First World War and Semiotics

Categories: Semiotics

The forces that led to the rise of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th century were diverse and complex. New social norms, a conception of history that was increasingly Hegelian, the development of empiricism and the concomitant loss of conviction in the Renaissance tradition, industrialization and the rise of mechanization—all of these contributed to its growth and eventual flowering. Yet there can be no question that modernism, insofar as it can be characterized as a unified phenomenon, reached it most mature expression after, and partly as a result of, WWI.

The war was a crucible into which the cultural sensibilities of the Western world were poured, and the artistic spirit that emerged had been fundamentally changed. The tremendous sense of loss and devastation caused a profound shift in attitudes towards traditional modes and expressions of authority. In addition, the shock and horror of modern warfare forced a generation of artists to find new methods of conveying experience. There was something about the scale and nature of the bloodshed that seemed to render traditional means of expression wholly insufficient.

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One of the great English war poets of the era, Wilfred Owen, captures this feeling in his poem Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons…

…The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall

Their flowers, the tenderness of patient minds

And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

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If we are to believe, as Umberto Eco asserts in his essay Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture, that “semiotics…is really to be a science studying all cultural phenomena as if they were systems of signs—on the hypothesis that all cultural phenomena are, in reality, systems of signs…” then surely one way to frame what Owen delineates is as an inadequacy of the traditional communicative “signs,” or at least as an incongruity between their signifying power and the reality of World War I. Owen’s realization was that the referent had changed—the current war was categorically different from wars that had come before, and so new signs were necessary. In his account, every traditional sign vehicle for mourning the dead is—or will be—transformed and transferred to something either harsher, huger, or more abstract. No longer, for instance, would passing bells suffice to toll the dead—they die too rapidly, and with too little dignity. The “monstrous anger of the guns” that replaces the bells is many degrees less human but is more commensurate with the nature of the inhumane slaughter of trench warfare. A sense of the sublime creeps in—for instance, the “drawing down of blinds,” which was historically a symbol of mourning, is transformed in both scale and temporal scope to become the setting of the sun.

Owen’s poem demonstrates a clear example—metaphorical though it may be—of the way sign vehicles were transformed through what Eco would call “loss and substitution” by World War I. If the semiotic analogy holds, is it possible we can recognize the same pattern of loss and substitution demonstrated by Wilfred Owen in the architecture that was a direct output of the war? And might that semiotic shift be one of the many mechanisms by which the war shaped modernism? It does seem, at least, that the connotative power of traditional architectural symbols underwent a similar crisis of inadequacy during the war. A comparison of two structures that are intimately bound up with the conflict—a pair of English war memorials—may be instructive. Historian Jay Winter calls the war memorials of WWI “foci of the rituals, rhetoric, and ceremonies of bereavement,” and so they should offer sufficient semiotic richness to examine the idea.

The Menin Gate, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1921 and completed in 1927, sits on the eastern edge of the Belgian city of Ypres and commemorates British soldiers killed at the Ypres salient in WWI. The general form of the monument is an extruded triumphal arch with a central vaulted hall formed along the axis of the extrusion. The memorial, though some of its interior details are simplified, is essentially Classical and partakes overtly in the form of the triumphal arch. In fact, a direct line can be traced from the Menin gate through the Wellington Arch all the way back to the Arch of Constantine in the 4th century. The reference is plain and accessible. The red brick and limestone monument is composed of a Doric order on a podium, one major arcuated opening flanked by two minor trabeated openings, a tall attic, and statuary and carvings that characterize the type, including festoons that fill the spandrels of the main arch, an imperial lion perched atop the attic, and patriotic inscriptions—“Pro Patria” and “Pro Rege” (“For the Fatherland” and “For the King,” respectively)—above the minor openings. Another renowned English war poet of the time, Siegfried Sassoon, wrote a poem entitled On Passing the New Menin Gate—a response to Blomfield’s memorial. The poem asks with no little cynicism:

Who will remember passing through this gate

The unheroic dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?…

… Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.

Was ever an immolation so belied

as these intolerably nameless names?…

Sassoon, like Owen, recognized the incongruity between the traditional sign vehicle—the triumphal arch, and the referent—the reality of modern warfare. The triumphal arch, especially in its associations to war, has deeply ingrained cultural connotations whose roots stretch back two millennia. Whether sepulchral or triumphal, the arch has, through recurrent association, been tied to ideas of glory, victory on the battlefield, noble death, and deific honor. How, Sassoon implies, can these forms still signify? In his assessment, there was nothing noble, triumphant, or honorable about the loss of English life in WWI, so why should memorials be constructed whose evocations and semiotic implications are so divorced from the truth of what they are meant to memorialize? It was clear that there needed to be room in the semiotic lexicon to address the dialectic between war as patriotic, honorable—even uplifting, and war as tragic, futile, and unspeakably sad.

In 1925, English architect Edwin Lutyens designed a monument in Thiepval, France dedicated to the missing of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest battles in history, with total casualties exceeding one million men. Like the Menin Gate, the Thiepval Memorial is also a red brick and limestone structure, and, like the gate, it derives from the same source—the Roman triumphal arch. And yet in Lutyens’ memorial, the sign vehicle is so transformed that its resemblance to the type seems almost incidental. Lutyens imposes several transformations on the type that move the monument:

  1. from the triumphal toward the melancholy,
  2. from the specifically referential to the coldly abstract,
  3. from calm balance toward restless tension, and
  4. from the sweetly sentimental toward the sublime.

Reduced to its most basic expression, the monument is an intersection of two triumphal arches—one larger, one smaller—which penetrate each other and merge in a pyramidal fashion. This was an entirely new concept, without Classical precedent. The interpenetration of the two forms generates a visual tension and allows them to be read as overlapping and simultaneous, generating a condition that Colin Rowe termed a “phenomenal transparency.” Even though many of the moldings in the base of the structure are derived from the Tuscan order, Lutyens denies its full expression in the monument, choosing Nothing projects—there are only recessions as the building rises. Lutyens manipulates the sense of the buildings mass in order to make it appear larger, more sublime. Lutyens employee and later biographer ASG Butler described it as “a solid geometrical composition of arches and their supports, more advanced than anything Lutyens had previously done towards complete abstraction.” Every move is one of either a suppression of expected detail, a manipulation of the mass to increase scale, an inversion of structural principles, and, in general, a move toward general abstraction.

Coming to terms with the reality and legacy of the war was one of the preoccupations of the post-war modernist movement. Through the symbiotic principles of imitation and invention, Lutyens was able to reimagine the war memorial in a fashion that corresponded with the overwhelming tragedy of WWI. Whether Lutyens’ memorial was a response to shifting attitudes, an expression of a personal artistic development, or neither is difficult to say. What is clear though, is that it was characteristic of a growing artistic trend that gave rise to 20th century modernism. Lutyens himself seemed to be aware that he was at the transition of an age. Returning to London from his work on the Thiepval memorial he wrote, “Here I am, glad to be back—and a little sad that the graves work is closed…and now what will a new era bring?”

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First World War and Semiotics. (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved from

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