Major National Remembrance Sites and cemeteries: places of innovation

Illuminations at Belfort cemetery, 10 November 2018. © Samuel Carnoval

Among the rich stone heritage in France and elsewhere which contains national history and memory are sites that are continually changing. The Major National Remembrance Sites (Hauts Lieux de la Mémoire Nationale, or HLMNs) and national cemeteries are at the heart of a development policy which is turning them into innovative commemorative sites.

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To honour the memory of those who have fought to defend France and its values, to pay tribute to servicemen and women and to all victims of war, and to pass on the memory of 20th-century conflicts to the public and, in particular, to the younger generation: these are the goals of the commemorative ceremonies organised by the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

The 275 cemeteries and 2 200 military plots across France, ten Major National Remembrance Sites (HLMNs) and 1 000 overseas burial sites, all under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Armed Forces, are the places of remembrance and contemplation where the main commemorative ceremonies are held.

Revealing the evocative power of place

Every year, the Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives (DPMA) organises, with the support of the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONAC-VG) in France and North Africa and diplomatic posts in other countries, a programme of commemorative events to tie in with the current remembrance cycles. As part of the First World War centenary, over one hundred ceremonies were held at the national cemeteries and HLMNs across the country, making these remembrance sites the physical link between present-day society honouring the dead, and the dead themselves, who are buried (cemeteries) or remembered (HLMNs) there.

For example, on 10 November 2018, to mark the centenary of the Armistice, the DPMA had illuminations installed in the cemeteries most emblematic of the First World War, for an evening vigil which attracted scores of people. Through these ceremonies, these remembrance sites saw a revival in visitor numbers and their evocative power was revealed to the general public.

Conscious of the central role played by these sites in the commemorations, the DPMA has developed some innovative tools to make them more attractive and more comprehensible to young people.


Une jeune femme visite  la prison de Montluc grâce  à la vidéo immersive 360°  au salon mondial du tourisme à Paris, 14 mars 2019.

A young woman takes a 360° immersive video tour of Montluc Prison, at the Salon Mondial du Tourisme, in Paris, 14 March 2019. © Erwan Rabot


Innovative outreach tools

The changing needs and expectations of visitors have made it necessary to develop a focus on passing on the remembrance message to young people. In their own way, these innovative actions contribute to individual remembrance, which is not only expressed during ceremonies, but also when the visitor discovers a site or takes an interest in a historic event.

With this in mind, the Ministry of the Armed Forces has, for a number of years, been installing digital equipment on its sites. Keen to facilitate the process of passing on memory to young people, it has invested in renewing the outreach tools at various key sites, like the Memorial to the Landings and Liberation of Provence, at Mont Faron. The memorial’s recent renovation adapted it to cater for a 21st-century audience, through a variety of innovative equipment, such as a sound shower, immersive film and interactive terminal.

In Belgium, the key French military cemeteries have been equipped with QR codes that give access to a digital database containing the army data sheets of the approximately 34 000 French soldiers who were killed in action and are buried in the country.

The DPMA has also produced 360° immersive videos of four HLMNs (Notre-Dame de Lorette Cemetery, Douaumont Cemetery and the Bayonet Trench, Montluc Prison, and the Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation) and the cemeteries of Vercors. The 360° format enables the viewer to be teleported to the heart of a remembrance site, into rooms sometimes closed to the public. Intent on making its remembrance heritage ever more widely known, the DPMA has pursued this programme in 2020, producing four new virtual tours: the Mont Valérien Memorial, the Struthof Camp, the Mont Faron Memorial and the Memorial to the Indochina Wars.

In 2020, the health crisis and, in particular, the lockdown restrictions have forced remembrance sites to adapt in order to maintain close links with their audience.


Mont Faron


Show at the Mont Faron Memorial, offering an immersion in the history of the Provence landings. © Patrick Palmesani


Adaptable sites

Many have taken to using social media to communicate. For instance, the ONAC-VG has produced a series of historical articles in association with the ten HLMNs, using the hashtags #confinement (French for “lockdown”) and #decouvrirenrestantchezsoi (“explore while staying at home”). Each episode focused on a figure, event or on the site itself, and informed the public of the resumption of its events programme when the site reopened.

Besides this link with the public, as most ceremonies were maintained in a reduced format, the sites also adapted their offerings. A wide variety of content (articles, virtual exhibitions, videos, educational resources, games, etc.) was made available, on themes such as “commemorating”, “remembering”, “discovering”, “learning”, “having fun”. For instance, to mark the National Day of Remembrance of the Heroes and Victims of Deportation, on 26 April, a message from Pierre Rolinet, former deportee to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, recorded specially for the occasion, was aired on the remembrance site’s website.

Overseas, too, the defence missions have redoubled their efforts to maintain, in a reduced and adapted form, the commemorative ceremonies usually held in French military cemeteries.

The act of commemoration is thus multiple. From the collective act of tribute, it can be individual or personal. The DPMA therefore rethought its remembrance policy from this dual angle. The use of digital resources complements and enhances the traditional remembrance offering, gives it meaning and aims to appeal to a wide audience, in particular to young people, who are key to future social cohesion. Today, it continues to review its outreach and visitor policies, and to think about the articulation between virtual tours and site visits, the health crisis having radically changed commemorative practices at remembrance sites.


The editorial team