Between 1914 and 1918 heritage in Northern France paid a high price with shelling in the early months of the war ravaging many locations on and close to the front. In the region of Pas-de-Calais the town of Arras, like the towns of Ypres, Reims and Amiens, was martyred by the enemy's artillery with much of its architectural heritage destroyed such as the historic marketplaces and the cathedral. The bombardments also deprived the town of some of its ancient history when, in July 1915, a fire spread through the local records office reducing to ashes countless medieval manuscripts and charters. The heritage of smaller towns also suffered with the destruction of numerous churches, many of which contained exceptional works of art such as stained glass windows, paintings, statues, furniture, religious objects and so on. In all, fourteen per cent of the churches in the districts of Vimy and Vitry-en-Artois were destroyed during the war; the figure rose to eighteen per cent for the district of Croisilles.
Faced with such huge losses, and spurred into action by a few ardent champions of material heritage, the French government started, in 1916, to reflect on the best way to preserve or save such treasures. In May 1917 France's Ministry for War, in agreement with the Académie des Beaux Arts, decided to create a "coordinated organization for the protection of monuments and the conservation and evacuation of works of art".
In the sector of Northern France, which included the regions of Nord, Pas-de-Calais and Somme, the French Military Mission (FMM) attached to the British Army was designated to carry out this task and it set up the Department for the protection of works of art (Service de protection des œuvres d’art), a team of specialist workers under the authority of a military officer.
In Arras any objects which were retrieved from the ruins were deposited in the cellars of the former bishop's residence, Saint Vaast Palace. This location was relatively surprising not because of the nature of the building itself, it already housed a museum, but because at the time the choice was made the German lines were not very far away. "The cellars," remembered a French soldier after the war, "protected from the daily shelling by a thick wall of earth and stone which made them look like a fortress, received a steady flow of works of art as and when they were recovered from the town and the suburbs. Statues, paintings, pieces in precious metals, rare ornaments and delicate pottery, humble pieces of stone and fragments of sculpted wood, their only connection being their miserable situation, were stored there and the depot soon developed into a veritable treasure trove."
As the months went by the staff of the Department for the protection of works of art developed various rescue techniques to evacuate works threatened by the war machine. Their work often took them to locations close to the front; however, with the German air raids pummelling the Allied rearguard in 1917 and 1918, their sphere of activity increased to take in areas which were not normally thought to be within range of the fighting. The most significant example of their work was probably "The Burghers of Calais", the famous sculpture by Rodin which was evacuated to the basement of the Town Hall as a safety precaution.
Depending on the location and nature of the work to be preserved (e.g. a movable object or the facade of a Gothic church), the department had two rescue techniques at its disposal: evacuation or protection on site. Evacuation to safe storage was obviously only available for relatively small objects which could be easily moved, such as statues (except for the very large ones), paintings and pieces in precious metals. Strict procedures were applied to the removal of objects: "The team worked like stretcher-bearers, often using the same equipment and in similar conditions. Once identified, the vulnerable work of art is either picked up directly by the team or some contrivance constructed from the surrounding debris and transported, with great care, to the nearest depot. Once there, much like in a field hospital, the object received palliative care before being sent to safer storage at the rear." Thus every object was carefully photographed, recorded and stored.
Architectural heritage presented a different problem in that it could not be moved so shuttering was applied to the most remarkable parts of the buildings. A wooden framework would be constructed and reinforced with sandbags according, once again, to a rigorously enforced procedure. For instance, shuttering on Saint-Omer Cathedral protected the tombs of former bishops of Arras and Thérouanne (13th century) as well as a number of sculpted ex-votos (14th and 17th centuries).
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département