French First World War Memorials

Observations on the distinction between raw grief and allegorical grief on WW1 Memorials

by Helen Beale

Prevailing convention discouraged public displays of loss of self-control and raw emotion on French First World War memorials. The formal incarnation of grief was commonly expressed on public monuments by allegorical compositions steeped in the classical tradition. Heavily draped figures in svelte poses were combined with motifs of war and heroic loss, for example carrying a laurel wreath and holding, or gazing at, an empty helmet to create a pervasive sense of graceful, stoic acceptance.

A very different task from this time-honoured presentation of grief was the sculpting of real grieving or raw emotion. Raw grieving entails loss and sorrow, so overwhelming that it dictates how the mourner’s body reacts, or even collapses. It is a dishevelled, uncontrolled state, convincingly and powerfully conveyed by direct realism. Centring on the rare examples of the representation of real family mourning, this article, which is drawn from observational fieldwork as well as textual research, will contextualise and examine the characteristics of sculptural compositions found in French First World War monuments, which depict real grieving figures and the likely public response to their affective charge.

Figurative sculpture on 1914-1918 war memorials in France most frequently represented the poilu, the equivalent of the British tommy, affirming pride in their soldiers’ efforts and sacrifice. Indeed the French term their war memorials monuments aux morts (monuments to the dead). The Poilu at Le Beausset (Var), , is an example, which illustrates the popularity of the sculptures de série (stock designs from a catalogue: the names of the individual sculptors were not necessarily made known). Such designs were available in a choice of materials, in this instance ‘galvano-bronze’, a form of electroplating in copper and a cheaper substitute for bronze. Electrotypes were not robust and the Le Beausset Poilu has recently been replaced with a more weather-resistant bronze replica. During the First World War, stock designs abounded: this Poilu was one of more than a hundred identical examples spread across France.

The Le Beausset Poilu now looks atypical for 1914-18 commemoration however, because in the 1960s it was re-sited, conserved and re-assembled, so that the soldier no longer surmounts the characteristic pedestal. It has been changed from monolithic structure into what Stuart Burch classified as a ‘monument dispersed into various parts’ – a much more modern style – enabling the visitor to engage more fully with the various elements of the memorial. (S. Burch, conference paper, CIHA, 2000). An example of this style, dating from 1984, is the memorial to the WW11 Resistance hero Jean Moulin by Georges Jeanclos, in Paris.

After WW1, large towns often erected massive memorials of emphatic frontality and verticality, which allowed large groups to gather in one place in an orderly fashion for the purposes of commemoration. One notable design, used in smaller traditional towns, is defined by J Giroud and R&M Michel in Les Monuments aux morts de la Grande Guerre 1914-1918 dans le Vaucluseas the monument à deux faces (two-sided memorial). One side, close to the local school, acclaimed the ‘soldier- heroes’ for the edification of the next generation, while the other side, facing on to the main road, addressed the adult population by naming and mourning the ‘soldier-victims’. In effect, this was a compromise solution between prevailing conventions and the sensibilities of the different generations.

An advertising catalogue for stock designs by Jacomet in Villedieu (Vaucluse), reproduced in Philippe Rivé’s Monuments de Mémoire, Monuments aux morts de la GrandeGuerre asserted that the poilu, glorifying fame and heroism, was the subject that most people had in mind when they considered a 1914-18 war memorial. These catalogues and their products, popular with public taste, proliferated because they offered affordable choices to smaller towns, though sometimes these designs attracted the disapproval of art cognoscenti. The principal subject categories included:- soldiers in every conceivable pose; allegories ranging from France to Victory; civilians, most commonly a widow and orphan; and symbols such as flags, palms of martyrdom and laurel wreaths. Larger towns were more likely to commission memorials funded by public subscription and selected through a call for submission. Some sculptors gifted their time and work. Local pride in the soldiers’ heroism was often underlined on memorials by the addition of inscriptions in regional dialect and of female figures in local costume paying tribute, as demonstrated on the (children’s) side of the monument à deux faces at St. Rémy-de-Provence.

Apart from women in local costume, female figures on memorials were more often allegorical than real. During the nineteenth-century spread of statuemanie in France, it had become conventional to transfer female support and emotion on to allegorical figures. These figures frequently became the vehicles of transferred grief, for instance, on the memorial at Lambesc (Bouches-du-Rhône), by Jean Merignargues, where the female personification of a sorrowing ‘Republic ‘ – in place of the mother – clasps and supports the dying soldier’s body and administers the farewell kiss of blessing. Given that soldiers’ bodies were not returned home, this substitution of the Republic for the mother figure surely must have been felt by some families as doubly harrowing?

J Giroud and R&M Michel in their analysis of memorials in the Vaucluse assert that ‘Le personnage central de la scène reste la femme-mère appelée République, France, Gloire’ (the pivotal character of the sculpted scene depicted is always the woman-as-mother variously identified as The Republic, France, Glory). The writers emphasise how the real mothers, albeit honoured, are in fact at one step removed, sublimated, because even their most private mourning is enacted by an allegorical figure on their behalf.

Margaret Darrow explains in French Women and the First World War: Stories of the Home Front that women were expected to remain composed, efficient homemakers, during the absence of their menfolk. Their role was to ‘live for others, especially for their children and their absent men’ and raise children ‘worthy of their hero fathers’. The amount of work many women in France did during the First World War was considerable: already responsible for household and domestic tasks, many assumed further responsibility for farm work, in place of absent men.

In consequence, female farmworkers are depicted on some of the later more naturalistic memorials. A frequently cited example is the memorial at Suippes (Marne). Sculpted with sympathy and restraint by Félix-Alexandre Desruelles, it depicts a peasant girl scything wheat and uncovering the grave of a soldier marked with his helmet. There is supporting evidence for the inspiration behind this memorial in the official British documentary The Battle of the Somme, filmed by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell in 1916 (Imperial War Museum, Photograph Archive Coll.) which includes a frame of similar French women working in the fields, not far from the battle line.

After the war, sculpted women came progressively down the monument from their previous upper ‘celestial’ or ‘allegorical’ positions until, in more than one sense, they had their ‘feet on the ground’. In sculptural compositions of mourning figures, they are often perched on the edge of the sculpted space and do not occupy space in a traditional, assertive way. With depictions of raw grieving, the loss and sorrow is so overwhelming that it cannot be confined within classically derived poses. Figures positioned to observe commemorative or mourning rites appear unable to accomplish such acts properly; they may be shown facing the wrong way, turned away from the spectator, or huddled up in a dishevelled state, weighed down by grief. This grieving is convincingly and powerfully conveyed by the style known as realism, although the term ‘sympathetic naturalism’ might be preferred. It is to be found in the PMSA’s Public Sculpture of North-East England, in relation to the mixed emotions of ‘anxious loved-ones’ as relatives respond to the British call-up in William Goscombe John’s The Response 1914 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1923), and perhaps better describes the ethos of this type of memorial and its depth of sentiment.

This reality had been absent in some earlier French memorials. On the face of certain plinths, inspirational female figures, like classical goddesses in a guiding capacity, hover behind and above the poilu for his protection, encouragement and acclaim. These allegorical figures are in evidence at both Martel (Lot) on the monument by Louis Bellouvet, and at Bozouls (Aveyron) on that by Denys Puech, 1920, where in each case the soldier uses his body as a bulwark of defence for his territory and the female figure of Victory comes to crown his success with a laurel wreath. In the Martel memorial where the poilu is shown preparing to throw a grenade, a telling compositional detail reveals that the wreath which Victory holds aloft in her left hand is deliberately cropped by the stone support, suggesting that she has just arrived on the scene at the moment depicted. These allegorical figures are shown in shallower relief than the males, and have been further worn down over time, making them less legible than the soldiers, who are more fully realised in the round. They stand for many courageous bodies barring the way to would-be invaders of the homeland, and on the Bozouls’ memorial the soldier’s foot crushes a German helmet, above the canonic inscription, On ne passe pas (No-one gets past!).

In contrast to these inspirational memorials about making a stand, the everyday realities of trench warfare are shown in monuments at Vallauris Golfe-Juan (the ancient pottery town revitalised by Picasso), and St-Rémy-de-Provence (figs.8&9). Local sculptor Arthur Edmond Delfoly won the open competition for the design of the Vallauris memorial, against thirteen other designs. In this sculpture in the round, a poilu is shown with his feet slipping on prominently depicted duckboards, as he makes a supreme effort to signal to his comrades. The soldier is saved by a rush of wings and the ‘loving arms’ of an allegorical female figure, creating a curious juxtaposition of divine intervention and the sharp depiction of actual events.

On the (adult) side of the monument à deux faces at St. Rémy-de-Provence, as the female sculptor, Mme Dagmar Saint-René-Taillandier (née Swayne), explained in her original submission of the design that the realism of trench activity, conditions and the dangers of war obsess the widow, who is now a farmworker. The widow depicted has always in the back of her mind her own vision of the preparation for action in the trenches and its aftermath: a small scene of a group of soldiers, bearing a standard, moving up a trench, between typically French wattle revetments and some inevitable burial crosses (highlighted). Maurice Turc in Un Chef-d’oeuvre d’art public has made a detailed study of this monument and emphasises the delicacy of the presentation of the trench details:

‘Les seules scènes guerrières du monument sont très discrètes puisqu’elles n’apparaissent qu’en bas relief et qu’elles ne sont aperçues que de très près’. (The only war scenes on this monument are very discreet since they are only shown in low relief and only noticed when you look very closely.)

There is also delicacy in the inclusion, in this monument à deux faces, of an ‘alternative’, complementary aspect of the commemoration, glorifying the soldier-heroes. In contrast, however, this mother, depicted beside her child, is so grief-stricken that she is seemingly unaware of her small child’s entreaties for attention. Public convention demanded no visible ranting or wailing, but this aspect, a real presentation of raw grief, far from expressing composure, conveys the intense emotion of grieving in a powerfully restrained way. Lost in thought and evoking sustained deep pathos, this mother epitomises the ‘obsession de la veuve’ (the widow’s obsession), as she slumps against the memorial plaque.

Children were included on memorials not only for their poignant ‘orphaned’, fatherless state, but also as representatives of the new generation, which would carry memory forward. Induction for this role, by family members or by schooling, referenced by the wearing of a school satchel, is common on memorials. Daniel J Shearman, in an exhaustive study of The Construction of Memory in Interwar France, highlights an example of commemorative ritual on the monument by Gaston-Auguste Schweitzer in Guémené-sur-Scorff (Morbihan), where the mother shows the beloved father’s name to the child. Shearman contextualises this pedagogical and sorrowful ritual within his analysis of the added complications of mourning for families whose relatives died far away, unvisited in the moments of death. With their sense of loss aggravated by separation and remoteneness, he says the families suffered a double ‘displacement’. Firstly the name became a ‘vehicle for the transmission of meaning’ standing in the civic world for ‘heroism’ and exemplifying ‘imitable virtue’ and secondly ‘monuments’ demanded ‘a transfer of emotion from the body of the deceased to the inscribed name.’

It is noticeable that in the key examples of raw grieving discussed here, the performance of Shearman’s commemorative ritual is impeded by that very grief itself. For example, on the St. Rémy-de-Provence memorial the mother’s eyes are closed and her attention is absent, at St. Malo the child’s attention is riveted by the memorial, but his mother is absorbed in her own thoughts, on a memorial at Gramat the child is too young to understand and the mother appears perplexed, while at La Talaudière the mourning figures and their gaze are averted (figs.14&15).

At St. Malo (Brittany), the problem is merely hinted at by Breton sculptor, Armel Beaufils, who represents the widow as gardienne du foyer (the woman now solely responsible for hearth and home) and her son, standing in formal attitudes to one side of the war memorial, (figs.11&12). The underlying narrative is that of a young boy already ‘rehearsed’ in the respectful pose he adopts. His small, erect figure is framed by the much taller, stronger figure of his mother right behind him. His gaze is directed at the memorial ; his left foot is set on a step higher than his right; thus his figure displays his own willingness to approach and pay tribute. The mother extends a protective arm. Although the boy mirrors the mother’s stance, and her body acts as a protective framing shell for his, the way the facial expressions are sculpted suggests their acting independently of one another. Standing beside the monument, the mother is blind to the world, absorbed by her loss.

A further sharpening of the rawness of grieving is experienced in the memorial at Gramat (Lot), by sculptor, Carlo Sarrabezolles. Different time frames, incarnated in figures facing each other in a restricted physical space, do not so much converge as collide – a powerful physical shock for the viewer. In the higher sculptural register, there is not the expected female figure of Victory, but a male winged messenger. His protruding angel wings extend out into space, rendering his figure cruciform and expressing the idea that the soldiers commemorated there are immortalised in their sacrifice. In the lower sculptural register, opposite the messenger, but of lesser height – and in such close proximity that the sculpted extended right arm of the widow is attached (for technical support) to the robes of the allegorical figure – the sculptor fuses an ‘everyday’, short time frame: a widow and her small child awkwardly perched on the socle of the plinth, at an unusual elevation from their everyday ground. Their instinctive and uncertain attitudes contrast poignantly with the ‘timeless’ figure. Their coming to the memorial is evoked not as something frozen in time, but almost plausibly, as a daily event.

The widow supports a wreath with her right hand and a representation of the dead soldier’s infantry helmet, the M15 Adrian helmet, a traditional and familiar symbol of a soldier’s demise. Yet the significance of these conventional symbols seems blurred, because her unceremonial gesture accentuates her vulnerability and confusion. The symbolic palm branch too is unusually trampled. The widow looks up at the memorial in puzzlement: the man dear to them is absent, immortalised, while the widow herself remains painfully bound to earth. In contrast to the sculpted suppleness of the Messenger’s arms, the woman’s head is angled awkwardly back, as her gaze vainly searches the memorial’s meaning and the tiny child’s neck and right arm also stretch awkwardly upwards. In this exiguous space, what a pregnant silence and an unbridgeable gulf are expressed.

At La Talaudière near St. Etienne (Loire), there is arguably the most overt and poignant example of raw grief on the memorial sculpted by Émile Tournayre. On a small flight of steps leading to the principal element of the memorial, where the commemorative inscription of names are sculpted, the figures of a widow and young adolescent child are positioned adjacent to one another but enveloped in silence. The widow sits, crouched over with her son standing beside her extending a protective arm. Despite their proximity to the roll of names and all that this represents, there is no interaction, the figures’ relationship to them is denied : the boy has turned his back to them and the woman’s head is so bowed down with grieving.

They are portrayed absorbed in their own private grief, rather than adopting the conventional postures of mourning. Tournayre chose to distance the mother and son couple more markedly in the finished work than in his preliminary plaster maquette (Musée au Vieux Saint-Etienne,maquette), which groups the figures more intimately. Tournayre’s final choice is thus the antithesis of Shearman’s act of civic pedagogy, but a very believable and touching scene, precisely because it is dislocated from its context.

In these examples of raw grieving, there is no possibility of dialogue between widows and bereaved children, surely reflecting the immense difficulty of realising such conversation in real life, despite the national wish – not infrequently realised on memorials – to use children to signify the promise of a new era, particularly school-age children learning the history of the Republic. The tiny children in St Rémy and Gramat are excluded from their mother’s attention, the oldest boy at St Malo is intent on his own act of commemoration and the adolescent boy at La Talaudière is depicted vainly attempting to console his mother, but unable to make meaningful contact. Painful silence is evoked by all the scenes of raw grieving.

These silences are in sharp contrast to a particularly resonant allegorical memorial at Mouriès (Bouches-du-Rhône) which shows a conversazione – in the fullest sense of the word! It depicts an immortalised soldier living in the hereafter and the allegorical and immortal figure of La Renommée (Fame), whose presence ensures lasting remembrance of the soldier’s sacrifice. They stride energetically across the plinth, engaged with each other and appearing to converse. By contrast, Jay Winter has suggested that the painful silences of raw grief should not be construed as ‘the absence of conventional verbal exchanges’ in a ‘socially constructed space’. Patently in depictions of raw grief, one identifies an ‘absence of consolations and hope in the afterlife offered at Mouriès, but on closer analysis of the La Talaudière memorial, the ‘absence of spoken consolation’ (son to mother), the ‘absence of shared utterance’ and the ‘absence of the [mother’s] ability to share such depths of grief’ can also be detected, all of which which might have signalled the beginning of a healing process. 

Contrasting with the arrested attitudes in these key examples, the memorial at Cahors emphatically illustrates physical displacement by featuring the figure of a returning, surviving soldier. The potentially joyous event of a homecoming is enacted by two figures, sculpted in the round, but framed against the tragic backdrop of a vast roll-call of honour. For in this chef-lieu, the capital of the Lot, a vast and solid wall of names confronts the beholder with evidence of repeated loss. Yet, below the incised date of 1914 is the animated figure of a returning soldier, whose generous stride convincingly says he can cross the space to reach his wife. She, on the other hand, standing hopefully at the opposite side under the date 1918, holding a child against her left shoulder, seems rooted to the spot. She extends her right arm and hand in welcome, but dare she really believe in the man’s reappearance? There is a large space architecturally inscribed between them, suspending the moment of physical closeness.

There is persuasive Italian source material for the introduction of temporality in these French memorials, enabling us to imagine that certain peripheral, but crucial, sculpted figures look as though they might visit the memorial, depart, and return. Italian sources are also the likely explanation for the emphasis on the prominent feet of some ‘raw grievers’. Firstly, it is instructive to note how Fred Licht, in an essay on ‘Italian Funerary Sculpture After Canova’ (S. Berresford, Italian Memorial Sculpture 1820-1940, 2004) describes Canova’s innovations in the pyramidal tomb of Maria Christina of Austria ‘…[Canova] chose to depict a procession that is about to enter the tomb and therefore will disappear from view within another moment ‘so that the idea of temporality is ‘suggested by means of an action that will end within a foreseeable span of time.’ [my emphasis]

Such temporality was also identified in Linda Nochlin’s canonical text, Realism, where she summarised, in not dissimilar terms, a sculpted monument of c.1880 by Augusto Rivalta, in which ‘the frock-coated gentleman from the Tomb of Vicenza Drago might well be coming to pay an afternoon call, so muted are the references to his function as a mourning figure.’ While the vocabulary of the presentation of ‘raw grievers’ is by no means ‘muted’, suggestions of temporality and intermittent presence fit these examples exactly. Secondly, explaining why grieving figures are shown with a mere toehold or foothold on the edge of the plinth, as though they had just called by, I would argue that these and the trailing feet, particularly prominent at La Talaudière, are also surely Canovian, reminiscent of the dragging feet of both the ‘blind and unsteady old man’, and the ‘funerary spirit’ as Licht describes them, on either side of the transition to the afterlife on Canova’s pyramid of the Archduchess Marie Christina in the Augustinerkirche, Vienna.

Memorials for the 1914-18 war in France illustrate a gradual democratisation of sculptural registers. Women depicted on monuments may, after the war, include allegorical and real figures from the community in juxtaposition. One notable example is at Nîmes (Gard), on one side of an imposing memorial arch sculpted by Auguste Carli. The allegorical personification of Nîmes, recognisable by her headdress of a miniaturised Roman temple, (Nîmes, Maison Carrée), is shown partly in imperious mode, extending her right arm to direct the man in front of her to depart to war, and partly taking on a more tender role, as simultaneously she places her left arm on the real woman carrying a child in her arm, who is overwhelmed by sorrow at her husband’s departure.

The man is represented with realism and without ceremony, standing with his feet wide apart, his weight inclined towards the side of indicated departure, his body language expressing how loathe he is to be torn from his family. The preponderant public wartime message to women about renunciation and sacrifice in a higher cause, is undeniably combined here with a measure of tenderness and empathy. Despite the overall grandeur of the memorial arch, it includes tableaux depicting scenes from real life.

I am indebted to Professor Sîan Reynolds for drawing to my attention the work of another female sculptor, Raymonde Martin. Her work, like that of Saint-René Taillandier, was respected and exhibited at the Salon. Martin, who had seen service at the Front as a nurse during the 1914-18 war, was commissioned to produce two memorials. Memorials sculpted by women are rare, but it is tempting to interpret in their work a greater affinity with the expression of grieving. Is this a feminine strength? Fontes d’art published on 18 December 2007 a short article about the developing analysis of war memorials, broadly mapping changes in critical approach and appending some examples. One, dating from 1998, is a review of historian Maurice Turc’s book on Saint-Réne Taillandier’s memorial in St.Rémy-de-Provence. 

The writer ‘DP’ commended Turc’s documentation of regionalism and of the preparatory processes of how to fund a memorial, where to site it, and how to choose a sculptor. It closed by observing: ‘On est ici tout à fait dans une émotion féminine, très loin de certains monuments guerriers’. (Here we are completely immersed in a feminine emotional context, a far cry from some warlike memorials). Although no reservation about the memorial is expressed overtly, neither is any endorsement: the general editing of the piece (woman-sculptor, female figures) surely implies an adverse judgement, placing the woman sculptor, her female figures, and her discrete presentation of the male war experience in a ‘softer’ war climate? In contrast the present article contends that the expression of women’s suffering in wartime speaks volumes about the general community’s loss and its experience of sacrifice, directly interlinked with the fighting.

Raymonde Martin’s memorials are remarkable in themselves and in two respects where they extend the type of presentation of raw grieving which I have described: (i) each contains four different illustrations of grief and grieving and (ii) the grief is presented directly and unequivocally. The bolder example of her two memorials, in view of public attitudes described above, is at Néris-les-Bain (Allier) where she designed and executed a panel divided in half between Hommage(Homage) and Deuil (Grief) (main image). One of the grieving figures is shown weeping uncontrollably; another partially hides her sad face as she stoops to show a small child how to place a floral tribute. In the other example at Les Andelys (Eure) the design vocabulary stems from the organic. The resulting dominant lines of the memorial have an Art Deco quality. The four grieving figures are shown emblematically, but less emphatically than at Néris-les-Bains (main image), for they are placed on the underside of four large sepals curving away from a central flower, thus bestowing an element of privacy on the figure studies. The outlined backs of the women are delicately rhymed with the curving lines at one edge of the sepals. It is from these women’s grief that springs the tall (almost phallic) columnar flower of remembrance and homage, topped by the familiar symbolic Adrian helmet.

This article has concentrated on the raw grief of women and the emotions of a few accompanying children and young adolescents, because as the use of pleureuses (weepers) demonstrates, the sculpted allegorical figure of grief was invariably female. Yet since the article began with the prevalence of the memorialised poilu, as a source of national pride, it seems only appropriate to consider, before concluding, whether it would be conceivable to portray the much heroicised and lamented poilu as crushed by raw grief. I am indebted to another former colleague, Dr William Kidd, for an especially powerful and insightful example of this, taken from a pacifist memorial – Jacques Louis Robert Villeneuve’s sculpture for Aniane (Hérault). This memorial bears an inscription in Occitan, a castigation of territorial wars causing multiple deaths, a failure to uphold considerations of all humanity. It is this inscription – I would argue – which carries the pacifist message of this memorial , translating what the soldier is too exhausted and grief-stricken to do more than mouth. Villeneuve, whose other highly dramatic subjects characteristically include Marsyas, has chosen here a markedly cropped, not to say denuded, bronze bust, skewed at a painful angle, all the better to thrust up the head, compelling our attention – and our empathy. The head is the core sculptural subject, yet still reminiscent, by its precarious ‘perch’, of subjects ‘on the edges of the sculpted space’. The ravaged face, sheared of all but its mental and physical pain, produces a not unfamiliar conjunction of private suffering in a public monument. Pacifist memorials showing women are also notable, for instance the frequently cited memorial at Péronne (Somme) by Paul Auban and Paul Theunissen, but here women are not portrayed in crushing grief, but on the contrary summoning every fibre of their body to protest and condemn.

In conclusion, the ‘more-than-ancillary’ figures on the edges of sculptural compositions shown in a state of raw grieving, function importantly as intermediaries between the memorial site, where the dead are remembered, and the world of the living. This article has highlighted bereaved relatives and their unconcealed raw grieving, in contrast to a much greater proportion of memorials which express transferred grief through allegory. The memorials discussed are significant not only in social and humanitarian terms but also in sculptural terms: the composition and handling of the figures change in ways which are artistically unusual and challenging. It is likely that the effect of the ‘raw grieving’ memorials on the spectator differs from the short-lived effect created by traditional, allegorical depictions of grief. The spectacle of raw grieving does more than make an appeal to a passer-by to step out of their life for a short while and reflect, however deeply, on a past war. Through the link made with the agonies of the real world, the spectacle of bereavement and some empathetic comprehension of it remain inescapable.

Main image: Raymonde Martin, War Memorial, Néris-les-Bains, Allier, inaugurated 1924 (photo: © Alain Choubard courtesy of Les Monuments aux Morts sculptés en France).

I would like to thank Oron Joffe for expert technical support with text and illustrations and to Dr K Farrell for her encouragement.

Aurora Corio