Mass death

Mass death

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Title: Index ravine cemetery, Main de Massiges.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1917

Date shown: 1917

Dimensions: Height 8,2 - Width 11,1

Technique and other indications: Gelatin silver bromide print on paper

Storage location: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

Picture reference: 06-510751 / 27314.1

Index ravine cemetery, Main de Massiges.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

Publication date: April 2007

Historical context

The Argonne battlefield

Upon entering the war in the first days of August 1914, the population united around the republican regime. They also have the certainty, quickly defeated in breach, that the war which advances will be short: the spectacular re-establishment carried out on the Marne and the phase of operations baptized "race to the sea" open on the war of position which s. long and difficult announcement. Another discovery, another disillusion: the deadly nature - beyond anything one could imagine - of the clashes. As a result, the departments on which the front line has meandered are now dotted with cemeteries of many nationalities.

The Argonne, a wooded massif bounded by the Aisne and its tributary the Aire, was the scene of heavy fighting, because it was there that the German army corps withdrew after the defeat of the Marne. Many soldiers who fell attempting the assault on the Main were buried in the cemetery of Index Ravine.

Image Analysis

A military cemetery among many others

On that day in May 1917, a bright, almost blinding light cut cruciform shadows on the white gravel that covers the graves and alleys of the Index Ravine cemetery. In this open space, the crosses that mark the identical rectangular tombs are regularly aligned. The framing close to the ground and a three-quarter view allow the gaze to embrace a very large number of graves. Undoubtedly the author, photographer and soldier, he wanted to produce this impression of dizziness that seizes. The four tombs in the foreground are followed by eight, then more and more as the gaze moves towards the horizon bounded only by wooden crosses, undifferentiated. All have readable information on those in the foreground. On the vertical spider are the row, the number of the tomb and the inscription "here lies". The horizontal cross-piece successively states the name of the killed soldier, his first name and his unit, then, below, the day of his death. Thus the second of the tombs in the first row indicates “Here lies / Pontonnier Alexandre bomb […] 115e / killed on 13.2.16 ”. On this date also fell the infantrymen of the 115e which occupy neighboring sites. In the third alley, on the right of the photo, a soldier comes to visit his comrades. Crouching and as if crushed, his hand drooping, he reads the simple inscriptions which remind him of moments of horror and fury. There is no doubt that other relatives have been able to come and worship in this place. This is borne out by a few wreaths of flowers placed from time to time on the graves or hanging on the crosses.


Brotherhood in death

The First World War established a new relationship with death. She had individualized herself in the "death of the other" in the previous century. So the bourgeoisie had extended its vision of grief to the whole of society. A cult of the dead, precisely of deceased relatives, had taken hold, illustrated by the construction of funeral monuments, by the development of perpetual concessions and by the ritualization of the visit to the cemetery on All Saints' Day. The "mass death" which characterized the battlefields of 1914-1918 engenders changes such as the trivialization of death and a loss of sensitivity for those who witness it, a fortiori for those who provoke it. The writings of Blaise Cendrars or Ernst Jünger, among others, provide detailed evidence of this. At the same time, this association with brutal death strengthens the camaraderie between men and contributes to a dehumanization of the enemy in the name of the correctness of the values ​​that we defend. The French speak of a "war of the law". This solidarity created by the collective experience at the front leads to a real empathy with the dead soldiers, each survivor knowing full well that he could be in their place. In The pot, a little newspaper from the trenches, one can read in the issue dated May 1916: "One must think that a formidable war, which constantly mows down comrades of the same rank, childhood friends, brothers, develops the love of the dead to the point of sharpness. It is to the point that they are considered alive that they are more alive than ever. When you say a name and someone responds: Killed at X ..., there isn't the cold little silence you might think. No. We recall memories, details, death itself that we have most often witnessed. […] We invoke them, we see them, they are there and we walk. "

In these terrible conditions, there can no longer be any question of individual burials for all these men. On the other hand, France will be covered with cenotaphs (or empty tombs) and monuments to the dead, memorials which list the names and first names of the deceased. They bear witness to the cult of the dead linked to the first great massacre of the XXe century.

  • graveyard
  • War of 14-18
  • hairy


Stéphane AUDOIN-ROUZEAU, 14-18.The fighters in the trenches, Paris, Armand Colin, 1986. Stéphane AUDOIN-ROUZEAU and Annette BECKER, 14-18.Retrouver la guerre, Paris, Gallimard, 2000.Frédéric LACAILLE and Anthony PETITEAU, Photographs de poilus, soldiers photographers at the heart of the Great War, Paris, Ministry of Defense (SGA / DMPA and Army Museum) -Editions Somogy-Éditions d'Art, 2004.Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the First War mondial, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Bernard COLOMB, "Mass death"