Winner of the 1976 National Book Award for Arts & Letters, Paul Fussell’s accomplishment, The Great War and Modern Memory, was (in the words of Lionel Trilling) “an original and brilliant piece of cultural history and one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time.” It was listed as #75 in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century. A short vignette:
A memorable instance of the prevailing urge towards myth is the desire felt by everyone to make something significant of the famous leaning Virgin and Child atop the ruined Basilica at Albert. No one wanted it to remain what it literally was, merely an accidentally damaged third-rate gilded metal statue now so tenuously fixed to its tower that it might fall any moment. Myth busily attached portentous meaning to it.
Mystical prophecy was first. The war would end, the rumor went, when the statue finally fell to the street. Germans and British shared this belief, and both tried to knock the statue down with artillery. When this proved harder than it looked, the Germans promulgated the belief that the side that shot down the Virgin would lose the war. This is the prophecy recalled by Stephen Southwold, who associates the wonders attaching to the leaning Virgin with those ascribed to miraculously preserved front-line crucifixes:
There were dozens of miracle-rumors of crucifixes and Madonnas left standing amid chaos. In a few cases the image dripped blood or spoke words of prophecy concerning the duration of the war, .round the hanging Virgin of Albert Cathedral there gathered a host of these rumored prophecies, wonders and marvels, the chief one being that whichever side should bring her down was destined to lose the war.
The statue remained hanging until April, 1918, after the British had given up Albert to the Germans. Determined that the Germans not use the tower for an artillery observation post, the British turned heavy guns on it and brought it down, statue and all. Frank Richards was there:
The Germans were now in possession of Albert and were dug in some distance in front of it, and we were in trenches opposite them. The upside-down statue on the ruined church was still hanging. Every morning our bombing planes were going over and bombing the town and our artillery were constantly shelling it, but the statue seemed to be bearing a charmed existence. We were watching the statue one morning. Our heavy shells were bursting around the church tower, and when the stroke cleared away after the explosion of one big shell the statue was missing.
It was a great opportunity for the propagandists:
Some of our newspapers said that the Germans had wantonly destroyed it, which I expect was believed by the people that read them at the time.
But while the statue was still there, dangling below the horizontal, it was seen and interpreted by hundreds of thousands of men, who readily responded with significant moral metaphors and implicit allegorical myths. “The melodrama of it,” says Carrington “rose strongly in our hearts.”
The most obvious “meaning” of the phenomenon was clear: it was an emblem of pathos, of the effect of war on the innocent, on women and children especially. For some, the Virgin was throwing the Child down into the battle, offering Him as a sacrifice which might end the slaughter. This was the interpretation of Paul Maze, a French liaison NCO, who half-posited “a miracle” in the Virgin’s precarious maintenance of her position: “Still holding the infant Jesus in her outstretched arms,” he says, “the statue of the Virgin Mary, in spite of many hits, still held on top of the spire as if by a miracle. The precarious angle at which she now leaned forward gave her a despairing gesture, as though she were throwing the child into the battle.” Philip Gibbs interpreted the Virgin’s gesture similarly, as a “peace-offering to this world at war.”
Others saw her action not as a sacrifice but as an act of mercy: she was reaching out to save her child, who — like a soldier — was about to fall. Thus S. S. Horsley in July, 1916: “Marched through Albert where we saw the famous church with the statue of Madonna and Child hanging from the top of the steeple, at an angle of about 400 as if the Madonna was leaning down to catch the child which had fallen.” Still others took her posture to signify the utmost grief over the cruelties being played out on the Somme. “The figure once stood triumphant on the cathedral tower,” says Max Plowman; “now it is bowed as by the last extremity of grief.” And to some, her attitude seemed suicidal: she was “diving,” apparently intent on destroying herself and her Child with her. But regardless of the way one interpreted the Virgin’s predicament, one’s rhetoric tended to turn archaic and poetic when one thought of her.
To Stephen Graham, what the Virgin is doing is “yearning”: “The leaning Virgin . . . hung out from the stricken tower of the mighty masonry of the Cathedral-church, and yearned o’er the city.” The poeticism o’er is appropriate to the Virgin’s high (if vague) portent. In the next sentence Graham lays aside that particular signal of the momentous and resumes with mere over, which marks the passage from metaphor back to mere cliche: “The miracle of her suspense in air over Albert was a never-ceasing wonder. . . .”
Whatever myth one contrived for the leaning Virgin, one never forgot her or her almost “literary” entreaty that she be mythified. As late as 1949 Blunden is still not just remembering her but writing a poem of almost too lines, “When the Statue Fell,” imagined as spoken to a child by her grandfather. The child has asked,
“What was the strangest sight you ever saw?”
and the ancient responds by telling the story of Albert, its Basilica, the statue, its curious suspension, and its final fall, which he makes coincide with the end of the war.
And in 1948, when Osbert Sitwell remembered Armistice Day, 1918, and its pitiful hopes for perpetual peace, he did so in imagery which bears the deep impress of the image of the golden Virgin, although she is not mentioned at all. His first image, remarkably, seems to fuse the leaning Virgin of one war with the inverted hanging Mussolini of another:
After the Second World War, Winged Victory dangles from the sky like a gigantic draggled starling that has been hanged as a warning to other marauders: but in 1918, though we who had fought were even more disillusioned than our successors of the next conflict about a struggle in which it was plain that no great military leaders had been found, we were yet illusioned about the peace.
Having begun with a recall of the leaning Virgin as an ironic and broken Winged Victory, he goes on to remember, if subliminally, her bright gilding: “During the passage of more than four years, the worse the present had shown itself, the more golden the future . . . had become to our eyes.” But now, remembering the joy on the first Armistice Day, his mind, he says, goes back to two scenes.
In both gold is ironically intrusive: “First to the landscape of an early September morning, where the pale golden grasses held just the color of a harvest moon”: but the field of golden grasses is covered with English and German dead. “It was a superb morning,” he goes on,
such a morning, I would have hazarded, as that on which men, crowned with the vast hemicycles of their gold helmets, clashed swords at Mycenae, or outside the towers of Troy, only to be carried from the field to lie entombed in air and silence for millenniums under their stiff masks of virgin gold.
Thirty years after Sitwell first looked up and wondered what to make of her, the golden Virgin persists, called up as a ghost in his phrase virgin gold. Perhaps he thought he had forgotten her. Her permanence is a measure of the significance which myth, with an urgency born of the most touching need, attached to her.