The Great War No Image Could Capture

There is this picture, now housed by the Imperial War Museum, that has been taken in September 1916, following the end of the Battle of Guillemount. A caption by John Warwick Brooke, a British official photographer, the photograph hides a slightly disturbing meaning in its portrayal of a few soldiers wandering among what it looks like, parts of dead bodies.

It turns out that those are not dead bodies whatsoever, but backpacks and remains of those who died. And the soldiers captured in the photographs, they are not there to share a tear for their comrades or check on the wounded, but to search through their belongings, hoping to find some letters or some goodies they could help themselves to.

Stereographic cards have shown us the most incredible moments of the war, starting with the American Civil War. Pictures like photographer’s Alexander Gardner, featuring a falling soldier and which is considered to have been staged, defined the Spanish Civil War; Joe Rosenthal’s ‘flag raising’ and Nick Ut’s ‘crying girl’, might have said more than any journal written by soldiers, more than any war vet could put into words.

Later screenings of films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Paths of Glory (1957) and even a social portrayal of a family affected by the start of the war, with military music influences, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), have brought up ideas and ‘based on reality’ scenes of war and death, but not much original footage was there to support the events, The Atlantic reports.

Some of them chose to write about it. This is how war poets like Wilfred Owen could only put together their experiences and the horror of watching their short time pals falling under the attacks of the opponents.

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”  — Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Up to a certain moment in time, war photography used to be avoided and before 1918 press photographers were not allowed on the front lines. Britain, more than Germany and France, kept photographers under tight control. All across the military zones there would only be 16 British official photographers, followed by the French who had around 35 and Germany who assigned about 50 photographers.

In 1911, Kodak introduced an upgraded version of the vest-pocket camera, permitting soldiers to carry them around. That was also the time when unauthorized photos would go flying from soldiers, who were breaking the rules and were selling the pictures to British press enthusiasts. Among them was Hungarian soldier André Kertész, now considered one of the world’s greatest photojournalists.

Amateur photographers were the ones giving life to most of the images brought back from the war. One of the photos, taken under fire, features a soldier running away from a dusty road with his hands raised above his head, while another one shows a superior who has come to check on his men. There are also recordings of Christmas gatherings in 1914, when the soldiers stopped fighting and got together to play soccer, to eat and exchange cigarettes.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE