While writing her proposal essay for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) competition, Maya Lin was influenced by the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France. Designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, this WWI memorial honors 72,000 Britons, Indians and South Africans who went missing from the Somme battlefield, primarily during five months in 1916. The VVM honors 58,000 dead and missing during 20 years from 1956 to 1975. Lin’s essay emphasizes placement of the VVM within the context of the National Mall. I believe she was inspired by Thiepval’s site on a hill overlooking a cemetery. Lutyen’s memorial magnificently overwhelms the French countryside. While the VVM is overwhelming only when you get close to it, Lin’s work tends to be site specific, so it is natural that she would emphasize placement in her essay.
Lutyens’ Thiepval design interweaves six arches on a square of sixteen piers, spanning the length and width of the building. The arches increase in size as they decrease in number. Two north-south arches are intersected by two taller east-west arches, intersected by one even larger north-south arch, and finally intersected by the tallest east-west arch rising almost to the height of the edifice.
The names of the missing are engraved on the 16 piers. They are organized by British Army Order of Precedence, which determines how regiments appear on the parade ground. Within each regiment, names are listed by rank and within each rank, in alphabetical order. Like the VVM, the Thiepval memorial requires an index to locate individual names.
Also like the VVM, the arrangement places comrades close to each other. Prior to Vietnam, military personnel were often mustered into local regiments and sent off to war. In WWI, British towns sacrificed a generation of young men into fighting squads with names like Kensington Battalion and Cheshire Regiment. Organizing the missing of the Somme by unit not only combines those who fought together, but also those who lived together in their civilian towns. Military survivors remember comrades. Townspeople remember neighbors.
In traditional wars, like WWI, military personnel mustered together and fought together throughout the entire conflict. Survivors returned home at the same time and, if they won, they had a parade. Vietnam changed that. Individuals were sent at different times, stayed for a few years and returned alone. No parade and no comradeship within the entire regiment. Vietnam veterans remember those who served at the same time, not those who served in their unit several years before they arrived. For Vietnam veterans, chronology, not unit, gathers comrades together.
(My thanks to Peter Francis, Media & PR Manager of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for his invaluable help in my research on the Thiepval memorial.)