With close to twenty million casualties, the Great War was one of the deadliest wars ever. Approximately half of the casualties were soldiers. In the beginning, men who fell were left at the front. There where the front had moved to and fro in a stalemate trench war, men would encounter the corpses from previous fights. How to cope with so many bodies?
In the 19th century it had been common for solders to be buried in mass graves but now this was not enough. Relatives clamored for individual tombs. From the end of 1915, the dead were transferred back from the front for burial. The First World War is the war of immense graveyards, rows and rows of identical white crosses, interspersed with a star of David or a Muslim stone.
There were many who’s body couldn’t be recovered. Towards the end of the war their remains were bought together in ossuaries. Ossuary Douamont is such an example. Built on the initiative of the Bishop of Verdun, Charles Ginisty, it contains the remains of all those who died around Verdun, both French and German.
Many of the dead were irrecoverable, lost forever. All over the North, the French landscape is covered with memorials to the fallen. They are Lieux de mémoire to commemorate those who died for the Mother Land. ‘Mort pour la France’ is the expression the French government adopted to honor the dead. Every village, every town has its monument: the rooster which represents France, the maiden symbolizing the Republic, the fallen soldier, a simple obelisk… there are 36.000 monuments spread over France each bearing the names of the lost ones.
All along the lne of Verdun and Amiens, where bombs had destroyed churches, these were rebuilt, sometimes by the best architects and designers of the Parisian Ecole Française de la société des beaux arts as in the case of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. It fell into the role of the church to provide comfort and give some sort of meaning to death. Religious symbols helped such as a stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the fallen soldier or the soldier at the feet of crucified Christ.