Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gavin Stamp - The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

The battle of the Somme defies numerical analysis. Mere military statistics have little meaning when used to describe suffering and death on such a scale. Early on in this book Gavin Stamp sums up the battle with a quote from a military historian "a battle fought from July to November 1916 saw the British and German armies fire thirty million shells at each other and suffer a million casualties between them in an area just seven miles square".
Stamp avoid spending too much of this book on the actual battle. Though his brief summaries underline what was surely one of the greatest military wastes of human life in human history. Stamp's contempt for the a British military leadership "quite prepared to lose half a million men in the Somme campaign" who then "colluded with Douglas Haig after the war to falsify the record to try and protect his reputation" shines through powerfully. Further anger is reserved for the church and its leadership who preaching forgiveness, were prepared to "prostitute themselves to nationalist myths".

But the bulk of this book is about the memorials and the cemeteries in which the bodies of those who died are laid. In particular, the great, powerful Thiepal Memorial to the Missing is at the heart of this history. Prior to World War I, little effort had been made by the authorities to mark the place were men fought and died in their country's interest. After Waterloo, most ordinary soldiers were buried in mass graves. Yet the scale of the Great War meant a different response was required. A government that asked for sacrifice on this scale, could not be seen to ignore those who gave everything.

Stamp looks at the growth of the War Graves Commission, who from the early years of the War took on the task of recording graves of those who died and designing memorials. The great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was the man chosen for most of the monuments. His task was enormous. His designs were simple and powerful. Lutyens argued that the memorials and graves should not differentiate rank or religion. Despite protests, it became illegal to remove a body from France or Belgium back home. As Stamp remarks, once you joined up, your body, dead or alive, belonged to the King. Men were buried were they fell, the cemeteries marking the lines of the battle fields.

The scale of the task is summed up by the enormous arch at Thiepval. It is covered in the names of 73,357 names of those missing from the Somme battles. There are similar arches across the front lines. Lutyens designed graveyards for British soldiers across Europe, and in their simple elegance are a powerful reminder of the costs of war. Lutyens himself comes across as an interesting man. His designs do not glorify war, nor celebrate victory. They mark sacrifice and this seems appropriate.

Gavin Stamp's book is an architectural history. But it avoids the trap of seeing Lutyens' work as being outside of the world around. There is no doubt that his designs were the work of genius, yet they were also of their time. A break from the classical past, a precursor to a more modern architecture. Yet the hundreds of memorials designed by Lutyens, that mark villages across Britain and battlefields across Europe remain a powerful symbol of the pointlessness of the First World War. As Stamp concludes, "The Great War continues to haunt us because it was the ultimate war, innocence really was destroyed, and we can only hope that we are never asked to undergo what the men of 1916 endured".

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Miller - St Peter's
Watkin - The Roman Forum
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

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