‘The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front:’ Excerpt by Geoff Dyer.

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, belatedly 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” (153). When things are at their worst, the narrator decides that “For an hour this is Verdun, this is as relentless as it gets” (246).

For the Anzacs, it is Gallipoli. For the British, it is Passchendaele, or the Battle of the Somme, more specifically the first day of the Bomme—more specifically still, the first morning of that fateful day, July 1, 1916. officially, what is commemorated on the anniversary of the armistice each year is the final victory of 1918, but the emotional epicenter of memory is either the site of the most catastrophic defeat, or, in the case of Verdun, a victory whose price was so high as to have rendered it all but indistinguishable from defeat. The “Glory” that is celebrated lies not in the magnitude of victory but in the scale of loss—the consequences of which extend far beyond the battlefield. according to British military historian John Keegan in his book, The First World War (1999), “the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been restored” (321).

Germany and America are the two obvious exceptions to this metonymic commemoration of localized defeat. For the Germans, this is because the defeat was total; they lost the whole war (which might also account for the universal appeal of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front). For America, the explanation is two-fold: partly because the battle was joined so late (April 1917), in time to help secure victory with comparatively little loss of life; and partly because the cataclysm of the Civil War pre-empted the Great War in the scale of death, devastation, and grief.

In keeping with this localizing tendency, our visual ideas of the war are also quite site-specific: mud, trenches, the ruined landscape of no man’s land. Frank Hurley’s famous view of soldiers making their way through a swamp of blasted trees at Passchendaele stands as a representative image of the entire British experience of the Western Front—an experience firmly embedded in the past. Unlike Robert Capa’s pictures of d-day, in which the outcome of overlord seems to hang perpetually and blurrily in the balance, photographs from the First World War survive in the realm not of a momentarily suspended narrative, but in the amber—more precisely, the sepia—of memory. We know what the First World War looked like because nothing about it has changed or moved in the century since it began.


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