1918: French service of historical buildings and works of art protection at work

Commented by: Solène Amice

Material description

This picture shows the Service de protection des monuments et oeuvres d’art en zone des armées – the French service of historical buildings and works of art protection at work, taken in July 1918, by Maurice Bauche. Thanks to the labelling in the archives related to the photographer’s report, we assume it was taken in the department of Oise (North of Paris) but we cannot ascertain the exact location. This image is part of the archives of the ECPAD, the French agency of war images (Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense), Ivry-sur-Seine, France, (“Le service d’évacuation des œuvres d’art au travail”, SPA 22 CB 883) and it is part of the report “Les evacuations d’œuvres d’art dans le department de l’Oise”). This is a print made from a glass plate (dimension: 13 x 18 cm).

Teaser text

During the First World War on the Western Front, the Monuments historiques – the French administration of historical buildings – in collaboration with the French Army displaced thousands of works of art from their original place of conservation to warehouses away from the front.There were about twenty of them, located in the Paris area but also in many different parts of France away from the front line such as Toulouse, Dijon, Blois. This picture was taken by a photographer of the Section photographique et cinématographique de l’armée (SPCA) – the French service of war photography and cinematography – and has been preserved to document the conflict’s history.

Historical context 

From the very onset of the First World War, important French sites of heritage had been dramatically damaged. The shelling of the cathedral of Reims by German troops in September 1914 is one of the most well-known examples of these destructions in France. Though historical buildings were at the forefront of destructions, works of art preserved in museums, churches or castles scattered in the North of France were equally concerned. When the war broke out, there was no program in place to organize the protection of French heritage in case of war and so, destructions were particularly heavy during the first months. The systematic removal of pieces of art – at least public – listed as National Monuments and public collections in museums was decided only in May 1917, three years after the war began (Pichon-Meunier, 2012, 280-304). A military service for the preservation of historical buildings and works of art was established in August 1917 under the double supervision of the Ministry of Fine arts and the Ministry of War (Pichon-Meunier, 2012, 280-304). This service was separated in three different sections: Northern Front Section, Center Front Section and Eastern Front Section, each of them consisted of a chief section, some soldiers, a secretary, a driver and a photographer.

Image description and analysis 

The removals reached their apex in July 1918, a pivotal moment both in the war and in heritage preservation history (Amice, 2018, 171-185). The Marne-Reims Offensive, the last German offensive of the war took place mid-July 1918, before a combined French and American attack along the Marne that marks the first in a series of coordinated allied counter-offensives on the Western Front. This photograph was taken during this intense period of destructions in July 1918 – between the 1st and the 27th of July (according to ECPAD caption), the exact date is unknown.

This photograph shows a painting – for the moment we have no further information about its identity – which has been removed from its place of conservation, before its transportation toward a warehouse located in the department or even further away from the front. This painting depicting the portrait of a man with a book in his hand, certainly 19th century, could have been in a museum or a private collection, as a few private houses were also evacuated during this month (Amice, 2018, 192-201).

The soldiers who have already moved a few works of art appear to be on a break. The peaceful atmosphere of this scene and the smiling soldiers appear in stark contrast with the service’s intense activity due to the dramatic events unfolding close by. In fact, according to statistics from archives (Amice, 2018, 192-198) about thirty buildings (from museums up to churches and private houses) were evacuated in the department of Oise during this month, which corresponds to the peak of evacuation. However, the soldiers do not seem to act in haste.

A contrast can also be identified between the place – certainly the backyard of some house – its disorder, its dirtiness and the refinement of the painting that is being respectfully and piously cleaned by two soldiers. All these men are soldiers, except maybe the man in overalls on the right side. This photograph is really about the exchange of glances between the photographer (and now us as the observer of image) and the soldiers in the background as well as the man depicted in the portrait who also appears to be gazing at the camera, while the two others, maybe some officers, are totally absorbed by the painting, and seem unaware of being observed. We do not know who they are exactly, but the local service chief, architect André Collin, was most probably one of them.

Interpretation and commentary

Photography plays a major role on the Front line of the Great War (Guillot, 2017), and two main types of photographs related to heritage preservation can be identified: pictures on the front line by photographers attached to the service of preservation and pictures of works of art in warehouses. This photograph belongs to the first type that encompasses photographs of objects at their conservation place before removal, in order to prepare a future return but also a rather small number of photographs showing the moment of displacement and people performing it. This picture was taken by Maurice Bauche, a photographer for the SPCA, service of official French photographers (Fourestié, Gui, 2017, 61). He made a series of reports including this one entitled « L’évacuation d’oeuvres d’art dans le department de l’Oise » or the removal of works of art in Oise department. Many different kinds of images can be found in this report such as images of objects before their removal and historical buildings in ruins. However, most of the time, photographs are showing soldiers working or simply boxes containing objects, but only rarely do they show the direct contact between works of art unpacked and the men in charge of their preservation. That’s certainly why this is one of the most striking images related to this section at work.

With this play of glances and this strict separation between foreground and background, photographs such as this one highlight the dedicated effort to preserve national heritage and was certainly staged to show how well the French army still continued to care for art, even in the middle of carnage. Such a scene has to be understood in the context of a war of opinions between the French and the Germans. French heritage and its preservation played a major part in war propaganda. On the other side, in early 1917, the Germans had formed a service to protect heritage in occupied France (Kott, 2006) and were eager to point to France’s incapacity to preserve its own heritage. Although we do not know how broad the diffusion of this photograph was, we can assume that the purpose of such a staging was to prove French soldiers‘ interest for art.

This picture recalls a large movement of works of art that took place in Europe in the 20th century. Several thousands of works of art had been removed to storehouses away from the front by French administration during the conflict: although the exact number remains unknown, about 10 000 objects had been displaced by this section of the service (Amice, 2018, 197). After the war, these objects had to be returned to their lawful owner and this movement of return lasted until the mid-20’, maybe even after. Though most of the objects appear to have been safely returned to their original place of conservation, this question needs further inquiries.

Bibliography : 

Amice, Solène, Les Soldats de l’art. Protéger le patrimoine français durant la Grande Guerre (1913-1924), master thesis in heritage history written under the supervision of Julie Verlaine (associate professor in contemporary history), Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, May 2018.

Fourestié, Anne, Gui, Isabelle, Photographier le patrimoine aux 19e  et 20e siècles, Histoire de la collection photographique de la Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine (1839-1989), Paris : Hermann, 2017.

Guillot, Hélène, Les Soldats de la mémoire. La Section photographique de l’armée, 1915-1919, Nanterre : Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2017.

Kott, Christina, Préserver l’art de l’ennemi ? Le patrimoine en Belgique et en France occupées, 1914-1918, Bruxelles : Peter Lang, 2006.

Pichon-Meunier, Gaëlle, « Le service de protection et d’évacuation des œuvres d’art pendant la Première Guerre mondiale : l’apport des archives de la Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine » in Philippe Nivet (dir.), Guerre et patrimoine artistique à l’époque contemporaine, Amiens : Encrage Édition (coll. « Hier »), 2013, 280-304.

Archives : 

Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD), Charenton-le-Pont, SPA 22 CB 883, “Le service d’évacuation des œuvres d’art au travail”, in “Les evacuations d’œuvres d’art dans le department de l’Oise”, Maurice Bauche, July 1918, glass plate, 13 x 18 cm.


Cite this article as:
1918: French service of historical buildings and works of art protection at work, commented by 
Solène Amice, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1918-french-service-of-historical-buildings-and-works-of-art-protection-at-work, published 16/05/2018.