Earlier this month, I had an article come out in The Atlantic regarding the ongoing evolution of military memorials and mourning, with a focus on Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns. There’s quite a bit that is not said in the piece regarding the composition of the military, changing styles of engagement, and the like, but I enjoyed writing the reflection.
According to Bill Niven, a professor of contemporary German history at Nottingham Trent University, England, the effect of World War I on how countries memorialize conflict was a cultural turning point—one most neatly embodied in the sharp contrast between France’s modest Tomb of the Unknown and the imposing Arc de Triomphe. Constructed in the early 1800s, the arch memorializes the “glory of [Napoleon’s] Grand Armée,” while the tomb that rests in its shadow, and built more than a century later, has a subdued visage. The arch reflects the aggrandizement of war through extravagant uniforms, neat battle lines, and the ever-present murmur of honor and fidelity, but World War I had trod such formal conceptions through the muddy trenches of France and the Eastern Front. And it was that more desolate aspect of war that the tomb personifies. Here were average citizens—rather than professional soldiers—charging, fighting, and dying seemingly at random and on an industrialized scale few at home could fathom, much less fully comprehend. War itself had been radically altered, and so too had the mourning of those lost to it.