The Lions of Antietam and Verdun

Paul Landowski’s ‘France,’ with his ‘Les Fantomes’ in the background. On the Butte Chalmont near Oulchy-le-Château in the Aisne, commemorating the French troops of the Second Battle of the Marne. Landowski is perhaps best known for his major piece ‘Christ the Reedemer,’ which towers over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In June 2023 I had the privilege of a historian’s lifetime to be included on a trip to view and explore the campaigns of the First World War in Belgium and France. So often, as our tour bus rolled along the lines of the Allied and Central powers, my mind wandered to the war I have spent much of my life studying. Civil War historians can be insufferable this way and I am grateful to my companions on this excursion for their forbearance as I commented on the similarities and differences between the two great conflicts; which were, though we might not often think of it this way today, separated by a mere half century of human history.

The monumentation on the battlefields of World War 1 is distinguished (in my mind) by its size and the emotion it conveys. The nations that fought in The Great War each adopted a distinct style in their efforts to pay tribute to their fallen and wounded sons and daughters — their cemeteries also differ greatly in their form and design — from small and scattered burial grounds near where soldiers fell to mass burial sites where thousands are interred. Many ECW readers will know that Dwight Eisenhower was personally charged by John Pershing to select the sites of many of the American monuments. The future Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force of the Second World War located beautiful ground for their erection, allowing visitors to view the war’s battlefields from commanding pieces of high ground.

Moe does his best imitation of the lion atop the 15th Massachusetts Monument.

Like many ECW readers, I have a personal list of a handful of Civil War monuments that are particularly moving or meaningful to me. One is the monument to the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry and 14th New York Independent Battery at Gettysburg; another is the cluster of six graves of the Wisconsin Color Guard overlooking the Tennessee River in the National Military Cemetery at Shiloh; and the last is the monument to the 15th Massachusetts Volunteers at Antietam — the “Wounded Lion.”

The Wounded Lion monument was sculpted by Andrew O’Connor, a native of Scotland who immigrated to New England as a young boy in the 1850s. In addition to the Antietam monument, O’Connor also sculpted the monument for the 15th Mass. at Gettysburg, though that monument is not nearly so impressive–the unit’s losses having been much more substantial in the defense of Maryland than they would be in the later fight for Pennsylvania.

At Antietam, the regiment experienced some of the battle’s most brutal fighting: “Within twenty minutes,” the monument text explains, “330 had fallen, 75 killed and 255 wounded, 43 dying of wounds.”

In the aftermath of the battle one soldier from the regiment wrote to the father of a friend who perished in the fight for the West Woods, to offer his sympathy and to try to ameliorate the anxiety and distress of a family who might never find the body of the son they lost in the war:

“Perhaps you don’t know how we bury the dead. Let me tell you about this particular trench and it will suffice for the whole. The trench in w[h]ich Henry is buried is situated near a log cabin just out side the garden fence. I believe its on the West side. The trench was 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 3 feet deep. The corp[s]es were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. are put together. Co. H was buried first in the u[p]per end of the trench next [to] the woods. They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep. Henry is the third corpse from the upper end on the top tier next to the woods. Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home. I am sorry, but I was too late to have it different. Then there is a board put up at each end of the trench with the simple inscription, ‘15th Mass. buried here.’ There is 39 men in the trench with Henry.”

The dedication of the monument to the 15th Massachusetts Regiment — the sculpture cost $2000, plus the cost of purchasing a parcel of land for its placement from George Pfaffenberger.

Looking back today the monument that the regiment dedicated in 1900 seems a fitting tribute to the emotion and struggle with loss conveyed in Roland Bowen’s letter to Henry Ainsworth’s father, Elam. According to Fox’s Regimental Losses, the 15th’s fight at Antietam resulted in the fourth most losses of any unit in troops killed or mortally wounded in a single engagement during the war, with 98 men. Only the 5th new York at Manassas (117 men), and the 15th New Jersey (116 men) and 49th Pennsylvania (109 men), both at Spotsylvania, counted greater single day death totals during the entirety of the conflict.

The Wounded Lion of Verdun

Dedicated to the French 130th Division in 1922 (the year the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC), the Monument du Lion marks the extent of the German advance on Verdun on June 23, 1916. Verdun, Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote during the Civil War’s centenary in 1963, was “a vital part of the story of the unmitigated savagery that mankind had to endure, and by which man’s spirit was mutilated, in the First World War.”

No Americans fought in an official capacity at Verdun — it was a battle waged between France and Germany for 10 months in late 1915 through much of 1916. Verdun was a city of symbolic importance and it was no accident the Germans focused so much attention there, where they hoped to wage a war of attrition that grind France’s resources, in men and materiel, to dust.

A treaty signed at Verdun in the year 843 had divided the Carolingian Empire into three parts among the grandsons of Charlemagne, who had united much of present day France and Germany (and some of Italy) under his formidable rule. He was crowned emperor at Rome in 800 as a sign of his triumph over Europe. Verdun, then, was the place where Germany and France had once been cleaved apart — and it was where the Germans, led by General Erich von Falkenhayn, intended to force France back under their national banner.

French General Robert Nivelle’s exhortation to the defenders of Verdun became an iconic battle cry — “On ne Passe pas [They Shall Not Pass], and the wounded lion memorializes the French efforts to make that exclamation a reality. Sculpted by René Paris, a veteran from the 130th who occupied the French lines at the location of the memorial, the wounded lion takes the iconic symbol of the German Army and shows the king of the jungle brought down and at the limit of its strength. The lion has no claws, a signifier of the French victory in taming the ferocious Germans.

Wounded French troops at Verdun

Elsewhere on the massive Verdun battlefield is an ossuary, containing the remains of both French and German soldiers who were not identifiable in the aftermath of battle. At least 130,000 men are interred in the Douaumont ossuary, and another 16,000 French dead rest nearby in the single largest French cemetery of the First World War.

In the end, the two lions are very different monuments, but they are bound together by a common idea that will strike any of us who study war. We all strive, I think, to try to make some sense out of reading and learning about events in which hundreds of thousands of people died, sometimes for fighting for causes we deem reprehensible, others for justice, but more often than not fighting for reasons that may have seemed opaque, even to them.

On May 23, 1916, a young Frenchman named Alfred Joubaire recorded his impressions of the fight at Verdun to save his homeland: “Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre. What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!” He was killed, aged 21, by a German artillery shell the next day.

Siegfried Sassoon, an influential English poet who served with distinction throughout the First World War, wrote a poem that described a letter quite different to the one sent by Roland Bowen in 1862 — though the two men might have had much to talk about, should they have ever come to speak of their wars to one another.

The Hero
Siegfried Sassoon

‘JACK fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

7 Responses to The Lions of Antietam and Verdun

  1. Wow, the last poem’s powerful. Thanks for sharing. It’s cold, cruel and shocking, like the ossuary of skulls there and of course, war itself.

  2. The concept of the wounded lion actually predates the above monuments. The Lion of Lucerne (1821) and the Lion of Atlanta (1894) are similar and just as poignant. Great article!

  3. The Lion of Atlanta was memorial statuary that guarded the graves of unknown Confederate dead at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. No matter that it was a cemetery memorial, the Atlanta city council had it removed to an “undisclosed temporary location” in 2021. The proponents of its removal say that the monument represents Lost Cause Ideology, which ignores slavery as the main cause of the Civil War. So, what’s next? Dig up the graves?

  4. Charlemagne was crowned emperor in 800: he died in 814. To Dave D’s comment: that’s the reason I don’t visit Richmond or any monuments anymore. Too sad to visit the destruction of history by Woke liberals.

  5. Wonderfully written, Cecily. My wife Sue & I have seen most “major” Civil War battlefields; most Rev War battlefields(our main interest) as well as Ypres, the Somme & Verdun. Verdun was by far the most evocative; just an absolutely spooky place to see. We could literally feel a ghostly presence at Verdun that I have never experienced on any other battlefield.

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