HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 16

 - The Great War, Grief, and Memory (Guest Lecture by Bruno Cabanes)


The human cost of World War I cannot be understood only in terms of demographics. To better understand the consequences of the war upon both soldiers and civilians it is necessary to consider mourning in its private, as well as its public dimensions. Indeed, for many French people who lived through the war, public spectacles of bereavement, such as the Unknown Soldier, were also conceived of as intensely private affairs. Both types of mourning are associated with a wide variety of rituals and procedures.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 16 - The Great War, Grief, and Memory (Guest Lecture by Bruno Cabanes)

Chapter 1. Personal and Communal Mourning: Modes of Cultural Grief During and After the Great War [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Well, I’m not working today. Moi, je chome aujourd’hui, je ne fais rien. It’s a great pleasure to have my wonderful colleague and great friend Bruno Cabanes, who is going to do give a lecture today on “The Great War, Grief and Memory;” and he’s the author of a really terrific book called, in English, Victory Plunged into Mourning, on what happened at the end of the war to the soldiers and to France. And he has just published — I just received it a few minutes ago — the Larousse de la Grande Guerre, under his editorship, along with Anne Duménil. Voilà, je te prête la machine là.

Professor Bruno Cabanes: Thanks, John. This is my pleasure to give this class today on the “The Great War, Grief and Memory.” As a kind of introduction I would like to start with a book that Sigmund Freud wrote in 1915, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. And according to me this is probably one of the most fascinating works written on mass death and collective mourning during the Great War. Freud described, and I would like to quote, “the complete collapse when death has struck down someone whom we love, a parent or a partner in marriage, a brother or a sister, a child or a close friend. Our hopes,” he says, “our hopes, desires and our pleasures lie in the grave with them. We will not become souls, we will not fill the lost one’s place.”

Actually, mass death and its consequence, generalized mourning, appeared well before the end of the war. To give you only one example, around fifty percent of the French soldiers killed during the Great War lost their lives in a seventeen-month period between August 1914 and December 1915. Four years later, in 1918/1919, so in the immediate aftermath of war, death was basically everywhere — the names written on the war memorials built in the early 1920s, the black dresses of the war widows, the empty spaces left by so many young men, all over Europe and all over the world.

We all know, you all know, from a demographic perspective how deadly the Great War was. Around nine million soldiers killed: two million Germans, 1.8 million Russians, 1.4 million French. And to the dead of the Great War one must also add all those killed by the pandemic of the Spanish flu — maybe two or three times more murderous than World War I; probably twenty million people were actually killed by the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. So, we all know these figures. But, according to me, they mean nothing if one does not consider them in the relationship with private and collective mourning; and that’s the topic of today’s class. Studying private and collective mourning is, of course, much more difficult than studying mass death from the perspective of historical demography, because most of the time this personal, very personal, very intimate and family experience of mourning has not left many sources.

So, the challenge for historians is actually to grasp the mourning process in its reality, something equivalent to what the German sculptress Käthe Kollwitz did when she made these two granite statues representing her husband, Karl, and herself, mourning their son Peter who was killed in Belgium near the city of Ypres in October 1914. Of course, historians are not sculptors, historians are not artists, unfortunately. So, how do we study private and collective mourning? That’s what I would like to examine with you in this class.

In the first part of my discussion I would like to — my perspective will be rather general. In the aftermath of World War One, who were the people in mourning, I will ask, and how many of them were there? But otherwise this question touches on the possibility of studying what Jay Winter once called “communities in mourning,” a very forward-looking concept that he’s using mostly for Great Britain and for the U.S. In the second part of this class I will examine the specificity of mourning in the aftermath of World War One. In doing so I hope to show you that mourning can be studied from a comparative perspective, and that despite their personal, emotional dimensions, war bereavements after the Great War actually have some characteristics in common.

And lastly, I will end my class by examining the mourning process in itself, and in doing so I would like to study the relationship between personal suffering and collective mourning; in other words, the transformation of grief into a cultural process.

Chapter 2. Communities in Mourning: Social Circles of Grief [00:05:39]

So, let’s start with my first point. Who were the persons in mourning after World War One? Well, from the perspective of historical demographics this question is actually a very difficult one. Why? Because in France, in the ’20s and ’30s, war widows who remarried lost their benefits and so simply vanished from the statistics. And if you take the case of the orphans, they got some help from the French state when they were children, but not when they came of age; consequently the number you find in most textbooks of around 600,000 widows and at least 760,00 orphans in France in the 1920s is of course only a rough estimate.

And this is not to mention the grandparents, the brothers, the sisters, the uncles, the aunts, the nephews or cousins who were in mourning, too, and sometimes expressed in very moving diaries, in very moving letters, in very moving other sources their sufferings. So, the concept of communities in mourning, coined by Jay Winter, is a very useful one as a means to grasp the scale of mourning after World War One in its entirety. Actually, every institution, every social structure went into mourning in the aftermath of World War One. The French high schools, the French lycées, the French universities, the French companies, the French businesses, as well as let’s say the French athletic clubs or the French football teams, the dead might have their names inscribed in a number of places — their schools, their former colleges, their parish churches.

The social structures were themselves communities of mourning, were themselves composed of various groups affected by mourning in varying degrees, depending on their relationship with the deceased when he was still alive. And that’s the second notion that I would like actually to introduce, what the French historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau once called “the circles of mourning.” The first circle of mourning was composed of soldiers themselves. For obvious reasons, on November 11th, 1918, the French Army was not only a victorious one but also an army in mourning; mourning the dead as much as rejoicing for victory.

What did the soldiers do on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1918? They first tried to find the bodies of those who had been abandoned in an immense land. They buried them and they decorated with flowers the wooden crosses, like this one, that marked individual graves on the battlefields. I wanted to quote a letter of a French soldier sent to his wife: “my regiment has suffered terrible losses.” So, it was written on Armistice Day. “My regiment has suffered terrible losses. Many of my friends have been killed without ever knowing the joy of victory. Thinking about those poor souls I feel terrible.” Those who are still waiting for news from members of their family, who were still fighting, wanted first to be reassured before being able to rejoice.

Take the example of Henri Fauconnier, who volunteered in the summer of 1914 at the age of thirty-five, and whose fascinating correspondence with his young fiancée Madeline has been published just a few years ago, Lettres à Madeline. And I quote, “how I am longing now to have some news of Calot, of Jean,” he wrote, “I will not be completely happy until then.” And those who had lost friends, those who had lost brothers, who also had lost comrades in arms during the war, often expressed what has been later diagnosed as the survivor’s syndrome, a notion coined in the 1960s by the psychiatrist Niederland.

And here I would like to quote Pierre Drieu la Rochelle in his novel La Comédie de Charleroi, published just after the war. “At certain moments I experienced a kind of shame, as though I had torn the days I was enjoying now from those young men whom I had left behind.” Guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, these were actually the feelings of most French soldiers in November 1918. So, that’s the first circle of mourning. And this first circle of mourning was actually in close contact with a second circle of mourning, relatives of their dead comrades. The soldiers, as you may know, used to inform the families of the precise location of the burial place, including sometimes the photographs, sometimes a map, sometimes a description so that the bodies could be found and reburied after the war. They described the dead soldier’s last moments, they described the funeral tribute that had been made. Actually, in doing so, the first circle of mourning, the small primary group, worked as a kind of fictitious family, a substitute for the relatives who were not present when the soldier was killed.

And the second circle of mourning was composed of the soldier’s parents, the grandparents, the children, the wife and also larger family group, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews. Most of the time, I must admit, this larger family group has been underestimated because actually it appears in very rare sources. And just to mention one of these very interesting sources, that’s the war diary written by the young Françoise Marette. You probably don’t know her, but you know probably a name when she will become one of the most famous child psychiatrists in France, Françoise Dolto. So, the young Françoise Marette had actually been educated in a very Catholic family and she was brought up with the idea that she should pray every day for her young uncle who had been sent to the front.

So, she had been brought up with the idea that in some ways it was her duty, as a child, and I would say as a young girl, which is not the same, as a young girl, to do so. But it was actually her way to take part in the conflict. And, as you can imagine, the death of her dear uncle adds a traumatic impact in the life of this young Françoise Marette. In a diary she presents herself comme une veuve de guerre, as a war widow, and her grief is presented as a personal tragedy. So, that’s a second circle of mourning. And you’ve got actually a third one, which is of course much more difficult to study, which is made up of friends. I don’t know if you will be interested.

I think the history of friendship, especially the history of friendship in wartime, is actually a fascinating one which still needs to be written. So, if you have a theory or something to write about that, it’s a wonderful topic, the history of friendship in wartime; and especially from the perspective of her history of bereavement. It has been only partially studied for a small group of students; in the English case for students from Oxford and Cambridge, and in the French case for students from the École Normale Supérieure who lost actually hundreds of friends during the war, and who used to write short but very personal biographies in the École’s year book.

Take, for example, this obituary written by the novelist Maurice Genevoix. You must already know him, he’s one of the most famous writers of the Great War. So, it was written by the novelist Maurice Genevoix for one of his friends killed at the age of twenty-five, in January 1915, and I quote, “what so often during those long months of war, and each engagement had created voids around me. All the good friends at the beginning whom I’d chosen, who had lightened my hours and to whom I wanted to give back the strength they had given me, had fallen, one after the one, all of them, until I was alone in a crowd of indifferent men. And among those whose support I wished for, to make this cult of the dead more fervent, was Benoit, dearest to my heart and most valued friend. I said to myself, ‘he, at least, will be saved.’ And I believed it. Then one morning in the white hospital room the male orderly handed me a card and on this card I read ‘Benoit is dead.’ I felt a crushing sorrow. I could not understand it, it did not make sense.”

Chapter 3. Specificities of the Great War Experience: The Lost Generation, the Lost Bodies [00:15:57]

Well, of course, this absence of meaning, this absurdity can be explained by the experience of war itself but it also leads us to the second point I would like to discuss with you today: the specificity, if there is any, of the experience of World War One. The first specificity, according to me, is that for the first time death in combat reversed the normal succession of generations; and not on a limited scale, rather on the scale of the whole generation, la generation perdue, the lost generation. There were often feelings of shame, feelings of guilt towards the younger men who were almost exclusively bearing the burden of war and death.

As my colleague Jay Winter pointed out in a thought-provoking article on wartime demography published some years ago, many older people in Paris, in London, in Berlin, were suffering from depression during the Great War. And you’ve got the very famous case of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who died of grief; he died of grief only one year after his son’s death in December 1915. So, the reverse of the normal succession of generations was seen as shocking, not only during the war, not only in the immediate aftermath of war, but also years later. I want to quote an amazing page from the last novel — you probably know it, it’s probably one of the most wonderful books written by Albert Camus, Le Premier HommeThe First Man, a copy of which, as you may know, was filmed in a briefcase near the car in which the novelist died in January 1960, at the age of forty-six.

In 1953 Albert Camus made a pilgrimage to the cemetery in Brittany where his father lay. He filmed the grave, in the first row of the military section of the Saint Michel Cemetery at Saint-Brieuc, and there he read the date, and I quote, “1885-1914,” and automatically he did the arithmetic, twenty-nine years. Suddenly he was struck by an idea that shook his very being. He was forty-years-old. The man buried under that slab who had been his father was actually younger than him, and the wave of tenderness and pity that once filled his heart was not the stirring of the soul that leads the son to the memory of the vanished father, but the overwhelming compassion that a grown man feels for an unjustly murdered child; something here was not in the natural order, and in truth there was no order but only madness and chaos when the son was older than the father.

Second specificity: death was also experienced by the soldiers in a very solitary way. Well, you’ll tell me it’s of course very common in wartime. But here it must be seen specifically in the light of both the extreme violence of this war and in the light of the religious rituals that were still very important in France, before the outbreak of World War One. One of the most striking fears experienced by the soldiers of the Great War was of dying alone, in the midst of an immense land, abandoned by their comrades because of the violence of the battle, without a truce for stretcher-bearers; or because the short, unofficial truces were too precarious, soldiers who fell wounded between the lines lay dying for hours, sometimes days. According to the military historian John Keegan, one-third of the 20,000 men who died on the Somme on July 1st, 1916, might have been saved had the wounded soldiers been aided, as they probably would have been half a century earlier. So, this fear of dying alone was something many relatives actually imagined for their loved ones, and which added, of course, another torment to their bereavement.

Imaging their loved ones dying in almost animal solitude was something unbearable. And I would like to quote a war diary published in 1919 by a war widow: “He dies all alone over there like a dog, and this horrible, pitiful death we call death on the field of honor. He will lie for days and days forgotten, on the bare earth, with a smashed skull and chest, and German crows will steal away his dearest memories.” Obviously, this solitary death was all the more unbearable as dying was not the socially invisible reality it has become in the late twentieth century, but something accepted, something experienced at home, in the company of relatives and friends. And if you want to understand this process you have to read the work by the sociologist Norbert Elias which is probably his last book, published I think in 1982, The Loneliness of Dying, in which he presents this process from once again the death experienced at home to a kind of invisible and a solitary death we experience right now, today.

So, before World War One only those who had no family, only those who had no home, will die alone or will die in the hospital. The funeral vigil was also very important and a very respected ritual in a Catholic country like France. Industrialized warfare, World War One, changed this tradition in the most violent and the most brutal way. All the stages — and they are very important — all the stages that used to prepare a person for bereavement were simply eliminated. All the rituals that in ordinary life accompanied the first moments of loss were also eliminated. The first specificity was the absence of the dead bodies during World War One, and that for two main reasons. The first one was the complete destruction of around thirty percent of those killed during the Great War, whose bodies were destroyed by the explosions and could not be identified.

In the context of total war, direct heat from large-caliber shells could literally pulverize the body, leaving absolutely no remains; hence the great number of missing in action during the Great War. If you want to understand the experience of shelling and if you want to understand the psychological sufferings inflicted to the soldiers, you must read what the Jesuit Paul Dubreuil, a veteran of Verdun, wrote about the Battle of Verdun in 1916, and I quote, “when one heard the whistle in the distance one’s whole body contracted to resist the two excessively important vibrations of the explosion, and at each repetition it was a new attack, a new fatigue, a new suffering. Under this regime the most solid nerves cannot resist for long. Perhaps the best comparison is that of seasickness, and that’s my point, to die from bullets seems to be nothing. Parts of our being remain intact but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.”

But there is also another reason for the absence of dead bodies which is often less known. After 1918, the bodies remained on the battlefields, until the French governments gave permission to repatriate them. But this did not happen before a special decree was passed in 1920, so two years after the end of World War One. Why did it take so much time to allow the French families to get their loved one’s bodies back home for private burial? Nobody knows, but the enormous amount of energy many French families spent to have this decree finally signed shows in itself the psychological sufferings caused by distance and prolonged absence. Well, that’s something we all know from everyday life. For example, in the case of the sailors lost at sea or from recent events, for example the victims of the 9/11 attacks, ending the mourning process without having seen, touched, or kissed, or buried a body, is extremely difficult, almost impossible. And that’s actually something thousands and thousands of families experienced after World War One.

That’s also something the French politician Louis Barthou explained before the National Commission on Military Burials on May 31st, 1919, when the government, the French government still opposed the return of the soldiers’ remains. And I quote, “fine, it’s all very well to say that our children will be equal in death. But I don’t see what principle of equality requires that a hard and fast rule be established as far as families is concerned. Where is my son? He was killed in 1914, five years ago. He’s in a tomb. His mother and I are waiting for him. And because horrors have not been found you tell me that you forbid me to take my son and bring him to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery,” which is, as you may know one of the largest cemeteries in Paris. “Well, I tell you that you have no right to do so. You explain it by saying that hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been killed and you have not identified them. But mine was. You speak of identification. Well mine was identified. Of the transportation shortage; but I can bring back my son on my own, without asking anything of the government. This is not what I understand by equality and I think the proposed government bill is a mistake. That’s why I, for my part, won’t accept it.”

Chapter 4. Rites of Collective Mourning: Creating National Unity through Commemoration [00:27:53]

As a consequence of the specificities I have just presented, the mourning process after World War One was an incredibly difficult and tortuous one, and it gave birth to a new commemorative activity, new languages, new rituals that I would like to present now in my third point. Up to now I’ve addressed the notion of grief from the perspective of personal bereavement. But the expense of mass death, the absence of so many dead bodies, the violence of the war experience itself also needed new forms of representation so that the dead soldiers could be remembered and so that a tribute could be paid to them. That’s what Stéphane Andoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker explain in their book 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War.

The words spoken at ceremonies, the images offered in inscriptions and commemorative monuments, the stained-glass windows, the cemeteries and ossuaries have lasted to this day, and through them we as historians can recall these endless commemorations where political liturgy and private bereavements were complementary. Political liturgy ends private bereavement, in other words collective mourning and personal grief. My point here is not to present you, of course, the war of commemorative activity after World War One; that will be almost impossible and useless.

I would prefer to focus on two major cultural processes that deal with the transformation of the personal grief into collective mourning. The first one can be presented as a kind of nationalization of mourning. In the 1920s and 1930s the battlefields were converted into commemorative sites through a network of military cemeteries, landscaped memorial parks, and large battlefield monuments. A kind of war tourism appeared during the conflict itself and develops in the 1920s and 1930s; just refer, if you’re interested by that topic, to the book written by David Lloyd, Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada, published in 1998.

These new sites of memory, or to use the famous terminology coined by Pierre Nora, these new lieux de mémoire, were often represented on objects, paintings and pictures, and a number of ceremonies were organized to pay tribute to the dead, especially on Armistice Day each year. And that’s an object which I like very much. It’s a bit kitsch, of course, but it’s the usury in Douaumont, so near Verdun, in Verdun, which is represented on a tray. Can you imagine to have that at home all the time? Anyway, it’s on a tray. And you see exactly what Douaumont is about. It’s a huge necropolis which was inaugurated in summer 1932. It’s aim was at the same time to bring together most of the identified bodies of the Battle of Verdun.

The cemetery here contains more than 15,000 bodies. And the other aim was to contain the remains of those who remained unidentified, estimated as here, estimated 32,000 inside the building, 32,000. So, the cemetery which appears also in the famous 1937 remake of J’accuse! by Abel Gance where dead soldiers, here the cemetery, rise from it — can you imagine that, too? — arise from the grave in Douaumont, at the Douaumont Cemetery to haunt the living and prevent another war. That’s really a fascinating film. So, the ossuary, this ossuary of Douaumont, and three other ones at Notre Dame de Lorette, in the Pas-de-Calais, at Douaumont, the Marne, and at [inaudible], in Alsace, became places of family pilgrimage for those who had lost a relative or for those who had no grave to go to.

According to me, all these commemorative sites of memory must be considered in the perspective of the French national unity. The sites of memory which became sites of mourning for the whole French nation, like this one, Douaumont, and also the 36,000 war memorials built in each of the 36,000 communes into which France was divided — in every French commune. So, even in the smallest village, the same day of the year, November 11th, at the same hour, 11 a.m., the mayor used to name the dead. For the lost generation, a new entity was created that obeyed the classical precepts of tragedy — unity of time, November 11th; unity of space, the memorials; unity of action, the commemorative ceremony.

Naming the dead served, as you can imagine, another important function for the living — inscribing the names of the dead, reading them and then touching the inscription served to bring the dead out of the anonymity of mass death. And if you’ve been to Washington, DC you know that it’s exactly what happens nowadays with the VVM, with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, made by Maya Lin, where the Vietnam Vets go to touch the inscriptions and mourn their comrades in arms. Le lieu de mémoire, the oversight of memory related to this nationalization of mourning is, of course, the commemorative invention par excellence of the Great War, the cult of the Unknown Soldier.

In most countries, except Germany and except Russia, the cult of the Unknown Soldier was extremely popular in the 1920s. It appeared almost at the same time in Paris and London in 1920; in Washington, DC, Rome and Brussels in 1921; and in Prague and Belgrade in 1922. But, of course, I would like to focus on the French case. What happens in November 1920? On November 10th, 1920, the Unknown Soldier’s coffin arrived in Paris by special train from Verdun. The coffin was placed for one night — and every step is important — the coffin was placed for one night at the Place Denfert-Rochereau which is of course symbolic; and you know probably why, because it was named, the Place Denfert-Rochereau, was named for a heroic French commander of 1871, and so it symbolized the revenge of the French over the Germans.

The next day, November 11th, 1920, the Unknown Soldier was brought to the Pantheon, which was first considered the natural place to bury it, because as you may know it’s the burial place dedicated to the nation’s great men. But according to most veterans the Unknown Soldier was not un grand homme, was not a great man in the usual meaning of the word. So, after a brief ceremony at the Pantheon the coffin was brought to the Arc de Triomphe. It had been draped with the French flag, it had been placed on a gun carriage, and it was surrounded by mutilated veterans who were there to symbolize the destroyed man and the destroyed families. Furthermore, and this is my point, the coffin was also accompanied by a fictitious family — a war widow, a mother and father who had lost a son, and a child who had lost his father during the war. This as if each French man, each French woman, was to adopt the Unknown Soldier as a member of his or her family.

And the ceremonies of November 11th, 1920, brought hundreds of thousands of weeping people into the streets of Paris, many encouraged to believe that the coffin that passed actually before them contained the body of the man they had lost. In other words, the Unknown Soldier was the dead relative of every French family, as well as a symbol of the loss experienced by the French nation as a whole. So, that’s also a kind of nationalization of mourning. Nationalization of mourning, but also — and this is the second major cultural process — a kind of spiritualization of mourning. Well, I could give you many examples of the spiritual flavor that characterized the 1920s and 1930s. I could also discuss, as Jay Winter did remarkably in his book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, whether the spirituality of the Great War and of the aftermath of the Great War was something new or something rooted in the European religious traditions and rituals.

I will only give you one emblematic example, and actually I will end my presentation with it. This is the case of Maurice Gallais — that’s the portrait here — a young officer cadet who died in Bouchavesne, on the Somme, on September 25th, 1916, at the age of twenty-two. Actually, he was sent on a reconnaissance mission and, as he was just back from leave, he probably didn’t know the area very well and lost his way, and he was shot by a German patrol. Maurice was the only child of Berthe and Auguste Gallais, who owned a factory in Creil — that’s in département of the Oise, close to Paris, only thirty kilometers from Paris. He was unmarried, had only a few relatives. His immediate family included probably seven people, and his death was, of course, experienced as a terrible emotional shock for all of them.

It actually took almost six months before Maurice Gallais’s parents received the confirmation that their son had been killed. He was first considered missing in action, and his body was identified only in spring 1917. Berthe and Auguste Gallais could not wait until the end of the war to see the place where their son, Maurice, was buried. Despite the obvious danger, despite the restrictions imposed by the military authorities, they drove to Bouchavesne, in 1917 — can you imagine that, in 1917? — they drove to Bouchavesne as soon as they could and they took pictures of the temporary grave. In 1922, almost four years after the armistice, they decided to bury Maurice for the second time. Auguste Gallais, his father, wrote to the mayor of Bouchavesne, and convinced him to build a huge roadside cross dedicated to the memory of the men of Bouchavesne, and dedicated to Maurice himself.

So, as you can see at this stage the personal grief is already deeply inter-twined with the public collective one. In 1922 Berthe Gallais decided also to transform Maurice’s room into a kind of mausoleum. Some ground from the battlefield, from the Somme, was brought back to Creil and exposed in a room, along with — I don’t know if you can see that here clearly — with fragments of shells and other material souvenir of the Great War. Behind the cabinet’s window, Maurice Gallais’ uniform with the ruby-red pants of 1914, some photographs here representing the young man. It’s a curious gathering of personal belongings and remains from the war which reveal, according to me, a kind of fetishism. But that’s not all.

In this room, transformed into a kind of chapel, Maurice was represented like a saint who had saved France; and as his own grandmother wrote in a prayer, the whole universe, l’univers entier — not only France, l’univers entier. Maurice’s personal belongings were described by Berthe Gallais, his mother, as some religious relics. And this is actually what many, many Catholic French people felt in the ’20s and ’30s. At this time, as my colleague, Annette Becker is explaining, in one of her books, the Christian soldier was likened in his sacrifice to Christ in a kind of imitatio christi, and his mother to a new Virgin Mary, a mater dolorosa. Until her death in 1927, Maurice Gallais’s grandmother went every day to the room, and recited the prayer she had composed for him, thanking God for having given her such a courageous grandson, “parce que vous l’avec accordé la plus belle des morts et ouvert votre paradis, où je l’imagine comme un saint” — like a saint — “je vous remercie, Signor”, the prayer says at the end.

Well, when did the mourning process end? Is the war of 1914/1918 over, as many felt in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Wall of Berlin? Paradoxically, in the last few years we have witnessed a new emotional investment in the conflict, the first and the fourth generation, the generations of the veterans’ grandchildren or great-grandchildren — my generation and your generation — are more and more aware of the importance of the Great War in the history of the twentieth century, and the First World War tends to be ever more present in the minds of successive generations. According to most historians, and according especially to Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, this renewed interest in the 1990s is related to the unfinished process of mourning, and actually explains that by the number of many missing in action in World War One.

At the end of the 1920s, after the death of Maurice’s father, Berthe Gallais decided to transform her house so that it could be transformed into a kind of museum. So, she was living — she moved. She lived in a small house just opposite what had become the Musée Maurice Gallais, founded in the 1930s; and she died in 1956. Was this transformation of the house into a museum a way for her to show that the mourning process was over, or on the contrary was it a way to prolong the mourning process eternally? Anyway, after so many years Maurice’s room remains unchanged as a kind of private chapel in a public museum. Thanks.


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