A Photo Diary of the Great War

In this photo essay, Victoria Cooke, a senior history major, reflects on how the winter term workshop forced her to confront the sheer number of deaths in the Great War.

The Great War, more commonly referred to as the First World War, was the defining event of the twentieth century. From it resulted many of the issues of national identity and class structure that we continue to struggle with a century later. I have never before in my life felt so overwhelmed by a landscape. To learn about these soldiers in a classroom has no comparison to seeing where they fought firsthand. I am humbled by their sacrifice and feel that I must do all in my power to honor their memory and encourage others to do the same. Lasting from 1914 to 1918, it claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers and has rendered hundreds of acres of arable land uninhabitable. Following the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo, all of the major European powers seemingly fell into the conflict.

It is all too easy to focus on the political environment of the war, and ignore the true carnage and suffering the soldiers faced at the front. It is our responsibility, as historians, to remember these soldiers and to seek out lessons to be learned from this conflict. I have always enjoyed studying about war, and learning about those who gave themselves up for a glorious ideal, or greater purpose; however, I cannot convince myself of any reason for this devastation, and I am almost ashamed by how interested I have been in the military strategies as if they were a game of chess.

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To see a place so horrifically scarred, that even one hundred years after the battle, wildlife has not returned to this ruined landscape. The earth is so poisoned by the shellfire, that only small trees and grass have been able to re-inhabit the soil. I was struck by the silence, no birds in the trees, no squirrels or rabbits on the ground, just the wind and the rain. The battle of Verdun lasted from February 21 through December 18, 1916. The French suffered between 315,000–542,000 casualties and the German Empire between 281,000–434,000.

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The tragic irony of this battle was the fact that Verdun itself held no immediate strategic significance. The German General Falkenhayn created an overall strategy for Verdun as a battle of attrition. He has been quoted, “for every two Germans, the French shall lose five”. His strategy was to bleed the French army until a route to Paris was available and the city could be taken. This war of attrition, inflicted thousands of casualties on both sides, and is where the infamous strategy trench warfare became the dominant form of fighting and remained for the rest of the war.

The French solider Louis Barthas wrote of Verdun, “As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remained. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation” (Barthas, p.192).

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Above is a picture from the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery in France. Although many in America are unaware, the American Army contributed greatly to the conflict. The War was the third deadliest in American history, ranked just behind the American Civil War and World War II. The cemetery is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission and provides a breathtaking final resting place for these soldier’s mortal remains. Along the walls of the cemetery, are thousands of names of the American soldiers whose bodies were never recovered and therefore have no known grave.

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The picture above is of a privately commissioned French Cemetery for soldiers who were killed during the Battle of the Somme. The markers indicate the religion of the deceased: a cross for Christians, a square marker with Arabic script for Muslims, and another square marker with a star of David for Hebrews. Soldiers have described the conditions at the Somme as deadly and unbearable. Barthas writes, “It’s useless to try to describe the sufferings of the men, without shelter, soaked, pierced with cold, badly fed— no pen could tell their tale. You had to have lived through these hours, these days, these nights, to know how interminable they were in times like these” (Barthas, p. 282).

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This was a war of Empires, and troops from all over the world fought for their Metropole.  Above is a photograph from the Australian National War memorial in France. It shows the grave of W. L. Rae of the 20th BN. Australian Infantry, who was killed on August 8, 1918 at the age of 24. His inscription reads, “Another life lost, hearts broken for what?” Although his grave stands out among the rest for such a direct and morbid question, his family was not alone in thinking the lives of their sons were lost without purpose. This war left a legacy of nationalism and new identity for many within the Empire, for a large part due to this question: what was it all for? Why should we, the Australians, Canadians, etc… fight the wars of Great Britain, and how are we different from them?

In conclusion, I would like to cite another passage from Louis Barthas about the end of the war and armistice of 1918. He writes, “What did a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand more cadavers matter, a few more months of unimaginable suffering to bear? Did that matter for those who were far from the slugfest? And to accomplish this monstrous dream, the so-called Allied governments sought to delay for as long as possible the hour of the last cannon shot, by requiring Germany to repeat its demand for armistice several times, for simple questions of form and formulas” (p. 381) It has been made abundantly clear to me over the course of this trip, that thousands of lives were lost due to a lack of consideration by those planning the battles of those who would be fighting them.

About Stephen Norris