Awakening to the genius of the Thiepval Monument

The first time I visited Lutyens’ Theipval Monument I was not terribly impressed with it as a structure. It didn’t help that I’d visited the Vimy Memorial immediately before. Taken individually there’s really no comparison. Having said that, over the past couple of days I’ve been struck repeatedly by just how thoroughly the monument dominates the whole of the Somme Battlefield. Again and again as I walked the cart tracks and lanes from Longueval to Redan Ridge, there it was rising out of the surrounding woods reminding me of the missing. Whatever one might feel about the style or proportions of the structure, as an overall concept it’s a masterpiece, on par, in it’s own way with the Vimy Memorial.

As I sat in the semi-circular stone bench behind the monument my eyes fell to the Stone of Remembrance at its centre. Another Lutyens product, clearly related to his Cenotaph, these are are a key feature of most larger British Cemeteries: usually bearing the biblical inscription, chosen by Kipling, ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore.’ I know Lutyens maintained these stones were abstract and non-religious, but to me they are altars. And even if they were meant for people of all religions and none, to me they speak of pagan sacrifices in classical antiquity. Sacrifices in which altars were soaked with the blood and piled with the flesh of victims. Intentional or not, it is a hauntingly appropriate bit of symbolism. And it must have shaped the monument’s reception among many of Lutyens classically educated contemporaries. Indeed, I wonder if it was an unconscious background element of Lutyens design? He certainly did not shy away from classical symbolism in his work.

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About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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