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Thursday, 25 April 2013


Some portraits from World War 1, most with a sense of tragic irony
“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”
Otto von Bismarck (1888).

There’s a painting by John Singer Sargent at the National Gallery in London called General Officers of the Great War. Twenty two of the British and Allied commanders are standing together; William Birdwood, Douglas Haig, Edmund Allenby, George Milne and so on, and unless you still get teary at the idea of the British Empire, you have to ask; did any of them feel just a twinge of shame at being asked to pose? Too bad Winston Churchill wasn’t asked to join in. Then Sargent could have titled his painting 23 men whose ignorance and incompetence led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands, but that’s perhaps a bit unwieldy. 

Here’s one of the French culprits; well he looks like he had a walk-on part in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which was incidentally based on a novel, itself drawn from actual events when four soldiers were executed for mutiny. For the record, Australia was the only country in the First World War that did not have an official policy of executing deserters or soldiers accused of cowardice. The British executed 306 soldiers, including 25 Canadians, 22 Irish and 5 from New Zealand. The Americans executed very few (so too the Germans) but US High Command wasn’t averse to punishments of public humiliation, including sentencing deserters to wear placards. The French outdid everyone. Over 600 soldiers were shot. Worse, there was a policy of decimation in place, which meant that when a unit rebelled and refused to follow a reckless order, one of every ten men could be shot as punishment for all. The most infamous case was on December 15, 1914 in Flanders when several French-African soldiers were executed. To make things even worse, in the French and American armies the soldiers called on to carry out executions were most likely to come from the soldier’s own regiment. They were his brothers in arms.

The mythology that England, France, Germany, Turkey and Australia have developed around the First World War reduces the enemy to simple terms. If you were Australian he spoke German or Turkish. The fact he may have been Bulgarian gets lost in the lack of detail. Bulgaria’s part in the war has been discussed in earlier posts but it is worth reiterating. After all, in the First Balkan War of 1912 Bulgaria was allied to Serbia and Greece against the Ottomans, went into the second Balkan War against its earlier allies and by 1915 had joined the First World War on the side of the Ottomans. There’s a tendency to describe Balkan politics as complex, as though too much thought went into them, but there’s another possibility; they were as thoughtless as they were self-serving, visceral and absolutely lacking in foresight. These men, photographed in 1916, are cannon fodder.

The Americans came in late, or as they would put it, to clean up the mess. They weren’t there at Gallipoli, Ypres or the Somme, which explains why there is no great American novel about the war. This may not be a bad thing. There’s been a proliferation from Britain in recent years and the plots quite frankly have become predictable: Irish boy goes off to fight for England and returns to the troubles at home - The Soldier's Song, A Long Long Way – episodic narrative of young soldier’s road to awakening and disillusion – Birdsong, Regeneration, etc. Worse, they appear to have identical covers of soldiers silhouetted on a ridge. Nothing so odd as this photo then. Not that there was anything at all strange about a soldier having his portrait taken before he shipped out, but it is somewhat to pose in front of a painted backdrop of a military barracks, and he has the expression of the rabbit in the headlights.

Something similar is going on in this portrait of a nurse. Was she put in front of the backdrop of the military tents because it needed to be reinforced that she was going off to the front? For a long time, at least up to the mid-1980s, the idea that nurses also served in battle wasn’t taken too seriously, as though having to tend to soldiers who’d been shot, gassed, had bits blown off or were suffering shell-shock was all in a day’s work. Read some of the nurse’s accounts from Gallipoli: working for days without rest while a stream of the wounded poured in and knowing there wasn’t much they could do for a lot of them. All that while an officer was screaming that they weren’t doing a good job. Something like 400 American nurses died at the front, though only very few from weaponry. Disease killed most of them. 

Fraulein Feldweber: Miss Sergeant. She’s not one of course. She represents the cause the Germans were fighting for, or so they were told. There are a few postcards floating around with this same portrait although the backgrounds are different. She was probably one of the faces of the home front, mailed out to the troops to remind them what they stood to lose if the enemy succeeded in its aims.

On the back of this postcard the author has written: “A ma chere Marraine Alda Drouin Souvenir de guerre de votre petit ami Belge”, which translates as “To my dear godmother Alda Drouin, a souvenir of the war from your little Belgian friend.” Presumably it was taken in Belgium but the soldier, whose signature in indecipherable, is Canadian. The card is undated but join the dots between Canada, Belgium and World War 1 and the conclusion is almost certainly Ypres. In the first battle between October 19 and November 22 1914, over 170 000 were killed on both sides. During the second battle, April 22 to May 25 1915 the Canadians took the brunt of the first poison gas used in war. It was a Canadian, John McCrea, who wrote In Flanders Field, probably the most famous poem to have been written in World War 1. He wrote it for a friend who was killed at Ypres but in that perverse way things work it was used in Britain to recruit soldiers. 

“Men, I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die.” This was Mustafa Kemal’s command to his soldiers on the morning of April 25 1915, and that is pretty much what his soldiers did. Turkish casualties were higher during the Gallipoli campaign than the Allied losses (approximately 250 000 opposed to 208 000), but who was counting? Victory or defeat has never depended on the body count. There’s something in this photo that tells you what was at stake for the Ottoman Empire - dignity if nothing else. Of the options open to the Ottomans at the start of the war, neutrality or alliance with either the Allies or the Central Powers, it chose what now looks like the worst but in the end the other two would have only changed the timing of its inevitable collapse. When this photo was taken these two must have known the writing was on the wall for empire. Would that have influenced their willingness to die for it? 

This snapshot was taken at Camp Cody, Deming, New Mexico in 1918, then the training headquarters for the 34th Division. The Division arrived in Europe in October 1918 and wasn’t involved in fighting. That would have to wait until the Second World War when its soldiers made up the bulk of William Darby’s Rangers. Was this boy, clearly enjoying his role as camp mascot, among them? He looks to be about seven or eight and that would put him in the age bracket. 


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