Behind the Lines - Brittany

St. Anne d'Auray

One of the main Great War sites in Brittany is at St. Anne d'Auray. This small sombre town in south Brittany is a major religious site, and is centred around an abbey. It is a centre of pilgrimage, and the Pope himself gave a mass there one week after my visit. The town is home to the Breton Monument aux Morts which commemorates the 240,000 Breton dead of the Great War. In concept it is not dissimilar to that of the Scottish War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. The memorial consists of a large octagonal structure in which a high pointed roof covers a large altar. Below this is a crypt which contains five small altars, one for each of the five dioceses in Brittany.

According to the guide books, Brittany lost a higher proportion of its population - 1 in 14 -killed in the Great War than any other region of France. (This fact is also mentioned in "Mourir a Verdun" by Jean-Jacques Becker on p. 165 of "14-18 Mourir pour la patrie" pub May 1992, Editions du Seuil ISBN 2.02.014656.8) However, I have yet to see statistics that confirm or refute it.

The horse-shoe shaped enclosure in which the memorial sits is surrounded by a wall, some 200 yards long. This wall is a fascinating document (if a wall can indeed be a document). It lists every parish in Brittany and states how many men from each were killed during the war. In addition, many parishes have a list of some of their soldiers' names and ranks. A total of 8,000 individual men are commemorated in this way. These are in fact relatives of the 8,000 or so members of the public who subscribed to the memorial. (I feel sure that a detailed analysis of this data in conjunction with prewar census data would reveal information about the effect of the war on the region's population.) The wall also lists the Breton regiments with their battle honours and has 12 carvings which illustrate the stations of the cross.

Nearby is a French military cemetery which contains 427 French and 274 Belgian graves from 1914-18. These are of men who died in hospitals in the region.

Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.

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