World War One's Battlefields, Still Scarred A Century Later

World War One's Battlefields, Still Scarred A Century Later

This Great War image collection is part of a display currently at Paris, to go on tour later this year.

A hundred years ago next month, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot and killed by Serb nationalist agitators. The political fallout from that act drew the great powers into conflict, and by August 1914 the Great War began in earnest, with Germany's shattering victory at Mons over the British and French. Thus began the most devastating war Europe had ever known up to that point, four years of hell that saw the entire world sucked in. One in eight of those who went to war were killed; over 9 million soldiers dead, in all.

The pictures you see here are images taken from the battlefields as they appear today. They are part of an exhibit Fields of Battle - Lands of Peace put together by Irish landscape photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil, currently on display in Paris, later to go on tour in the UK. Let me talk you through them.

The first is the trenches of the Somme. That battle began July 1st, 1916, and lasted until November that year. The Allies attempted, unsuccessfully, to break through the German lines in the Somme valley. British casualties on the first day were the worst in the history of the British army; 19,240 men died on that day alone, of a total British casualty list of 57,470. It was so bad that the government of the day felt forced to release a movie soon afterward to show the public what had happened, a whitewashed documentary that spent as little time as possible talking about the casualty rate. It was, on release, the most popular film - in terms of viewer numbers - ever seen in the UK, and kept that distinction until the release of Star Wars.

The second and third photos are Messines, and Verdun, respectively. There were three battles of Messines, in 1914, 1917 and 1918; Verdun is, of course, the infamous mincing machine that inflicted nearly a million casualties, all told, from February to December 1916. The devastation was so total that, after the war, six villages near Verdun were officially designated Zone Rouge; they had died for France, and would not be rebuilt.

The crater you see in the fourth photograph also dates from the Somme. That is the Lochnagar Crater, created when the army tried to set off a mine underneath the German defenses as part of an attack. The explosion, it's said, was heard in London. "The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky," said a witness, flying overhead at the time. "There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris."

The fifth photograph is a village, Butte de Vaquois. It used to be on a hill, but three years of mines and explosions leveled not only the village, but also the hill it stood on.

The sea view in the final photograph is Sedd el Bahr Kale, a fortification built in 1659 that overlooks the Gallipoli battlefield, in Turkey. The date of the landing, 25th April, later becomes ANZAC Day, in commemoration of the thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers killed. You're looking at V beach, one of five landing spots. Machine gunners firing from that fort slaughtered troops as they landed; of the first 200 soldiers to make the attempt, only 21 made it to the beach alive.

The collection, says Sheil, is inspired by a battlefield visit he made with his father, who served in the London Irish Rifles and fought in France in 1940. "His soldier's eye was able to match the angles of church towers to the trenches they had dug and for the first time I appreciated the importance to the infantryman of even the merest ripple on the surface of a field." That experience stayed with him, and when the Great War centenary approached he decided to commemorate the event.

The display is currently at Les Jardins de Luxembourg and will remain there until August. The War Graves Commission will make a book from this collection.

Source: Smithsonian

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Err the battle of mons was not a shattering German victory. The BEF achieved its objective of preventing the French 5th army from being outflanked by holding of the Germans for 48 hours, despite being out number 2-1. The British inflicted 3 times as many casualties as they lost and retired in good order. The battle itself was a tactical defeat for Germany, they aimed to envelop and destroy the BEF and failed. The British were forced to retreat because of wider German movements but the BEF's rearguard actions and subsequent counter attack helped the French win the first battle of the Marne. Defeat on the Marne ended Germany's plans of a quick strategic victory.

Ever since reading about the battle, and seeing wartime photographs of Verdun, even seeing it as it is now is just unnerving, even terrifying. Something about seeing all that happened there, and seeing even now how the terrain isn't natural in the slightest, but is trying it's damnedest to be.

Anyone know what caused that huge hole in the pictures? I mean, did they really have bombs that could do that back then? I knew the artillery was bulky but not that big and I am very sure a bomb that big wouldn't be able to be slapped onto a bomber from that era.

Ultratwinkie:
Anyone know what caused that huge hole in the pictures? I mean, did they really have bombs that could do that back then? I knew the artillery was bulky but not that big and I am very sure a bomb that big wouldn't be able to be slapped onto a bomber from that era.

The British tunneled under the German lines in 22 places and laid 457 tons of explosive underneath the German trenches. The hole is the crater left by one the 22 mines.

If I remember correctly those mines at Lochnager completely failed making it more difficult for British forces as all the rubble and barbed wire pooled in the giant crators they created, the Germans simply sat on the rim and turn't it into a killing floor... WW1 was a freaking mess, not that WW2 was much better granted, but the shift in warfare seemed to completely blind side those in charge at the time, at least, from what I can remember.

Ultratwinkie:
Anyone know what caused that huge hole in the pictures? I mean, did they really have bombs that could do that back then? I knew the artillery was bulky but not that big and I am very sure a bomb that big wouldn't be able to be slapped onto a bomber from that era.

The picture of the Verdun battlefield? The Germans had gigantic siege cannons that they used against the French fort network. They were some of the largest guns ever built. So large in fact, that the remaining guns were actually used at the start of the Second World War. Artillery was massive in the Great War, and it only got larger as time went on.

Soviet Heavy:

Ultratwinkie:
Anyone know what caused that huge hole in the pictures? I mean, did they really have bombs that could do that back then? I knew the artillery was bulky but not that big and I am very sure a bomb that big wouldn't be able to be slapped onto a bomber from that era.

The picture of the Verdun battlefield? The Germans had gigantic siege cannons that they used against the French fort network. They were some of the largest guns ever built. So large in fact, that the remaining guns were actually used at the start of the Second World War. Artillery was massive in the Great War, and it only got larger as time went on.

I think he is referring to this image image Which is from the battle of Messines in 1917.

Which I referred to here.

albino boo:
The British tunneled under the German lines in 22 places and laid 457 tons of explosive underneath the German trenches. The hole is the crater left by one the 22 mines.

albino boo:

Soviet Heavy:

Ultratwinkie:
Anyone know what caused that huge hole in the pictures? I mean, did they really have bombs that could do that back then? I knew the artillery was bulky but not that big and I am very sure a bomb that big wouldn't be able to be slapped onto a bomber from that era.

The picture of the Verdun battlefield? The Germans had gigantic siege cannons that they used against the French fort network. They were some of the largest guns ever built. So large in fact, that the remaining guns were actually used at the start of the Second World War. Artillery was massive in the Great War, and it only got larger as time went on.

I think he is referring to this image image Which is from the battle of Messines in 1917.

Which I referred to here.

albino boo:
The British tunneled under the German lines in 22 places and laid 457 tons of explosive underneath the German trenches. The hole is the crater left by one the 22 mines.

I see. I wouldn't say I stand corrected, but you are right about that bomb. I was referring to the image of the supremely messed up moonscape from the Verdun picture.

I used to live near Verdun when I was a child, and I stil remember the heavy and dreary atmosphere of the whole countryside, with all its memorials, ossuaries and war cemeteries, and it had been almost a century since those days.
Some tragedies linger on a place far beyond their end.

PunkRex:
WW1 was a freaking mess, not that WW2 was much better granted, but the shift in warfare seemed to completely blind side those in charge at the time, at least, from what I can remember.

At first, but things improved very quickly. WW1 is grossly misrepresented as a bunch of idiotic officer doing the same thing over and over again (typically by films and TV shows). In actual fact tactics and strategy developed at a lightning rate out of sheer necessity. It was bloody and brutal, but the high commands were far from stupid.

Fascinating pictures. Though I have to say I'm always a little disappointed at how Gallipoli is presented by many people. Gallipoli wasn't JUST a bunch of Australian and New Zealand troops, it was a multinational operation that was something of a horrendous disaster for all involved. I mean...the French had a thousand more dead and the UK had roughly four times more dead; are they not worth remembering?

Lightspeaker:
I have to say I'm always a little disappointed at how Gallipoli is presented by many people. Gallipoli wasn't JUST a bunch of Australian and New Zealand troops, it was a multinational operation that was something of a horrendous disaster for all involved. I mean...the French had a thousand more dead and the UK had roughly four times more dead; are they not worth remembering?

To the other powers that was just another battle, an important one but still one of many. It was a different story both politically and emotionally for Australia/New Zealand.

I'm honestly impressed that this guy is Irish and willing to be totally open about the fact that any of his ancestors served with the British during either World War. It is still considered almost taboo nationally to admit that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Irish served in the British army during WWII and there was even a certain stigma attached to those who served during WWI even despite the conscription/drafting.

War, and the tragedy that it creates, are seen differently by different peoples.

Good article, but the death of archduke Franz Ferdinand was only a guise to start to war, it was in no way the actual cause of it. The guy was a relatively unimportant figure who had fallen out of grace because of a morganatic marriage (he married a much lower noble), his death was misused by the various powers that had been racing headlong into conflict.
Proof of this is that to this day, the location of his grave is largely unkown to the public and almost no funds are free to maintain the castle where he is buried.

The importance of WW1 cannot be underestimated however. In many ways it changed the world far more dramatically than the second world war. Just imagine starting out with various massive empires and kingdoms at the start of the 20th century, then nearly all of them falling apart during or shortly after the first world war.

Also, the whole process of decolonization and even the current problems in the Middle East find many of their roots in that war. The borders of many countries were literally shaped with a ruler on a map and divided between the victors, leading to ethnic problems to this day.

So the scars in the landscape are probably the least important scars it left. Even though every year farmers still die in my country because they accidentally dig up unexploded ammunition and though hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxis gas cannisters are lying under the sand in front of Belgian shores (along with many other locations).

Lightspeaker:

PunkRex:
WW1 was a freaking mess, not that WW2 was much better granted, but the shift in warfare seemed to completely blind side those in charge at the time, at least, from what I can remember.

At first, but things improved very quickly. WW1 is grossly misrepresented as a bunch of idiotic officer doing the same thing over and over again (typically by films and TV shows). In actual fact tactics and strategy developed at a lightning rate out of sheer necessity. It was bloody and brutal, but the high commands were far from stupid.

And yet I can't find any kind words for those who sent millions of people to their deaths. Perhaps being reviled throughout history should be part of the price they must pay for the things they helped wrought. Douglas Haig is a prime example of this.

Somehow, the whole story of WW1 simply disturbs me like nothing else in history.

PunkRex:
WW1 was a freaking mess, not that WW2 was much better granted, but the shift in warfare seemed to completely blind side those in charge at the time, at least, from what I can remember.

The thing is it never should have been the surprise it was, the later stages of the American Civil War where very like the Great War, even to the extent you can interchange photographs of the trenches and fortifications and end up baffled as to which war they are from. Accurate light arms, early automatic weapons and large artillery had pretty much the same effects they had in WW1.

The governments and militaries already had an example of what an industrialised war would look like, with the advances in technology it should have been obvious that it would be even worse.

Lightspeaker:

PunkRex:
WW1 was a freaking mess, not that WW2 was much better granted, but the shift in warfare seemed to completely blind side those in charge at the time, at least, from what I can remember.

At first, but things improved very quickly. WW1 is grossly misrepresented as a bunch of idiotic officer doing the same thing over and over again (typically by films and TV shows). In actual fact tactics and strategy developed at a lightning rate out of sheer necessity. It was bloody and brutal, but the high commands were far from stupid.snip

The high command didn't change their tactics that much, not for years, not until Monash showed them how to.

incredible photos!

tangoprime:
Ever since reading about the battle, and seeing wartime photographs of Verdun, even seeing it as it is now is just unnerving, even terrifying. Something about seeing all that happened there, and seeing even now how the terrain isn't natural in the slightest, but is trying it's damnedest to be.

Indeed.

But apparently, we are not done yet, more cities around the world need to burn and more blood must flow : D

Makes you wonder why the people in charge don't get tired of it.

Rainforce:
Makes you wonder why the people in charge don't get tired of it.

Because it's not them and theirs dying in the mud. It's always easier to send people you don't care about out to die for your cause.

At least these days it's somewhat more "precise", and the accidental deaths tend to come from poor intel or hasty decisions rather than having to resort to obliterating an entire neighborhood to remove one factory or something.

 

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