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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. 


Thursday, 18 April 2013


Canada, from B.C to Nova Scotia in Snapshots

“Some countries have too much history, we have too much geography”
William Lyon Mackenzie King

Here’s something you can try at home. Use Google Maps street-view to set off from Victoria British Columbia and follow the Trans-Canada Highway to Sydney, Nova Scotia. Given it takes an average five days to cross Canada this should take about ten, but you’ll give up before then. Frankly, the activity is as interesting as watching aquarium scenes on television. Even skipping large sections you realize the prairies look much the same from one side to the other but they are nothing compared to the monotony of the pine forests in Ontario. Actual driving is different. After a couple of days of the same landscape you enter a zone the Buddhists call the Fifth Jhana, where material consciousness has begun to dissipate, the beginning stages of incorporeal tranquillity. You can’t get that from a computer. 
Let’s start at the western edge: Victoria, B.C. if there is something essentially British about this scene of the lake and medieval bridge at Beaconhill Park, (taken on Sunday the 2nd of August 1942) that is no accident. To the city’s aldermen and landscape designers in the 1880s, the essence of a beautiful park lay in its evocation of old England. We see the same ideas in Australia. They were supposed to transport us ‘home’, a place more and more people had no experience of.

Still in B.C: in Chilliwack. The word bounces off the tongue. It has its roots in the local First Nations language but we must credit our ancestors for taking words from indigenous tongues and mangling them into something that could be spelt. The results can be poetic. Just weeks ago (March 2013) Chilliwack’s Paramount Theatre was bulldozed. The opposition was passionate but small. In time more will regret its loss.

Into Alberta and the Canadian Rockies, to Lake Louise, named after one of Victoria’s numerous offspring though I prefer Lake of the Little Fishes, the translation of its original Nakota title. The royal family had lots of places across the empire named after them and they’re always dull by comparison to the local word.

Banff, oddly enough, is Scottish. The president of the Canadian Pacific Railroad had the privilege of naming it so chose that of his birthplace, Banffshire, a coastal town set among low, rolling hills, ie, nothing like this Banff. Today Banff, Canada, is said to be populated by Australians who come for the real snow and mountains; things they (we) don’t really have at home.

Traditionally totem poles were erected then left to rot, which on British Columbia’s wintry coasts could be a matter of weeks. This totem pole outside Jasper’s railway station stood for over 70 years but then its authenticity was always unreliable. It is a Haida totem pole, from B.C, which is a bit like saying Hans Christian Anderson was French on account that he lived nearby. It may not be apparent so far but we are following the train line across Canada.

Which brings us to Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Everybody, from the original Assiniboine through to the French and the English, has always known this place by some reference to the river currents. The Assiniboine called it Minihaha, which coincidentally is the name of Hiawatha’s main squeeze in Longfellow’s cringeworthy epic. A good photo, this one. It looks like an accidental discovery of Modernism.

Moose Jaw … It sounds like a place the characters in L’il Abner would go for a holiday. The name English surveyors first gave it was Moose Jaw Bone Creek, which deserves a revival. ‘Army Navy Stores’, the cars, the signage - this looks like a mash-up of Fred Herzog photos. There are Internet forums dedicated to Moose Jaw’s Royal Theatre and the Exchange Café. Moose Jaw was never a big town and these were the gathering spots for its artistic community.

We are on the Prairies, and an image Robert Adams couldn’t find fault with – except of course for the edge of the train window in the top right. It is conceivable someone took this to prove to friends there was nothing out on the Prairies, only to discover that was what made them special.

This rather excellent hall was designed by three architectural firms; Northwood & Chivers, Pratt & Ross, and J.N. Semmens. Only the last names means anything to me. I once had to look at some photos of buildings in Vancouver that Semmens had designed and would have liked to have pointed out to the photographer that he had done a very good job of making fine buildings look trite. Anyway, Winnipeg is close to the geographical centre of North America, which according to some people explains its abundance of paranormal activity.

Back to the Prairies. Canada has four major geographical areas; the arctic, the mountains to the west, forests to the east and the Prairies in the middle. When you drive across big, empty spaces like this it’s the little things you notice.

Mink Tunnel, on the edge of Lake Superior. We are in Ontario and gradually we’ll see more towns, more people, more details. But for now we need to stop and think about the nation’s spine, the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Until it was built in the 1880s the only way to get from Vancouver to Ottawa or Montreal was overland by wagon and that took weeks. Americans can get nostalgic about their railway building the West but Canada’s was longer and more necessary. No wonder there was a whole side industry devoted to its promotion.

Sudbury was a mining and factory town. The men were tough, the women tolerated them. I know people from Sudbury. They are very polite. Whenever you ask what the city is like they provide you with a pregnant pause so you can fill in the details yourself.

Somewhere on the Great Lakes or the St Lawrence River in Quebec. Unlike most of the photos we can’t be sure where in Canada this was taken but it is too good to waste.

Quebec, 1939, as the banner welcoming George VI and Elizabeth indicates. The store was called Henry Morgan’s, on the corner of St Catherine and Phillips Square. The building still exists. It is now the Bay, after the Hudson Bay Co. So far as a lot of Inuit people are concerned, it switched names from one pirate to another. A great photo, probably taken with a Minox or a half frame camera, which explains the toytown appearance.

Technically speaking, the Central Station still exists but it has been renovated and improved upon so this is no longer recognizable. You can see from this scene, especially the way it fits so neatly with the overpass, that in its time it was a triumph of contemporary design.

The road to Gaspe, at the mouth of the St Lawrence.  Just across the water lies Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an island that still belongs to France and beyond that it isn’t so far to Ireland. A current theory has the first inhabitants of North America, pre-dating the Clovis culture, arriving from the Brittany coasts, able to do this because the distance between Europe and Canada was broken up by enough small islands to make a canoe crossing possible.

If or when these early arrivals sighted Percé Rock it wouldn’t have looked anything like it does now. In the 1600s Jacques Cartier claimed there were three arches on the rock formation. One was recorded as collapsing in 1845. So far as North American geography is concerned, Percé Rock is the edge of the world.

We started in Victoria and end at the other side in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, which is a tautology if you think about it. I don’t know how Scottish it appears but it certainly has the Victorian look to it. In any case, we have bypassed Newfoundland (a common error and cause of some sensitivity), forgot Ottawa and Toronto and really got no further north than the railroad would take us, so in a sense we have failed. But then MacKenzie King was right. This country has too much geography.


Friday, 5 April 2013


Frith & Co and the English Survey projects

“People take pictures of the Summer, 
Just in case someone thought they had missed it, 

And to proved that it really existed.”
Ray Davies, “People take Pictures of Each Other”, from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

 All but one of the photographs in this post were taken by Frith & Co in the 1880s, but they aren’t the real point under discussion. A relatively new book (May 2012) by Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian, takes its name from a part manifesto, part manual of the same title written by H. D Gower, Stanley Just and W. W Topley and published in 1916. They were members of the Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey, which had been set up in 1902. It was one of dozens of similar groups across England that encouraged amateur photographers to go out and document the historical sites in their counties. By amateur we mean in the 19th century sense; non-commercial but owning their own darkrooms and often more interested in technique and aesthetics than commercial photographers were. The Survey and Record photographs match what you see in the subject matter and standard of the Frith photographs.

The archives weren’t lost; some of them have been available on online databases and have been discussed in journals dedicated to local history and heritage for years, so you might wonder why it has taken this long for someone to see the value of the survey groups as a whole. I think I might have just given the answer to that. By tradition, local historians have always been more interested in the vicinity so if they were working on Suffolk, Norfolk and Yorkshire didn’t hold their attention. Blame the social historians then for being slow off the mark. And maybe the situation was that local and social historians were the wrong people. It would take a photo-historian to realize that thousands of photographers documenting heritage across the country was a phenomenon worth investigating.

 Edwards talks about the disruption in time the late Victorians felt and how this tied in with renewed interest in history. It’s a common interpretation, and dubious, there being very little on record of people describing a sense of time slipping from their control. What we do get a lot of, especially up to the start of the 1914-18 war, is the notion that Britain is the greatest empire in history and will be for decades to come. It is more logical that with this to inspire them, ordinary citizens tended to read their history as an inexorable march of progress, from the ancient Britons through the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods and onwards. A photograph of a ruined church was a milepost showing the people how far they had come.

But awareness of empire explains only part of it. Frith & Co and the survey groups appear at the same time as transport is making the country accessible. It’s no coincidence that dozens of small books dedicated to churches in Nottinghamshire, ancient monuments in Wiltshire or rural walks through small villages are being published. People have the opportunity to get out and visit them and heritage is the big attraction. Whether they are aware that the new modern world means their whole response to history will change is uncertain. There is a  range of jobs for example that people think of as traditional that will soon vanish. Quite a few of them aren’t, traditional, but, like the nuclear family today, it’s reassuring to think they’ve been with us a long time. They provide a sense of identity, especially regarding rural Britain, which as a population statistic is rapidly diminishing.

There are photos online of groups of survey photographers standing around charter buses, outside churches or on country lanes. Edwards mentions how symbiotic cycling clubs and camera clubs were – you owned a camera, you probably rode a bike too - and the various councils and camera clubs also organized exhibitions of survey photographs. Clearly it was a social event as much as a documentary project, which might also explain why it slipped from critical attention. There’s something about the British on local heritage tours – they need to know this, really – that immediately evokes images of toothy grins, horn-rimmed glasses, argyle socks and shouts of “Jolly good!” Some of the group photos of them outside churches give this credibility. They look too quaint to be involved in serious work, even though the records in The Cameras as Historian show that photos were annotated in detail, giving names dates, printing processes and even the aperture and speed used.

Back to Frith & Co. At a glance it is hard to see much difference between their work, other companies like Valentine’s and the general imagery of the surveys. Subject was the first consideration and this was inextricable from the idea of place as memory. The title of both books makes clear that the camera was the historian, the photographer was more or less a passive functionary whose only necessary role was to set up the view so that the essential information was recorded. The V&A has a print by Frith of the Norman Stair that is almost identical to this one with the one difference being a mound of rubble by the lower step. That suggests that Frith returned to Canterbury with the image already in mind. He or his staff knew exactly where to stand to get the best shot. There was little notion of interpretation in the photographs.  

Like any good documentary project the survey project went beyond its brief. Though the original idea was to photograph buildings, some groups found England’s heritage in disappearing rural occupations and local festivals and traditions. During the war the Norfolk Survey photographed soldiers before they went off to the front. Some photographers even allowed a touch of pictorialism to creep into their pictures. The best of them transmit an idea of what mattered to the photographer about the heritage, which wasn’t merely that a building was old, an exceptional example of architecture or that it was significant to some historical episode. It is best described as an abstract sense of Englishness.

Which brings us to this photo. It is a snapshot, taken in the 1930s, of a house on the corner of Long Mill Lane and The Street in Plaxton, Kent. The building, or most of it still stands and you can find it on Google Maps. No idea who took the photo but it has that abstract sense of Englishness we mean. The house and the sign contain the whole idea of an English village. You know at once what country you are in and you can imagine the kind of people you are likely to meet on the road. This is just one of the legacies of the survey projects; they were supposed to be a straightforward documentation yet they helped reinvent the England of our imagination.