After the Treaty of Versailles brought an influx of funds into France at the official end of the Great War, a huge portion of the money was slated to go, proportionally, towards city reconstruction – and to remembrances, in the forms of monuments to those who perished in the conflict. In Nantes, mayor Paul Bellamy – in office since 1910 – wanted to erect a grand monument that would properly honor the war dead. During the early 1920s Bellamy was at the height of his popularity – in 1924, he was appointed the president of the L’Association des maires de France, a high honor. In the same year, he was elected to join the legislature. He began to plan the monument – and perhaps plot his own downfall.
Bellamy enlisted City Architect Camille Robida to design a suitably impressive memorial, although he had to go back to the drawing board several times after Bellamy’s choice of location continually changed due to outcries among the public. Right-wing newspapers increasingly hounded and decried the radical mayor’s controversial choices, and Bellamy faced mounting opposition. Finally, in 1925, a site was selected below the Course Saint-André, and Robida could design in earnest. The original plan was for a plaza featuring three huge limestone tablets, which originally bore the names of 5,832 Nantes residents killed in the war.
With public outcry already over site selection, who ought to be counted in the official “Guest Book” of names, and so on – and with the increasingly powerful Right Wing attacking Bellamy and his cohorts at every turn – the mayor decided to throw another log on the fire. It may have been his undoing. Deciding that an even more impactful monument was necessary to properly honor the dead, Bellamy used the city council to purchase one of the eleven gilded castings of La Délivrance, the bronze statue sculpted by Émile Oscar Guillaume.
The statue, depicting a nude woman holding a sword high in the air, was originally entitled La Victoire, and not without good reason. Guillaume had originally sculpted it in 1914, after the First Battle of the Marne – often known as the “Miracle of the Marne”. The battle, which blew a hole straight through the Schlieffen Plan, was a major source of hope for the French that the Central Powers would soon give up. Of course, it was not to be – winning a battle is not winning a war, although it was a significant gain in terms of morale. After the war, when the eleven copies were commissioned, the name was changed to the more sombre La Délivrance. This could have had many connotations – deliverance from the Germans, deliverance from the mortal coil, “deliver us from evil”, et cetera. In any case, the work is now known exclusively by its second name. In Nantes, on 17 July 1927, Bellamy and French Minister of War Paul Painlevé held an inauguration and unveiling of the monument and its centerpiece – the statue.
The statue was immediately a point of contention for Nantes, and a point of attack for Bellamy. Facing reelection both to the legislature and, later, as mayor, he came under heavy fire for a variety of reasons. The cost, of course, was one. But moreso, much of the increasingly conservative populace balked at a completely nude, properly proportioned female form. Some veterans complained about the fact that she’s facing the incoming crowds – with her back turned to the list of the dead of Nantes. All of this gave the newspapers fodder for attack, and the public criticism towards the until-recently-beloved mayor increased.
On the ninth anniversary of Armistice, on 11 November 1927, far-right hoodlums toppled the statue and chipped away at it with an axe. The seventeen members of Jeunesses Patriotes scared off the two policemen guarding the statue and ruined it, and thusly it was moved to a warehouse for storage. Remarkably, all of the terrorists who attacked the statue were identified, thanks in part to a local left-wing newspaper. Unfortunately, they all received suspended sentences and small fines, a sign of the changing times that were sweeping through the region.
As the statue fell, in a sense, Bellamy fell as well. In May 1928, he was beaten by his deputy in a unanimous vote for the legislature; he resigned as mayor that same month. He moved out to Basque country with a cough in 1929, and died of consumption a year later. While the statue was restored starting in 1934, it merely stood guard over a hotel entrance until 1942, when the city was occupied, and the statue hidden so as not to be smelted by the Nazi invaders. In 1980, it was found in a warehouse, and once again restored – to be placed back in front of its hotel. It was not until the Armistice Centenary that it would finally be returned to the pedestal from which it had been unceremoniously dislodged 91 years before – to the day. The city of Nantes held a weekend-long celebration culminating in a ceremony at the Monument, and it was well attended. In addition to placing La Délivrance back in its proper place, the entire monument was scrubbed, the names cleaned up and in many cases corrected, and perhaps most poignantly, four new name of Nantes’ fallen heroes were added.