Friday, 10 November 2017

FRANCE IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR

This is my tribute to the French in the First World War.



Having visited France many times and picked up various bits and pieces, I've always wanted to create an artwork to commemorate the country's experience of the war.

All the images used are drawn entirely from my own collections and photographs. 

The war rocked France, and as their territory was being invaded in 1914 they learnt bitter lessons in modern warfare. Their armies were still wearing traditional red and blue uniforms as if fighting 19th Century campaigns. But they learnt fast, as the new Poilu grey/blue uniform encapsulated the spirit of stubborn resistance.

One word can define France's First World War: Verdun.

The Germans attempted to capture the strategic forts on the hills in front of the town of Verdun in 1916, pinpointing the town as a symbolic part of French culture. 

The French resisted, but the price was incalculable. 

It almost destroyed the country and its army, and if anything sums up the folly and utterly senseless slaughter of the war then this is it. 
I've read all about the battle, but I could never find the right words to describe what happened to the people involved. Whenever I go to France I think of Verdun and I'm gripped with sadness. It was worse than the Somme and Passchendaele and had catastrophic implications when France was invaded again in 1940. 

For this collage I've gathered together various pieces that I've either bought in France or over here. I have quite a few medals and postcards and a few unusual bits.
I've also trawled through my photos to find the many French war memorials I've seen in towns and villages. 
I've noticed their memorials can be striking and bold. Often featuring defiant soldiers, with heads held high, they are artistically much more inventive than our own. Inside churches, they also have colourful and elaborate plaques and memorials.
I'm very pleased to finally have put this together, especially in time for Armistice Day.
Have a look below for a few of the items that I've used.

Items related to the Battle of Verdun. The Michelin guide book to the battlefield sites from 1921. Inside I found this map showing where the forts and the front lines were. Amazingly the person who owned the book would have picked up this map while touring the area, a lovely authentic touch.
The medal is The Verdun Medal, an unofficial medal initially awarded to the soldiers who served there. There are seven different versions, but this is the 1st issue by Vernier.

An original postcard of the basilica in the French town of Albert, which was behind the lines of the Somme battlefields. In 1915 the golden statue of Mary on top of the building was hit by a German shell and got stuck in this position. Legend soon sprung up that if it fell off the war would end. It finally went in April 1918, but the war would go on another seven months.                

 A rare French army postcard. Sent to a Monsieur Adrien Bayle, presumably by a relative who was in a hospital.

 Henri Barbusse. The French author who wrote the famous book Le Feu (Under Fire) in 1916. Having joined up aged 41, he served for 17 months and endured all war could bring, thus writing his enraged and detailed account.

Although this shell fuse is British, it was dug up from the Western Front in France. The 'iron harvest' is still a common sight on the battlefields. 

 The French Victory Medal. All the Allies awarded their soldiers one of these and each country had their own version. This is the reverse of France's medal.

 An example of a striking French war memorial, time hasn't weathered this defiant Poilu.


The image of the soldier I've used in this artwork, was from a tiny photograph I picked up in a brocante fair in Auvergne last year. I've done a little bit of research on it, which I'll share with you another day, watch this space!

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