Soissons is an ancient cathedral city on the Aisne River in northern France, about sixty miles from Paris and just five miles from the western end of a prominent ridgeline called the Chemin-des-Dames, which formed an important part of the Western Front. Well within the range of German heavy artillery, the city was heavily damaged during the war.
The Germans built their defense line along the ridge, and the French spent three years trying to drive them off, finally achieving limited gains at a terrible cost in the Nivelle Offensive of April 1917.
In the center of Soissons there is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) memorial dedicated in 1928 to the memory of nearly 4,000 British soldiers lost in the period April to September, 1918.
It’s a fair question to ask: why were the British soldiers even here, in the heart of the French Area of Responsibility? The answer: it was a quid pro quo. In a panic, British commander Sir Douglas Haig had begged for French assistance during the Operations called Michael and Georgette in March and April, and the French commander Ferdinand Foch sent several divisions to Haig’s rescue, but Haig had to agree to give Foch troops to replace them in the French line. The sector turned over was along the Chemin des Dames, an area where the Germans had never attacked, where the French felt themselves firmly established. Haig sent his IX Corps, five divisions battered and utterly exhausted after taking the brunt of the Georgette attack. A quiet sector was deemed the best place for these units to rest and refit.
But it wasn’t to be. On May 27th, 1918 Germany launched another attack, called Operation Blücher, against the French 6th Army, which included the resting British. The corps took heavy casualties and Haig had to send the XXII Corps over to replace the IX. Foch wouldn’t let go of the borrowed soldiers, so when the counter-offensive was launched in July the British were in the forefront, alongside the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions.
The design of the monument is a simple corniced screen wall five steps above and flanking the rear of a cenotaph, with an impressive sculpture on the front, called ‘The Soissons Trinity’. The names of the missing are listed on the wall, and the end of the cornices bears this inscription, in French on the left and English on the right:
‘When the French Armies held and drove back the enemy from the Aisne and the Marne between May and July 1918 the 8th, 15th, 19th, 21st, 25th, 34th, 50th, 51st and 62nd divisions of the British Armies served in the line with them and shared the common sacrifice. Here are recorded the names of 3,987 officers and men of those divisions to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.’
Some of the noteworthy features of this memorial
- The design was awarded by a competition held at the Royal Academy and open only to young architects,
- The design’s central and most prominent features are sculpture art,
- A rare entry found on these walls is for Brig. Gen. C.T. Martin DSO, commander of 151st Brigade, one of 78 British generals who died in the war,
- Because of vandalism and disrespectful behavior, the CWGC keeps the gates locked. Visitors must call the office in Paris to get the code in order to enter, and
- There is no adjacent cemetery.
The competition was won by a proposal from Verner O. Rees (1886 -1966), Gordon H. Holt (1892 – 1970) and sculptor Eric Kennington (1888 – 1960). All had served as junior officers on the Western Front, Rees with the 28th County of London (Artist’s Rifles), Holt the Royal Field Artillery and Kennington the 13th County of London (Kensingtons) until seriously wounded in 1915. Although disabled, he returned to the Front as a war artist. His sketches and paintings are well-known; many are displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Rees was the lead architect, assisted by Holt. Rees had won the Royal Academy’s Silver medal in 1910, then spent three years in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens. After the war he taught architecture at the Architectural Association’s school in London from 1921-5 and 1929-33. He became the head of this organization in 1938. In 1925 he co-designed the buildings for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a major work, and in 1931 he published The Plan Requirements of Modern Buildings.
None of these three men did any other work for the CWGC.
Kennington’s ’Soissons Trinity’ is three nine foot tall modernistic British soldiers in combat kit standing guard over the cenotaph, and at their feet is a helmet, symbolic of a battlefield burial. Kennington said that he was inspired by the Easter Island statues. Most figures on British war memorials were classically inspired and one critic saw the Trinity as ‘soulless mechanical puppets or even worse, a group of Aztec tribesmen standing at the foot of a sacrificial altar’.
A French critic said the Trinity soldiers ‘looked typically English, in their stockiness, bluntness, emotional restraint and disciplined passivity’.
At the unveiling ceremony the Mayor of Soissons remarked that ’the calm and impassive courage on the faces of the men captured the spirit that the British troops displayed in the fighting on the Western Front’.
French monumental sculpture was more modern; the famous Les Fantômes at Butte Chalmont is an example, created in 1935 by Paul Landowski, who also created the iconic Christ the Redeemer which overlooks Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and was named one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Sculptor Kennington thought that even when worn down over time, the Trinity was so solid that it would endure as a ‘good ruin’.