Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Armentières: A Gem of Postwar Reconstruction

Town Square Armentières

When the belligerents established their lines in October 1914, the town of Armentières found itself near the front. For the remainder of the war it was a key logistical center for the British Army and soldiers from across the Empire would be stationed there as they moved up and down the line. Their presence inspired the popular song "Mademoiselle from Armentieres." Death was ever present in the makeshift hospitals and the town suffered greatly from big German artillery. By 1917 poison gas shells had come into use, and the civilian population had to be evacuated. Occupied by the German Army during the Lys Offensive in April 1918, Armentières was totally destroyed in their retreat just a few weeks before the Armistice. Reconstruction was remarkably swift, and, in the process, the town gained a new visual identity inspired by Flemish architecture. 

In October 1914 the front line stabilized, and nearby Armentières, just 2 km distant, became a target for the fury of the German guns. Situated a good dozen miles south of Ypres, the main theater of operations, Armentières gained the nickname "The Nursery" because it was a quiet sector where newly arrived soldiers of the British Imperial Army were sent to familiarize themselves with trench warfare.

Factories in the town continued to produce for another two years until the increasing shelling, and the use of poison gas forced the inhabitants to gradually abandon the town. The remaining civilians were evacuated on 13 August 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres.

The Town After the Fighting of 1918

On 9 April 1918 the German Army launched Operation Georgette, also known as the Battle of the Lys, in an attempt to take control of the ports used by the British on the north coast of France. The Germans entered Armentières on 11 April. During their subsequent retreat on 2 October, they destroyed everything in the town that could be of use to the Allies. They even blew up the belfry which, after four years of war, had come to symbolize the town’s resistance.

By the end of the war three-quarters of Armentières was in ruins: 4,800 houses had been totally destroyed, another 2,400 severely damaged, and all the churches and public buildings were rubble and dust.

Architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier was selected to supervise reconstruction. He drew up plans for the town hall, Saint Vedast Church and the covered market (today the cultural venue Le Vivat). These buildings border the town square, or Grand Place, where stands the war memorial. In choosing for his designs a regional approach, characterized by red brickwork and high gables, Cordonnier sparked a "Flemish Renaissance" in Armentières. He had a similar influence in neighboring Bailleul, Comines, Merville, and Laventie. 

Town Hall

Modern town planning in France was born in the reconstruction of the towns and cities destroyed in the war. A law passed in 1919 required all councils responsible for more than 10,000 inhabitants to draw up plans describing the layout, decoration, and enlargement of their town with particular attention to be paid to main routes, water supply, and the sewer system. With the return of the townsfolk, who had had to leave their homes because of the fighting, reconstruction was not only urgent, it was also highly symbolic. People returned to Armentières at the rate of about 1,000 a month and were willing to invest their energy in the revival of the town.

Source: Remembrance Trails

No comments:

Post a Comment