General principles for laying out war cemeteries


It was during the First World War that the principle of individual burial of soldiers killed in combat was established, a practice up to that time reserved only for leaders. The aftermath of the war saw the creation of mass cemeteries, a by-product of the industrial revolution, and major architectural programmes were launched. Today there are 2,330 First World War cemeteries on French soil.

The French law of 29 December 1915 gave fallen French and Allied soldiers the right to a perpetual burial site on French soil, the rule being extended to "former enemies" on 28 June 1922. On 26 November 1918 France officially presented the British, free of charge, with the indefinite lease of certain military cemeteries, although the land itself remains the property of the French state.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, included an article (No. 225) which provided for the reciprocal upkeep of graves. This was the sole clause in the entire document to include a gesture of reconciliation towards the defeated enemy, or more precisely, towards their dead. Military cemeteries had become symbols of peace on an international scale.

Once the fighting was over the victors and the vanquished began developing sites where their dead could be buried with the respect they were due. The result was a new kind of cemetery whose general approach and components were common to all the major nations:

- Huge cemeteries, characteristic of an industrial war.
- Spaces consisting of simple, pure, and repetitive forms to avoid making a distinction between victims.
- The use of modern, industrial-type production methods.
- Coordinated planning.
- Containing the soldiers of just one nation, although in many cemeteries there are some isolated or small groups of graves belonging to soldiers of other nations.
- Crosses and headstones were standardized and research was carried out to find the most resistant materials. Limestone headstones were used in British cemeteries in line with Protestant traditions. The French used reinforced concrete to make their crosses, turning later to the use of composite cement, while the Germans used stone or aluminium for theirs. The overall idea was to make the graves perpetual in nature.

However two opposite trends appeared with respect to the general layout of the cemeteries:

-    The United States and France chose an overwhelmingly rational approach comprising huge regional cemeteries intended to make a significant impression on people’s minds. Under the influence of Marshal Pétain large symbolic graveyards were established, for instance at Douaumont and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, for both practical and psychological reasons. Although a conscious choice of the French and the Americans, the decision to build vast cemeteries was imposed on the Germans because of the limited number of sites allocated to them by the French Government.

-    The Commonwealth countries chose to build a plethora of burial sites very close to combat zones in order to preserve the link with the battlefield.

During the conflict the belligerent armies set up organizations to find suitable cemetery sites and to identify and bury the bodies of dead soldiers. In the post-war period these developed into the commissions responsible for setting up permanent cemeteries. A large number of the temporary cemeteries were kept while others were closed and the graves in them grouped together in new graveyards.

However, over and above the unifying points in common, each of the great nations engaged in the conflict created a distinctive architecture for its military cemeteries to express its own character, traditions, the role of religion in society and the political desires of its government. They were designed and executed by various specialists (architects, sculptors, landscape gardeners and engineers) either under the control of the State (for example in Germany, where the state worked alongside associations) or directly under its authority (for example in France, where it was the prime contractor). Great Britain put the most amount of thought into these issues.

Yves Le Maner,
Director of La Coupole
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