Friday, 7 June 2013

Preview: The Thiepval Memorial

Of all my 102 World Wonder candidates, this is the worst.

In a perfect world, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme wouldn't exist. It was not built to glorify a king, to worship a god, to show off the prowess of a nation, or to push the boundaries of what was possible. A simple, unostentatious monument, it is dedicated to the missing. Men and boys who went to war, to serve their country, and never returned, dead or alive. They just disappeared, their bodies never found or identified. In the First World War, there were hundreds of thousands of missing men from Britain alone; in the aftermath, many memorials were put up in remembrance of these men. The Thiepval Memorial is the largest of these, for the largest loss of life suffered in the most bloody of all battles, the Battle of the Somme.

To call the Battle of the Somme a battle flatters; it was the wholesale slaughter of young men. Nothing was won, nothing gained, and the sheer tactical ineptitude of those in charge meant it was only ever going to end that way. It was an extended campaign over four months, beginning on 1st July 1916, 7.30am. That was when the British went over the top from their trenches and then, by order, walked uphill to their German target, being cut down by their thousands. "Only bulletproof soldiers could have taken Thiepval this day" states the British Official History of the war. It was the greatest loss of life in British military history in a single day - 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2152 missing, and 585 taken prisoner. The Germans suffered about 10% of this number. Many died slowly in the open cemetery of no man's land - despite the Germans offering a humanitarian truce. And this was just the beginning. A war of attrition began as the British command chose to continue the fight, a decision of criminal idiocy by men sitting in comfortable armchairs far remote from the battlefield. It was madness, suicide, against the Germans' best and heaviest defended area. In the end, by the time the battle finished, the British had succeeded in advancing a mere five miles. There were over a million dead or injured, with the total number of dead from the British Commonwealth and French side being over 150,000. Of these, over 73,000 could not be identified, forever to be lost on foreign soil.

It is these 73,000+ that the Thiepval Memorial honours. Britain won the First World War, but it was hardly a victory. The disastrous Pals battalions policy of the early parts of the war, whereby brothers, friends, and neighbours served alongside each other, meant that families and communities had been left gutted and hollow, emptied of their young men. War memorials commemorating the dead rather than celebrating victories were not a new concept, having been around since the 19th Century, but before the war Britain hasn't erected any significant national ones. So among the hundreds and thousands of simple memorials that appeared across the villages and towns of the country, the Cenotaph appeared in Whitehall, London, in 1919.

Designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens, it was supposed to be temporary, but it was made permanent by 1920. A simple and understated monument, it doesn't signify triumph, only death and loss. It forgoes even any religious symbols. This sombre simplicity was the prototype for others memorials by Lutyens, and for his final one, to the missing of the Somme.

The Thiepval Memorial was built between 1928 and 1932, at the tiny village of Thiepval, population about 70. There are no traces of any buildings from before the 1930s - everything was wiped out during the First World War when it was the epicentre of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of the Somme. The huge red and white stone arches of the memorial dominate their rural surroundings. Lutyen's design was simple but innovative: not just one arch, but a tower of arched tunnels, of different sizes, intersecting, each arch 2.5 times as high as it is wide. With a total height of 43 metres from the podium, it is 3½ metres smaller than its more famous counterpart, the Arc de Triomphe. Deliberately so - this was no triumph. From top to bottom the names of each and every missing man are inscribed. At the foot of the monument is a small graveyard with 300 Commonwealth and 300 French graves commemorating the joint nature of the battle; the Commonwealth is signified by a headstone, the French by a cross.

The Thiepval Memorial was the largest and last memorial for the First World War, but was not lauded upon its completion. By 1932, people were sick of war and all its memories, and some complained that the money would have been better used helping war veterans. Perhaps this could be said of all grand structures - the money would be better spent on people. But the Thiepval Memorial cost only £117,000 (£6 million today) and the total cost of all commissioned war cemeteries - 970 of them in total - was £8.15 million. By comparison, the Battle of Passchendaele in the First World War cost £22 million, and just a single day in September 1918 cost £3.75 million. The entire war that led to this £8.15 million figure for 970 war cemeteries cost something like £50 billion (£2.5 trillion today). I know where I would start the penny-pinching.

Construction finished in early 1932, and was officially inaugurated on 1st August 1932, a monument to remembrance and hope. Six months later, Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

When writing about Wonders, I am very often dealing with numbers: measurements, size, cost, age. These numbers are often high, so I need to find some way of making them comprehensible. How do I make 70,000 names seem comprehensible? The Thiepval Memorial exists to remember these names, which are written all across it like a book. And so, let's imagine a book filled with these names. Indeed, 70,000 words is around the size of an average paperback, a paperback filled with pages and pages of names - although as the names will always consist of two "words", the book size suddenly doubles. But the names are more than just words; imagine each missing man had a single page dedicated to him, his life and loves. We've suddenly now got a 70,000 page book, and that's not a paperback, that's a library. And these names are just the missing, not the total dead. Of one battle, not the war. The power of the Thiepval Memorial is opening a door just a little to peek at the library, to allow a glimpse of the real cost of war. It's a lot greater than £117,000.

I recognise that the Thiepval Memorial is definitely one of my more esoteric choices for a Wonder. It is fairly unheralded, regarded with sombre sobriety rather than beheld in awe. My initial reason for adding it was due to the book The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp, part of the excellent "Wonders of the World" series on Profile Books. When first list-making, being part of this series was enough for me to include it, although the book itself is extremely powerful and justified its inclusion. But much later, after my Asian travels, when I was tweaking my list, I decided to quietly remove it. I'd heard an unremarkable account of it from a friend and thought that maybe wasn't the kind of thing I was looking for. But I was wrong, it is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. Yes, it fits the basic criteria of being big, and visually striking, but it also fulfills the unwritten law of being just a little bit different. The Thiepval Memorial is not generic - even for "triumphant" arches it stands out. Memorials aren't meant to be glitzy showpieces, and perhaps to even consider a war memorial as a Wonder is wrong. But they do share an important quality of conveying power. And aside from the very different motives behind it when compared to other Wonders, and the powerful message it conveys, it simply looks different. It's a huge series of arches piled on top of each other, in the middle of the countryside. It's an unusual memorial, and an unusual monument in general. And I'm intrigued.

I'll be visiting the Thiepval Memorial in the summer of next year, and will give a fuller report of it and its history, and well as my own impressions, then.

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