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Photographer: Benjamin J. Hatherell

Thiepval Memorial

Gazetteer No. G0421

Date 1923-30

Address Albert, Somme France


The most important British memorial in France is impressive in its scale and architecture. It evokes responses varying from ‘monstrous’ and ‘hideous’ to ‘superior’ and ‘brilliant’. The fact is that the memorial is unique in its manifestation, although it is derived from renowned examples in architectural history. The reference to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris leads to misunderstandings, however. Whereas in Paris, the heroic deeds of Napoleon’s army were celebrated, Thiepval commemorates the casualties of the struggle that did not have a winner. The monument commemorates no fewer than 73,000 solders from the United Kingdom and South Africa who were missing after the senseless mass slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. In addition, it commemorates the co-operation between the British and the French armies in the 1916 offensive, and there is a cemetery with French and British graves on the west side of the memorial.

In 1923 Lutyens was commissioned to create a monument in St. Quentin to commemorate 60,000 soldiers who did not return. An important practical element in the assignment was the creation of sufficient wall surface for the names of the missing. In most cases, the architect applied the ambulatory cloister structure around a central space with a monument, so that much wall surface was available. Previously, Reginald Blomfield had designed a monument in the stronghold around Ypres in the form of a city gate, which called to mind the traditional arch of triumph, like the Arc de Tromphe in Paris, which was elongated to generate sufficient wall surface. However, the 57,000 turned out to be far from sufficient and a second memorial was established in Passendale, designed by Herbert Baker. In this same period, Lutyens designed an entrance building for the cemetery in Warlencourt, which resembles the Menin Gate by Blomfield in its set-up. In the design at St. Quentin, Lutyens also places the memorial over the road, but he divides the arch of triumph into a stack of smaller arches so that instead of two or four there are no fewer than sixteen pillars to which 73,000 names could ultimately be applied. After a total reconsideration of all the planned memorials, instigated by French objections, and after long diplomatic negotiations, the design was constructed in an almost unchanged form as a communal British-French monument on the upland plain at Thiepval between 1928 and 1932.

In comparison to the buildings on the cemeteries and, for example, the memorial in Arras, the enormous scale of the building is a striking feature. Whereas the classical architecture of temples and arches of triumph has been reduced to a human scale at the cemeteries, here it seems like a super-human scale has been sought. For psychological reasons, the height is just a little lower than the Arc de Triomphe. However, the great difference is that in Thiepval the large scale is built down to a smaller scale that is much more comprehensible for the visitor. The building consists of an ingenious combination of arches that increase in size in four stages of which the lowest is similar to the gate buildings at the cemetery in terms of scale, and the highest has the almost same dimensions as the Arc de Triomphe.

The arches are identical in their form, with the largest arch at the top. The keystone of each arch touches the frame that extends under the semicircular termination of the next arch. In addition to this play of stacked arches, the total volume diminishes in stages due to the fact that the mass adjoining each arch remains the same but decreases optically due to the increasingly large arches. At the top of the memorial, this interplay of stepped tapering masses is continued to a termination that suddenly displays parallels with the top of Art Deco skyscrapers. On this point, the built memorial differs from the first design for St. Quentin, which had a red lantern at the top and a saucer-shaped dome with a possible vista point. Ultimately, the memorial was not built over the road, although Lutyens did propose this again at the new location. In the built memorial, the access road and the main axis of the memorial traverse one another in a circular forecourt. The path through the highest gateway has been replaced by a stairway with the War Stone at the centre. With this change, the significance of the memorial has become more powerful. As a consequence, the association with a gateway has made way for something that most refers to a Hall of Honour. Although the memorial has a clear main axis that runs precisely eastwest, the pure frontal character lacks the expression of an arch of triumph as all the masses are extended on all sides. This is even more apparent in the memorial itself. From the position of the War Stone, there is a fine view in all directions out across the former battlefields. At this spot, it becomes evident that the building has an extremely spatial effect on the inside and acquires the ambience of a Hall of Honour or a part of a cathedral. The visitor can stroll along the panels with names in the vaults of the various arches.

Despite the initial impression of the overwhelming scale of the building, Lutyens attempted, with a stepped building, to bring the enormous dimensions back to human proportions. To the visitor to the memorial, there is enough stimulus to come into contact with the building. In addition to the panels with names, the floors have been elaborated in various patterns of brick and natural stone. A band with decoration has been incorporated at the bottom of each of the sixteen pillars, showing the same cut-out motif as the laurel wreaths that hang above the panels. The corners of the pillars taper slightly above and below the panels in order to give the mass a certain amount of elegance. The ceiling of the barrel vaulting is decorated with a motif taken from a Buddhist stupa like the one that Lutyens applied in the Government House in New Delhi, which had just been completed.

Right from his first assignment for a memorial for the Rand Regiments Memorial in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1911, Lutyens had been researching the possibility of elaborating the form of the classic arch of triumph. In his first monument, he applied for the first time the principle of arches in two different façades in various sizes but with the same proportions. He combined this principle with that of a temple front and thus unconsciously developed a prototype for the shelters at the cemeteries. He continued this principle with the two pavilions at the cemeteries in Étaples, the Leicester War Memorial and the All India War Memorial in New Delhi. In the design for St. Quentin, Lutyens applied for the first time the Roman arch of triumph with three openings adjoining one another in two directions with different sizes of openings. The Renaissance architect Alberti applied this principle in his Sant’Andrea Church in Mantua. In doing so, Alberti was the first architect to trans- late a Christian building into forms that had been borrowed from classical pre-Christian architecture. It is not surprising that Lutyens again used Alberti’s principles in an assignment for a cathedral in Liverpool in 1929. Just as in Mantua, the motifs of the arch of triumph were continued in two directions to form a three-dimensional unit in the nave. From the façade, he extended the central arch of the arch of triumph as barrel vaulting in the central nave of the church. In the side aisles, he turned the barrel vaulting 90° so that a series of lateral passages were created, which were actually a reduction of the same principle.

With the exception of the crypt, the cathedral in Liver- pool was never completed. This means that the memorial in Thiepval is the only building by Lutyens that can give an impression of what the cathedral might have looked like. It would appear to be no coincidence that, just as with the cathedral in Liverpool, the main axis lies east west in accordance with the traditions of ecclesiastical construction. Don’t the nearby cathedrals of St. Quentin and Amiens also lie on the highest point in their surroundings? With this insight, the memorial at Thiepval can be regarded as a fragment of an unrealized cathedral. Or should we interpret it as a ruin – according to Winston Churchill the most authentic commemorative monument to a war. Anyone now visiting the memorial will notice that the area where the memorial stands is surrounded by groves transected by the visibility lines to the four points of the compass. The groves around the cathedral-like memorial unconsciously evoke the first proposal by Lutyens, dating from 1917, for an unrealized cathedral of trees in front of the immense Trouville War Hospital Cemetery, as well as the rejected plan for a tree cathedral in a park in Leicester.

After completion, various items have been altered for practical reasons down through the years. After countless technical problems, the original brickwork has been replaced twice. The walls along the grassy field in front of the memorial have been changed from stepped walls to a low horizontal wall. At the circular intersection, the walls have been removed and a bench in a hedge has been placed in the open visibility line to the east. On the west side a monumental stairway has been added in order to make the cemetery more accessible. Finally, a few years ago, a new visitor centre was realized at the entrance to the grounds. (Geurst, 2010, pp.413-6)

In this massive and complex structure of brick and stone, as large as the Arc de Triomphe, Lutyens’s interest in developing the possibilities of the triumphal arch form, developed in the abandoned St. Quentin memorial design and in earlier memorial designs, at last achieved consummation. The basic theme is that of a hierarchy of arches, of his favourite proportions of 2 ½: 1, with the height of the smallest arch being the level of the springing of the next arch, which is at right angles to the first, and so on up to the main arch whose springing is seventy feet up. At the same time the mass of the structure, a composition of geometrical blocks, receded by a series of set backs. The sophisticated mathematical calculations required in this design are evident in some of the surviving working drawings. The result is a building whose form can only be appreciated visually: on the main axis the Memorial seems to be a thin, open arch; on the diagonal it appears as a rugged, pyramidal mass. The penetration of the mass by the series of interlocking tunnels created a ground plan of sixteen rectangular piers, and this was the initial governing purpose behind the design for this gave wall space enough to carve the names of 73,357 men who disappeared in the battles of the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918. A terrible purpose and a sublime geometry are united in this most intellectual and yet most immediately tragic of Lutyens’s executed works. (Amery et al, 1981, Cat no. 298)

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval is the largest British war memorial in the world and its brooding presence serves as a sombre reminder of the huge loss of life during World War 1. The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission had determined that the death of every soldier would be recorded in the battle area where they fell – either via their grave or, if their body could not be found or positively identified, then through a series of Memorials to the Missing. The struggles to take the land in this part of the Western Front are well documented and, as a consequence, a memorial was needed that could accommodate 73,000 names.

Lutyens’s solution to this challenge was a series of 16 square pillars faced with limestone panels for the inscriptions that supported a series of four interpenetrating arches of differing heights. It is a masterful design and shows the architect at the peak of his powers. The original plan was for the memorial to span the road north of St Quentin but objections from the French highway authority and other concerns led to it being relocated to Thiepval, where it forms a significant landmark in the local countryside. (Contributor: Tim Skelton)


Geurst, J. (2010) Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Amery, C., Richardson, M. and Stamp, G., (1981) Lutyens, the Work of the English Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944): Hayward Gallery London, 18 November 1981 – 31 January 1982. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.

Also Cited In

Geurst, J. (2010) Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Butler, A., 1950. The architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens: the Lutyens memorial series. Vol III: Town and Public Buildings: Memorials: The Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, Country Life: London and Scibners: New York.

Gradidge, R. (1982) Edwin Lutyens: Architect Laureate. London: Allen & Unwin.

Gliddon, G. and Skelton, T.J. (2008) Lutyens and the Great War. London: Frances Lincoln.

Listing Grade

Monument Historique

Listing Reference



Imperial War Graves Commission