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How WWI remembrance monuments created beauty from chaos

8 November 2018

The memorials to the missing and dead of World War I are among the most haunting British architecture of the 20th century. TONY LAW looks at the products of this humanitarian building mission, described by the writer Rudyard Kipling as the greatest work 'since any of the Pharaohs'.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele, Belgium | Getty Images

The American architect John Russell Pope was advised by Paul Cret of the American Battle Monuments Committee in 1925: ‘‘Do something beautiful. This is the most important monument and for this reason it has been entrusted to you.’’

Both men were famous architects, and the subject was the monument at Montfaucon d’Argonne commemorating the American advance on Verdun in 1918. Britain's Imperial War Graves Commission, which had been founded on the vision of one man, Fabian Ware, also employed the best architects of the age for its work.

Ware had realised that a sacrifice on such a scale had to be memorialised, and the idea of building memorials and cemeteries began to take shape.

Art historian Dan Cruickshank is the presenter of Monuments of Remembrance, which explores the history of this endeavour. He says, "To attempt to create a sense of beauty in a world of madness, in a landscape of industrialised mass-killing, was perhaps itself an act of madness."

Below we look at some of the architecture that characterised the cemeteries and monuments that were produced by this huge humanitarian undertaking.

Dan Cruickshank at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele, Belgium

Fabian Ware and the Commission

The Imperial War Graves Commission's founder, Fabian Ware, was a former newspaper editor who in 1914, aged 45, commanded a mobile Red Cross ambulance unit in France. Under his direction, Ware's unit began to catalogue the temporary graves they found as they swept an area following an offensive.

Ware realised early on that the sheer numbers were overwhelming. Funding came from London for him to continue and he and his men began to set up a register of the dead.

By 1915 the work done by Ware's unit was officially recognised by the War Office and it was incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission. The Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in May 1917.

Ware invited Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker to France in 1917 to discuss plans for commemoration. Along with Sir Reginald Blomfield they were appointed principal architects to the Commission in 1918.

Central to the idea of memorial was a clear decision that the body should not be repatriated; the Commission's own cemeteries built on or near the battlefields would be the burial sites.

Headstones at Serre Road cemetery near Albert, France | Getty Images

Key to the Commission's cemeteries was the (to some radical) idea that, as stated in the Commission's 1918 report, "whatever their military rank or position in civil life, everyone should have equal treatment in their graves". The common nature of the sacrifice must be recognised, regardless of one's status, religion or ethnic origin.

Uniform headstones gave cemeteries abroad a uniformity of design, and were also fundamental to this quest for equality of treatment. As well as architects, the Commission employed a number of artists, designers and writers. Graphic designer Macdonald Gill created the sober Roman lettering that all headstones would employ.

As Honorary Literary Advisor, the writer Rudyard Kipling created much of the language used in memorial inscriptions. It was a task with deep personal significance as Kipling was still grieving for his only son John ('Jack'), who in September 1915 went missing while serving with the Irish Guards at the Battle of Loos. Drawing on his own sorrow and biblical inspiration, Kipling proposed 'Their name liveth for evermore'.

Kipling's inspiration

The words chosen by Kipling appeared in his original King James Version Bible, in Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15. Ecclesiasticus is a book from the Apocrypha, which are positioned between the Old and New Testament.

The books are not normally accepted as Scripture, so aren't found in most Bibles.

A Stone of Remembrance in a cemetery at Kimmel in Belgium. It lies 6 miles from the town of Ypres. | Photo: Richard Lautens / Getty Images

Kipling's words were used on the Stone of Remembrance, designed by Edwin Lutyens for larger cemeteries with more than 1000 burials. It was abstractly styled and avoided any religious symbolism other than its resemblance to an altar or sarcophagus. More than 500 were erected in France and Belgium alone.

Lutyens corresponded with Fabian Ware as his ideas for the memorial developed; writing in 1917: "Place one great stone of fine proportion 12 feet long and finely wrot... so that all men for all times may read and know the reason why these stones are placed throughout France."

Dan Cruickshank notes in Monuments of Remembrance, "Lutyens sought to create a symbol that would endure in the landscape for centuries to come. It is not to do with any single religion, but is for people of all faiths, or none."

"It is perhaps Lutyens' use of a system of proportions rooted in nature that gives this stone standing in the landscape, in the setting of nature, such an extraordinary and sublime beauty."

Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele, Belgium | Getty Images

Tyne Cot is one of four memorials in Belgian Flanders and was the site of the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele.

It's the scale that appalls, it's truly shocking.
Dan Cruickshank

It was designed by Commission architect Sir Herbert Baker, who sought to create "the semblance of an English churchyard". Dan Cruickshank says, "Does it work? Maybe, maybe not. But at the end of the day you have the headstones, and nothing can deny the horror of the headstones".

With 11,956 servicemen buried or commemorated, it is the largest Commission cemetery in the world. 8,369 of the burials are unidentified.

The wall at the back of the cemetery lists the names of 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele, Belgium
Gate to Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passchendaele, Belgium | Getty Images
The Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, London | Getty Images

Following the public reaction to Lutyen's Cenotaph being made a permanent structure in 1920, more than 50,000 monuments were built in Britain, which many saw as a necessity for a grieving population that may not have the means to travel to the Continent. Many of these were privately commissioned, in this case by the Royal Artillery War Commemoration Fund.

The memorial commemorates the 'Forty nine thousand and seventy six' dead of the Royal Artillery regiment. It was designed by sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger, who was wounded at Gallipoli, with input from architect Lionel Pearson, and was unveiled in 1925 at Hyde Park Corner in London.

The monument features a sculpture of a huge howitzer on a large plinth of Portland stone, with stone reliefs depicting scenes from the conflict. Around its pedestal stand three bronze gunners. A fourth figure lies dead under a greatcoat, above the inscription 'Here Was A Royal Fellowship of Death'. The text, suggested by Jagger himself, contrasts with Kipling's and gained memorial committee approval through its literary origins in Shakespeare's Henry V.

Art critic Brian Sewell said it was "so modern that it makes Henry Moore seem shallow and Picasso frivolous." When it was restored in 2014, The Guardian's critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "these scenes might seem, at first glance, a conventional image of artillerymen at work... But the more you look, the more they resemble nightmares conceived by Goya and carved by Donatello. Like German expressionist images of the war, these formidable scenes convey the mess, filth, exhaustion and futility of the western front."

Left: Recumbent Artilleryman / Right: Crowds at the unveiling of the Royal Artillery Memorial in 1925 | Getty Images
The Thiepval monument to the Missing of the Somme, by Edwin Lutyens | Getty Images

Edwin Lutyens was given the ultimate challenge of creating a memorial to the missing of the Somme. On a high ridge overlooking the Somme river at Thiepval, he created his great masterpiece. Unveiled in 1932, it is over 45 metres tall and dominates the surrounding landscape.

Dan Cruickshank: "The power of Lutyens' work comes not just from the names, of which there are over 72,000, but from the monument itself. Power comes from the elemental abstract forms. The arches pirouette, they crest to north, south, east and west, symbolising a loss of direction, an uncertainty. This a great squatting beast of a building, a pyramidal spider in the landscape."

Completion of the Thiepval Memorial marked the end of the Commission's great building projects. Fabian Ware's vision had created order out of chaos, beauty out of ugliness, and would change forever the way we would remember our war dead.

Dan Cruickshank's Monuments of Remembrance is on BBC Four on Tuesday 13 November, and is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

The Ulster Memorial Tower at Thiepval commemorates the dead of the 36th (Ulster) Division | Getty Images
Mill Road Cemetery, Thiepval | Getty Images

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