Gott mit Uns

My wanderings now focus and end at two small tracts of land that were bequeathed to Germany after the First World War by its former enemies, Belgium and France. Understandably, after the anguish of each World War, the Belgians and French begrudgingly gave land as cemeteries, in perpetuity, to their feared and hated invaders. Each of these two military cemeteries has a unique ambience; in terms of landscape, each speaks to us with a different voice.

The mantra, ‘God [is} with us’, was embossed on the belt buckle of German soldiers serving in the First World War, somewhat to the surprise of their French and British opponents. German cemeteries use various forms of the Christian cross as grave markers as well as simple slabs set flat in the ground. Details of the deceased are incised deeply on these markers and it is an accepted tradition for bands of European schoolchildren to visit these cemeteries, tend the graves and limn the inscribed lettering white. The atmosphere of most German cemeteries is sombre, designedly reminding visitors of national tragedy, sacrifice and defeat.

The German cemetery at Langemark (Fig. 10 and 20) in Belgium is located at the edge of the infamous Ypres salient where the British front line bulged dangerously into German-held territory. Now the only German cemetery in the former salient, it is technically a ‘concentration cemetery’; that is, remains were brought here from numerous other German cemeteries of the First World War. More than 44, 000 soldiers are buried within its relatively small compass.

Fig. 20 – German cemetery at Langemarck, near Ypres, Belgium.

Entering Langemark cemetery, the visitor is confronted by a mass grave, the Kameradengrab (Comrades Grave), to which the remains of 24,917 soldiers of the First World War were transferred from other sites in the late 1950s. Around three sides of its rectangular area are thirty-four large granite blocks that bear plaques of cast bronze giving the identity, written small, of 17,342 of these men. Beyond, under tall oak trees, slabs of grey basalt-lava are set flat in the lawns, each marking the resting place of up to twenty soldiers, known and unknown. Even on a day of brilliant sunshine this shaded area, the oldest part of the cemetery, has a sad atmosphere. At the edge of this area is a group of four stylized bronze figures, gazing toward the mass grave (Fig. 20). When silhouetted by afternoon sunlight, these passive figures have an arresting impact (Fig. 21). This work (1956) of Munich sculptor Emil Krieger was based upon a famous photograph of 1918 showing five mourning German soldiers (one was killed very shortly afterwards).

Fig. 21 – Bronze figures in silhouette, Langemarck cemetery.

In the northern part of Langemark cemetery are three restored concrete blockhouses, reminders that this very ground was the scene of bitter fighting. Famously, the cemetery is reputed to contain 3,000 student volunteers who perished in battle here against more experienced British and French troops in late 1914. This theme of sacrificed youth was portrayed in the remarkable American film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930).17 The slaughter quickly became a patriotic legend in Germany and, perversely, was absorbed into the credo of the Nazi party as it strove to attract German youth to militarism in the 1930s. Notoriously, it was at Langemark that the Germans introduced poison gas (chlorine) as a weapon of war in April, 1915.

By way of contrast, the second German cemetery that has intrigued me lies near the French village of Azannes, about 9 km north of Fort Douamont (Fig. 10). It is one of the twenty-nine German cemeteries in this sector. Azannes (II) is set in countryside where the German army once marshalled men and the paraphernalia of war, such as hutments, artillery parks, ammunition dumps, narrow-gauge railways, dressing stations and hospitals. (This particular military world and its workings have been vividly described in a novel by Arnold Zweig.18 ) To the south are the wooded ravines and crests of high ground which German infantry would be called upon to attack, time and time again.

The 4,750 soldiers buried at Azannes (II) cemetery died during various battles along the Verdun front (Fig. 22). In contrast to British cemeteries, where there is an overall emphasis on an ordered massing of vertical white stones, this burial ground blends naturally into surrounding countryside. This was a principle that the German war graves authority (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) sought to apply when feasible. As a result, the ambience here is completely different from the gloom of Langemark. At Azannes (II), serried ranks of slim black crosses seem to emerge from a dark background of trees and march down grassy slopes toward a pleasant vista of woods and cultivated fields (Fig. 23). Many of these individual crosses mark the resting place of four soldiers. In their midst is a tall cross of Vosges sandstone which, like them, faces east in a gesture of faith. In April the host of crosses rises from a carpet of spring flowers. In a strange way, under warm sunlight, this place can succeed in evoking a sense of Ruhe und Hoffnung … tranquillity and hope.

Fig. 22 – German cemetery at Azannes (II), north of Verdun battlefield, France.

Fig. 23 – View from hillside of Azannes (II) cemetery.

  1. Based upon a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, this classic film was directed by Lewis Milestone with Lew Ayres as the young German student. []
  2. Arnold Zweig, Education before Verdun (New York: Viking Press, 1936). []