The War No Image Could Capture

Photography has given us iconic representations of conflict since the Civil War—with a notable exception. Why, during the Great War, the camera failed. 
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John Warwick Brooke/British Imperial War Museums

The British photographers were stationed on the front lines of the Somme, ready to capture the “Big Push” as it unfolded. Starting at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, line after line of British soldiers weighed down by 70‑plus pounds of equipment trudged straight into German machine-gun fire. Later that hot day, which would become the costliest day in the history of the British military and one of the deadliest single days of combat in any war, the wounded lay stranded in no-man’s-land. The lucky ones found shelter in shell holes; the rest were left exposed and baking in the sun. They could not be rescued yet, and so an anonymous official photographer attached to the Royal Engineers did what he could to record the scene. The picture he took, though, tells almost nothing without a caption. The landscape is flat and featureless. The dead and wounded look like dots. “Like a million bloody rugs,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Somme carnage. In fact, you can’t make out blood. You can’t even tell you’re looking at bodies.

Starting in the American Civil War, photographers could claim to have provided the iconic representations of war. Reproduced on stereographic cards and exhibited at Mathew Brady’s gallery in New York, Alexander Gardner’s pictures of dead soldiers strewn about the Antietam battlefield shocked the divided nation, and remain the searing record of destruction. Robert Capa’s falling soldier (possibly a staged picture) came to define the Spanish Civil War, as Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima did, for Americans, the Second World War. Nick Ut’s photo of the crying, naked girl burned by napalm conveyed the horrors of Vietnam, it is often said, in a way that words could not. But in this litany, the First World War is the notable exception.

As a beautifully produced new volume of photographs from the British Imperial War Museums demonstrates, World War I yielded a number of striking and affecting pictures. Some, included in the gallery of 380 presented in The Great War: A Photographic Narrative, are famous: the line of gassed men, blinded and clutching each other’s shoulders as they approach a first-aid station in 1918; the haunting, charred landscapes of the Ypres Salient in 1917. And yet in both cases, the more-renowned versions were their painted successors of 1919: John Singer Sargent’s oil painting Gassed, and Paul Nash’s semi-abstract rendering of the blasted Belgian flatland, The Menin Road. The essence of the Great War lies in the absence of any emblematic photograph.

The quest to communicate an unprecedented experience of combat began almost as soon as the war did, and it has continued ever since. The millions of families who sent off sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers to the front urgently needed to know how this war looked and felt. Machine guns, poison gas, and aerial bombardment (the tank was still to come)—by 1915, it was already clear that the conflict was a radical, industrialized departure in war-making. In London and Berlin, anxious relatives visited the tidy exhibition trenches that the governments had erected to inform civilians. As the news grew more alarming, those at home clamored for eye-witness reports from the front, which in Britain came in a torrent of words—not just in newspapers, but most vividly in poetic form. The Great War was quickly described as indescribable, yet it was a singularly literary war, especially for the British.

The character of the Great War conspired to sabotage photography’s testimonial power.

For successive generations, the aim has been to comprehend a turning point in the history of the world. Every era has aspired to capture a consensus that was forged by the late 1920s, and epitomized by Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929): the war was unimaginable, dehumanizing, the unredeemable sacrifice of a generation. It marked the origin of our ironic sensibility, as Paul Fussell famously argued, and the Somme was the exemplary horror. In four and a half months of fighting, the British army sustained more than 400,000 casualties—and gained six miles. The message of pointless loss surfaces again and again, in just about every medium, from Stanley Kubrick’s blistering antiwar film Paths of Glory (1957), to the parodic swinging-’60s production Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963), to contemporary endeavors, among them Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, and the cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco’s newly published graphic panorama of the Battle of the Somme, The Great War.

The central conundrum in representing the First World War is a stark one: the staggering statistics of matériel, manpower, and casualties threaten constantly to extinguish the individual. That was what the war poets understood, and why the images they summoned in words have been transmitted down a century. As Wilfred Owen did in “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917), the poets addressed their readers directly, unsettling them with a vision of the damage suffered by a particular man’s body or mind.

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.

Photography, of course, can’t capture sounds or bitter intonations—that devastatingly exact gargling, not gurgling. Cameras can’t probe psyches or create similes in the same way. But 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.”

In part, photography of the war was intentionally stymied. On-the-ground documentation, European leaders didn’t need to be told, can be dangerous to a war effort. Gardner’s Antietam photographs had proved that half a century earlier. Civilian press photographers were banned from the front lines until 1918. Officially approved photography was under tight control, especially in Britain. Kaiser Wilhelm II authorized 19 court photographers to cover the invasion of Belgium in 1914. But the British High Command, and in particular Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, was from the start hostile to photography. The Germans assigned 50 or so photographers, and the French about 35, to range behind the western front with the task of producing both propaganda and a documentary record of the war. The British, by contrast, deployed no more than 16 official photographers across all of the war’s seven military zones. Dispatching those men armed with cameras to record the offensive on the Somme was a departure from custom, inspired by high hopes of capturing images of valor and victory. Needless to say, such a move was not repeated.

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