23 January - 11 August 2002.
100 objects from the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne
“To remember is to live”
(Les Annales, 14 January 1917)
A seemingly random assortment of objects, they remind us of a poem by Prévert. Whether military, utilitarian, decorative or symbolic, whether of British, French or German origin, the items gathered here reflect the history of their time and are all that is left of nameless and modest people who witnessed it, when they were not its victims.
We are in turn astounded by the almost medieval primitiveness of certain pieces of equipment, horrified by the “improved” blades and moved by the “war toys” and child-sized uniforms for young boys whom many fathers would never live to see grow up. The naivety and ferociousness of the caricatures raise a smile. But above all we are touched by all those objects made in trenches, shelters and hospitals to ward off loneliness, suffering, fear and the anxiety born of long periods of waiting.
Engraved metal rings, shell bases transformed into vases decorated with rural scenes, pearl- embroidered hearts, rudimentary musical instruments, sculpted wooden canes and pipes, holy medallions and statuettes, lighters, cigarette cases, toys… without their being aware of it, soldiers from both sides of the front were united in a shared need to express themselves which unleased their creativity and imagination. Those who practised what would later be called “trench art” did much more than salvage war materials to make souvenirs for their loved ones, clever tools or inspired knick-knacks: they proclaimed their faith in life.
While these objects are of great historical and archaeological interest, what visitors will undoubtedly find most compelling is their power of suggestion, their humanity and the way in which – four generations and more than 80 years after they were made – they speak to us of dignity, brotherhood and hope.
We find here the same inventiveness, the same diversity, the same sense of urgency as in the Museum’s permanent display of objects fashioned by prisoners and given to ICRC delegates. And we are filled with the same feelings of compassion and gratitude.