First World War landscapes, palimpsests of violence

Explosion d’obus aux environs de Verdun, pendant la Grande Guerre. © TopFoto/Roger-Viollet

The First World War centenary brought tens of thousands of French and foreign visitors to discover the landscapes left behind by the conflict. Yet some traces are barely visible today, and others need to be read in conjunction with the story of the battles that took place there. From the old front line and occupied areas, to ruined towns and restored woodlands, no landscape was spared by the Great War.

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In an interview with Jean-Louis Tissier in 1978, Julien Gracq said: “It is impossible to think of history without thinking of the landscape which made it possible [...] History waves its wand and a landscape is born...” The First World War veteran and historian of rural medieval societies, Marc Bloch, has similarly compared the war landscapes he has photographed with his conception of history, the science of mankind through time, and included their study in the belligerents’ “mental toolkit”. Armed conflicts have always had an impact on natural and man-made landscapes, yet the First World War saw an all-out industrialisation of warfare and mobilisation of resources that led to irreversible transformations. Yes, Marc Bloch was right: landscapes and heritage are vulnerable, in the original sense of the word, like the bodies and souls of men, whether they are on the front lines, home front or occupied front - ten departments of northern and eastern France - on the battlefields or behind the front line, military or civilian prison camps, hospitals, military cemeteries, commemorative monuments on the battlefields.




The military landscape of the Western Front was created by men in uniform from across the world, who were often impressed by the French fields and buildings; and while they watched, it was all annihilated. How to describe this environment of endless paradoxes - destroyed, decomposed, recomposed - comprised of the different deposits of violence, in the geological sense of the word? The first paradox: hundreds of thousands of men swarming over the landscape created this 1000 km-long scar that twists its way from the North Sea to the Swiss border, yet those men are absent from it. For, as Apollinaire so aptly put it, the landscape of war must be invisible - starting with the men and the guns: “For the art of invisibility has greatly advanced during this war.” Shells of all sizes tore everything apart, leaving nothing but barbed wire and craters: lunar landscapes, landscapes from hell, as in the works of artists like Otto Dix or Claggett Wilson, whose Dance of Death depicts three dead soldiers caught on the wire of no man’s land, their dislocated bodies dancing on, endlessly, through the landscape of war.


La cathédrale de Reims en ruines, après les bombardements en septembre1914. © Roger-Viollet

Reims cathedral in ruins, after the bombing of September 1914. © Roger-Viollet




Apollinaire again: ‘King Shell’ (Obus-Roi). The front and its no man’s land, of which Ubu was the king and camouflage the prince: theatre within the theatre of war, mise en abyme within mise en abyme. Seeing without being seen, showing what isn’t there. The combination of the aeroplane and the camera created what Blaise Cendrars described as “a rigged setting”, in his autobiographical work La Main coupée (English title: The Bloody Hand): “The country is camouflaged. Artificial fields, nature sculpted by engineers, where all of a sudden an ‘ageless’ city has emerged. The first little wood is a painted canvas, the other two are heavy artillery tractors, covered with pine branches. The straight road as far as the eye can see is a road painted in lime, whereas the real road crosses the plain diagonally, invisible beneath moss-coloured streamers. And in these deserted fields there are railway stations, tracks, tool yards, building sites, warehouses, underground stores, and thousands upon thousands of workers at work.”


For this modern warfare used every possible modern technique - including art - when it was needed for all-out victory. As Fernand Léger, playing the macabre cubist entomologist, observed with irony to Louis Poughon in a letter of 30 May 1915: “It is nevertheless a very curious war. [...] It is the perfect orchestration of all methods of killing, ancient and modern. [...] It is linear and dry like a geometric problem. So many shells in so much time over such an area. [...] It is pure abstraction, purer than cubist painting itself [...] There is nothing more cubist than a war like this, which cuts a man up more or less cleanly into several parts, then sends him to the four corners.”


Aragon agreed: “I am the most disoriented, you know. And what to say about the landscape? [...] They have killed me three times without result, at my feet, in the basin in which I was washing. They have demolished my aid post around me. [...] The trees here, Cézanne had already painted them.” (Letters to André Breton, 1918-1931.)


Prisonniers allemands de la cote 304 (ravin de la Hayette) pendant la bataille de Verdun,1916. © Roger-Viollet

German prisoners of Hill 304 (La Hayette ravine) during the Battle of Verdun, 1916. © Roger-Viollet




Two landscapes of destruction came into existence: that of nature and agricultural resources, and that of towns and architectural heritage. We have been left a huge corpus of photographs, drawings and engravings depicting headless trees and impotent men, scarcely visible, sometimes concealed by thick clouds of gas. The houses and buildings in ruins, the broken trees, have become the symbolic retort of the wounded and the dead. Dead men, dead nature.


Stumps of trees, metaphors for mutilated men. This final transformation, in which human chameleons blend and merge with the landscape, is probably best depicted by Maurice Genevoix, in the pages of Ceux de 14 (English title: ‘Neath Verdun). In it, man becomes the war landscape itself: “Water, which soaked through to my skin at first, now runs in my veins. Now, I am a muddy mass, drenched and cold to the core; cold like the straw that sheltered us, its blades now stuck together and rotting; cold like the woods whose every leaf rustles and shakes; cold like the soil of the fields, which gradually thins and melts.” Ruins, too, are anthropomorphised, and churches become martyrs, the greatest possible accomplishment in spiritual life: “The destruction of Reims, the cruel attacks sustained by its great buildings, are ultimately a glory for France,” wrote Arsène Alexandre in 1918.




In the occupied areas, very real environmental concerns were channelled into the gathering of evidence of atrocities and deliberate destruction, in a combination of ecological concern and denunciation: the enemy occupiers could be vilified on two counts. The occupied areas became a laboratory within a laboratory, where ‘German crimes’ against culture and nature were denounced. Scientists employed metaphors in which the war and the occupation were treated like their own field - evolution - with its well-adapted organisms, its rejects and its resistant elements. The environmentalist denunciation became a remarkable commentary on the occupied areas and on all the landscapes transformed by the war. Yet these specific landscapes of the occupied areas were largely ignored, in a world devoted to heroes killed on the battlefields. Concentration camps, barbed and sometimes electrified wire, and watchtowers, are nevertheless a part of the First World War landscape. When works of art were taken, the virulence and choice of words used are striking. In 1918, historian Claude Cochin wrote: “The Germans have created four concentration camps of artworks, at Metz, Charleville, Maubeuge and Valenciennes. [...] While Germany is emptying the factories [...] which it robs right down to the houses and property of individuals, who says our artistic wealth won’t be siphoned off to Berlin tomorrow? [...] What does Germany offer us? We had a garden, and it has been turned into a graveyard. Instead of our beloved pilgrimage sites, a vast barracks, a concentration camp on the banks of the Spree.”


It was particularly after the war, however, that the observation became irrefutable, here in the pen of a neutral observer, a Francophile Dane, captain of the mission sent to Paris in January 1919. The Germans are accused of all the deaths, of all the ills, those of the war and of the occupation. The ruined landscapes are their fault: “It must be said right away: neither in words nor in writing can one give an idea, however incomplete, of the absolute devastation of these regions and the impression it gives. [...] In the area where fertile fields once alternated with magnificent forests, where towns and villages prospered, there is nothing left but a vast desert which is almost impossible to clear because of the thousands of unexploded shells buried there. [...] One can pass through the remains of a village without even realising it. The destruction is complete. [...] There are no roads, bridges, canals or railways that have not been destroyed, either in the fighting or deliberately. [...] It will take at least 50 years to clear this land.” (CICR archives, Geneva.)


What remains, a century on? On the front lines, the landscapes are decrypted as palimpsests of the extreme, from the time of violence to that of mourning. Traces of war, shell holes and mine craters are sometimes sublimated by the extraordinary greenness of the grass growing back. And everywhere, military cemeteries and commemorative monuments on the battlefields form an international geometry of remembrance. As for the war memorials in the communes, parishes, schools, factories, railways, they give an infinitely varied expression, down to the smallest French village, of this heritage of mass death, from the honour to the horror. It will doubtless not be long before they are made UNESCO World Heritage sites.


Annette Becker, historian and lecturer at Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-La-Défense

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Proposed nomination of the First World War cemeteries and memorial sites of the Western Front for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List


The Ministry of the Armed Forces Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives (DPMA) is supporting and assisting with the nomination proposal for the First World War cemeteries and memorial sites to be considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Since 2013, it has been a partner of the association Paysages et Sites de Mémoire de la Grande Guerre. The majority of the 96 proposed sites situated in France belong to the State. Furthermore, nearly a third of the chosen sites in France and Belgium are cemeteries maintained by the DPMA, which is committed both to safeguarding their authenticity and preserving the environment and biodiversity.


The UNESCO World Heritage Committee met in July 2018 in Bahrain and decided to re-examine the project in 2021. Between now and then, international discussions will take place to look at whether sites associated with recent conflicts can fall within the scope and object of the World Heritage Convention. It is a matter of principle, which could apply to other proposed World Heritage Sites in the same category.


The purpose of the proposed nominations is not to recall the war and its divisions, but rather to promote the widespread practice of respecting the soldiers’ individuality. With the First World War, burial in individual graves according to the same principles (identifying the soldiers and inscribing their names on the tombs, ossuaries or commemorative monuments, burials without distinction of social class, rank or background, and respecting the convictions of the deceased) became universal. This respect for soldiers as individuals was coupled with respect for their families and loved ones, expressed in a number of ways: for graves in the colonies, permission for families to have a short text engraved on the stele of their deceased loved one; in France, for bodies to be returned to those families wishing to bury their loved one in a family tomb, and the entitlement to an annual trip, paid for by the State, to allow one family member to visit their relative in their perpetual resting place.


The First World War cemeteries and memorial sites are not battlefields, combat zones. War may provide the setting and the backdrop, but it is places of peace and contemplation, imbued with the values of equality, fraternity, humanity and peace, that the Ministry of the Armed Forces, through the DPMA, has the task of transmitting to all, in particular the younger generation.


The editorial team