NOT A LOVELY WAR:
Images of WWI
By Bill Dobbins
The First World War represented a sea change when is come to modern warfare. In the Civil War, which took place some 50 years earlier, most soldiers were armed with single shot muskets or rifles. Tactics used were not that much different than they had been in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. Masses of troops charged enemy lines, enduring artillery fire on the way and if successful in engaging fought hand to hand in an attempt to take the position.
In the early days of WWI, the same sorts of mass attack tactics tended to be used by both opposing armies. But troops in 1914 faced a much more deadly technology than in previous wars: the devastating fire of machine guns, miles of trenches and coiled barbed wire, poison gas and a concentration of artillery fire enormously more controlled and concentrated than any soldiers would have encountered anytime previously. Losses using mass assault tactics were so enormous that it didn’t take long for armies to rely far less on massive fronts attacks and instead settle down into two opposing and relatively stationary lines of trenches and become much more careful when it came to all out assaults against enemy lines.
Still, the casualties and deaths during the war were enormous. From Wikipedia:
World War I (often abbreviated as WWI or WW1), also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as “the war to end all wars“, it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civiliandeaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.
The lives of the soldiers hunkered down in the trenches could be nothing short of ghastly. Imagine the misery of millions of troops sloshing through trenches in all sorts of weather – cold, rain and baking heat. Often ankle deep in mud, no way to get clean, wearing the same filthy clothes for days or weeks, filthy latrine situations, being subject to periodic artillery bombardment, sniper fire and enemy attacks across the wire, only rudimentary medical help for the wounded, widespread dysentery and other diseases plus what was then called “shell shock” but what we now identify as PTSD.
This is all the more tragic when it is clear this war should never have happened. Various major powers got themselves entangled in a series of alliances that lead to war apparently beyond anyone’s ability to avoid it. This was not like WWII. Faced with military aggression on the part of the Axis Powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – the allied forces had little choice but to respond by going to war.
But to a soldier in the trenches in Europe during WWI the politics of what lead to war were largely irrelevant. Because most had no idea what a conflict involving modern technology might involve, the young men on both sides who entered military service tended to have an old-fashion and romantic idea of what they would be in for. There was a lot of patriotic fervor, an idea they were embarking on a glamorous adventure and a belief the war would be over quickly. None of which proved to be the case.
The involvement of the United States in WWI was far less than its European allies. America didn’t declare war until April 1917, three years after the start of the conflict. During the war the U.S. mobilized over 4 million military personnel and suffered 110,000 deaths, including around 45,000 who died due to the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak (30,000 before they even reached France). But the participation in the war and the casualties suffered were far less than in Europe – and America did not suffer the damage to landscape and infrastructure experienced by countries like France, Belgium and Germany.
After the war, there were books, movies and even songs that depicted the conditions endured by combatants in a relatively realistic way. Certainly, in Europe it was impossible not to notice the thousands of disable ex-soldiers – missing arms and legs, blinded, disfigured, crippled. And the effect of losing so many of the best and brightest young men to war would have severe ramifications on countries for generations to come.
Nowadays, with WWI a hundred years in the past, there tends to be relatively attention paid to it or appreciation of what a terrible experience it was for so many combatants. Fortunately, there were many photographers busy photographing the war and so we have a visual record to what the conflict looked like.
These images can’t really record the misery of the trenches, the suffering of the wounded and the stench resulting from the mix of mud, filth, feces and dead bodies. But they do help to remind us of what a terrible experience fighting in WWI trenches must have been and give us a better sense of the history of the time.
Of course, people at the time didn’t get to see these photos as we do. Magazines and newspaper were unlikely to publish them and there was a lot of censorship. Can you the war being allowed to continue if the public has seen the kind of extensive TV coverage available to viewers today?
WWI NOVEL: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
EARNEST HEMINGWAY NOVEL: A FAIRWELL TO ARMS
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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