Images of the Great War: What Does It All Mean?

Katie Neville, a senior public administration major, wrestles with the legacies of the Great War in this photo essay.

The images of World War I illuminate a period of four years crippled by death, destruction and terror. Often times overshadowed in the United States for merely being the precursor to Nazism and World War II, nearly one hundred years later, much of the war’s realities live on. The following photographs memorialize the legacy of war and its effect on the region. Even today sites of memory in France and Belgium testify to the Great War’s enormous loss of life, the ruined landscapes it produced, the incomprehensible number of missing soldiers still not identified, and the war’s gruesomeness.  The Great War may still haunt parts of Europe even while the rebuilt Cloth Hall of Ypres attests to how Europe rebuilt itself after two world wars.

Loss of Life:


The most important aspect of the war is the unimaginable loss of life. This panoramic photo was taken at the Commonwealth War Grave at Passchendaele. The image of never-ending tombstones exemplifies that number. The standard layout of these cemeteries seeks to honor the dead through a true and honest testimony. The commission memorializes the importance of sacrifice.

The Unknown:


Taken at the American War Memorial in the Argonne Forest. The never-ending lists of unknown soldiers are hard to comprehend. One simple name, such as “Brown W. J. H” of the Norfolk regiment quietly left his mark on humanity. Hopefully not forgotten by his family, friends and loved ones.

The Gruesomeness of War:


The Douaumont Ossuary is a memorial containing the bones of thousands of soldiers who died at Verdun. The monument honors the deaths of both French and German soldiers lost in the battle. This photograph taken through an outside observation window, gives a glimpse into the absolute carnage of the war.

The Aftermath of Shellfire:


France, suffering one of the largest percentages of casualties also experienced permanent changes to its landscape. This photograph taken at Verdun shows the brutal affects of shellfire. Posing a serious threat to local populations these areas are uninhabited. The grounds are completely contaminated and can no longer support life.

The Rebuilt Cloth Hall of Ypres


The Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium was originally constructed in the 13th century and served as the largest commercial building of the Middle Ages. During WWI the building and the surrounding town were completely leveled. Starting in 1933 the building was reconstructed to its prewar condition. The building is an important representation of how devastating the war was but additionally the town’s people desire to return to peace. According to the tours we took in Ypres, the building and the town were meant to move several miles down the road but original inhabitants strongly lobbied for its rebuilding. To me, the building is a beautiful portrayal of rebirth in Belgium following the war.}



The popular images of World War I, often discuss the pointlessness of it all. The generation who survived the war became disillusioned and staunchly opposed to militarism. For these reasons, visiting so many memorial sites honoring the fallen gave me a slightly different impression of the war. On countless occasions I wondered, could 8 million people lose their lives for no purpose? Truly something important had to result from the violence and destruction. In retrospect, the war changed warfare forever. Traditional battle lines fell with the introduction of great military technology. The war also led to a deconstruction of the British and German empires. In life, I believe that everything has a purpose. I believe that identifying the war as useless or non-circumstantial is a disservice to the men and women who gave their lives to the cause. Though I agree many countries rushed into the start of the war and made crucial misjudgments throughout, these events happened and now we must live with the honest truth. Defining millions of deaths as pointless reinforces a culture in which we rush into wars to defend shallow nationalism. I feel that the lessons learned are that diplomacy is a crucial part of world politics. And if military action is necessary it should be made with swift and thoughtful judgment.

About Stephen Norris