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. 

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.

What about the soldiers themselves? A great many went off to war equipped not just (as Paul Fussell once observed) with The Oxford Book of English Verse, but also with a lightweight camera. The German company Goerz had introduced a vest-pocket camera in 1911, and Kodak came out with a more successful version the following year. The German and Austrian armies were, again, less photophobic than the British. The soldiers of the Central Powers were permitted to carry cameras so long as they did not use them during battles. Among those snapping pictures was the young Hungarian André Kertész, who later became one of the world’s great photojournalists. But for British soldiers, possession of a camera was grounds for court-martial. And the brass meant business: after 1915, when Kodak began marketing its vest-pocket model expressly as the “Soldier’s Kodak,” the policy was strictly enforced on the western front. But that didn’t deter some renegade soldier-photographers from defying orders and selling pictures to an image-starved British press eager to print unauthorized photos.

For the photographers permitted to go to the front, another layer of censorship was self-imposed. The Imperial War Museums’ volume includes both amateur and authorized photography, and the contrast between pictures taken by soldiers and by the commissioned professionals reveals much about the photographers’ evolving attitudes toward what stories their photos would tell. A great deal of the official photography of 1914 and 1915 borders on the risible: stiffly posed pictures that gesture to the heroic war that had been foretold rather than the war that was unfolding. In one picture, a marksman in a neat uniform crouches safely behind a fortification, intent on his quarry. In another, a dugout looks like a stage set, in which the actors have been urged to strike contemplative poses.

During the early years, it was the amateurs, predictably, who captured more of the gritty reality. In one of the first pictures taken under fire, a soldier runs from a dusty road, his hands raised in alarm. In another, a colonel who has come to inspect his battalion’s position wades through a waterlogged trench. Swaddled in a mackintosh and balaclava, he is poised between horror and humor. The amateurs also recorded the fraternization during the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914, when troops suspended the war to play soccer and exchange food and cigarettes: in caps and grimy coats, half a dozen German and British soldiers cluster together, gazing into a comrade’s camera.

As the war dragged on, though, amateur and official photographers converged in striving for portraiture that, while increasingly realistic, might nonetheless redeem the suffering. Neither liked to shoot pictures of the dead on their own side, though both gladly photographed the enemy dead. By 1916, they were documenting their wounded in increasingly graphic images. After a German flamethrower attack, a Canadian official photographer took a picture of a badly burned man, his face and hands wrapped in white bandages, nearly mummified. In another photograph, a British sergeant lies in a trench, a head wound freshly dressed, though he looks already dead; a stretcher bearer examines the rest of his body for wounds.

Still, to the end, something essential about the grim scene kept eluding the camera. Official photographers seized every chance they could to depict action: stretcher bearers carrying a wounded man through the Passchendaele mud, though that unfathomable morass dragged many more down; men charging out of a trench, though those brave charges marked the war’s desperate sacrifices; pilots beaming confidently, though many ace flyers were shot down within weeks. And hardly photographed by either the amateurs or the professionals was the most common scene: passive soldiers in their trenches being shelled. On the western front, troops were mostly sitting ducks; more than half of the casualties were from shell fire.

Are the inert lumps on the ground dead bodies, or parts of dead bodies?

Even for skilled professionals like Ernest Brooks, getting good pictures on the western front proved all but impossible. Brooks had spent the Edwardian twilight as an official photographer for the Royal Family. In 1915 he was sent to Gallipoli to cover the Royal Navy landings, and the following year he was dispatched to France. Brooks ended up taking about 4,400 pictures, or more than a tenth of all official British war photographs. But even with privileged access to the front lines, it was difficult to record the fighting. Like the soldiers, the men armed with cameras couldn’t see the enemy stowed away in trenches across no-man’s-land. The nondescript landscape and the lack of motion were mind-numbing. The field of operations was on such a huge scale that the official photographers complained they couldn’t possibly convey the scene. At times, they resorted to fakes, especially composites. The standard approach was to combine negatives from several images to render the complexity of the battlefield: planes strafing overhead, troops scurrying below, inky shell explosions in the distance.

It is telling that the most powerful western-front picture in the Imperial War Museums’ book is not of soldiers at all. Taken after the Battle of Guillemont, a British and French offensive that was successful but at great cost, this image from September 1916, by the British official photographer John Warwick Brooke, is disorienting at first glance. Are the inert lumps on the ground dead bodies, or parts of dead bodies? They are neither. But the initial relief upon recognizing that they’re inanimate objects evaporates when you realize what they are: the packs of the dead.

The men milling about are not ministering to the wounded, but searching the belongings of dead soldiers for letters, pictures, good-luck tokens—remnants to be sent home to their relatives. The shock is that the packs are even more haunting than the bodies would be; they convey an intimacy, a sense of humanity, that other photos lack. The bundles can’t be aggregated and consigned to the statistics. Like Ashley Gilbertson’s photos of the bedrooms of American troops killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they attest to stubbornly individual stories. The bodies have been removed, but the war will soon come home: there will be the knock on the door, the telegram, the personal effects handed over. The British prime minister’s own eldest son, Raymond Asquith, was killed a few days later and a few miles away, at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette.

Far removed from the thousands of miles of immutable trenches, the war’s other fronts offered photographers a different vantage. Two pictures taken at sea reach for the allegorical, even if inadvertently, and come closer than any others to capturing the scale and senselessness of the conflict. From the
SS River Clyde during the Battle of Gallipoli, a Royal Navy lieutenant photographed a scene of gross futility. A barge in the foreground is filled with the bodies of the dead and injured from an Irish regiment, sprawled like sacks of cargo. On the shore, what looks almost like shrubbery is a group of Irish fusiliers, huddled together, trapped by Turkish fire. Another photograph, of a battle in the North Sea, is still more relentlessly bleak. Horizontal swaths of gray sea and gray sky are divided by the gray bulk of the capsized German battle cruiser SMS Blücher. Like barnacles on the ship’s side, survivors here and there extend recognizable arms and legs as they prepare to jump. Others, mere specks, bob in the vast waters.

The individual disappearing into the sea of battle without a trace: that was the terror of fighting men and their relatives. The numbers are mesmerizingly awful. The statistics appear on starkly white pages among the photographs in the Imperial War Museums’ volume. More than 70 million men were mobilized, of whom some 45 million became casualties, and at least 9 million died. On average, the war claimed the lives of 230 soldiers, sailors, or airmen for every hour that it lasted. Again and again there have been attempts to conjure up a mental picture of all those dead, some way of comprehending the slaughter that no photograph could capture. Were the British Empire’s more than 1.1 million dead to march down Whitehall four abreast, it would take three and a half days for them all to pass the Cenotaph, observed Fabian Ware, the head of the Imperial War Graves Commission, in 1933. This was the underbelly of the gigantomania of the Gilded Age powers, the nations that built the largest factories (Russia), the largest ships (Germany), the largest department stores (France), the largest empire (Britain).

Like barnacles on the ship’s side, survivors here and there extend recognizable arms and legs.

Those same powers had also undertaken the vast systematizing effort of tracking the individuals they sent off in waves to the war. For the first time in history, combatants of Western nations went to battle furnished with government-issued dog tags. But rescuing them from anonymity in a blizzard of death turned out to be the unforeseen challenge, which no camera could meet. Wilfred Owen carried snapshots of the dead and wounded in his pocket. Sent back to the front in 1918 after a bout of shell shock, he was opposed to the war but still loyal to the men in his regiment. In a letter to his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Owen recorded the immediacy of the horror. Owen’s young servant, shot in the head, had been thrown on top of him, soaking his shoulder with blood. “Catalogue? Photograph? Can you photograph the crimson-hot iron as it cools from the smelting? That is what Jones’s blood looked like, and felt like. My senses are charred.”

In Joe Sacco’s 24-foot, line-drawn panorama of the first day of the Battle of the Somme—the book unfolds like an accordion—he seeks the emblematic image precisely in the erasure of individuality. It is a choice with even more resonance in an era that memorialized September 11 victims with personalized “Portraits of Grief” in The New York Times. It is also a deliberate contrast with Sacco’s previous documentary efforts, which took him to Gaza, the West Bank, Bosnia, and to poor and desolate areas of the United States. Portraying those places, he masterfully summed up a particular life in one or two panels. This time, in scenes modeled on the Bayeux Tapestry, he depicts no individual other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force and the architect of the Somme disaster. All the way through—as he meticulously documents the laborious mobilization, the pointless charges, the dead and injured marooned in the field—Sacco’s perspective is from the British lines, which means the soldiers are seen mostly from the back. He gets the details of the carts, the guns, and the uniforms exactly right. The faces he draws are deliberately generic.

Sacco has steeped himself in the photographs of the war. Unlike the men who took them, he places himself exactly where he wants, which was precisely where the cameras never could be—in the press of fighting bodies and, in a sense, above them, capturing the faceless anonymity that was, at least for a time, the troops’ condition. Here a soldier vomits, there a man whose legs have been blown off looks imploringly up at the sky: these are the dots in the photograph of no-man’s-land. Sacco draws your eye to the half-inch figures of suffering, but demands, too, that it rove around the page, to take in the magnitude of the scene. His panorama is wordless, a perfect counterpoint to the word-clogged reportage of the illustrated papers of the time.

The Imperial War Graves Commission and its French and German counterparts made exhaustive attempts to identify all the dead and, later, to erect monuments proving they had not been forgotten. Old comrades, friends, and family members kept the individuals in their memory. They visited the battlefields to find the small white headstone with their soldier’s name; when there was no grave, they touched the place where a name was engraved on a memorial. They held séances to summon the dead. But inevitably, as the decades roll on, what endures are the fearsome numbers.

Even at the time, even for those who knew best, it was hard to keep both the statistics and the people in focus. George Barnes, the first minister of pensions in Britain, was better acquainted than anyone else with the scope of the casualties. In 1917, he traveled from London to Roehampton Hospital, the country’s largest artificial-limb-fitting center. There he was to address the patients about pensions and other government services. The men, with their wheelchairs, crutches, and empty sleeves, were gathered on the lawn. Barnes rose to speak, but for a long time he was silent. The tears ran down his face, and he left without saying a word. 

Deborah Cohen, who teaches history at Northwestern University, is the author of The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939. Her most recent book, published in April, is Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain.

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