In 1431 a young peasant girl from Domrémy in the Vosges was burned alive after an illegal trial for heresy in Rouen. During the period in which Alsace and Lorraine were part of the German Empire, she became a powerful symbol of resistance, of defiance, of eagerness for liberation
The inspirational figure of Jeanne or Jehanne d’Arc is a recurrent theme in monuments and memorials after the Great War. In the memorial in the rural village of Breitenbach, Bas-Rhin, [above and left], Jeanne stands alone.
Many Alsacien men were forced to fight for Germany, although anyone under the age of 43 when war was declared in 1914 had not known life as a French citizen and Alsacien men in the German army had grown up as Germans. Nevertheless, the theme of a young man being forced to fight for the oppressor is a powerful one and many patriotic and propaganda images depict the despair of the young soldier and his family.
The woman depicted on the war memorial at Guebwiller [previous blog post] pins a small rosette on a young man’s chest under his jacket and tells him, “Remember you are French.” These rosettes were red, white and blue (the colours of the French flag). The memorial at Rosheim shows a French poilu offering the open hand of friendship to a young man who has opened his jacket to reveal the patriotic rosette over his heart; his enforced pickelhaube has been discarded at his feet and Jeanne embraces the two in a gesture which emphasises harmony and unity restored between France and her lost départements.
The inspiration of Jeanne in times of oppression and war is reflected in her use in cemeteries. The village and community of Plaine, north of Saales, suffered dreadfully in the raging combats of August 1914 as each side fought to gain control of the essential cols. Jeanne was erected in this cemetery on 12th August 1923. The base of the statue says, “À eux l’immortalité, à nous le souvenir.”
Menil-sur-Belvitte is a large 1917 nécropole nationale south of Baccarat and it is the resting place of a thousand men, many casualties from the Bataille de la Mortagne (August 1914) and the ghastly fighting at Col de la Chipote. Opposite the cemetery, peacefully surrounded by pastures with the characteristic Vosgienne cows, is a memorial privately erected in 1927 by l’Abbé Collé, the village curé. He also established a small commemorative museum which was destroyed by German troops in 1944.
The essential figures on this memorial are in gold; one is Jeanne (“custos patriae”) at the pinnacle and the others (in what seems like slightly toned down gold) are the brave heroes of the 13th, 14th 15th and 21st Corps d’Armée 1914.
It is a memorial of unexpected height and power; the loyal Chasseur figures, bravely ready for any challenger and cared for in death by a despairing figure of Mary, demand attention. Jeanne’s immense elevation, her raised cruciform sword and her striking gold armour communicate as a symbol of defiance and inner strength. Your eye is drawn upwards from the brave soldiers to their alleged inspiration as they fought to regain Alsace and Moselle for France.
Le cimetière militaire Plaine also includes a small plot containing the remains of 40 British casualties from the Great War. It is in the far left hand corner of my photograph.
Much of this text has been adapted from a previous blog post. It is published here in the period of Remembrance.