To coincide with Armistice Day, I wish to give my impressions regarding The Fallen Warrior sculpture in the Hall of Honour, at the Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery.
Last year I visited a unique cemetery for the first time. On 16 October 1959, the Federal Republic of Germany and the UK agreed that a central cemetery would be created to care for the graves of both German military personnel and civilian internees from both the First World War and the Second World War who were yet to be maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge organised the transfer of bodies to the agreed centralised depository which was opened and named the Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery in the parish of Brocton, Staffordshire. Opened in 10 June 1967, the cemetery contains the remains of over 5,000 German and Austrian people.
Despite the lockdown, the cemetery remains open all year round, although toilet facilities are temporarily unavailable. The CWG website page: click here. For Wikipedia, click here. The complex is a Grade II listed building while the cemetery itself is a Grade I listed Park and Garden.
Visitors walk through a reception room and through a covered walkway into the Hall of Honour. This is a square space without adornment covered with a concrete roof, open at the sides, and enclosed by stark undecorated walls. The Hall is linked by three entrances without ornamentation – one back to the reception rooms via a cloister, one out to the cemetery to the left, and to the right a third entrance to the Zeppelin Terrace where there are four stone slabs commemorating the crews of four Zeppelins shot down over Britain during the First World War.
Situated on a sandstone plinth at the centre of the Hall of Honour is the only feature to focus the attention within this otherwise empty canopied space. Upon the plinth is the sculpture in bronze of a reclining figure wrapped in a shroud by the German sculptor Hans Wimmer (1907-1992). It constitutes a sober, bleak, emotive representation of the cost of war, a sculptural cenotaph of a fallen soldier representing the many thousands whose bodies are laid to rest in the cemetery itself and elsewhere around the UK. The feet and the head are exposed, the body is twisted to the side so as to gaze up at the approaching visitor. The hands rest together on the stomach.
The posture is neither one which can be taken for sleep, nor one of a corpse. Upon the pillow is an incised cross, the only non-secular denotation.
The inscription in Latin names the sculpture as ‘Johann Evang Wimmer of Bavaria, 1965’. The face: the line down it implies disfigurement: a fractured body and soul.
A fractured face
The representation of the corpse in war memorialisation is an incredibly rare thing, jarring with the idea of death as sacrifice and threatening to break through the allusions of valorisation wrapped around the vast loss of human life. As Alex King (1998: 132) states: ‘Many figurative monuments do not include a figure to represent the dead at all’, instead figures are those in mourning, or else stylised representations of military personnel without direct allusion to death. A exception is the powerful London’s Royal Artillery Memorial yet even in that case the face is covered to anonymise the dead individual. Indeed, it was perhaps only with the corpses represented as part of the figurative scenes within the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum do we see representations of cadavers as an integral part of British conflict commemoration. In ‘German’ tradition, the precedent of representing the corpse is at least set in the work of Käthe Kollwitz in mourning her son who died in October 1914, Peter, who had drawn inspiration from medieval and Reformation representations of Christ as a corpse (see also Winter 1995: 111-12).
Yet, in the Hall of Honour, there are no mourners represented, unlike Kollwitz’s sculptures. Moreover, in a British landscape context, the ‘Fallen Warrior’ is more jarring still: it sharpens a sense of the contrasting memorialisation of the First and Second World Wars between the nations involved. One cannot see the body as allegorical, as Christ-like. The body is one of suffering, pain and anguish, both of the dead and the mourners experiencing loss. The sculpted figures face is exposed and scarred – one is unable to avoid looking the person in the face. Equally, one cannot easily wrap this figure in nationalistic garb and celebrate the stark loss in sacrificial terms.
The only additional memorial in the space is upon the inner face of the boundary wall: commemorating 50 years of friendship between the German War Graves Commission and Staffordshire County Council (August 2012).
The Historic England entry claims the ‘powerfully simple design of the Hall of Honour provides an evocative link with, and contrast to, the concept of Vallhalla in German mythology.’ So is this a ‘counter-Valhalla’, challenging the romanticised pagan Germanic afterlife of fallen warriors?
Well, if this is a counter-Valhalla, it is certainly no final resting place at all for the slain. The body is instead perhaps better seen as a conduit or guide between us and the dead. In that regard, I found the sculpture very much like a bog body – defying one to imagine this was ‘in the past’ and someone ‘dead’.
The Fallen Warrior is perhaps representing neither living or dead, but betwixt and between life and death. This isn’t represented in its form and posture only. In addition, spatially, the sculpture is less a statement in itself but one of transition from our world into the cemetery space where the graves can be encountered and explored. The ‘Fallen Warrior’ is in flux between states of being and between the reception and the cemetery. One must encounter him and pass him by. Indeed, beyond the head of the Fallen Warrior, the axis of the sculpture points to the unpresuming threshold to the cemetery itself. His Valhalla is an empty, cold atrium.
King, A. 1998. Memorials of The Great War in Britain. Oxford: Berg.
Winter, J. 1995. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. Cambridge: Canto.