Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Great War: the greatest photographs

Blinded French soldiers are led to a dressing station during fighting on the Marne, summer, 1918. Photograph by Lt. John Warwick Brooke / Imperial War Museums.
The death toll by the end of World War I was 16 million people, with 20 million wounded.  Lest those numbers ever come to seem somewhat abstract, we can be grateful for books like THE GREAT WAR: A Photographic Narrative, which emphasize the pathos and suffering rather than the glory of warfare.
A German messenger dog leaps a trench near Sedan, Ardennes, France. May 1917. Unknown photographer, Imperial German Army. Courtesy of Imperial War Museums, Britain.
"The images presented here are not illustrations for a narrative; they are the narrative. Hilary Roberts, the head curator of photography at the Imperial War Museums in Britain (home of the world’s most extensive collection of World War I photographs), provided the historical and contextual expertise. Mark Holborn is a celebrated editor of illustrated books and a master of photographic mise-en-scène. The result of their collaboration is a book of extraordinary power and clarity….. 'This is not an anthology of the greatest photographs of the war,' Holborn declares in his foreword to this book. But it may well be the greatest anthology (yet) of World War I photographs. The sonata rhythm of the images, with their complementary and recurring themes, endows the ensemble with rare emotional power and reflective depth. There is no comfort here, even in the Allied victory of November 1918. One heartbreaking image from near the end of the book — of a little girl sobbing in front of a smashed upright piano — hints at a universe of destroyed happiness. There are simply too many dead, too much devastation and — for us readers of a later age — too many intimations of the next war to come."—Christopher Clark (professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914), New York Times
Members of the Royal Army Medical Corps search through packs belonging to dead soldiers for letters and personal effects to be sent to families after the battle of Guillemont, France, Western Front, September 1916. Photography by Lt. John Warwick Brooke, British Army photographer. Courtesy of IWM.
"The First World War is still remembered for its enormous loss of life and the new, destructive methods and weapons that were used to wage this war, not to mention how the map of Europe, the Middle East and Africa were forever redrawn as a result of those bloody four years of war. As well, a more serious effort was employed to visually record every aspect of this war, thanks to more portable cameras that allowed the average soldier to take their own snapshots of life on the front, as well as armies appointing skilled professional photographers, and more press photographers being assigned to give a more authentic view of this first ever global conflict…. Compiled with the help of the Imperial War Museum in London, the book contains 380 photographs that were taken by the average soldier and official photographers to cover – year by year — every aspect of the Great War from every major front where it was fought. We see the jubilation of well dressed soldiers (including top hatted Belgian troops) marching to the front for what they hoped would be a six-month war in 1914; we see the development of aspects of the conflict that came to forever identify it nearly 100 years later, from trenches, to gas attacks, to air raids, to iron clad tanks; we see the life of a soldier in the trenches and behind the lines; we see life on the home front (where it wasn’t uncommon to see workers in munitions plants die from accidents thanks to less than ideal working conditions); and above all, we see the terrifying, destructive effects of the first truly mechanized war (which is harrowingly represented by an aerial photo of the village of Passchendaele, before and after the terrible battle that occurred there in June of 1917)."—Montreal Times
British and German wounded. Below, bombing in the night (rear) illuminates British troops carrying duckboards up to the front lines, Cambrai, France. January 12, 1917. Photograph by John Warwick Brook, British Army photographer. Courtesy IWM.
It's not from the book, but I find this photograph of Italian soldiers particularly poignant.
As other wars have proved, photographs can document unimagined reality, instantaneous events, fleeting expressions on faces, unwittingly symbolic scenes. And yet the character of the Great War conspired to sabotage precisely that testimonial power. To turn the pages of the Imperial War Museums’ photographic narrative is to lose all sense of scale and reality. Is that water or wheat? Are those scattered corpses or flocks of birds in a field? Are these soldiers, or Englishmen “walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on a parade ground,” as one stunned German junior officer described the sight of troops plodding across no-man’s-land on July 1? “We felt they were mad.”—The Atlantic


  1. The Italian soldier might have been strumming a canzonetta moments before. I see why you were struck by that image.
    The prevailing theme of WW1 seems to be dirt. Soldiers crept worm-like through muddy ditches. And the lack of antibiotics of any sort at the time meant wounds became gangrene and killed many who would have lived today.
    There appears to be an effort to clean up the face of war since. WW2's prevailing image is of the Navy destroyer followed by the silent stalking U-boat. Or cities bombed into ruins from the air.
    Vietnam's icon is the helicopter flying over lush jungle. Or the napalm dusting planes leaving wakes of crying children.
    The Gulf War almost seemed like a movie, with giant bombs spectacularly destroying desert cities, hardly a victim seen up close.
    The next war, an Einstein quoter has said, will be fought by robots. Cleanly, impersonally.
    And the war after that will be sticks versus stones, for nothing will be left, except maybe an indomitable man and his unquenched enmity, finding quarrel over a pot of dirty water.

  2. I find myself struck by the last photo. As I look closely at it, it seems like the young man in the front right of the photo appears to be peacefully sleeping, his face looks angelic, yet his body appears to be a tangled broken mess. Sad, powerful, poignant photographs.

  3. That third photo reminded me of something. I was shown once a letter to a maiden cousin of mine. It was yellowed and faded, spoke of some mutual acquaintances the writer and my cousin had, and a pleasant visit they shared. It expressed politely the hope of renewed friendship...and then it stopped abruptly. There was no signature.
    I wondered then how she could have received it, since the writer would certainly have signed the letter before putting it in an envelope. But my cousin said she didn't know how she got it.
    That photo of people going through dead soldiers' things, in search of letters to be sent home...was that what happened? Did some anonymous angel find my cousin's address and place it in an envelope for her, so she could read the words written in a familiar hand, and guess and never say how an unfinished letter came to her?
    If so, thank you to whomever it was, for a small favor does much good always.

  4. Thank you ALL so much for enriching this post with your observations and responses. Or should I say, grazie.