WWI Photographs

· life ·

Since this year is the centenary of the start of the First World War, there have been a number of interesting documentaries on TV about the Great War. One of these was a fascinating programme about the photographs taken by soldiers themselves in the trenches: Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs. I have been meaning to write about it for quite a while, but it has slightly haunted me, and I have been struggling to find the words to express what I’d like to say about it.

The programme told the story of the ordinary soldiers (British and German), who took cameras to the Front and documented their lives there. Cameras were apparently very popular items for soldiers to take with them, and the so-called ‘Vest Pocket Camera’ (a collapsible-lens medium format camera) could be easily carried in the tunic pocket. Initially, the powers that be on both sides encouraged this practice. Indeed, there were articles published advising soldiers not to get over-excited and use up all their film on the voyage over. However, as the war went on and the photographs emerging from the front became ever grimmer, the British government became concerned about the effect that the photographs would have on morale back home and banned soldiers from carrying cameras. Not that this really stopped anyone. There’s a lovely moment where Michael discovers a letter that William sent to his wife in which he asks for her to send more ‘cake’. It transpires that this was their pre-arranged code word for photographic film, in order to get past the military censors. I’d like to think that she actually sent the rolls of film smuggled inside a Dundee cake, but sadly, history doesn’t record this detail. In contrast, the German government positively encouraged photography throughout the war.

The documentary followed the photographs of two soldiers in particular, both of whom were unusual in that they were Privates (the cameras were expensive). William Smallcombe was 24 and from Gloucestershire, and Walter Kleinfeldt, a German soldier, was only 17 years old. William’s grandson Michael and Walter’s son Volkmar were following the trail of pictures. Interestingly, both had a professional interest in photography: Michael is a professional photographer, and Volkmar runs a photographic shop in Germany.

Both sets of photographs were fascinating because they were in many ways so different from the ‘official’ photographs from the trenches, which tended towards patriotism or heroism. In contrast, William and Walter’s photographs overwhelmingly featured people — their mates who shared the experience of war with them. Initially, the photographs show relaxed, even excited men, relishing something that must have seemed like a bit of an adventure. They pose in tight groups on the grass or in the trenches, smiling for the camera and smoking cigarettes or pipes, clustered around machine guns or tanks. As might be expected from such a young lad, Walter’s photographs show a particular fascination with the military hardware, at least initially.

But then the photographs gradually begin to change. The men no longer look directly at the camera, and if they do, you see what the war has done. You see exhaustion and horror, but also a kind of blankness in their eyes, as if they have retreated from the world and left an empty shell walking around. Both soldiers started to take starker photographs of ruined buildings, desolated trees and corpses. It seems odd (and wrong) to talk of photographs of dead bodies and destruction being beautiful, but their photographs do have a simplicity, directness and terrible beauty about them. Walter, in particular, seemed to have developed an almost painterly eye throughout the war, and also a motivation to document the horror and waste of war. One of his photos is of a tree that has been blasted to shreds by a shell. He gets up close to it and lets it almost fill the frame with its shattered shreds. There are no people in the frame, and yet it is a perfect image of the war. William was caught up in a dreadful fire-fight at a place called Wedge Wood, during which his best friend Ernest was killed. He buried Ernest himself, and then took a photograph of the makeshift grave for the man’s family. While it was a pragmatic photograph — at least he would have something to give Ernest’s grieving parents — it’s also haunting and full of symbolism. There’s a depression in the ground, a short stake for a headstone with a scrap of paper pinned to it, and then the grave itself is laid over with shell casings in the shape of a cross.

The photograph that haunted me most was one by Walter. All the links I could find to the photograph were from the Daily Mail, and I refuse to send any traffic their way, so I’ll just have to describe it. I can do that from memory anyway, since it is one of those images that you can’t unsee. I only have to close my eyes to picture it. It’s not that it’s especially gruesome, but it is heartbreaking and deeply haunting.

In the foreground, there’s the body of a man. He’s lying on his side, his cheek resting on the mud, with his legs and bare feet stretched out (someone has taken his boots) and his left arm draped loosely over his hip. You can’t tell for sure whether he is British, German or French. He’s just a man. The figure, however, is not in focus. Instead, the sharp focus is in the middle distance of the scene, on a shattered hedge-line in which there is a roadside crucifix. On the crucifix is a statue of Christ. He is depicted (as he often is), with his head dropped to one side and down, but he is looking away from the fallen man. In fact, the man and Christ are facing in opposite directions: Christ to the left of the frame, and the dead man to the right. Even so, your first thought when you look at the photograph (because of the composition and the coincidence of the man’s bare feet) is that the dead man might have been on the cross and have just fallen to the ground. Beyond both of them, shattered trees and a ruined barn disappear into the fog.

It’s a photograph that hits you in the gut and won’t let go of your imagination.

Towards the end of the programme, Michael and Volkmar met and shared their relatives’ photographs with each other. At times, William and Walter were probably very close to each other across the front line, and had they met, they would probably have liked each other given their shared photographic interests and the apparent similarity in their outlook on life. Both survived the war, but Walter died very young in 1945, when Volkmar was a very young boy. Volkmar doesn’t really remember his father, but he has a tiny fragment of ciné film in which his father is swinging him around and pretending to eat his head in that way that babies and toddlers find so hilarious. The film is silent, but little Volkmar is obviously giggling his head off, and his father is laughing and smiling for the camera, the sunlight falling on both of them.