Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Mud and Misery

This highly evocative object is in the World War I galleries of the Musée de l'Armée in les Invalides. It is the mud-caked greatcoat and cape of Lieutenant Henri Gastaldi of the 72nd Infantry, killed at Hattonville in 1915. The items were donated to the museum by his family.

The coat is purposefully displayed horizontally and the mud has been deliberately left on the garment. It's what conservators sometimes call 'sacred dirt'. The acidic mud will eventually destroy the woollen fibres of the coat, but nevertheless curators have made the decision that to clean the item destroys something else of equal value -- the capacity for this garment to bring home the horror of the trenches in a way that a picture or text could not.
Loire Valley Nature: An entry has been added for Yellow Woundwort Stachys recta. This is a species of warm chalky grassland slopes.


  1. In 2010, the curator of the Alfred-Danicourt Museum at Péronne took Ken and me to the battlefields of the Bataille de la Somme. You have to see it with your own eyes to try and grasp what it could have been to live day in day out in the trenches. The Newfoundland site is well preserved and maintained; you still can see a maze of actual trenches. Very emotional.

    1. For those interested here is the Wikipedia link in English

    2. Yes, I've been to the Newfoundland Memorial site. It is very moving. It's almost impossible to imagine what it was really like though. Nowadayse everything is grassy, with wildflowers and sheep grazing.

  2. Very poignant...
    it will take time in museum conditions for that coat to totally decay at the bottom...
    until then we all get a reminder of the horror....
    nicely presented too...
    and to me, presented horizontally, indicates a fallen warrior very well!

    I was only thinking yesterday, with the chicory still gloriously in flower on the 11th of the 11th....
    that that original memorial you blogged about...
    the one that had the chicory flower, rather than the cornflower on it...
    had the right flower... even the chicories that I mow over, flower time and again afterwards...
    the currently recognized "bluet" is short-lived and is up and over very quickly...
    the chicory would have sprung back up whenever there was a lull...
    as would the poppy... one was in flower here last week... and we need to remember that they had some pretty extreme weather conditions to contend with a century ago as well.

    A friend, who was "into battlefields", commented to me about the Somme preservation that they should keep it as bare earth... he didn't like the grassy sward either... reckoned that it looked too clean...
    almost as if the battle had never happened!!

    1. Now that you've pointed it out, I too am beginning to wonder if the flower they actually chose was chicory, not cornflower. Perhaps they were just rubbish at flower names and misidentified it. There is no evidence that I know of that country folk called chicory 'bluet' for example which might account for the mistake, but perhaps it is something like that.

      That mud caked coat is a truly inspired exhibit. I had to leave the museum after getting to it. The rest of WWI was just too much. They'll never be able to lend it. It will be too fragile. But it is just about the perfect artefact.

      If you are primed with enough prior knowledge when you visit the battlefields the contrast between then and now can be very eery and effective, but sometimes it's just pretty countryside. Managing the site if it was all muddy would be a nightmare, so how they've done it, where you can get down into part of the trench, even if it is all grassy and full of flowers, is still interesting and educational.

  3. Visiting the graves of my two great uncles who died in the Gret War was an emotional time for me.
    Even more so seeing the name of a third whosename is on a memorial as he died as part if the expecitionary force in 1914. His name was Enoch and he was just seventeen.
    Reminding us of the horror and pointlessness of this war can do no harm, possibly a little good, although it does nothing to deter some from unending waste of human life and unthinkable cruelty.

    1. I think everyone should visit the war cemeteries of north western France for a day. The sheer number and the youth of the dead buried here could not fail to make an impact.