Monday 27 March 2017

Challenge 11: the WW1 memorial that never was

Tracking down a war memorial last seen in the Père Lachaise cemetery nearly 100 years ago seemed like a tough task, particularly when the challenge came from Paris graveyard art expert who did not recall ever having seen such a thing before. But despite the photographic evidence to the contrary, what if the memorial had simply never actually existed? 

This was the challenge set for me by Steve, editor of the resource and compiler of a series of amazingly complete "Guide to the Art in Paris Cemeteries" books (the Père Lachaise edition being the most recent).

"I've been working on documenting all the sculpture in the cemeteries of Paris and came across a group of photos of a memorial and sculpture on the website that I have yet to locate," said Steve. "The photos were taken sometime not long after the First World War and the subject is a very large memorial block with reliefs and a sculpture on top sitting smack in front of the chapel and the Adolph Thiers mausoleum in division 55 of PL. 

What I'd like to know is the backstory to the memorial (who created it, etc.), why it was removed and where it went."

Steve sent me a photo, but there are indeed several similar pictures on the Gallica website. The photos are simply labelled "Le monument aux morts de la guerre au Père Lachaise", and an inscription is visible on the front: "La ville de Paris aux morts pour la patrie".

My first task was to head to the cemetery and see what is at that particular spot today. Unsurprisingly the answer is nothing at all! Nowhere else in the vicinity did there seem to be anything else related to the First World War either. Outside of the cemetery, the 14-18 online resource run by the city of Paris also contained no trace of any similar memorial in Paris. 

With no online trace of the memorial, the only place to look was more closely at the photos themselves. Two things seemed a little unusual. All the photos on Gallica seemed to have been taken at the same event on the same day, so why did this well-attended event not become a yearly occurence? Secondly, zooming in on the memorial itself, it appeared that it might not be as solid as it first looked, and that there was something not unlike ripples on the stonework.

The definitive answer to this memorial mystery though came via a request sent out on Twitter, from @Ayack_fr

The newspaper article dating from Novemeber 2 1919 confirmed that the memorial was at the time simply a provisional model. Another newspaper (cutting below) gave even more details, pointing out that the 'monument' was a mock-up made of wood and fabric and improvised in a few days. 

If there remains any mystery it is perhaps why a solid version was never made afterwards, but I'm not sure I would ever find an answer to this question. Could certain elements have survived though, and where could they be today? The article mentions the statue by a certain M. Dieuport, but above all the four painted 'bas-reliefs' representing 'departure', 'trenches', 'gas' and 'death' on the four sides of the memorial. The two artists mentioned are Lucien Martial who seems to have enjoyed a long and successful life, despite being shot in the lung as a young soldier himself in WW1, and a certain Pierre Paltz. I cannot be certain that it is the same person, but a grave exists in the same Père Lachaise cemetery for an artist named Gustave Pierre Paltz who died in 1921 aged only 36. If this is the same person, it would add an additional level of pathos to the story...

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!


Hels said...

Thanks for doing the research. The newspaper article (November 1919) made perfect sense. The war had barely finished and the surviving soldiers were still returning home early in 1919, so there were probably no plans yet for a permanent, expensive, national monument. In fact it took huge memorials like the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne another decade to be approved and funded.

So Père Lachaise cemetery was very thoughtful building a temporary memorial in time for the first anniversary of Armistice Day.

Adam said...

Yes, you are absolutely right. The Treaty of Versailles wasn't even effective at that time. Having young, injured soldier/artists work on the memorial might have been cathartic too (or possibly not in the case of Paltz!)
I wonder if such temporary memorials was a common occurence? After all, didn't Napoleon only see his 'Arc de Triomphe' in a wood and cloth version?

Tim said...

Impressive detective work Adam!

Richard said...

Interestingly the original Lutyens-designed Cenotaph in Whitehall London (erected at the same spot as the stone one) was a canvas and plaster of Paris construction. Intended as a point that the Allied troops taking part in the post-First World War London Peace Parade (also called the Victory Parade) could salute in recognition of their dead comrades. When it was replaced by the stone memorial some of the original one - the top section in particular- went to the Imperial War Museum (although I am not sure if it is still in the collection) while other pieces went to make minature Cenotaph money boxes to raise funds for blinded British service personnel.

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