And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 7 November 2010


Portraits from Word War 1

“It's all a terrible tragedy. And yet, in its details, it's great fun. And - apart from the tragedy - I've never felt happier or better in my life than in those days in Belgium”
Rupert Brooke, Christmas 1914.
 Walking abroad, one is the admiration of all little boys, and meets an approving glance from every eye of elderly.
Wilfred Owen, 1914

Until immigration shifted the demographics in the 1950s and 60s, you could count on most Australian families having one photograph in their family album of a grandfather or great uncle wearing his ANZAC army uniform. More often than not the photograph was taken in someone’s backyard. He stood to attention or saluted, grinning somewhat foolishly as though he was in on the same joke as everyone else; he was no soldier. The same ritual was taking place all through Europe between 1914 and 1918. World War 1 was the first major war where photographers and cameramen ventured into the frontlines to shoot the action so to speak, but it was also the first war where people at home picked up their cameras and photographed it from their point of view. Fifty years before Vietnam supposedly became the war that entered our living rooms, people around the world were sharing their living space with a photograph of a son or a brother who had been killed in places they’d never heard of before.

There are thousands of these photographs out there. Once they belonged in photo albums or on mantelpieces but as time puts distance between us and events they appear more often in antique shops, often unceremoniously dumped in a pile of snapshots and cheap postcards. That point where memory transmutes into desire, the way it has with daguerreotypes of the American Civil War, hasn’t quite been reached. The portraits in this post are of anonymous people; we have absolutely no idea what happened to them during the war or if they survived it but they all tell pretty much the same story in the way that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were English poets yet we know that the things they described were also seen through German, Bulgarian or Turkish eyes.

For all its horrific statistics, the First World War has entered our consciousness devoid of any deep cultural animosities. Nobody seriously blames the Germans or Serb nationalists for starting it. It has no sinister iconography like the swastika to evoke reactions. If anything, we see the real culprits to be the generals and politicians from our own side and historians pay more attention to the internal class wars that rived the various nations involved. In his paintings Otto Dix made it clear who he thought the war had been against. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Eric Bogle’s song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy are all about the class conflict at home. The enemy occupying the trenches across the way are barely seen, certainly not the focus of hate. 


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