The wasted land

In the autumn of 1918 the thousands of guns along the Western Front in France and Belgium suddenly ceased their work. The First World War was finally over. Million-strong armies disbanded and drifted back to exhausted homelands: the French, British and American victors formed an army of occupation which moved into the Rhineland of Germany. Hundreds of villages and towns that lay within the swathe of the battle zones of the Western Front had been shattered , often obliterated. At Fleury and seven other villages above Verdun, only a few broken stones remained to show where substantial communities had once lived and worked. Unburied corpses of soldiers, whole or partial, were a common sight and collections of human bones were accumulating. The hazardous task of reaping the ‘iron harvest’ of unexploded shells and bombs began; it continues to this day. Occasionally one will glimpse piles of rusted artillery shells, upturned by the farmers’ ploughs, standing at the roadside awaiting collection and safe disposal by the Département du Déminage (mine clearance). From time to time, even now, human curiosity and acquisitiveness lead to explosions and fatalities, particularly in areas such as Verdun.1 Fragments of steel, such as old barbed wire and bayonets, harboured a risk of tetanus infection. The bleak spiritual atmosphere of that immediate post-war period is clearly evident in the photographs that illustrate the popular Michelin guidebooks of the time.2 Any surviving trees were stark and broken. One can hardly imagine the feelings of farmers and peasants returning to this blighted and transformed wasteland as they faced the gargantuan task of reclaiming their birthright and growing crops again. Surprisingly, the way in which the French and Belgians dealt with this aftermath of industrialized warfare has, until quite recently, received relatively little attention in the prolific literature of the First World War.

Meanwhile, the villages and towns of France mourned the dead and missing: some 700,000 women were widowed. Thirty-six thousand communes (parishes) began the task of choosing and erecting war memorials to their ‘lost children’. Before the twentieth century, before the killing got into its stride, burial of the war dead was usually a casual and arbitrary affair. For example, after the great battles of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, dead combatants were often buried in mass graves. However, on occasion, the French had a custom of building ossuaries wherein the gathered bones of dead soldiers could be formally stored, e.g. Bazeilles, near Sedan. In contrast, the vast military cemeteries that were established as part of cleaning-up operations in Europe after each of two World Wars formalize the scale of battle deaths and, wherever possible, acknowledge identities (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – Cimitière du Faubourg Pavé, Verdun: 5,000 French soldiers rest here.

I doubt that it is possible for an individual to absorb and comprehend the scale of casualties on the Western Front in World War I. Death came to millions in an infinite variety of forms; from wasting pneumonia to instant burial or obliteration. In their turn, each of the hundreds of cemeteries and memorials became the source of a myriad threads of sorrow and hardship that stretched away to distant homelands.

  1. It is inadvisable to leave valuables in an unattended vehicle near World War sites in Europe as petty thieving is regrettably not unknown. []
  2. The Americans in the Great War: Vols. I, II & III (Clermont-Ferrand: Michelin et Cie., 1919) []