Thursday, 10 November 2011

From the archives: The First World War at the Gare de l'Est

This post was first published on this blog three years ago (have I really been running the blog for that long?), but is still just as relevant today. As content sometimes tends to get lost on blogs, I thought I'd republish it for people who many not have time to waste sifting through the archives!

The eleventh day of the eleventh month is better known as the Armistace, the day when the First World War was finally brought to an end. Strangely, Paris does not have a monument to commemorate this conflict, but there is one place in the city you can visit which is still imbued with memories – the Gare de l’Est.

The war ended famously in a train carriage in the forests of Compiegne just outside Paris, but for many it also began in trains, at the Gare de l’Est. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sent out to the eastern front-lines from this station, and the Hall des Departs was a permanent buzz of comings and goings. Despite a recent renovation to welcome the TGV Est, this departure hall retains its original structure, and you can still imagine young recruits joking and laughing, couples saying tearful goodbyes and children waving to disappearing fathers. Most thought these separations would be simply an au revoir, but for more than 1 million French soldiers, it was an adieu.

The significance of this site is celebrated in a painting which still hangs today in the hall, although it now has to compete with the bright lights of retail outlets and flashing information screens. Most visitors to the station rush through, perhaps quickly grabbing a drink or a magazine before catching a train, but this immense, remarkable painting, entitled ‘Le Depart des Poilus, le 2 aout 1914’, deserves greater consideration.

The canvas, more than 60m2 in size, is the work of the American artist, Albert Herter. He presented it to the company running the station in 1926, but it was more than just a generous gift. Herter lost a son in the conflict, and the painting is a monumental tribute to his memory. Executed in soft, melancholic blues, greys and browns, it describes a scene which would have been a typical one in this railway location during the conflict.

When we investigate more closely however, we find that it contains not only universal themes but also intensely personal details. It is in fact a fantastic montage built around a triangular trinity of the father, the mother and the departing, soon to be dearly departed son. The artist/father is on the right-hand side, whilst his wife (the artist Adele McGinnis Herter) is facing him on the opposite side of the painting. Both seem to already be in mourning, with the father carrying a bouquet of flowers, hand upon heart, and the mother clasping her hands together. They seem elderly, certainly older than they would have been in 1914, and probably closer to their physical appearance in 1926.


It is the son, Everit, however who is the principal, central focus of the composition. At first glance he seems triumphant and unconcerned, with his arms held aloft whilst people at his feet weep and embrace. Look more closely though, and you’ll notice the flowers sticking out of the rifle in his hand and his head thrown back. With the knowledge of what became of Everit in mind, you may notice that his arms form a cross, and that he seems almost to be a Christ-like, sacrificial figure.

Everit Herter, like his father and mother before him, had chosen an artistic path, and had studied to be a painter. His privileged background offered him no protection, and indeed it was almost a rite of passage for the wealthy young men of his generation to sign up for this ‘just’ cause. His father had spent several years in France, and perhaps this explains why Everit signed up with the French army. Tragically, Everit was killed only months before the armistice. He was one of the wasted generation, but a spark of that youth is forever immortalised through the defiant figure depicted in this painting.

8 comments:

Jason Shockley said...

Bonjour, I think you will like this:

http://www.etsy.com/people/bonjourfrenchie?ref=si_pr

♥BonjourFrenchie♥

Owen said...

Thanks for sharing this Adam. In all the years I've lived in or near Paris, I don't think I've ever gone into the Gare de l'Est, never taken a train from there. But the next time I'm in the neighbourhood, I will go take a look at the painting. What a gift to the memory of his son. So many bereft parents, spouses, children, relatives left grieving after that conflict. Seems unreal today. And it is surprising that Paris doesn't have a monument to WWI, as nearly every town in France has one... are you sure of that ? I wonder. Paris must have lost thousands of its young men, surely their names are carved in stone somewhere ?

Owen said...

A little bit of information here :

http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/page/affichepage.php?idLang=fr&idPage=19006

At least there is a plaque in the Eglise St Gervais, where an artillery shell fired from a long range gun killed 90 some people in March 1918. At least one of those gun emplacements is still visible in the woods, from what I understand, near Villers-Coterets. Maybe when the 100 year anniversary of the war (start ? end ?) comes around Paris could consider creating a memorial...

Rache said...

thanks for re-posting this . . . I linked to it on my facebook page for my American veteran friends.

Tara said...

Thank you Adam. Living in the 10th, Gare de l'Est is one of my local stations & never once have I considered this painting.
To mark Armistice Day, I visited Hotel Nissim de Camondo. It was a poignant visit but at the same time a little selfish - to be appreciating a city's gain / feeling sorry for a family's tragic loss.

Richard said...

As usual Adam, a great big 'thank you' for (re)publishing this post. I often wander down to the Gare de L'est before heading back to UK from Gare du Nord as I'm usually insaneely early - all those years of going by plan and having to check in hours early!

As such it's a familiar friend and I was glad to see it in the restored station. Again like as with a familiar friend I knew a lot but not everything that is in your post - especially the details concerning Everit and his mother as most of the information (certainly on the plaque in the station and elsewhere) concerns Albert Herter.

Thank you again.

Peter said...

I had noticed the painting and even briefly posted about it, but this reading, so complete, really puts the full value to it! Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I don't think Everit joined the French army. At the least, he died with the AEF. If I remember the cemetary superintendent, Everit was killed by an artillery shell. AMBC bio:

Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army
40th Engineer Regiment
Entered the Service from: New York
Died: June 13, 1918
Buried at: Plot A Row 13 Grave 59
Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
Belleau, France

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