Monuments to the dead: places of memory

There is a long-standing misunderstanding as to the true meaning of memorials. These places of remembrance which welcome men decked out with decorations, tricolor flags, singing La Marseillaise, cast doubt on the true interpretation that should be given to these monuments. Are they therefore republican monuments or nationalist monuments?

The construction of monuments to the dead

The erection of war memorials at the end of the 1914-1918 war is not a new phenomenon. Two factors can be put forward to explain that practically all the municipalities in France have a war memorial. On the one hand, the First World War was marked by the scale of the mobilization and the number of deaths. On the other hand, its favorable outcome marked by the victory of 1918 seems to be able to explain the origin of the construction of the monuments to the dead, in contrast to the war of 1870-1871 which has fewer men mobility and whose outcome ended in defeat. During this conflict, the construction of war memorials was the fruit of private initiatives (committees, association) and late, twenty to thirty years after the war. Built outside the context of war, these monuments reflect a desire for revenge that does not include other actors such as representatives of the nation, local communities or the State. Conversely, the 1914-1918 war brought together different actors, citizens, municipalities as well as the State for the construction of these monuments. By law, the State undertakes to subsidize the construction of monuments within the municipalities. It allows official recognition but does not require the construction of a monument, it encourages it through financial assistance.

The populations were associated by the municipalities in the construction of monuments to the dead. Their construction is due to municipal actions. It is the citizens from their municipalities who pay tribute to the war dead. The most common inscription in the monuments to the dead is the following: The commune of ... to his children, who died for France. A link then persists between the municipality from which the collective initiative comes, the citizens, recipients of the tribute and France, which receives their sacrifice and justifies it.

The construction of the monuments to the dead was carried out very quickly, even before the implementation of the law of October 1919 and the election of the blue horizon room in November 1919. The monuments were built in practically all the villages of France before 1922, however, their construction proved to be more complex and longer in towns marked by debate and in which monuments were still erected in the early 1930s. Above all, the significance of the monuments seem to have been worked out even before their edification by means of demonstrations to the dead of the war. This cult, born even before the armistice, was built in a context where the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Through all of these factors, is a nationalist reading a sustainable hypothesis?

Typology of war memorials

A prejudice, very widespread on the left of the political spectrum tends to maintain that the war memorials express nationalism through the hairy people who overcome the monuments. However, this type of representation is not widespread, even minority. Thus, through this type of prejudice, it appears that the decryption of war memorials turns out to be more complex and that a certain number of elements come into play in order to understand the real meaning of war memorials.

The first significance of the monument to the dead is inscribed in space. Its location is essential in the vast majority of villages, except a few. The choice of location is never innocent through the places of the Town Hall, the Church or a heavily frequented crossroads. The presence or not of statuary, generally a hairy one even if there is other representation, is an important element for the interpretation of a monument to the dead. Whether due to its cost or for ideological reasons, this type of building is in the minority. The hairy depicted realistically or idealized can influence its meaning. It can be replaced by a bare stele, an urn or a funeral torch as well as a war cross. Other representations were created, such as widows accompanied by orphans, old parents expressing mourning for the survivors. There is a great diversity of inscriptions which are explicit and in which resonate feelings of sadness, moralizing or as a sign of homage. The names of the people inscribed on the monuments provide little information.

A whole series of monuments exist and dot the daily life of millions of people.

Civic and patriotic monuments

The civic monument consists of a bare stele, built in a space in which the town hall is located. On this monument is inscribed the names of the dead accompanied by a very often used formula, "The municipality of ... to his children who died for France". There is a variant, "... death for the Fatherland". This expression refers to a more national language and does not refer to a local tradition. This monument is characterized by its stripping marked by the absence of allegorical representation, apart from the Croix de Guerre. It expresses the homage of the municipality and its living citizens to the citizens who died in the war. This type of monument, by its great counting does not prejudge the opinions of the citizens. Everyone is free to express their feelings. A republican and secular monument which avoids any religious distinction. This monument is located between the one, more patriotic and another more funeral. The sliding towards one or the other is relatively easy.

Another type of monument, patriotic this one, is located in a public square, at a crossroads and visible to all. It has different iconography and inscriptions. The formula, "... death for the Fatherland" is present here, accompanied by a formula borrowed from the semantic fields of honor, glory and heroism. Added to the frontal inscription, other inscriptions with a patriotic connotation on the other faces of the monument. War memorials bear the verses of Victor Hugo, for example, who thus affirms its republican dimension. A patriotic monument that can switch to nationalism through certain signs such as the Gallic rooster, the statues of the triumphant hairy, the presence of a flag, that of a spiked helmet or of a trampled imperial eagle. Symbols constitute an exacerbated nationalism with the depiction of a winged victory holding a crown.

Some of these elements are added to the same monument. These allegorical representations are, however, more complex. The crown does not necessarily symbolize victory, it can also represent mourning. Female figures too. A woman without wings can symbolize a France or a Republic. The Hairy statue is not necessarily patriotic. A hairy guard like a sentry exists on some monuments. There is an idealization which constitutes the first element of patriotism. The sentinel in the way it is represented can slide from republican patriotism to exacerbated nationalism depending on the pose, the gaze .... However other hairy people express unequivocal patriotism through the image of a soldier on the point to die using the flag as a shroud. This category of representation shows that this patriotic monument also slides towards the funeral monument.

Funerary and pacifist monuments

The funeral monument for its part is located near the Church or stand in cemeteries marked by the presence of a cross. This type of monument glorifies the sacrifice of the dead and breaks with the representations mentioned above. It presents the obligation of the fulfillment of duty through love devoted to the Fatherland, as to a religion. As such, it justifies the sacrifice. This monument seems to contrast with the republican spirit for which the individual is the end of society. Funeral monuments do not necessarily have a statue and contain an inscription in which the patriotic connotation is absent, "The commune of ... to his dead children".

The pacifist monument is relatively rare. The iconography is in this case invaluable to identify these pacifist monuments. The case of Levallois-Perret on which a worker breaks a sword, a representation of the proletariat breaking the war, is in this respect evocative. The whole of this typology is directly linked to local political sensitivities at the time when these monuments were built. The objective of the monuments to the dead is to keep the name of each of the dead in the municipality, which demonstrates the republican spirit of these buildings which wants citizens to be equal in law, including in the face of death. Beyond material reality, history has also played a role in the interpretation of war memorials in relation to the evolution of society and certain significant events. The ceremonies performed by citizens have been able to give new meaning to the meanings of war memorials.


- Antoine PROST, “The monuments to the dead, Republican cult? Civic worship? Patriotic worship? », Pierre NORA (dir.), Places of memory, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, pp. 195-225.

- Annette BECKER, the monuments to the dead. 1991.

Video: Moonlight - Monument of A Memory (June 2021).