This was the challenge set for me by Steve, editor of the pariscemeteries.com resource and compiler of a series of amazingly complete "Guide to the Art in Paris Cemeteries" books (the Père Lachaise edition being the most recent).
"I've been working on documenting all the sculpture in the cemeteries of Paris and came across a group of photos of a memorial and sculpture on the Gallica.fr website that I have yet to locate," said Steve. "The photos were taken sometime not long after the First World War and the subject is a very large memorial block with reliefs and a sculpture on top sitting smack in front of the chapel and the Adolph Thiers mausoleum in division 55 of PL.
What I'd like to know is the backstory to the memorial (who created it, etc.), why it was removed and where it went."
Steve sent me a photo, but there are indeed several similar pictures on the Gallica website. The photos are simply labelled "Le monument aux morts de la guerre au Père Lachaise", and an inscription is visible on the front: "La ville de Paris aux morts pour la patrie".
With no online trace of the memorial, the only place to look was more closely at the photos themselves. Two things seemed a little unusual. All the photos on Gallica seemed to have been taken at the same event on the same day, so why did this well-attended event not become a yearly occurence? Secondly, zooming in on the memorial itself, it appeared that it might not be as solid as it first looked, and that there was something not unlike ripples on the stonework.
The definitive answer to this memorial mystery though came via a request sent out on Twitter, from @Ayack_fr:
— Ayack (@Ayack_fr) February 16, 2017
The newspaper article dating from Novemeber 2 1919 confirmed that the memorial was at the time simply a provisional model. Another newspaper (cutting below) gave even more details, pointing out that the 'monument' was a mock-up made of wood and fabric and improvised in a few days.
If there remains any mystery it is perhaps why a solid version was never made afterwards, but I'm not sure I would ever find an answer to this question. Could certain elements have survived though, and where could they be today? The article mentions the statue by a certain M. Dieuport, but above all the four painted 'bas-reliefs' representing 'departure', 'trenches', 'gas' and 'death' on the four sides of the memorial. The two artists mentioned are Lucien Martial who seems to have enjoyed a long and successful life, despite being shot in the lung as a young soldier himself in WW1, and a certain Pierre Paltz. I cannot be certain that it is the same person, but a grave exists in the same Père Lachaise cemetery for an artist named Gustave Pierre Paltz who died in 1921 aged only 36. If this is the same person, it would add an additional level of pathos to the story...
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!