"" Behind Their Lines: The bannerless, unhating dead

Monday, March 5, 2018

The bannerless, unhating dead

Cerny-en-Laonnois cemeteries
Photo courtesy of Abellio†
Running along an east-west ridge north of Paris, the Chemin des Dames saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Great War during the First (1914), Second (1917) and Third (1918) Battles of the Aisne. Estimates of the combined casualties suffered by both sides in the Second and Third Battles of the Aisne exceed 600,000 men. 

Situated on the Chemin des Dames, the village of Cerny-en-Laonnois was completely destroyed; a French guide reports that it “no longer existed after the war,” and 53% of the area was designated a “zone rouge,”* an area so environmentally damaged as to be unfit for human habitation. Where the village once stood, thousands of bodies were buried. Today, visitors find one of the most unusual cemetery configurations on the Western Front: a French and a German military cemetery adjoin one another, meeting in one corner where no fences, walls, or boundaries separate the two cities of the dead. 

Here is the final resting place of 5,150 French, 7,526 Germans, and 54 Russians.  Only half of those buried at Cerny-en-Laonnois were able to be identified; the rest lie in mass graves or ossuaries. Nearby, memorials are also dedicated to the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (part of the British Army known as the “Old Contemptibles”) and the 38th African Infantry Division (which included troops from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria).  Following the Second World War, a memorial chapel was privately built at the site “to further the reconciliation of people by the memory of their sons killed on opposing sides of the battlefield.”**

A year after the war ended, French poet René Arcos published Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others).  His poem “The Dead,” describes enemies joined by shared suffering and loss. 

The Dead
Grave in No Man's Land,
Margaret Hall, 1918-1919
Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The widows’ veils
In the wind
All blow the one way.

And the mingling tears
Of the million sorrows riverwards
All flow the one way.

Rank by rank, shoulder to shoulder
The bannerless, unhating dead,
Hair plastered down with clotted blood,
The dead all lie the one way.

In the single clay, where unendingly
The dying and the coming worlds make one,
The dead today are brothers, brow to brow,
Doing penance for the same defeat.

Oh, go clash, divided sons,
And tear Humanity asunder
Into vain tatters of land—
The dead all lie the one way;

For in the earth there remains
But one homeland and one hope,
Just as for the Universe there is
But one battle and one victory.
            —René Arcos, translated by Ian Higgins

René Arcos
Fighting with the French, René Arcos was injured early in the war, but returned to the Western Front as an anti-war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.  In 1923, Arcos became editor-in-chief of the newly published literary magazine Europe. In the inaugural issue, he wrote,
We speak of Europe because our vast peninsula, between the East and the New World, is the crossroads where civilisations meet. But it is to all peoples that we address ourselves … in the hope of averting the tragic misunderstandings that currently divide humanity …. It is urgent that we learn to look higher than all the interests, the passions, the selfishness of individuals and ethnic groups. There can be no victory won by man against man.***
† Further photos and information on Cerny-en-Laonnais and Arcos' "The Dead" can be found at https://theheartthrills.wordpress.com/tag/rene-arcos/
* Cerny-en-Laonnois,” Commémoration du Centenaire de la Bataille du Chemin des Dames, Dimanche 16 avril 2017, p. 36, www.chemindesdames.fr/fr/le-chemin-des-dames/visiter/les-lieux-de-memoire/les-principaux-sites/cerny-en-laonnois-la-chapelle, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
** Etienne Verkindt, “Cerny-en-Laonnois: la Chapelle-Mémorial et les cimetières français et allemande,” Le Chemin des Dames, www.chemindesdames.fr/fr/le-chemin-des-dames/visiter/les-lieux-de-memoire/les-principaux-sites/cerny-en-laonnois-la-chapelle, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
*** René Arcos, “Patrie Européenne,” Europe, No. 1, February 1923, pp. 110, 113, gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5442334h, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.


  1. My maternal Grandfather was an Old Contemptible with the Royal Field Artillery. He joined as a boy soldier in 1905 and by August 1914 was a Sergeant. He was commissioned as an Officer in November 1914 - that would never have happened to a working class lad in peace time. Andrew Thornton has researched the Old Contemptibles and written books about them. He says: "To be a Chum of The Old Contemptibles’ Association was considered by those who bore that title to be part of an exclusive fellowship, forged by fire and blood during the first months of the Great War in 1914." Grandfather lost his job in Government cuts in 1923 but joined the Territorial Army the same day and served again during the Second World War, commanding a Gun Site in Kent, UK. He was Chairman of his local Old Contempibles branch in Kent. The Old Contemptibles Association was founded by Captain J. P. Danny, RA, on 25 June 1925. Membership was limited to veterans of the regular army who had served in the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders within range of enemy artillery during the period 5 August to 22 November 1914 and had thus taken part in the desperate early battles and retreats before the advancing German forces, before the tide turned and the allies counterattacked at the Battle of the Marne. The Association took its name from a notorious Order of the Day issued by the Kaiser in August 1914 which referred disparagingly to Sir John French’s ‘contemptible little army’. The derogatory title was adopted enthusiastically by soldiers in the BEF. The Association had 178 branches in the UK & 14 overseas branches. It produced its own magazine The Old Contemptible & all members were known as “chums”. The Association’s national organisation was wound up in the 1970s but in London and the South East it continued until 1994.

  2. I forgot to say there were also women who were Old Contemptibles - they had been nurses under fire. Andrew Thornton has a list of them.

  3. Thank you for sharing your family history and Andrew Thornton's rich research.