First World War memorial set within the Promenade de Verdun war memorial landscape.
Reasons for Designation
The Promenade de Verdun war memorial is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: as an eloquent and highly unusual witness to commemorate French sacrifices on the Western Front;
* Design: as an elegant and well-executed granite obelisk, forming a fitting terminus to the memorial avenue;
* Group value: with the war memorial landscape, registered at Grade II.
The aftermath of the First World War saw the biggest single wave of public commemoration ever with tens of thousands of memorials erected across England. ‘Roads of Remembrance as War Memorials’, a pamphlet published in 1920, advocated the planting of trees along existing highways, as well as the construction of new roads as memorials.
The Promenade de Verdun memorial landscape was created by William Webb (1862-1930) in 1922. Webb conceived the idea of creating an Anglo-French memorial as ‘a tribute to our fallen neighbours’ to commemorate French sacrifices on the Western Front. Webb, an estate agent born in Croydon, bought 260 acres of farmland near Purley to create the ‘Garden First’ estate at Woodcote. He stated ‘the name Garden First means that the garden shall not only have prominence but that partial garden construction shall be carried out before any buildings are erected so that there may be pleasant shade of trees and the shelter afforded by live hedges and matured shrubs before the first houses are built’. Upper Woodcote Model Village with the village green as its focal point was the first part of the estate to be developed in about 1903 with much of the rest laid out later up until about 1916.
The Battle of Verdun in 1916 was the longest single battle of the First World War. The loss of life and those wounded was huge. Verdun is located between Germany and Paris and its rich history endowed it with mythic status in the French psyche, a fact known to he German Commander-in-Chief Von Falkenhayn when he launched a siege of its fortifications in February 1916. He knew that the French would never abandon Verdun but he failed to break through to the town and finally abandoned the operation in December 1916 after almost a million soldiers had been killed. The ordeal of Verdun is even more deeply ingrained in the French consciousness than the Somme is in the British. It was a national struggle, a battle for the survival, the honour, and the sacred heart of France.
Webb wrote a short article on the memorial for the Purley Review in 1927, on the occasion of a visit by the French President, Alexandre Millerand, to England, in which he explained the rationale behind the construction of the monument. When relations between England and France, which King Edward VII had fostered and the war reinforced, might become strained in the future, Webb hoped that the tribute would cement the friendship between the two nations. He referred to the year 1923 when differences of opinion between France and England were acute, and some of the French papers mentioned the Promenade de Verdun as evidence that public opinion in England was more sympathetic to France than Britain's politicians led them to believe. There are several tree memorials in Britain to Verdun and a number of streets named after the battle.
Webb chose as the site for the memorial a gradual rise in the land: this suggested the opportunity for a road leading up to a tall obelisk as a focal point, from which views of five counties could be seen.
The obelisk was carved in a Cornish quarry by The London Granite Co. Ltd., from a single piece of stone. To ensure that the monument was safely transported to Purley a representative of the company accompanied it all the way.
The Lombardy poplars, typical of French roads, grow in a mixture of French and English soil. The French soil was donated by the French Minister of the Interior and 10 tons were transported from the ‘Field of Explosion’ near Armentieres (in French Flanders, not near Verdun) where the British and French had fought side-by-side in late 1914. The soil was so laden with shrapnel and bullets that to prevent the trees being damaged by souvenir hunters the soil was sifted and two sacks of projectiles extracted. The British Consul at Lille and the Institute Francais du Royaume Uni both helped to execute the project. It was a news item in the Croydon Advertiser in 1922 and in Country Life the following year where it was mentioned that the memorial shows that ‘we have not forgotten our comradeship in arms’.
Responsibility for the maintenance of the grass walk, Lombardy poplars and the obelisk was vested in Croydon Council in 1925. Many of the trees were lost in the 1987 storm, but replanting was carried out in 1989. Photographs from the 1960s indicate that the replacement trees were replanted a little further to the east from their original positions.
The Promenade de Verdun memorial landscape (registered at Grade II) is located on the Woodcote Estate in Purley. The memorial landscape consists of a long straight road, c 0.5km mile long and the only straight road on the Woodcote Estate, leading up to an obelisk memorial. The site was chosen for the memorial as there is a gradual rise in the land here from which views of five counties could originally be seen. The obelisk is an imposing architectural monument which acts as a focal point and is integral to the memorial landscape.
The south end of the road terminates in a circular drive with a backdrop of tall hedges, in front of which on a crescent-shaped grassed area is the tall obelisk memorial of granite c 6m high. The obelisk was carved in a Cornish quarry by The London Granite Co. Ltd., from a single piece of stone. The inscription on the north face reads: AUX/ SOLDATS DE FRANCE/ MORTS GLORIEUSEMENT/ PENDANT LA GRAND GUERRE.