Thursday March 10 (5pm Seminar Room)
Mass death and the regeneration of life: caring for landscape and caring for the dead on the battlefield of Verdun (France), 1916-2016
Dr Paola Filippucci
The paper is based on ethnography conducted on the former Western Front battlefield of Verdun (France) since 2008. The area was utterly devastated during one of the longest and most brutal battles of the Great War in 1916. I focus on the materiality and temporality of the former battlefield landscape to argue that they are centrally shaped and defined by the presence of the war dead: not just the metaphorical presence of the fallen in the memory and imagination of survivors and posterity but also, centrally, the literal presence of human remains both in graves and mass burials and, in the case of thousands of missing, dispersed within the soil. The whole of the former battlefield as delimited after the war is thus a burial ground and this, I suggest, centrally determines how people have viewed, used and related to this space both in the period of its reconstruction immediately after the war, and as they commemorate the war’s centenary in the 21st century. In particular I will explore the symbolic and practical role of ‘nature’ in restoring this space to life, (limited) use and meaning after the war. ‘Nature’ offered immediate survivors material and imaginative means to return this space to ‘life’ while remembering and so caring for the dead contained within it. Specifically the battlefield landscape combining burials, stone monuments and forest became a material means to gather and recompose the shattered and scattered remains of the dead and turn them back into ‘bodies’ in the sense of restoring presence and personhood to them. At the same time the different materialities of graves, monuments and trees may have helped to express and accommodate competing claims to the war dead by families, war veterans and the nation. A century later, partly because of the ‘natural’ dynamics of the landscape that was recreated after the war, ‘nature’ is once again central to how people approach and care for this landscape through new ideas of ‘environment’ and ‘environmental value’. I will argue that although this for some offers an alternative way to understand and invest this space with value, moving away from its historical association with a war that is fading from living memory, care for this landscape in the 21st century remains intertwined with care for the war dead. In particular the contemporary idea of ‘environment’ helps to formulate an ethos of care towards the war dead that reclaims them from the nation and restores them on the one hand to families, and on the other hand to more open-ended and inclusive communities than the nation-state.