Tuesday, 1 April 2014

40. Wonder: The Thiepval Memorial

(For the Thiepval Memorial preview, please click here.)

There used to be a chateau in Thiepval, a small village in northern France about half an hour's drive from Amiens. It was built in 1725 by the Comte de Breda, whom most of the villagers worked for. During the Franco-Prussian war from 1870 to 1871, Thiepval's church was burnt down by invading Prussian troops, but the chateau survived. By 1912 though, the chateau was falling into disrepair. The Comte de Breda - the last in the line - sold the chateau to a retired engineer and army officer from Paris called Henri Portier, who spent two years renovating it. In 1914 he moved in: weeks later, World War 1 began. Thiepval has the misfortune of being 150 metres above sea level and at a strategically raised point in the countryside. The Germans entered on 27th August 1914; Portier and his family fled hours earlier, at 5am, after having lived just two months in his new home. Over the next four years, the chateau was entirely destroyed. The village of Thiepval was entirely destroyed.

Today, Thiepval has a new landmark in the form of a war memorial. About 200 metres south-east of the farm that was to replace the chateau, a distinct tower of archways in red brick and white stone can be found. The site was chosen due to its prominent position in Thiepval, a village that had seen much death during the war, and because the grounds of the chateau were not suitable - it had been used as a first aid point and would have meant moving too many graves. The war memorial commemorates not the dead per se, but the missing. All 73357 of them. From one battle, the notorious Battle of the Somme.

Click to enlarge - this is a huge picture with a lot of details

The merits of the Battle of the Somme can be debated. My preview certainly states the case against it, but in reality war is never so simple. From before the Franco-Prussian war, the Germans had been in a state of preparedness for any possible war by the widespread conscription of young men. Since that war, the French had done likewise. In 1914, it all kicked off and the Germans surged into France expecting a quick victory. The French dug in, aided by the British who didn't want to see a dominant Germany, and the Western Front was formed - hundreds of miles of trenches and fortifications running from Belgium through France to Switzerland. Thiepval was a German stronghold. By 1916, the British realised that they had to do something - further stalemate was playing into the hands of the Germans. So on 1st July, they launched a major offensive. It failed: 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2152 missing, and 585 taken prisoner. The Battle of the Somme had began.

Was it worth it? Thiepval became a German fortress, but by late September 1916 the British finally captured it. The Battle of the Somme was over by November, with Allied gains. Many thousands more had died since the disastrous opening day. But the better position and increased experience for previously inexperienced British troops - the large majority of which were once-keen young sign-ups - was invaluable and gave the French and British the upper hand. By 1918, the Germans knew they had to do something and they made a last-ditch final push, recapturing Thiepval - although the village itself was long destroyed - and lots of other French territory, but it was a short-lived gain. The French and British fought back, broke them, and the war was over.

That's the background to the Thiepval Memorial, although it's all open to interpretation. What isn't are the numbers: 37 million casualties altogether, 16 million killed, around 10 million of them military. The Battle of the Somme had over 300,000 dead and many more injured. Virtually all of these were young men.

Today, the graves of these - known and unknown - scatter the northern French and Belgian countryside like a series of scars. Drive around and graveyards, big and small, appear everywhere. The French have stone crosses, the British with headstones, and the Germans - due to the limited war grave funds supplied by Germany - in mass graves marked by iron crosses.

The Thiepval Memorial is a little different: it's a memorial to those whose bodies were never found following the Battle of the Somme, men without graves: 73,357 of the 517,000 British that simply disappeared during the overall war.

A good way to visit the various sites and memorials is via tour, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon Danielle and I joined an English family of five on one. Having children on a tour is a handy thing: it means that explanations are dumbed down in a way that the adult is usually quietly relieved to hear. Two girls and boy, aged 11, 9, and 8 (the boy was the middle child), the tour mixed up the sights, moving from English and German cemeteries to a giant crater (Lochnagar Crater) to simple fields. The fields were rather revealing. Our guide picked it simply because it was freshly ploughed - but any field in the area would have done. Walking through it, he picked up a fragment of an old shell. Then some shrapnel. Then some ball bearings. Soon, we were finding the stuff too. We found actual bullets! The 9-year-old boy was in heaven, stuffing his pockets with old war memorabilia, found on-site. Sometimes, our guide, explained, grenades were still found: you had to be careful about these. Bodies still turned up occasionally too.

Quite tellingly, this site of bombs, bullets, and bodies was very near the village of Thiepval. You can see the Memorial pretty clearly in the above photo, and in the one above that if you look very close (it's on the left). Indeed, as you drive around the Somme countryside, it's a pretty difficult feature to miss. On our second visit to the Memorial, I realised I didn't actually know the way there. I knew we had to go to a small town called Albert and then... find it somehow. Without any signs to guide us, we chose a likely direction and drove. After a while, Danielle spotted it, peaking over the horizon. There's nothing else that looks like it, not in the area, and not anywhere really.

Which is part of its genius. Take a look at this picture of Albert Basilica.

Then take another look at the Thiepval Memorial.

Ok, maybe not quite twins separated at birth, but there's a definite family resemblance. The entire area around Thiepval and way beyond has this kind of look, red brick and white stone. The Thiepval Memorial manages to look like nothing else, yet like everything else.

We have a man called Edwin Lutyens to thank for all this. Born in 1869, the 10th of 13 children, he set himself up as an architect aged 19, despite little formal education or architectural training. Fortunately, he was pretty good at it, and before the war built a lot of country houses in Surrey, gaining a reputation for high quality, with classical influences but with complex and abstract ideas thrown in. The Imperial War Graves Commission appointed him one of their architects following the war, and he designed many memorials, including the Cenotaph in London. Between 1912 and 1930, he was also the man behind New Delhi; yes, he designed a city. In fact, one of his structures within it, an Indian war memorial called India Gate, unveiled the year before the Thiepval Memorial, may have a familiar ring.

For Lutyens, World War 1 was therefore somewhat of a lucky break, in terms of getting regular work. In addition to his various war memorials, he also had grand plans for a Liverpool Cathedral, to be bigger that St Peter's in Rome. This was actually commissioned to go ahead; alas, World War 2 put a stop to this.

Somewhat perversely, despite being the designer of numerous sombre war memorials, he was a notoriously flippant character. Everything was a joke to him, and he squeezed in appalling puns whenever possible - apparently he couldn't resist seeing a plate of butter without quipping, "Butter late than never." Commentators have suggested this use of humour may have been a cover for shyness and I think, maybe so, but maybe he just liked stupid jokes. And he really seemed to like them. On 1st August, 1932, when his Thiepval Memorial was unveiled, he was seemingly oblivious to the sad and sober occasion marked by this memorial to tens of thousands of war dead as he kept cracking jokes throughout the ceremony, as if he was simply unable to remain serious for any time at all.

Flippant, he may be, but there's no doubt that in the Thiepval Memorial he created a perfectly-judged monument. As I've said, you can see the Memorial in the distance, and when close up it's surprisingly big. Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise - it's 43 metres high, or 49 metres from the cemetery side if including the podium, only slightly smaller than the Arc de Triomphe. So it's big, and at first glance, it seems a simple construction, but on closer inspection a deeper complexity is apparent. It's not just a single arch, but a tower of inter-connecting arches of increasing size and decreasing number. Take a look at this picture - you can see four different arches sizes. Take a closer look - there are eight of the smallest size, four of the second smaller, two of the second largest, and one single main arch.

We have therefore a grand and deceptively complicated monument. But the genius of Lutyen's architecture is that he's managed to pull off something that is both grand but not pompous. That's not easy to do. The Thiepval Memorial is resolutely not pompous; it's a very humble structure for a humbling memory. He keeps the decoration very simple. On the white stone face of the memorial, all across it, everywhere, are the names of all the missing. Stone laurel wreaths also adorn the face, recording the many battles fought across the Somme. An inscription - as seen in an above photo - reads: "Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell in the Somme battlefields July 1915 February 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death." But nowhere are there any emblems of triumph, or even any religious imagery.

Religion only makes an appearance in the simple cemetery by the foot of the memorial. Three hundreds French crosses and three hundred Commonwealth graves sit side by side to commemorate the joint nature of the battle (the Missing are all Commonwealth though), with a Cross of Sacrifice at the end. This is a stone cross with a sword inlaid, representing both religion and the military. It states simply: "That the world may remember the common sacrifice of two and a half million dead here have been laid side by side soldiers of France and of the British Empire in eternal comradeship." Some of the graves have identified soldiers, but most do not.

The Thiepval Memorial was designed in 1928 and work began in 1929. It required deep foundations, digging through layers of German trenches and tunnels with all the shells and bodies you would expect from such an excavation. It was inaugurated in August 1932. Six months later, as said in my preview, Hitler came to power.

During the Second World War, Thiepval was again occupied by the Germans, but without damage to the Memorial. A few tweaks have been done since. In 1952 to 1955, and later from 1972, the pink bricks were replaced by harder red bricks, to better cope with the climate. And in the 1960s, a staircase was built from the memorial to the French-Commonwealth cemetery below. An excellent visitor centre was discreetly built nearby in 2004. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is now, in an understated and appropriate way, a tourist attraction.

I remember, as a teenager of around 14, visiting a war cemetery - possibly Ypres but I can't be certain - while on a family holiday in Belgium. Thousands upon thousands of white headstones, it made an impact. Even without knowing the intricate details of the war, that countless numbers of people died was clear. On the Saturday and to a lesser extent the Monday that we visited Thiepval, there were a surprising number of people. Many were children. Some were independent travellers like Danielle and I, and the family of five with us, and many more were coachloads of tour groups. Many of these large tour groups were English children. This year being the centenary of the beginning of the war, a government policy has two schoolkids from each school visiting battlefields and war graves in France and Belgium. I guess the rest get to look at their photos. Other schools, our guide said, are simply making a full-on school trip for all the students. I hope for some of the kids the Thiepval Memorial makes the same impact the Ypres graves had on me. I'm sure many others would rather drink cider in parks, but you can't win them all.

As a piece of architecture, the Thiepval Memorial is perfect; it is absolutely perfect for its purpose. It commemorates but never celebrates, it is grand but never pompous. It has impact. And I'll be honest - I feel kind of wrong assessing it as a possible Wonder. Can a war memorial be a World Wonder?

Maybe, yes, I think. Mausoleums are certainly celebrated as great monuments, although I'll grant you that they were usually built by powerful men with inflated egos to make grandoise statements. The motive behind the Thiepval Memorial is entirely different, but nonetheless, it still impresses. It's a large and unusual monument: I was a lot more impressed than I expected to be. You don't build a 43-metre-high mass of stone without wanting to attract attention, and the visitor centre and the coachloads of tourists confirm that attention has been grabbed. And not all attention is tacky, this is a respectful attention that does what any memorial serves to do - it records, it reminds, it regrets. But that doesn't make it one of the world's greatest ever structures.

Let's have some criteria.

Size: 43 metres high and bulky. Big enough, although not colossal, or as the case would be here, over-sized.
Engineering: Skilfully executed, but not boundary pushing.
Artistry: A brilliant piece of architecture, sublimely judged for its location and function, seemingly simple but deceptively complex, unusual but not strange. It's a compelling structure to look at.
Age/Durability: Finished in 1932, it's around the same age as the Empire State Building or the Cristo Redentor.
Fame/Iconicity: Unless you're familiar with war memorials, it's really not well known at all.
Context: Visible for miles around, and part of the gorgeous countryside of northern France.
Back Story: A tragic story of one of World War 1's most notorious battles.
Originality: It's a very interesting variation of a triumphant archway, with nothing else out there quite like it.
Wow Factor: Moreso than I expected. Poking out above a small patch of trees, it's a surprisingly landmark to catch sight of in the distance. Up close, it's an impressive thing to look at.

The Thiepval Memorial was always an outlier in this World Wonder hunt. Taken just on a visual basis, ignoring any sentiment of taste or respect, it's not big or grand enough to be among the most imposing and awe-inspiring the world has to offer. And nor should it be. A war memorial should not be awesome. The Thiepval Memorial does exactly what it set out to achieve - and that was never to be a World Wonder. Yet, it's still a terrific construction. It's unique and a dramatic feature of the countryside: it has impact. It's a difficult one to place, but I'd sneak it behind the huge, city-defining, yet slightly uninspired spectacles that are the Forbidden City and Edinburgh Castle, and above the more popular but less subtle spectacles of Tower Bridge or the Sacre-Coeur.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House


Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. A very moving article. I will be going to Verdun in May with my aunt (my great-grandfather/her grandfather fought there in 1916) and I am sure that a lot of your impressions of Thiepval will ring true when I am there. In fact there is a monument there in a similar vein (l'Ossuaire de Douaumont) which houses the bones of the soliders whose remains were found but not identified.

    Regarding what you said about mausoleums - I may be wrong in this, but I suspect that a lot of people see the Taj Mahal or the pyramids as interesting/beautiful/fascinating structures first and foremost, and the dead people they commerorate second. With the Thiepval Memorial, I reckon it cannot be dissociated with the dead (and your article conveys this), and that their intangible presence is more important to the site than the visible monument that represents them is (which as you say, is exactly how it is meant to be in this context).

    By the way as I mentioned above I will be in Verdun and then elsewhere between 12-24 May. But if you are in the general vicinity of Marseille/Provence any time outside of that period let me know.

    1. Yes, that's exactly it, another bit to steal for my book. The attraction of the Taj Mahal etc are their looks, backed up by the substance/meaning. The attraction, so to speak, of the Thiepval Memorial is the meaning behind it all, with the monument itself being an effective way to express it. With this in mind, it seems difficult to ever consider it as a Wonder, as it is hardly something to be celebrated.

      I've given you an email regarding Marseille.