Main Image
Photographer: Chris Knowles

Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery

Gazetteer No. G0783


Address Fouilloy, Somme France


Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, containing 2,120 graves, was carefully designed by Lutyens with steps and planting placed so as to conceal irregularities on the long, thin site which rises on a convex slope. At the entrance were placed twin lodges with pyramidal stone roofs, which are exquisitely detailed little buildings which cleverly exploit two interpenetrating Orders in a manner Chambers of Wyatt would have appreciated. They were completed in 1930; the assistant architect was G.H. Goldsmith.

The top end of the cemetery was chosen by the Government of Australia for the site for the Australian National War Memorial, commemorating 11,000 missing Australians, as Villers-Bretoneux marked the limit of Ludendorff’s offensive towards Amiens in 1918, principally owing to the involvement of Australian troops. Following a competition held in 1927, a design by the Australian architect William Lucas was chosen by the assessor, Sir Giles Scott, and approved by the President of the French Republic in 1929, but, for reasons which have never been explained, this scheme was set aside and the executed Memorial was designed by Lutyens. It was commenced in 1936, inaugurated in 1938 and is one of the last of his executed designs, being much more severe in character than his earlier cemetery and memorial designs. An almost brutal character to the tower is given by the staircase which, in its final flights, breaks through the wall and is carried on the outside of the structure. However, the upper stage of the tower – a viewing platform – as well as the flanking pavilions connected by stone walls are in a more familiar classical manner, and here Lutyens not only employed his favourite stone flags but also left classical aedicules standing apparently free in the voids of arches – just as he had done with the keystones at Homewood at Knebworth over thirty years before. (Amery et al, 1981, Cat no. 299)

The cemetery and the memorial are situated east of the road from Villers-Bretonneux to Corbie, on a convex slope amidst the cornfields. Villers-Bretonneux became well- known in 1918, when the German advance to Amiens resulted in the conquest of the village by German tanks and infantry on 23 April. The next day, however, Australian divisions retook the village and on 8 August 1918 the Australians continued their march from their eastern position to the Battle of Amiens. The cemetery was laid out in its entirety after the Armistice and graves from cemeteries in the area and from the battlefield were transferred to this ground.

The cemetery is characterized from a distance by the impressive watchtower and the two large pavilions near the entrance, at the top of a wide stairway with integrated flower boxes. Unusually, the War Stone is placed on the west side, between the two pavilions. Due to the rise of the ground, the tower of the memorial becomes increasingly visible as the visitor walks up the cemetery. Halfway up, there is the large Cross of Sacrifice. The graves have been laid out symmetrically between attractive rows of horn- beam. The memorial has been situated in a large open space, beyond two watch boxes serving as storage spaces.

The memorial is made up of two walls with the 10,700 names, placed in a hook-shaped position on either side of the watchtower. The pavilions with stone flags occupy the other side of the two walls. A similar pavilion has been built on top of the tower, making it look like a classical campanile. The rest of the ground around the tower is laid out as parkland.

Originally, the cemetery and the memorial were designed by different architects. The first ideas for a memorial at this place, regarded as historic by Australians, date from as early as 1919. At the time, the plan was to erect a tall obelisk at the back of the cemetery, surrounded by a u-shaped cloister. However, this idea was rejected as the monument was said to be too far from the road and therefore barely visible. While Lutyens was already working on his design for the cemetery, a competition for the design of a memorial was held among Australian architects in 1926. It was won by William Lucas, an Australian architect who had lost his son in the war. Although the French authorities had granted permission in 1929, his design of a rather squat watchtower about twenty three metres high was never realized. The costs were too substantial and there was not enough room for the names of the missing soldiers and for an open platform offering a vista. After lengthy negotiations, Lutyens was eventually commissioned to make a new design. His break-even plan had no watchtower, but he was given the opportunity to adapt his design. Finally this resulted in the memorial being built, although, incidentally, the budget was exceeded. The construction of the monument began in 1936 and it was unveiled in July 1938, a little more than one year before the next war broke out. Notwithstanding this somewhat unusual genesis, there is a sense of harmony between the cemetery and the monument that is far more convincing than is the case with Lutyens’ monuments in Arras and Thiepval, where the cemeteries clearly play a subordinate part.

The architecture of the buildings is full of contrast. The tower and the watch boxes may be called austere or indeed utilitarian, and are reminiscent of Holden’s work for the IWGC. The two large and the three small pavilions, on the other hand, are designed in a very refined and detailed manner. The two pavilions near the entrance are a synthesis of different design motifs. The position of the square buildings at the beginning of a sloping longitudinal axis is reminiscent of pavilions in Renaissance gardens, such as Villa Lante in Bagnaia, north of Rome. The long tree-lined avenue ending in the monumental area with the memorial evokes images of Lutyens’ work in New Delhi, based on the monumental axes in Washington and Paris. The lateral arms of the memorial ending in the small pavilions are a reflection, however modest, of monumental classical complexes of buildings from which Lutyens must have drawn his inspiration when designing the Government House.

The dominant aspect of the entrance pavilions is the square principal shape, which refers to the temple with its saddlebacked roof in natural stone and the tympanum in the front. Otherwise it has been developed as a Palladian villa. However, this temple-shaped construction is penetrated longitudinally by the motif of a triumphal arch, and vertically by a pyramid-shaped lantern. The square holes in the lantern suggest light openings, but this is not what they are. The same goes for the blank windows above the eight small aediculae in front of the volume on either side of the passages and marking the four smaller corner spaces. The columns of the temple shape are partly fashioned as pilasters that continue on the inside, so that the building can also be interpreted as four corner pavilions with a dome- shaped roof. This, incidentally, is in line with the successive series of floor plan diagrams used by Lutyens in his work for the IWGC: starting with the smallest pavilion, then the gatehouse with the two corner pavilions, the villa with the four corner pavilions and finally the cathedral-like space in Thiepval with four times four corner pavilions. It was the Renaissance architect Alberti who introduced the continuation of design motifs at different scale levels for his church designs in Mantua. He used the motif of the triumphal arch for the front as well as for the interior. In Villers-Bretonneux Lutyens demonstrates that he has mastered this methodology down to the minutest detail, as he had shown earlier in New Delhi and Thiepval. By using several motifs at different scale levels, the corner pavilions allow various interpretations and form a mannerist highlight in Lutyens’ play with the architectural languages of the Renaissance and classical antiquity.

The pyramid-shape of the roofs of the entrance pavilions recurs in the watch boxes and the small pavilions beside and on the tower. The latter buildings, too, show the same openings, which do not seem to be walled up in this case. Yet they do not let through any light, unlike the entrance pavilion of the nearby cemetery in La Neuville, north of Corbie.189 The ceiling of the buildings is dome-shaped rather than flat or pyramid-shaped. The stone flags with Australian stars form another striking aspect. As a matter of fact, Lutyens had used this idea previously, viz. in the large cemetery in Étaples, although he did not execute it on the Cenotaph, the war memorial in Whitehall in central London. The three pavilions have an all-round structure with a large passage ending in a semicircular section, characteristic of Lutyens’ pavilions for the IWGC. However, three of the four passages are blocked by a low wall. It is remarkable that there is a small aedicule in each opening rather than in front of it. In the large pavilions, the tympanum dominates the triumphal arch motif, introducing an increase in scale. In the small pavilions, on the other hand, it effects a scaling down, causing the impressive memorial to be reduced to human proportions, in the same way as in Thiepval. There the human scale in the smallest arch is logically interrelated with the superhuman scale of the monument.

Watchtowers are by no means unusual phenomena on battlefields. Belgium, for example, has its tower on the IJzer and France has its tower of the ossuary near Verdun. In the case of the Thiepval memorial, too, the idea of such a tower may have crossed the architect’s mind. Although it is still possible in Thiepval to go up using a stairway to enjoy the view of the former battlefield, this is not a public function. It seems that in earlier drafts for Thiepval the idea of a round lantern had been brought up, but it is not certain that it was intended for the view.

It is remarkable that there is only a partial view of the tower from the entrance; in fact it is obstructed by the convexity of the ground. In New Delhi this effect was a reason for Lutyens to maintain a long-running feud with his erstwhile friend and colleague Baker. The fact is that Baker had changed the slope leading to the Government House, which had been designed by Lutyens, in such a way that all that was visible from a distance was the dome. It may well be that in the case of Villers-Bretonneux Lutyens had no problems with the situation, because it concerned his own design and not a cunning change of plans by a rival such as Baker. At any rate the tower’s austerity is attractive, and from the entrance to the cemetery the pavilion on the tower is accentuated by the visibility line, which converges with the War Stone and the Cross of Sacrifice. In William Lucas’ original design, the tower was a great deal lower and presumably not visible from the road at all. Perhaps Lutyens had learned a lesson from his conflict in New Delhi and he may have been the only one who was aware of this situation. At any rate he argued in favour of an elevation as soon as he was commissioned to design the tower. So the reason why the War Stone has a very unusual position on the west side of the cemetery may well be that the convexity of the ground would have blocked the view on the east side entirely.

A beech hedge surrounds the cemetery and there are tall yews around the memorial. The four rows of trees in the cemetery are hornbeam. Shortly after it was unveiled in 1938, the monument was damaged during combat in World War ii. As in Thiepval, the brick of the back wall of the memorial has been replaced by new brick that is smoother and does not easily soak up water. The stairways on the outside of the tower have recently been provided with grids and handrails. The CWGC is currently carrying out a renovation of the cemetery. The two rows of hornbeam that were uprooted up a while ago will be replanted with a view to the commemorations between 2014 and 2018. (Geurst, 2010, pp.426-29)


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.

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

Also Cited In

Listing Grade

Coming soon

Listing Reference


Imperial War Graves Commission