From the Editors

Memorial and Monument


The old postcards reproduced in this issue show the basilica of Notre Dame de Brebières in Albert, after its repeated shelling during the First World War. The gilded sculpture that graced the church spire—the Virgin holding her child high—was first hit by artillery on January 15, 1915. Clinging fast by warped steel rods, the statue remained uneasily moored for more than three years until the British, who captured the city in 1918, shot it down. 

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell wrote of the creation-by-destruction of the legendary structure known by British and German soldiers as the “Leaning Virgin” or “Lady of the Limp,” and of the popular myths they fashioned around her. Some read the figure this way: The Virgin was tossing her child into the rubble below, in sacrifice. “Others saw her action not as a sacrifice but as an act of mercy,” writes Fussell. “She was reaching out to save her child, who—like a soldier—was about to fall.”

Whatever the interpretation, soldiers on both sides believed her continued existence to be a sort of miracle.  Elaborating on their own myths, troops claimed that, when she fell, the war would end—and that whichever side knocked her down would lose.  But as the war dragged on, both sides willed her toppling. And many took aim.

Downward facing, like an abandoned gun turret left to decay, the statue of the Golden Virgin was no longer a monument to religious faith, nor was it a memorial to the life of a savior.  She became instead a sort of totem for soldiers wishing for an end to the war. Their actions had changed her substance, and their stories altered her meaning. Her postcard image, sent to loved ones back home, served as a memorial to the naive ambitions that helped propel the Great War, and as a monument to the destruction it wrought.