A century after the Battle of the Somme a new collection of images shows the First World War as we have never seen it beforeby Geoff Dyer / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”