The war memorials of the Great War

The war memorials of the Great War

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  • Inauguration of the war memorial in the city of Metz.

  • Inauguration of the monument in memory of the British army.

Inauguration of the war memorial of the city of Metz.

© Contemporary Collections

Inauguration of the monument in memory of the British army.

© Contemporary Collections

Publication date: October 2005

Historical context

The First World War claimed an estimated 10 million lives around the world, and survivors have never ceased to commemorate those who died. As early as 1915, a law was voted in France establishing the notion of "death for France", which stipulated: "It seems fair that the civil status records, in honor of the name of the one who gave his life for the Country. , a clear and lasting title to the gratitude and respect of all French people. Immediately after the war, most forms of commemoration took place, from war memorials to various remembrance ceremonies, either on former battlefields or in the nations and regions of origin of the combatants. If the monuments to the dead are very often the place of identification with the heroes and the place of the justification of their sacrifice, they are first of all what the sculptors made of the order and what the participants in the ceremonies will do then. of their works, especially on the inauguration day, which often takes place on November 11.

Image Analysis

The Metz monument is completely exemplary of the representation of mourning and the ambiguity of the commemoration in Alsace and Moselle returned to France in 1918. The combatant's mother, the new Virgin Mary, finds her son, the holds in his arms, the monument has become pietà. Stabat mater dolorosa. But if the fighter imitated Christ on the battlefield, he wore a uniform. Here he lies naked. How indeed to recognize a German from a French, without the uniform? As for the inscription "To the children of Metz who died victims of the war", it omits the formula "for the fatherland" and chooses to accuse the war, and not the enemy, of the combatant's death. What homeland would it be, in fact, after more than forty years of an occupation which had gradually turned into an accommodation more tacit than forced for the majority of Moselle people? The "children" of Metz had died in German uniforms, their resurrection in stone was to make them French. The sculptor Niclausse therefore added three high reliefs: two show the liberators of the city, in hairy uniform, and the other a family scene, representing women, the elderly, a baby, all the civilian victims of the war. . If the enormous pietà is frozen, the relief of the family - the parents, the wife and the child who have lost a loved one - is crying out in distress. This monument from 1935 shows both universal mourning and the specificity of the situation in the provinces found after the Great War. It is also symptomatic of the pacifism that took hold of French society, especially in the 1930s, when a new war threatened. When the Germans took over the city in 1940, they removed the reliefs and the inscription: the monument could then be suitable for their own dead, the pietà was universal. It is in fact this monument that can still be seen in Metz today.

The town of Soissons, located at the rear of the front and almost completely destroyed by artillery bombardments, experienced a terrible war, which is commemorated by many monuments erected in the town and on the surrounding battlefields. Here it is the monument that pays homage to the sacrifice of France's British allies. The three soldiers are depicted in a very hieratic fashion, like medieval valiant men, but the shells are a reminder that this is indeed the modern artillery warfare in which they fought. As for the crown placed at their feet, it transposes into stone all those placed in military cemeteries and pays them a permanent tribute, like a wreath-laying ceremony eternally repeated. The crowd sets off on a journey around the monument, like a pilgrimage convolution. Groups of men, women, children come to express their pain and gratitude to those who helped liberate the region and hasten victory. Some cry, of the British who came for the inauguration, or of the inhabitants of Soissons remembering the war and the loss of all these young men, some of whom were their sons, their brothers. Earlier, as in Metz, there were official speeches and flags, now it is a tribute and mourning for an entire city.


The memory of the conflict as embodied in the war memorials is symptomatic of the extension of the culture of war into the post-war period - patriotism and the spirit of sacrifice are still present there - and of the novelty due to mourning. immense: pacifism. Through these monuments, we are witnessing a worldwide homogenization of the public space devoted to the memory of the war, because all the former belligerents, victors and vanquished, are represented in a real "Imitation of the Fatherland" which translates the infinite mourning of the Great War. Finally, we sought to exalt the courage of the survivors and to unite them in the face of the ordeal. These monuments to the dead are above all places of regret, where mourning, religious and patriotic fervor are complementary.

  • Alsace Lorraine
  • army
  • graveyard
  • War of 14-18
  • pacifism
  • patriotism
  • hairy


Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.Annette BECKER, The Monuments to the dead, memory of the Great War, Paris, Errance, 1988.Annette BECKER, La Guerre et la faith, from death to memory, 1914-1930, Paris, Armand-Colin, coll. “U”, 1994.Annette BECKER, “The Great War, between memory and oblivion” in La Mémoire, entre histoire et politique, Cahiers français, Paris, La Documentation française, July-August 2001.

To cite this article

Annette BECKER, "The monuments to the dead of the Great War"

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