The First World War: "The 'glory' that is celebrated lies not in the magnitude of victory but in the scale of loss" ©City Archive Bruges

The day that killed optimism

A century after the Battle of the Somme a new collection of images shows the First World War as we have never seen it before
June 15, 2016
The morning of 1st July, 1916, the opening of the Battle of the Somme, “marked the end of an age of optimism in British life that has never been restored,” as historian John Keegan puts it. But the four years of the First World War also marked one of the greatest leaps forward in technological innovation that the world has seen. Some forces went into the war in 1914 with horses and swords; four years later, the tank had been invented, reliable machine guns, and aircraft capable of firing forwards through their propellers. It was one of the most fertile periods of innovation, contributing to the growth and inventions of the 20th century—Prospect has explored the question of whether we have now reached the end of that period of innovation and economic expansion. In this essay, prompted by a new collection of rarely seen photographs, Geoff Dyer, the novelist and writer, reflects on the transformation from pastoral scenes of 1914 to desolation.

What comes to mind when you’re asked to think of the Second World War? If you’re British, it might be, as Churchill urged, “our finest hour”—the so-called Battle of Britain—but this would be followed, instantly, by the North Africa campaign, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Atlantic, Stalingrad, D-Day, the carpet bombing of German cities, the Holocaust, Iwo Jima, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and so on. For a world war, the conflict of 1914-18, by contrast, survives as a curiously local affair. Its memory, for the western powers, tends to be concentrated on a part that stands for each country’s experience of the whole.

For the French, it is the meat grinder of Verdun. In Gabriel Chevallier’s novel La Peur (published in French in 1930, translated into English as Fear: A Novel of World War I in 2011), Verdun serves as a constant touchstone for the troops, a reminder of how much worse things could be: “There the use of artillery, the accumulation of means of destruction, reached a level of intensity hitherto unknown, and everyone agrees it was a hell in which you lost your mind.” When things are at their worst, the narrator decides that “For an hour this is Verdun, this is as relentless as it gets.”

For the Anzacs, it is Gallipoli. For the British, it is Passchendaele, or the Battle of the Somme, more specifically the first day of the Somme—more specifically still, the first morning of that fateful day, 1st July 1916. Officially, what is commemorated on the anniversary of the Armistice each year is the final victory of 1918, but the emotional epicentre of memory is either the site of the most catastrophic defeat, or, in the case of Verdun, a victory whose price was so high as to have rendered it all but indistinguishable from defeat. The “Glory” that is celebrated lies not in the magnitude of victory but in the scale of loss—the consequences of which extend far beyond the battlefield. According to British military historian John Keegan in his book, The First World War (1998), “the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been restored.”

Germany and America are the two obvious exceptions to this metonymic commemoration of localised defeat. For the Germans, this is because the defeat was total; they lost the whole war (which might also account for the universal appeal of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front). For America, the explanation is two-fold: partly because the battle was joined so late (April 1917), in time to help secure victory with comparatively little loss of life; and partly because the cataclysm of the Civil War pre-empted the Great War in the scale of death, devastation and grief.

In keeping with this localising tendency, our visual ideas of the war are also quite site-specific: mud, trenches, the ruined landscape of No Man’s Land. Frank Hurley’s famous view of soldiers making their way through a swamp of blasted trees at Passchendaele stands as a representative image of the entire British experience of the Western Front—an experience firmly embedded in the past. Unlike Robert Capa’s pictures of D-Day, in which the outcome of Operation Overlord seems to hang perpetually and blurrily in the balance, photographs from the First World War survive in the realm not of a momentarily suspended narrative, but in the amber—more precisely, the sepia—of memory. We know what the First World War looked like because nothing about it has changed or moved in the century since it began.

Hence the extraordinary power and surprise of this hoard of photographs. Of course, in some of the pictures, the War seems familiar. The visual rumble of late-19th- and early-20th-century heavy industry is a persistent and pervasive background: the technology of exploration and territorial conquest (airships, railroads, munitions factories) no longer in the service of imperial expansion, or of subjugating the indigenous populations of Africa or India, but instead turned against itself. In many pictures, however, the War looks as we have never quite seen it before. Why? Because the conflict has broken free of its geographical limits (evocatively described by Keegan as a “ribbon of destruction”) and temporal constraints. Just as the actual war became bogged down in the mud and trenches of the Western Front, so our visual sense of it has become fixed in an image quagmire of mud, trenches and so forth. Here the conflict reverts to what it was in its first months, before a modern war of movement and unforeseen possibility assumed the character of a permanent and doomed condition.

This reintroduction of movement extends both backwards and forwards. Back, most obviously, to the American Civil War and its aftermath, when the bodies of outlaws in Missouri were held up and displayed as trophies, proof of bounty earned. Certain images dig even further into—and draw more deeply on—the past. For while the war on the Western Front was waged between heavily industrialised economies, it retained significant traces of earlier modes of combat: not just the horse-borne cavalry of the Light Brigade or War and Peace, but also the knights of the Middle Ages.

The implied movement forward through time brings us to the Second World War, to infantry units battling through the remains of French villages in the style of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or of highly mobile—albeit archaically dressed—marines or commandos wading amphibiously through water. These pictures have more in common with the images from the Second World War that pervaded my childhood (I was born in 1958) than with those usually associated with the First World War. As children, our games and activities were dominated almost entirely by—and devoted to boyish re-stagings of—the Second World War. The Great War, on the other hand, was never re-animated or resurrected in this way. Although ever-present in the form of statues and memorials, it was never actively or imaginatively recreated in play or games: not so much ever-present as ever-past. Here, again, it is released from that past. Within the context of this book, the war begins as play—as it did, also, for many of the adults who could not wait to play a part in it. Philip Larkin, in his famous poem “MCMXIV,” thinks of the “long uneven lines” of young men joining up at recruiting stations, as though the whole thing were an “August Bank Holiday lark.” One of the reasons people were so enthusiastic about the prospect of war, Chevallier’s narrator reminds us, was because “No one has the foggiest” idea of what war really is. It might as well have been the kind of kids’ game pictured here.

Typically, colour footage of the Second World War drags it out of the monochrome past, closer to our time (so that the war in the Pacific bleeds, almost without pause, into the Vietnam war). So, naturally, whereas we conceive or picture the First World War in sepia or monochrome, colour pictures might be expected to lure it in the direction of the future, towards the Second World War. Instead, the opposite happens. These colour pictures take it further back, to the pre-photographic era of oil-painted still lives and Hussars. If the War looks new, it is because it looks so distinctly pre-war! The landscape is almost idyllic, colourfully oblivious to the devastation that will be visited upon it by fully industrialised warfare. DH Lawrence hated the modern tendency whereby men camouflaged themselves against the landscape, “the universal grey mist that has come over men, the extinguishing of all bright individuality.” Lawrence’s hatred of “khaki democracy” was, in part, an agonised reaction to the First World War, which washed and blasted all colour from the landscape and from the bodies of the men destroyed in its midst and buried beneath it. The colour images here are like a vanished 19th-century dream of war, with men in red trousers—exactly as Lawrence wanted—bright against the landscape, washing themselves as if in preparation not for the ravages of artillery bombardment but instead for a bucolic display of martial pomp.

Meanwhile, a kind of reverse exoticism is at work, as “coloured” or African troops find themselves condemned to wearing military drab. A war that at first seemed localised—waged in the British sectors by the stunted white working class and their masters—is here populated by soldiers from the far-flung corners of the empire. We are presented, then, with a radical enlargement of the way the Great War is visualised. It’s in images of the aftermath of action, however, that we encounter scenes that both conform to pre-existing templates or documentary expectations of place and period, while simultaneously freeing themselves from the specificities of history and geography.

Photographs of the dead in the midst of the ruined landscape are part of the standard image repertoire of photographs from the First World War, but it is actually Timothy H O’Sullivan’s Harvest of Death from Gettysburg—rather than scenes from the mud of Passchendaele. But perhaps it is wrong to invoke time in this way. If the dead do not suffer the distinctly modern fate of being blown to bits by artillery, they end up looking pretty much the same in any era—future as well as past. They have slipped out of time.

In 2007, Peter van Agtmael took a photograph of a line of US troops sheltering from the downdraft of a helicopter in a rocky grey landscape in Nuristan, Afghanistan. Its similarity to Jeff Wall’s huge photograph Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986) is sufficiently strong to make us wonder if van Agtmael had Wall’s “fictional” work—it was constructed entirely in the artist’s studio—in mind when he took his photograph. So it is a shock to come across an image from the First World War that bears an uncannily tight resemblance to Wall’s. The effect of this overlaying—of a tracing that pre-figures what is traced—is to collapse or explode chronology. The shock is not the shock of the new so much as the shock of the old made new—and the new made suddenly old. Obviously, this image pre-dates Wall’s, but it is as if they exist in a realm outside of time: the timeless realm of art—and of the dead.

This essay is an edited introduction to "The First World War: Unseen Glass Photographs of the Western Front" (Chicago University Press), from which the images are also taken