Marville, in the Meuse Notice the ornamentation Looking down the street Colour coordinated volets The graveyard at St Hilaire The Piéta and apostles St Hilaire The ossuary
Click on the thumbnails for a larger picture 40 000 skulls We were like you - You will become like us The Canadian Monument

Here's looking at you

September 2009

Ever in the quest for beer and dead people I decided that I wanted to go back over towards Stenay in the Meuse for a potter around the first 1914 battlefield on French soil.

My mate Florian was daft enough to say he was up for the 700km round trip so he dragged himself out of bed many an hour before students usually get up and met me in Arras.

It was then another good couple of hours driving to our destination but this time round the sun was out.

We paused in Stenay for a photo shoot and then went grave spotting. I was following the footsteps of one of my local Picard Regiments and this eventually led us to the small but delightful town of Marville.

I had been intending to visit anyway but was immediately impressed. The other points on our route had all been quaint villages with lots of the local yellow stone - not a torchy wall in sight.

From the moment we came down the hill into the town we could see that Marville was much grander.

Towards the end of the 12th Century the Duke of Bar, Thiébaut I, had constructed a fortress on the site of the present town. Over the next few centuries the town would prosper and pass from one dynasty to another as marriages wove their intricate web of alliances.

By the 15th Century the town had become a possession of the Dukes of Burgundy and from them passed into the possession of The Holy Roman Empire. When Charles Quint became both King of Spain and Emperor in 1519, the town found itself within the Spanish Netherlands.

This is a very pretty town and wandering about the streets there were numerous touches on the the fašades of the houses which I have read owe their style to the Spanish Renaissance. When Marville was taken by the French (They would say - liberated) in the 17th Century, Louis XIV decided that having a secondary fortress so close to Montmédy and the frontier with the Netherlands, was not a good idea and order the dismantlement of the defences. However as we drove out the far side we could see that parts of the old walls still exist.


Marville from St Hilaire - the old fortifications can be seen on the left


The Cemetery

I had told Florian that he was in for a surprise at Marville and as I drove up the hill opposite the town had my fingers metaphorically crossed that the site lived up to my expectations. You don't get too far away from either beer or dead people on a jaunt with me and Marville is no exception.

Apart from the fact that it was on my research itinerary the item on the map that had drawn my attention to the town was its cemetery on the hill opposite.

One of the oldest in France it is one of the few (if not the only) classified structures of its kind.

Situated on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the 12th Century church of St Hilaire served as the parish church up until the 13th century when the townspeople decided that it was a hell of a long walk and constructed a new within their midst.

The cemetery however remained in use and contains numerous gravestones from the 15th to the 18th centuries and these are particularly rare.

My hopes about a worthwhile visit were immediately raised as we parked the car up. Once the trees have lost their leaves there must be some fine views towards Marville. The cemetery is entered near the guardian's cottage and thankfully there was a plan showing the lay out.

In medieval times there was a leper colony nearby whose deceased added greatly to those of the local residents. Back in the old days the custom was to gather the bones in an ossuary but of course they slowly took up more and more space and the problem with the cemetery was that its position meant that it could not be expanded.

We couldn't get into the church but it would seem that around 1875 some of the more precious headstones were moved into it and this was the first section of the ensemble to be classified as a historic monument.

At the entrance to the cemetery there is a crucifix called the Christ of the Lepers and within the grounds there is Piéta dedicated to their suffering. This latter dates from the 15th century as do the four stones placed in front of it showing the 11 apostles - Judas is missing.

Around the church is the historic section of the graveyard and although there are a few upgraded plinths they are in the minority whilst the yellow chalk used in many of these headstones and sculptures adds to the renaissance feel to the churchyard.

I was rather surprised to find amongst these old stones a line of new crosses all dedicated to Canadians, however their presence would be revealed further on.

We had now reached the dot on my map and it was time to see if Florian would be intrigued.

The Ossuary of St Hilaire

In 1890 the cemetery keeper, Constant Motsch decided that the simplest method of creating more space was to recover the bodies from the older graves that did not have a perpetual concession.

He did not however just gather up the skeletons but also organised and categorised them but kept only the skulls and longer bones.

Not wishing to mix the lords and notables of the land amongst the commoners he placed their skulls in boxes which he marked with the details of the owner. There are 29 of these men and women who all died between 1780 and 1860.

Their skulls look out through their boxes like the faces on a clock.

Sadly the boxes have weathered in time, but ultimately they and their contents serve as a reminder that in death, the great and the lowly are treated with an equality that may not have been their lot whilst alive.

Above their heads reads: We were like you - You will become like us

Florian could hardly talk about anything else for the next half an hour so I can put that wee pause down as a success.

The Canadian Memorial

As we were leaving the grounds we spotted a monument made of the same stone as the Canadian crosses and this helped explain their presence.

Marville served as a NATO airbase and was occupied by the Royal Canadian Air Force between 1952-67. Forty-one airman or family members were buried within the grounds and some of them in the older section.

The crosses fell into disrepair and they have now been replaced. As some of the old crosses had been lost those burials are now commemorated on the monument which was erected in August 2003.

Time was pushing a little bit so we moved on to Montmédy which was just up the road.


See also

The citadelle at Montmédy

The Beer Museum at Stenay

Simon: 55th Birthday