THE GREAT WAR – A Photographic Narrative, Review by Mark Barnes

A Photographic Narrative
Edited by Mark Holborn with text and chronologies by Hilary Roberts
Published by Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224096553
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

The winners of the annual British Army Photographic Competition have recently been announced and the images are as stunning as ever. The selection I’ve seen reveal a blend of drama, humour and an attention to detail soldiers are said to have an eye for. For all the advances in kit and caboodle soldiers are still pretty much the same as they’ve always been. But wars these days seem endless; the shrinking British Army is forever on operations, indeed Herrick 19 is just starting in Afghanistan. No doubt the mission will be recorded in a wealth of images.

The technical aspects of photography may have come on leaps and bounds but those old fashioned requirements of timing, a steady hand and a good eye far outweigh the cleverness of modern technology. All the same we take so much of this wonderful medium for granted thanks to the explosion of digital imagery making it more instant and accessible than the pioneers could have dreamed. But take yourself back a century and the growing power of photography both as art and as a means of record combined with a war of unprecedented ferocity to create some of the greatest photographs ever made.

I’ve worked in photographic archives for 35 years and I can say it has often been immensely rewarding. The actual notion of archive is something relatively new in the publishing world, because collections have been treated as a resource and not as the family silver. They take up space and cost money to maintain. They need to be digitised to increase their accessibility and cut down on all those costs. Things have improved recently but newspaper proprietors in the UK had been merrily dumping collections for some time and committing crimes of a sort which we’ve only felt the impact of in recent times. Whole collections have disappeared. The Luftwaffe did a fair amount of damage during the Blitz because glass plate negatives do not stand up well to high explosive. I have a photo in mind showing men in brown overalls attempting to sweep up the wreckage of a photographic library hit by a bomb and the room is a sea of glass. My point is these losses were, in many cases, predominantly images of the Great War. I’ve seen a ‘day book’ for one newspaper company library listing thousands of negatives for 1917-19 which have disappeared. The books themselves are lost for the years prior to that. It doesn’t just apply to Britain, of course, because so many important archives have been destroyed in Europe, especially in Germany where aerial firestorms, looting and purges inflicted during the changes of management incurred untold losses. So a book such as this is a testament to the amount of amazing photography which has survived and is cared for in museums and archives at home and abroad. We are lucky in Britain to have places like the Imperial War Museum. They are nice places to look at tanks and medals, but there is so much more to them, as this book surely proves beyond question.

Q800 British and German Wounded

British and German troops, wounded during the fighting for Bazentin Ridge, move to a dressing station. Bernafay Wood, Somme. 19th of July, 1917. Photograph by Lieutenant Ernest Brooks. Q800. Copryright: Imperial War Museum. Ernest Brooks was one of Britain’s greatest official photographers of the war.  He worked on many fronts and made some of the best known images of the war. He also worked as photographer to the Royal Household, but his career was ruined by scandal and he was stripped of his honours in mysterious circumstances.

With this stunning book Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts have assembled a remarkable history of the First World War. It’s all here in a carefully presented order as a narrative where the images fit together almost seamlessly. I’ve reviewed single volume histories of the war that explain it all in brilliant and sometimes amusing prose. Here it is all in focus. I’m not embarrassed about making puns – they don’t come at any expense. If you want to see the war you need look no further. Mr Holborn tells us that some well known images have been omitted and that this project is not simply about gathering the greatest photos. It runs deeper than that in the way the images interlock to build the story of the war. Each image is relevant to the next. I hope I’ve got that right, because that’s how it makes sense to me. They used to tell us every picture tells a story and in this book the individual images transcend this to form a sum of parts. This is a hugely ambitious project and while I’d like to be proved wrong, I doubt any books aiming to match its scope will even remotely succeed. They will for the most part be easy, lazy compilations doled out for a centenary where there is money to be made. The temptation to cram in all the classics and those occasional shock and awe images will damage the impact. We see that sort of book all the time and my advice is save to your money and invest in this gem. It’s all subjective and everyone has an opinion, but the term ‘classic’ is so readily applied to just about anything these days. In the case of this stunning collection, the epithet applies to so many of the images it’s hard to draw a distinction between many of them. Some are very famous and many are new to me which is a joy. I couldn’t pick a favourite. All I know is; I’ll be looking at this book again and again.

The text explaining the course of the war is useful, while chronologies overlapping developments in war photography, the media and world events work really well. Each chapter has, as a frontispiece, a colour photograph of a uniform jacket. One of them was worn by the hapless Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated while another is the tunic worn by a British officer wounded on the Somme. The effect of these images is simple and yet immense. Don McCullin tells us on the wrapper ‘This book is going to dumfound people. They are finally going to see the true scale of the sacrifice. It is not so much a book as a massive piece of shameful history.’ It certainly is massive! There are five hundred pages to progress through and

if it doesn’t have an impact on you then I don’t know what to say. It is an emotional experience that surely matches much of the best writing I’ve seen on the conflict. The two go hand in hand together. All the power that photography holds is here.

Q8544 Statues

British soldiers help a French priest to remove statues from a church that has been damaged by shellfire, Armentieres, France 26th of February, 1918. Photograph by Lieutenant David McLellan. Q8544. Copyright: Imperial War Museum. David McLellan had been a photographer for the Daily Mirror but was appointed as an official photographer in 1917. His work is noted for it’s scale and realism.

I’m running a project to scan the Great War era images from the archive I work for. It is disappointing the material I’ve researched has not been seen by the makers of this book because I think there are one or two images worthy of it. I’ve handled a lot of historic negatives in my time, but dealing with plates taken during the Great War has been one the best experiences of my working life. There’s a shot in the book, on page 35, taken by an unknown press photographer showing King George V on the balcony at Buckingham Palace on the 4th of August, 1914, the day Britain went to war; acknowledging excited late night crowds. The snapper must have been practically next to the man who took an almost identical image I’ve worked on. They were standing on the Queen Victoria memorial to get a bit of height and the same happy faces wearing their straw boaters on that hot summer evening are waving, oblivious to the reality of the four years to come. These two photographers would have known each other. There were still only a small band of regular snappers covering news events in the capital. I like this connection – not just to the book, but to the photographers. They must have exchanged comments on the huge crowd and the drama unfolding. Perhaps they came up with the inevitable: It will all be over by Christmas. It wasn’t. Four years of the war to come produced some of the most remarkable images of the 20th Century and you will find them here. Perhaps your heart is in photography or in the history of warfare. Regardless of which, I hope it is with the memories of the people who fought the Great War. They are of a monochrome world which digitisation has found a way to bring back to life. This book proves old soldiers do not have to fade away after all. Photography has granted them a little bit of immortality tinged in silver oxide.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.