By Taylor Marvin
This post was first published at PROSPECT Blog.
I’m lucky enough to own a collection of vintage World War I history books, which I inherited from my great grandfather. All were published in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and offer a fascinating contemporary take on the First World War. Here are a few of the most interesting and striking photos from these volumes, which provide a fascinating look at the destruction of the Great War and the forward-looking but doomed optimism of its aftermath.
Around the World With a Camera: Special War Edition, Photographs from the Battle Fields, 1919.
“Now for Prosperity!”
Evident in every contemporary history of the First World War is an optimism that this “Great War” was the last that humanity would ever fight, and that its survivors had lived through the climax of history. From the introduction to Around the World With a Camera:
“Around the world with a camera visiting every nation under the sun! Who would not like to make such a trip in safety and in ease? It is a journey but few of us could make during the Great War, when every country was thronged with spies, making the use of a camera forbidden except by official photographers.”
“‘The World’s Greatest War’ has terrible significant. It means the largest armies ever assembled, the fiercest battles ever fought, the most cruel atrocities ever committed and the most splendid valor ever shown.
It has been impossible to realize that millions of men have been fighting against each other to the very death. It seems incredible that war should have involved nearly all the civilized nations of the Europe, extending across the seas to Japan and even touch Canada in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States.
And the most rigid censorship was established against newspapers photographers and correspondents; yet they were able to secure photographs, sketched and information which the public so eagerly awaited.
For hundreds of years to come the world’s interest will be centered in the four years through which we have just passed. Art and literature, economic and social advancement, in fact every activity of human endeavor will be influenced by this greatest of all epochs to an extent which we are unable to appreciate today because of our inability to obtain a comprehensive perspective. Unborn generations will peruse ‘Around the World With a Camera’ with an interest far greater than our own.”
It’s easy to mockingly dismiss this optimism — after all, in 1920 World War II was less than two decades away. But it is important to remember that in 1914 Europe had been at peace for half a century, and the absolutely unprecedented scale and destruction of the Great War stunned the world. Around the World With a Camera’s forecast of a future of perpetual peace and prosperity is much harder to dismiss as hopeless naivety in its contemporary context of a world exhausted by the costliest war in history.
Around the World With a Camera showcases amazing illustrations and photography from all fronts of the war, and illustrative captions:
“The Grey Fighters of the Atlantic Fleet Reach Home: Ship for ship, man for man, and gun for gun, this long line of super-dreadnoughts and other battle craft is second to none in the world. This unusual photograph of the fleet as it entered New York harbor was made from an airplane flying over the ships. Admiral Henry T. Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, has been made commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, thus giving him the command of the Pacific Fleet as well as that of the Atlantic.”
Sketches from the front.
“An Anxious Moment for One Boche: Coming out of his dugout the Hun prisoner wonders if Americans, French, British or Italians are waiting for him, and also what will be the attitude of his visitors upon meeting. Seldom does the camera record a more interesting study in facial expression than it caught as this German gave himself up to a Scotch soldier.”
French recruiting poster: “Come to the Aid of the Soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine — men from the ‘lost provinces.'”
French Propaganda: “Memories of 1776 blend with the hopes of 1917. France welcoming America as a participant in the war to save civilization. The arrival of American troops ‘Over There’ aroused the enthusiasm of the grateful French people and electrified their courage.”
“The Smile That Is On To Stay: The shell which made the hole damaged but didn’t break, the head. Through thick and thin the British Tommy has retained his good nature and certain confidence in the final victory. He has passed through many a dark day since his army began the memorable retreat from Mons, but his smile has never worn off.”
The narrative of World War I as the climax of history is especially evident when reporting on the treaty of Versailles that ended the war:
“The signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on June 28th formally ended the greatest war in the history of the world, and as the German delegates attached their signatures the thoughts of many turned back to the days of 1871 when Bismarck imposed his stern conditions on the French delegates in the same hall.”
“Justice at the Peace Table.”
“The President and Mrs Wilson at Buckingham Palace. The Manchester (England) Guardian says: ‘President Wilson exercised a manifold attraction during his visit. Everybody has been charmed by his homely personality; some by his oratorical skill, others by his good humor, and still more by the high moral resolve by which his is animated. It was left, however, almost to the last moment of his stay for the most intimate revelation of his character. Who, looking on this group photograph, will doubt this? That the man who can stand between a king and a queen to be photographed with one trouser leg at full length while the other is turned up a couple of inches is above everything else — human!'”
Optimism for the future:
U.S. Official Pictures of the World War: Showing America’s Participation, by Captain James C. Russell and Captain William E. Moore. 1920.
“How the Argonne was won. Like their Indian fighting ancestors the Americans fought from behind trees and bushes, digging a ‘fox hole’ fir cover whenever they paused. This photograph was taken by a Signal Corps operator during the advance of the 18th Inf., 1st Div., up the slopes of Hill 240, near Exermont, Oct. 11, 1918. These soldiers fought their way to the top in the face of heavy machine gun fire and drove the enemy from the position. The bullet-torn helmet in the foreground tells the story of a ‘buddy’ who lies ‘over yonder.'”
“Danger for gas attacks was impressed on our men by every means in order to enforce obedience to the army orders concerning the carrying and wearing of gas masks. This exhibition was staged for the benefit of soldiers by Maj. Evarts Tracy, C. E. In 1918 from 20 to 30 per cent of all our battle casualties were due to gas.”
The United States in the Great War, by Willis J. Abbot, 1919.
“The Italians in their mountain lines fought under appalling difficulties. The wounded men had to be lowered down precipices, often more than a thousand feet high, to emergency hospitals or waiting ambulances below. The American Red Cross played a large part in Italy.”