100 years ago, on November 14th, 1917, nothing much of any significance really happened in World War I. It was just another day of the Great War.
Those who died on this day weren’t part of any major glorious meat-grinding offensive, at least nothing on the scale and infamy as the Somme, Passchendaele, or Verdun. In fact, as far as dates go, the Battle of Passchendaele had just ended a few days earlier on the 10th. There were a few attacks on this day, probably, some shells were fired, presumably, and some sons and brothers and husbands were ripped from this world in agonising horror, but nothing really happened. Certainly nothing worth commemorating.
No wreaths, no politicians, no sombre television journalists, no heart felt declarations of mistakes never being repeated, no dawn parades, no holidays, no nationalist narratives, not even any surviving good old fashioned imperial pieces of propaganda. Nothing! Just death fading into the watery abyss of history’s long and painful memory.
Maybe it’s best that way? Maybe the overwhelming scale of it all is best only reflected upon on the dates where it would be a sin not to? I don’t know. I’m certainly not trying to disparage commemoration events, I think as long as they aren’t used for nationalism then they’re probably OK. And I’m neither suggesting we live in nor forget the past. I guess all I’m trying to say is that I feel for the poor bastards who experienced utter hell on an otherwise tedious day.
In my time researching the events of a century ago, I’ve come into contact with a great many photographs taken during the war, from all sides; Russian, German, French, Austrian, British, Turkish, American, Kiwi. Naturally, the photographs of people always make a strong emotional impact, however, it’s another type of photograph that has really come to haunt me. As ghastly and terrible as the pictures of dead bodies strewn across battlefields are, as devastating as the pictures of ruined villages are, and as worrying as the images of insane mechanisms of destruction are – it’s the aerial shots of the Western Front that’ve stayed with me.
Completely void of any feeling, they’re absent of any humanity, however grim the humanity would be if it were present. They’re often shockingly vast and totally alien; the earth doesn’t looks like the earth anymore, it’s insane animal children have perverted it with terror and hellfire and the surface now looks like that of the moon. The millions of shells have stripped the landscape of any trees and littered the surface with craters. Towns have been erased. And then there’s the trenches; these sickening, twisted strings of abject despair cracking their way across the surface of this mangled world. The humans have resorted to hiding in these jagged lines, like termites stripping the earth and themselves of any dignity.
The planet looks infected with war.
They remind me of some other images, like these viruses under a microscope, including AIDS, ebola, HIV, and smallpox:
And also under the microscope, human tears: