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The Great War: Memory and Memorials

Joan Bowman

The Art of War.

In May 1918, Lloyd George, the British prime minister, formally requested that John Singer Sargent, age sixty-two at the time, travel to the western front of France as an official war artist. On behalf of the British War Memorials Committee, Sargent was commissioned to paint a large canvas commemorating the joint efforts between the British and American forces. He set out for France the following month, and was later joined by Henry Tonks, his British friend and professor of Fine Art at London's University College. They stayed with General Geoffrey Fielding, commander of a British army division stationed twenty-five miles south of Arras.

Born in Florence, Italy in 1856 and brought up abroad by his American parents, Sargent never visited the United States until 1876, when he established citizenship. He had shown a great talent for drawing at an early age–in fact, according to a beloved cousin, "His fondness for drawing in his schoolbooks made his teachers and his parents despair of his learning what was printed in them." By the 1880’s, after serious study in Paris and Madrid, Sargent had established himself in Paris as a painter of elegant portraits. At the Salon of 1884, he displayed what he considered his masterpiece to date–"Madame X," the portrait of Madame Gautreau, a famous Parisian beauty. The painting caused a scandal when critics found it eccentric and erotic. Discouraged by his failure, he moved permanently to London.

It took a few years for Sargent’s work to appeal to English tastes. In 1886, the Pall Mall Gazette voted "The Misses Vickers," shown at London’s Royal Academy, the worst picture of the year. But in 1887–exhibiting again at the Academy–"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," a charming, luminous study of two little girls lighting Japanese lanterns in a garden, captured the hearts of the English public. From then on Sargent experienced the phenomenal acclaim in England and the Unites States that he would enjoy for the rest of his life. Privileged, wealthy families on both sides of the Atlantic flocked to London to be immortalized in his studio–"his beautiful high cool studio, opening upon a balcony that overhangs a charming Chelsea green garden, adding a charm to everything"–as his dear friend, the author Henry James described it. James knew it well, as he had sat for Sargent, at the request of Edith Wharton, in 1913.

Sargent used broad, slashing brushstrokes and a brilliant palette to capture a particular moment in the life of each sitter. He did not repeat himself, responding to each one differently. In his best portraits he captured his subjects in a revealing, off-guard pose. Critics and admirers of his work commented on the psychological insights he revealed on canvas. He seemed able to see beneath the surface of his sitters. Because of his amazing skills, according to his cousin, "He saw more and recorded more fully than other painters."

Sargent curtailed his portraiture after 1910 and focused instead on Alpine and Italian landscapes, both in oil and watercolor. From 1891 to 1916 he also worked on a commission for the Boston Public Library–executing murals based on the history of the Jewish and Christian religions. After the war, in 1921, he completed a series of murals in the rotunda of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; a year later he executed and completed murals for the Widener Library at Harvard. He died of degenerative heart disease in April 1925, shortly after completing another series of murals, this time for the stairwell of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In June 1914, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist set off a series of threats, ultimatums and mobilizations that resulted in a general European war by the end of August. When German armies swept through Belgium, violating its neutrality and threatening to bring Great Britain into a conflict by treaty obligation, many in England believed that war with Germany was inevitable. But Britain had not known a major war for a century, and no Englishman in the prime of his life knew what war was really like. It was expected to be an affair of great marches and grandiose battles, quickly decided. The London newspapers were predicting a very short war–over by Christmas.

When England officially declared war on Germany in August 1914, Sargent was in The Austrian Tyrol on a painting expedition with his companions, the Stokeses. Local authorities impounded their paintings and also refused them permission to leave for England. Sargent continued to work with whatever materials he had been left with. According to Adrian Stokes, "He seemed to regard the whole affair merely as an example of human folly." The area was filled with Austrian troops, many of them drunk and disorderly. By December 1914, however, when Sargent finally arrived back in London–having had to travel through Vienna where he managed with great difficulty to obtain a passport–the war had become a cause for personal sorrow. His niece’s husband and later his niece herself were killed in France–the husband dying in action, the niece in a German bombardment. His friend, Henry James, was already describing the ongoing carnage as a "black and hideous tragedy." News was trickling in from the front; the nearest war zone was only seventy miles from London, and men were returning on leave, recounting the previously unheard of horrors of trench warfare. Barbed wire, machine guns, tanks, airplanes, Zeppelins, sophisticated field artillery, and the use of poison gas were among the innovations that would lead to the bloodiest international conflict ever known at that time to mankind.

When Sargent set out for the front in June, 1918, the war, now almost four years old, had become a way of life. There was even talk of an endless war. This possibility began to tease people’s minds in England near the end of 1916. In November, Queen Mary wrote in a letter to a friend, "The length of this war is most depressing. I really think it gets worse the longer it lasts." The Times wrote on New Year’s Day 1917 that "the year closes, as its two predecessors closed, in blood and destruction…anything like a definite decision seems far distant." At the front, views were considerably bleaker. In the dugouts and funk-holes, many of the troops believed the war might truly go on forever, and that young children still in school might eventually have to take it over. This view was commonly held among the German troops as well as the Allies.

Sargent spent several months in France, making preliminary sketches and watercolors. According to Tonks, "He took an enormous interest in everything going on….He entered completely into the spirit of his surroundings." His sketches included a dugout on the front line, soldiers lying in a hospital tent and resting on a bombed out street in Arras, a crashed airplane in a bucolic field with farmers meshing hay nearby. Sargent wrote to a friend, "The Ministery of War expects an epic, and how can one do an epic without masses of men?" He described several crowded scenes he had witnessed at the front, and also mentioned "a harrowing sight, a field full of gassed and blindfolded men." He had visited a casualty clearing station at Le-Bac-De-Sud where he saw an orderly leading a group of soldiers blinded by mustard gas. (Mustard gas also produced blistering skin and bleeding lungs). The image of these helpless, blindfolded men–once seasoned fighters–stumbling towards the first-aid station stayed with him. Seared in his memory, it became the inspiration for his commemorative painting, "Gassed." Sargent returned from the front in August 1918 and completed his painting in four months.

The huge size of the canvas, twenty feet long by nine feet high, is in itself a metaphor for the enormity of the war. Sargent is working in a new and different mode. The lush, luminous light and rich colors of his portraits and landscapes are nowhere present in this war-ravaged scene. There are no powerful brushstrokes; instead the painting reveals a dull, matte finish. In the forefront, a line of wounded, blindfolded soldiers led by an orderly stumbles across the canvas from left to right. The men are linked, each to the other, by the arm of one on the shoulder of the man ahead. In the right hand corner of the painting, marching towards the viewer, another line of wounded is being led, also linked to each other. As in the trenches, the men are totally dependent on one other, but here they are virtually blind. Along the base of the painting, a heap of soldiers–too many to count–lies lifelessly in a pile on the level ground, so wounded and weakened they cannot even rise up to join the line. The entire canvas is executed in somber, drab, depressing tones of brown–from the dark khaki of the men’s uniforms to the palest beiges of the sky. The blindfolds are the only dabs of white. There is utter desolation here–not a blade of green grass or a patch of blue sky for relief. The land seems endless, the sky seems endless, the lines of wounded men seem endless–it’s an endless war.

The painting, however, transcends itself. Sargent’s scene is directly inspired by what he saw at the front, but it is made more powerful and timeless by its visual reference to processions of heroic, triumphant figures on Ancient Greek and Roman sculptural friezes. He was thoroughly familiar with these friezes, and had incorporated them into several of his murals at the Boston Public Library (completed in 1916). He brought to "Gassed" much of his experience with the Boston murals. The line of wounded in the forefront of the canvas is particularly reminiscent of his Frieze of the Prophets– where he depicts a tight display of impressive figures linked to each other by their arm gestures. These prophets, however, can be distinguished from one another–by their manner of dress and their facial characteristics. In "Gassed," the figures of the soldiers are linked to each other in a far different way than the prophets. They are holding on to each other for support, having completely lost their individuality. Not only do they all wear the same military uniform, but their blindfolded faces have obliterated their identities. They hobble helplessly against a barren, meager landscape.

On his canvas, Sargent not only recreated the atmosphere of the zone of the trenches, but also, as in a decorative frieze, he mounted his connected figures on a blank, imaginary space. These soldiers, however, are also wandering in a place beyond the viewer’s imagination, a place that only they have seen and will undoubtedly be haunted by forever. As comrades they have shared indescribable horrors. The brutalities that they have witnessed together have literally blinded them and rendered them powerless as warriors. Unlike the ancient freizes, there is no heroism, glory or triumph here.

When the guns were silenced at eleven o’clock on the morning of November eleventh 1918, Sargent’s enormous canvas was almost finished. The maiming and dying was over; the war had cost the Allies over five million men, the Central Powers three and a half million. Over one million British and Commonwealth soldiers had given their lives. "Gassed" was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919, and there were reports of viewers fainting at the sight of it. It hangs permanently in the Imperial British War Museum in London, but it also traveled the world in many major Sargent exhibits during the twentieth century. It became, and still is, one of the most memorably haunting images of the Great War, and in a sense of all wars, being both realistic and allegorical in its appeal to the viewer.

Several months after "Gassed" was first exhibited in London, the British government introduced a proposal to sponsor a national day of festivities celebrating the signing of the peace treaty then being negotiated to officially end the four horrific years of war. The Peace Celebrations Committee first met on May 9, 1919, to organize a four-day program; the high point would be a victory parade through London by soldiers of both the Commonwealth and Allied armies. Marshall Foch and General Pershing would be present, and the King would review the procession from a temporary Royal Saluting Pavilion in front of Buckingham Palace.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 29; the Peace Day celebrations were then set by the Committee for July 19. In early July, Lloyd George summoned the eminent British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to 10 Downing Street, officially inviting him to design a temporary war shrine to be erected in Whitehall as a saluting point for the victory parade through London.

Lutyens, born in 1869 in London, the eleventh child of a soldier-turned-painter, had suffered severe illness during his childhood (probably rheumatic fever) and was too delicate to attend school. He was educated at home, after a fashion, by one of his older brothers. In 1885, at the age of sixteen, he enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art (now the Royal College of Art) to study architecture, showing such talent that he dropped out after two years to become a paying apprentice in the office of Ernest George, one of the most popular architects of the day. Lutyens established his own practice in 1889, barely twenty years old, when he received his first commission–the building of a nine-bedroom country house.

This achievement eventually led to his huge success in the reinterpretation of the English country house. In his early works, from 1889 through 1895, he assimilated the traditional forms of local Surrey manor homes. When he met the landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll, however, the two paired as a team and Lutyens’ personal style evolved. A brilliant series of country houses followed in which he adapted various architectural features of the past to the demands of the domestic architecture of his time–creating an amalgamation of the classical and picturesque modes, complemented by Jekyll’s rich, architecturally designed gardens. Like Sargent, his clients belonged to the wealthy, privileged upper classes, in Lutyen’s case the cream of British Edwardian society.

Around 1910, he shifted his focus to large, civil projects, including the planning of the new Indian capital at Delhi, a garden-city pattern with broad tree-lined avenues in the classical tradition of Versailles–but also reminiscent of the plan of Washington, D.C. His layout included a complex of government buildings and also the design of what is considered his single most important building, the Viceroy’s House (1913-1930), in which he incorporated aspects of classical architecture with features of Indian decoration. His many commissions included the British Embassy in Washington, DC, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Castle Drago in Devonshire (the last castle to be built in England), numerous Oxford and Cambridge University buildings, and Queen Mary’s Doll’s House (in honor of her inspiring behavior during the War), which is now displayed at Windsor Castle. Gertrude Jekyll designed its miniature garden. Upon his death in 1944, he left the unfinished Cathedral in Liverpool.

Lutyens had been knighted on New Year’s Day, 1918–a year and a half before his meeting with Lloyd George–in recognition of his ongoing work in Delhi and also for his free services to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). At the same time he had been appointed chief architect for the CWGC. He had already designed a number of small war memorials and cemeteries, including numerous private memorials in memory of the sons of clients. At his meeting with Lloyd George in early July, the prime minister stressed that the structure for the victory parade should be non-denominational (Indian troops would have to salute the monument) and that barely two weeks was left for its design and construction. He responded positively to Lutyens’ suggestion of a cenotaph–literally an empty tomb, usually elevated on a pedestal and dedicated in honor of a person whose remains are buried elsewhere. Constructed of wood and plaster, it could easily be assembled to meet the two-week deadline.

The Cenotaph was considered a minor detail in the overall planning of the Peace Day Celebration; other more elaborate decorations were to be erected along the parade route. When it was unveiled on the very morning of the peace parade, Lutyens was not even invited to the ceremony. Within an hour, however, hundreds of wreaths were piled around its base. Later that day, 15,000 Allied soldiers marched past and saluted the dead. Within a week, the Cenotaph had inadvertently become a national shrine, having caught the imagination of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed it during the celebrations. Almost overnight, it became the symbol of England’s grief, and Lutyens’ name became known to the general public. Originally hurt at not receiving an invitation to the unveiling, he was thrilled with the success of his memorial. "The Cenotaph was what the people wanted, and they wanted to have the wood and plaster original replaced by an identical monument in lasting stone."

There were worries about erecting a permanent monument in the heavily trafficked area of Whitehall, but Lutyens believed strongly that the Whitehall site had been sanctified by the salutes of the Allied armies and their leaders. Piles of fresh flowers placed on the temporary Cenotaph for days after the peace celebrations added to the sacredness of the site. In a July 29 letter to Sir Alfred Mond, First Commissioner of Works, Lutyens wrote: "I should like the permanent monument to be where it now stands, of Portland stone with all the refinement digestion can invent to perfect it. The site has been officially qualified by the salutes of…our men and their great leaders. No other site could give this pertinence."

On July 30, influenced by Mond’s reading of Lutyens’s moving letter, and in recognition that the temporary site could not be erased from the national memory, the assembled Cabinet ministers voted in favor of retaining the Whitehall site, designating the Cenotaph as Britain’s official war memorial.

The temporary monument was pulled down the following January; the permanent structure unveiled on the Armistice Day in 1920. This time Lutyens took a prominent part in the ceremony along with the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and marched afterwards in procession to Westminster Abbey where the body of the Unknown Warrior was interred that day. In her memoir of her father, Mary Lutyens wrote: "For years afterwards men instinctively raised their hats when they passed the Cenotaph, even when they were on the tops of buses."

Constructed of white English Portland stone, the shrine has three parts: base, superstructure, and at the top, empty coffin. It is small in size–just over 35 feet in height–and is placed almost directly on the street, accessible to everyone, with not a hint of pomposity or pride. The viewer’s attention is drawn upwards by a series of setbacks to focus on the coffin, which symbolizes the death of the nation’s youth. The only words on the monument (suggested by Lloyd George) are carved on the lower portion of the front: "The Glorious Dead." On the upper portion a stone wreath is in bas-relief and the date MCMX1V is incised. The monument is simple, modest and understated; it is at once both beautiful and grave; it is timeless and universal in its appeal–transcending political idealogy and social class. The people, not the government, responded to its mystery and majesty and made it an unparalleled object of respect. It is a rare example of an architectural work becoming a national shrine by spontaneous public acclaim.

From 1920 until 1945, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, all traffic stopped in Whitehall at the Cenotaph to observe two minutes of silence in commemoration of the end of The Great War and all those lost in the carnage. After 1945, the ritual was expanded to include the British Empire’s dead of the Second World War. The celebration is still observed, now on the Sunday nearest to November 11–and is called Remembrance Sunday.

The Cenotaph was, for Lutyens, a preamble to the more challenging commission he would receive a few years later–once again from the CWGC–to construct a memorial in France. North of Amiens in Picardy, the fertile land rises slowly and gently; lush, open fields lead towards the heights of the Somme. Here in this pastoral landscape, throughout five months in 1916, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers were killed–literally for nothing–in one of the bloodiest, most senseless conflicts of the Great War, the Battle of the Somme. By nightfall of July 1, the first day of the battle, of the 320,000 mostly British troops who left the trenches, 20,000 were dead and 40,000 were wounded or had disappeared. By the time the fighting stopped in November, one million men had died on both sides, and the frontline had advanced only two-and-a-half miles.

The fighting at Thiepval, a village on the highest plateau, was particularly fierce and deadly. Here, on the highest ground–almost 145 feet above sea level–Lutyens chose to build his 145-foot tall memorial honoring the 73,357 men who were declared missing–"after being pulverized by shells, sucked under by ground turned to putty, or dismembered after death when their battlefield graves were torn apart by endless barrages and assaults."

Lutyens brought to this commission both his design experience and his memories of visits to the battlefront; in July 1917 the newly-formed CWGC had asked him to travel to France to report on the already existing military cemeteries, and to propose monuments to be erected in them. He was billeted in a chateau close to the military Headquarters near Boulogne; every day he was taken on a long motor drive to inspect the temporary graves. He was deeply moved by what he saw, writing from France to his wife: "The grave yards, haphazard from the needs of much to do and little time for thought. And then a ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way across miles of country where men were tucked in where they fell." He also noted poignantly that poppies and other wild flowers were already sprinkled across many of the battlefields, "as friendly to an unexploded shell as they are to the leg of a garden seat in Surrey."

Lutyens visited hundreds of these battlefield burial sites. Almost an entire generation of England’s youth had perished in the war; virtually every family had been touched by death. He was also familiar with the personal grieving of many of his friends and acquaintances at home who had lost their sons in battle. Lutyens brought to the design concept his own non-traditional, ecumenical religious beliefs (he was adamant that his monument be entirely non-denominational and exclude the symbolism of the Cross), and also his conviction that "only elemental forms could capture the sorrow of war death." In July 1932, after five years of construction, his Somme Memorial, also known as the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was officially opened by the Prince of Wales.

Traveling the road to the Memorial, it is hard to imagine the gash of trenches, the deafening din of bombardments and mortar attacks, the moaning of the wounded, and the stench of the mutilated corpses (infantry men) and carcasses (cavalry horses and donkeys) that littered No Man’s Land during the incessant combat of that faraway, brutal summer and fall. An occasional tiny cemetery, neatly laid out in the tranquil landscape, is a gentle reminder. The monument itself–a huge central arch surrounded by a series of smaller arches–rises in the far distance across the serene rolling fields.

Lutyens was familiar with the nearby town of Albert, in the valley below Thiepval, as were all the troops. Its neo-Greco pilgrimage church, Notre Dame de Brebieres, was bombed repeatedly by the Germans, but resisting collapse, became a symbol of survival. He used the church as a model for his Memorial–incorporating its rust-colored, local red brick and white stone trim, but abstracting its design and magnifying its forms. The red and white materials are also a reminder of the colors of war–the red and white of the blood and flesh of the torn, mutilated bodies. The use of a basic, raw construction material like brick also becomes a visual metaphor for the raw, unresolved mourning among the families of the missing, who had been without graves or burial sites for their loved ones for sixteen years.

Vincent Scully describes the powerful response evoked by the structure when viewers approach its huge central arch. "The monument looms over us…an enormous monster; its tondi are eyes; its high arch screams. It is the open mouth of death, the ultimate ‘portrait’ of landscape art that rises up to consume us all….We are enveloped by the creature’s great gorge."

Staircases lead up to the vast, forbidding hollow of the central arch where a huge sarcophagus of white English Portland stone, Lutyens’ Great War Stone, lies. On its base, under the inscription "Their Names Liveth For Evermore"–words from the Book of Ecclesiasticus–visitors can leave their offerings. By multiplying his arches, however, Lutyens was able to produce enough flat surfaces on which to inscribe the names of the 73,357 men who are the Missing of the Somme. The name of each lost soldier, both French and English, is carved on the sixteen white stone pillars that form the base of the series of smaller arches. The names are listed by regiment and can easily be read; most of them can be easily touched. According to British commemorative principles, no distinction is made on account of military or civil rank, or religion. The Memorial bears only two inscriptions. One dedicates the monument to "The Missing of the Somme." The other honors the Allied armies in the French language: "To the French and British Army from a Grateful British Empire."

Beyond the Great War Stone an unexpected view opens up–a vista of green grass surrounded by tall pines, encompassing two cemeteries of mostly unknown soldiers–French on the left, English on the right. National characteristics are acknowledged in the design of the 600 graves. The French are marked by concrete crosses bearing little bronze plaques saying only, "Inconnu." The English are marked by flat limestone slabs inscribed with "A Soldier of the Great War, Known to God." The crosses and slabs face the arch, and like soldiers, seem to be marching–advancing toward the monster, who represents, according to Scully, "emptiness, meaninglessness, insatiable war and death." Most viewers, descending from the monument and approaching the garden of graves, are overwhelmed and cannot hold back their tears. "It is not far-fetched to believe that, after a long journey to Thiepval and the passage through the monument to the names and the Stone, the bereaved found that the Memorial, because it relieved them of the solitary burden of remembering, offered a way out of the tunnel of grief and that its many arches served as portals to an eventual healing."

Like Sargents' war painting, "Gassed," Lutyen’s "Somme Memorial" transcends itself. On one level, it pays tribute to all those who fell in the deadly battles there during 1916. On another, it reminds us–the living–of the evil, unconditional, empty face of all wars. This is not an Arc de Triomphe. It will never be traversed by victorious troops. Lutyens, well aware that many classical triumphant arches throughout history were made of brick veneered with marble and richly ornamented with imperial heroes and conquests, consciously stripped his Memorial of all ornamentation. As in the muted, desolate spirit of Sargent’s "Gassed," and in the abstract simplicity of the Cenotaph, there is no victory or glory here for the dead. Instead, an enormous monument to wasted courage spreads its silent scream across the verdant hills of Picardy, commanding us to enter its portals, and while moving through its arches in awe of the countless dead–to remember and to mourn.

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