What makes the perfect war memorial?

'A carefully composed building-up of cubic masses': The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval
'A carefully composed building-up of cubic masses': The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval

In the 20th century, the western world had to learn a new form of funerary art: the war memorial. We can see them in our churches and on village greens, in schools and public buildings. On the battlefields of Europe, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission continues to maintain the graves of tens of thousands killed in action, in immaculate cemeteries that, on the centenary of the Great War, are attracting new interest.

Two allied victors of that war, Britain and France, had to deal with the problem of a hecatomb of soldiers whose bodies were unidentifiable, or swallowed up by the swamp-like battlefields of Belgium and France. Such men are commemorated by two great monuments on the Western Front, each marking battles that symbolise the horror of the Great War for the British and the French: the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, and the Douaumont Ossuary at Verdun.

Straightforwardly monumental: Douaumont Ossuary at Verdun

Thiepval was conceived by Edwin Lutyens, who had already designed  the Cenotaph in London, to great acclaim. “A carefully composed building-up of cubic masses” is how the historian Gavin Stamp describes Lutyens’s highly original design at Thiepval, which includes geometrically-arranged stone-dressed brick arches rising up from two axes.

As Stamp also says, these are arches without any triumph, because there was no victory. When one walks through them to the centre of the memorial, past names that will live as long as the edifice stands, one looks up to great vaults whose massiveness and sobriety are overwhelming and salutary. The only decorations are stone wreaths with the names of individual actions during the battle carved within them.

The Ossuary is a different matter. The principal architect was Léon Azéma, a war veteran, assisted by Max Edrei and Jacques Hardy. It is more straightforwardly monumental than Thiepval, composed of a 150-yard long grey stone cloister, along the inside of which one can read the names of the French dead under a giant vault; and rising out of its centre is a great stone bell tower, 151 ft high. For the French it is a place of solemn national pilgrimage that has come to symbolise the nation’s struggle for freedom.

Architect Léon Azéma

The Ossuary and Thiepval were inaugurated within a week of each other, in the summer of 1932. The Somme memorial bears the names of 73,357 British and Empire soldiers with no known grave; the Ossuary contains the bones of 130,000 French and German soldiers retrieved from the battlefield.

At Thiepval, the names of the Tommies and their officers are engraved – in lettering designed by Leslie Macdonald Gill, Eric Gill’s brother, and the man responsible for the lettering on all Commonwealth war graves – on stone panels inside the succession of great arches.

Both memorials stand on eminences, visible for miles around, in what is otherwise generally flat countryside; and both tower above cemeteries, in Thiepval’s case a relatively modest one where 600 British and French troops are buried, but in Verdun’s, it is the largest war cemetery in France, with 15,000 men in it.

Thiepval cannot but have a particular emotional resonance for any Briton who visits it; perhaps one has to be French to absorb the full effect of the Douaumont monument, though what any visitor realises immediately (thanks mainly to the cemetery) is the sheer scale of the slaughter it symbolises.

Because of its enclosed nature, the Ossuary resembles a great place of worship, and indeed contains its own chapel. Thiepval is more secular, and, being open to the elements, lets in light in a way Douaumont cannot. Perhaps it says something about the respective experiences of the two nations that, at the great French memorial, light is largely excluded.

One should visit both, not just to get an idea of the catastrophes they mark, but to see the way two distinct cultures dealt with death on such an incomprehensible scale.