every missing man should be carved on one of several memorials to be built in the battle zones. The I.W.G.C. was asked to undertake this additional task in 1921 and the first Memorial to the Missing to be unveiled – in 1927 – was the Menin Gate at Ypres, designed by Blomfield. By this stage, however, there was a crisis as the French had become “disquieted” by both the number and the scale of the memorials the Commission proposed to erect, together with those proposed by the Australian, Canadian and United States governments. It was therefore decided to reduce the number of special memorials and to incise the names of many of the missing on memorials placed within existing cemeteries. Some of these were designed by the Principal Architects, others were the result of limited competitions open to the Assistant Architects. The last to be unveiled – in 1932 – was Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. (The Canadians’ own memorial at Vimy Ridge was unveiled in 1936 and the Australians’ at Villers-Bretonneux in 1938.)

In considering British architecture between the two world wars, the achievement of the I.W.G.C. is often ignored, yet its cemeteries and memorials represent a significant and creative flowering of the Classical tradition and among them are some of the finest works by the best of the older generation of British architects, above all Edwin Lutyens and Charles Holden. It was also one of the largest programmes of public works ever carried out by a British authority, and was done so to a very high standard. Rudyard Kipling, the Commission’s literary adviser, called it “The biggest single bit of work since any of the Pharaohs – and they only worked in their own country.” In 1937, Fabian Ware recorded that “in France and Belgium alone there are 970 architecturally constructed cemeteries surrounded by 50 miles of walling in brick or stone, with nearly 1000 Crosses of Sacrifice and 560 Stones of Remembrance, and many chapels, record buildings and shelters; there are some 600,000 headstones resting on nearly 250 miles of concrete beam foundations. There are also eighteen larger memorials to those who have no known grave…” And it was cheap at the price: the total cost of all the Imperial War Graves Commission’s cemeteries and memorials was £8,150,000; the Treasury’s account in 1917 for the so-called Third Battle of Ypres was £22 million.

Gavin Stamp


For a fuller history of the establishment of the I.W.G.C. by Sir Fabian Ware and the development of its commemorative policies and its architectural approach, see David Crane, Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves (London, 2013), also Philip Longworth, The Unending Vigil: A History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission 1917-1967 (Constable, London, 1967) as well as Gavin Stamp, The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Profile, London, 2006) which contains a bibliography about war memorial architecture and much else relevant to the subject.

For other buildings in the areas visited, see Dominiek Dendooven (trans. Ian Connerty), Menin Gate & Last Post: Ypres as Holy Ground (Koksijde, n.d.); Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War (London, 1976 &c.); Michael Barker & Paul Atterbury, The North of France: A Guide to the Art, Architecture, Landscape and Atmosphere of Artois, Picardy and Flanders (London, 1990). For the architects, there is Eitan Karol, Charles Holden, Architect (Donington, forthcoming); Richard A. Fellows, Sir Reginald Blomfield: An Edwardian Architect (London, 1985); and, in the large literature on Lutyens, there is Tim Skelton & Gerald Gliddon, Lutyens and the Great War (London, 2008), Jeroen Geurst, Cemeteries of the Great Warby Sir Edwin Lutyens (Rotterdam, 2010), and David Crellin, ‘“Some corner of a foreign field”: Lutyens, Empire and the Sites of Remembrance’ in Andrew Hopkins & Gavin Stamp, eds, Lutyens Abroad (British School at Rome, London, 2002).