In Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the Monument to the Fraternization is an essential stop on the Great War Remembrance Trail. Inaugurated in 2015, it owes its existence to the determination of Corporal Louis Barthas, who was involved in fraternizations here in 1915. A porwerful symbol of humanity, a universal and timeless work.
The fraternizations, a forgotten history
To understand the fraternizations, you need to be aware of the atrocious conditions during the winters of 1914 and 1915.
Since the outbreak of the War, French and German soldiers had been bunkered down in trenches on the front line, enemies confronting one another. Exhausted by the cold and the fighting, mired in the mud of the trenches, these men would be ready to fraternize. So thousands of truces lasting a few hours or several days were declared at Christmas, from Belgium to Alsace. The men sang together and swapped tobacco and drinks. These moments of humanity were officially censored, deliberately forgotten.
Louis Barthas, a key witness
This 35-year-ol barrelmaker, originally from the Aude, witnessed the “muddy ceasefire” of 10 December 201, here where the front line passed through Artois. As a corporal, he experienced the violence of war.
After his return home, on the basis of his notes he wrote about his day-to-day experiences. The publication in 1978 of World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914–1918 marked a turning point in the historiography of the Great War. In this first-hand account, he relates this episode of fraternization, accompanied by a wish to see recognition of this courageous and fraternal burst of humanity.
The birth of the monument
It would be more than a century before this wish would be fulfilled. The Artois-born director Christian Carion brought the fraternizations to the big screen with his 2005 film Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas).
It was an enormous success. The film-maker was eager to construct this monument advocated by Barthas, but was not able to do so. In 2014, at the start of the commemorations of the Centenary of the Great War, he wrote an opinion piece on the subject, published in Le Monde, which resonated with Philippe Rapeneau, the then President of the Urban Community of Arras. And so it began – the monument was inaugurated by President François Hollande on 17 December 2015.
“The fraternizations entered into the official history of the Great War in December 2015, when President François Hollande came to inaugurate the Monument to the Fraternizations in Neuville-Saint-Vaast. This was my goal, ever since discovering the extent to which these events were concealed from the general public. If it were not for the film Joyeux Noël and then the determination of Philippe Rapeneau (President of the Urban Community of Arras from 2011 to 2018), none of this would have been possible.
Today, we teach our children about the incredible Christmas of 1914, as one event among the many that took place during that terrible War.
Imagining the monument from the bottom of his trench, Corporal Barthas wanted the courage of this fraternal gesture to be remembered.
This homage to humanity speaks to us all, today as then. This is what makes it so valuable.”
A symbolic location
Built in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, in the Rue de Maroeuil on the road between Arras and Béthune, the Monument to the Fraternizations stands at the centre of the major Great War sites in the Artois region
It is next to the La Targette National Cemetery, the 11,500 French soldiers laid to rest there bearing witness to the violence of the battles between 1915 and 1917. Nearby is the La Targette British Cemetery and, in the distance, lies the Maison Blanche German Military Cemetery, the resting place of 45,000 soldiers and the biggest German cemetery in France. The main three warring nations are represented. From here, you can also see the towers of the Abbey of Mont Saint-Eloi.
A moving contemporary work
First, you have to pass through a symbolic trench and then, after reading the words of Barthas engraved on the ground, you have cross a red line, to “go over the top”, to reach two groups of sculptures in glass – symbolic of the fragility of the fraternizations – where silhouettes of French, British and German soldiers stand out
This contemporary and aesthetic invitation to step into history, created by the Atelier Sensomoto, is completed by an extremely realistic immersion provided by a machine that takes you back in time: the Timescope. This transports you back to that day, 10 December 1915, before soaring overhead to discover the major remembrance sites of the Artois region.
Le Monument des Fraternisations en pratique
- Timescope et monument accessibles 7/7 jours et 24/24 heures
- Pour s’y rendre: Chemin de Maroeuil, 62580 Neuville-Saint-Vaast