A new First World War memorial was inaugurated today on the site of some of the bloodiest battles in northern France. The monument's location at Notre Dame de Lorette is known as colline sanglante or 'bloody hill'. The area was razed so totally that it is hard to spot a building that predates the 1920s.
The €8m international memorial is surrounded by cemeteries and obelisks commemorating the specific nations who fought in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. But this new monument is different, aesthetically and symbolically. The Parisian architect Philippe Prost was tasked with designing a structure that would honour all the war dead. His low-rise elliptical structure cast in dark concrete features the names of 579,606 combatants who lost their lives. These names – collated over two years of research – are listed in alphabetical order, with no reference to nationality or rank.
On the 2.2 hectare site, by France's biggest military cemetery, Prost has created a 'Ring of Remembrance', which he describes as 'an expression of brotherhood and peace'.
'The ring is a symbol of unity and eternity. It is resistant and durable,' says Prost. But the fragility of peace is suggested in the way the lawn within the ring drops away, and the ring continues as a 4.5m-high suspended walkway, allowing views over the countryside from two narrow openings in the wall, and from beneath it. This feat is achieved with standard bridge-building techniques, with prefabricated concrete tensioned together.
Those precious names are packed together on 500 sheets of bronzed stainless-steel panels, each standing 3m tall, zig-zagging around the inner wall of the ring. At night they are lit by spotlights embedded in the paving. The svelte typeface, executed in white 10mm capitals, was designed by Paris-based font designer Pierre di Sciullo.
The size of the 328m ring evolved as the research into names progressed, because 'we knew the number of names but not the number of characters,' says Prost. In its simplicity and clarity of vision, it's a moving memorial that hopes to shift the focus from historical discord.