In the still-scarred landscape of Verdun, scene of France’s worst WWI battle, Brochet Lajus Pueyo Agency’s contemplative renewal of the memorial and museum mourns the loss of life and rejects the divisiveness of war
More than three hundred thousand people died at Verdun, in a battle that lasted 300 days from 21 February until 18 December 1916: that’s 1000 people losing their lives every day. A further 400,000 were injured. Sixty million shells were fired, around 100,000 a day. It’s not the bloodiest battle of the First World War – there were 1.3 million casualties at the Somme – but in the minds of the French, it’s their equivalent, the one they remember and mourn. Almost three-quarters of the French army fought there and 100 years on it still represents for them their determined spirit of resistance. It was also the last battle in history won by France using only its own resources.
The lasting importance of Verdun to the French identity and conscience is testified by the extraordinary number of journalists that showed up at the press preview of the renewed Memorial of Verdun by Brochet Lajus Pueyo Agency last February, and the coverage it is getting across the news and media in France to commemorate the centenary of the battle. Organised buses brought 59 journalists and more turned up independently. Quite a few were from Germany, some from Spain and the Netherlands, but most were French – which also shows how the battle remains slightly obscure to other nations. A dedicated and varied programme of events is also under way through the 300 days, including a special gathering for heads of states from former colonies that helped the French fight.
The Memorial of Verdun is in the north-east of France, near the cities of Metz, Nancy and Luxembourg, 100km from the closest German border, but far enough away to be very different from them all. The area is rural and pretty but not thriving. There is a sense that the population is leaving and will not return. Many buildings are collapsing, appear unoccupied, and there is little renovation.
And yet it is heartening to see how differently the First World War is commemorated country by country. Whereas the British and Commonwealth sites have a toughness and detachment, and are defined by a certain gung-ho attitude, the French are poetic in their remembering, deeply attached to the site, details, la terre and le témoignage (stories). A softness to the voice and delicate words accompany the explanations and atmosphere around Verdun.
The land, which stretches some 17,684ha, still bears the scars of the battle but without any sense of preserving camaraderie or heroism. The forest has regrown, but still discernible at the base of every tree trunk are craters from the shelling as well as the occasional decaying trench structure. It’s a terrain that changed beyond recognition; nine whole villages were eradicated, pummelled into a lunar landscape: in places 6m were blasted off the height of hills and former inhabitants were unable to return because land ownership boundaries were no longer traceable. Today it is beautiful in an awe-inspiring sense, and tragic at root. Nature is slowly taking its course, and it is possible to walk on the paths and tracks that crisscross the landscape to solemnly enjoy it.
It is this setting and delicacy – though not in the sense of trying to evade the reality – that inspires the poetry behind the renovation and extension of the Memorial of Verdun.
‘Here you are in a landscape where 80,000 bodies are still left in the ground where they fell,’ said Édith Desrousseaux de Medrano, curator of the permanent exhibition. ‘The ‘red zone’ is effectively a giant cemetery protected by the state as a sanctuary. The Memorial of Verdun finds its strength in the fact that these men are still there under the earth, French and German together, in a 1.5km radius.’
It was with this ‘always present in the mind’ that the memorial authority worked with the architect and the exhibition designer, Agence Le Conte/Noirot, on the remodelling.
‘It is a considerable but modest renovation,’ explained architect Olivier Brochet.
While the original building is in the style of the 1930s monumental architecture of the ossuary that faces it, this particular memorial was built between 1963 and 1967, an idea born in 1959 and realised by the veterans of the war and their families.
‘In this way it is very much a memorial and not a museum,’ said Antoine Prost, chairman of the Memorial Museum’s Scientific Committee. The building had contained a museum element, with a small eclectic collection of donations from the original families and others, but it was never formally curated.
Now, 47 years after its inauguration, the committee gathered to question what to do for the 100-year anniversary battle commemorations. The last veteran – or ‘poilu’ (hairy) as they are nicknamed in France – Monsieur Lazare Ponticelli, had died in 2008 and his express message to Prost only a few months before at the age of 110 was ‘never forget us’. It was decided to do a complete renovation, commissioned through open competition.
The refurbishment was seen as an opportunity to create a centre of interpretation for the event, aimed particularly at young people whose connections to the world wars increasingly weaken ‘now that there are no more poilu’.
The museum’s curation and contents, which are evoked through the building itself, would explain what happened and who fought there, and tell their stories.
Yet in stark contrast to the debacle around this year’s Australian memorial event in the Somme, where the Australian government is actively preventing British attendance, official or otherwise, at this poignant and evocative site in France, the talk is no longer about French soldiers or a national memorial. It is about the soldiers of Verdun, with no distinction between nationalities.
‘There were few differences between the French and German experiences – just minor nuances,’ explained Desrousseaux de Medrano. ‘I spoke earlier of the bodies and mud mixed up all around; in the trench opposite, people were living the same reality.’
So the remodelled Memorial of Verdun has been accompanied by a lot of other work to change mindsets. It is now a site of both memorial and explanation – towards a peaceful and united Europe. This ‘little revolution’ in thinking will see the building ceremonially reopened by the premiers of these two formerly warring nations, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, on 29 May. It’s an aim that, as the world war generations fast depart us, Britain is struggling to reconcile with.
And the result is nothing short of remarkable, speaking of an unusual level of collaboration and respect between curators, architecture, landscape, history and people. Its architecture is modest and restrained but sensitive – and unforgettable.
Visitors enter the buried foyer which contains the ticket office and shop. The museum also now starts on this level in the body of the original structure. Displays on the lower ground floor concern life on the front line. As visitors go up the building, they move further away from direct fighting to back line services and home front. Much of the existing structure is retained, including a dramatic double-height void and exposed ceiling. The space is dark and atmospheric, with inventive moments that include the recreation of an ‘overturned terrain’ for visitors to walk across. Through the hall, up new oak stairs, the glazed floor is a much-needed moment to pause and reflect on the exhibits and architecture. Visitors return to daylight, absorbing new views of the battlefield today.
Client Comité National du Souvenir de Verdun
Architect Brochet Lajus Pueyo Agency
Project manager Société d’Équipement du Bassin Lorrain (SEBL) / Agence Le Conte / Noirot
Quantity surveyor Overdrive
Structural engineer Khephren Ingenierie
Exhibition design Le Conte / Noirot Agency
Exhibition curator Sources Agency
Landscaping Let’s Grow
Lighting design 8’ 18’’
Management contractor SEBL
Inspectorate Bureau Veritas
Health & safety BECS