Photographing the Great War

Photographing the Great War

  • The charge of a section of Zouaves on the Touvent plateau; the first wave to assault.

    ANONYMOUS

  • The attack on the spur of Notre-Dame de Lorette.

    ANONYMOUS

To close

Title: The charge of a section of Zouaves on the Touvent plateau; the first wave to assault.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1915

Date shown: June 07, 1915

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Photograph published in the magazine l'Illustration, dated 19.06.1915.

Storage location: Illustration

Contact copyright: © The illustration - rights reserved

Picture reference: 250 287

The charge of a section of Zouaves on the Touvent plateau; the first wave to assault.

© The illustration - rights reserved

To close

Title: The attack on the spur of Notre-Dame de Lorette.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1915

Date shown: May 15, 1915

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Photograph published in the magazine l'Illustration, dated 15.05.1915.

Storage location: Eyedea - Keystone website

Contact copyright: © Keystone / Eyedea - "reproduction and exploitation prohibited without prior written agreement from the agency"

Picture reference: K004964

The attack on the spur of Notre-Dame de Lorette.

© Keystone / Eyedea - "reproduction and exploitation prohibited without prior written agreement from the agency"

Publication date: March 2016

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Photographing the Great War

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Historical context

At the outbreak of World War I, photography was still considered the best way to get close to reality. Thus, throughout its duration, an incalculable number of pictures were taken, using cameras of various formats, by professional photographers or simple amateurs, in this case soldiers who left with their own equipment.

However, among the various subjects treated, photographs depicting battle scenes are extremely rare and often incomplete or imperfect.

Image Analysis

The Charge of a Zouave Section on the Touvent Plateau. The first wave was published on June 19, 1915, in the review The Illustration. The newspaper's editorial staff guarantees its authenticity, stating that the view was taken by a soldier at the start of an attack: "This admirable photograph is the first to our knowledge which really shows a bayonet charge" (The Illustration, noto 3772, June 19, 1915, p. 628-629).

This mediocre shot shows a slight low angle shot of men dashing out into a barren plain, passing by a heap of barbed wire. The setting unmistakably resembles the battlefield.

The second photo was published on May 15, 1915 in The Illustration. According to his legend, it would be the capture of the southeastern spur of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette on April 15, 1915. It can be found in another review, On the spot, dated August 7, 1915.

This overview shows a charge of French infantry from the side. With bayonets on, they ascend sloping ground to seize, it seems, an enemy position. One of them, brandishing his gun, emerges from the group and pulls them away. Two other men are on the ground, one in the front appearing only injured, while the second lying in the foreground appears dead.

Interpretation

In the first shot, the photographer's position, set back from the combatants and trying to protect himself, is the only one likely in such a context. Everything therefore suggests that the document is authentic. It should be remembered that the shooting conditions during an attack are very difficult and dangerous. Suddenly, the photograph only gives a very fragmentary aspect of the incredible brutality of the confrontation on the no man’s land.

Subsequently, we did not do much better than this type of image. The confrontation therefore remains invisible. Therefore, at the time, to replace these missing images, we sometimes carried out, near the front or behind the lines, combat simulations under the gaze of photographers. Most of these reconstructions will be used as real documents.

As for the second shot, several remarks are in order. First, the fact that these soldiers do not have helmets confirms that the scene takes place at the start of hostilities. However, on close examination, what this image is supposed to show is in doubt. The soldiers are too crowded to participate in a real fight: by staying together, they risk being killed more easily by a burst bus or a machine gun fire. Then we can see that they are not equipped like combatants normally are during an assault: they have no gear, but just their rifle and a bag. Moreover, and above all, the composition is well balanced, too well ... Finally, the last important aspect to note concerns the question of the point of view. Taking into account the technical conditions and the multiple risks already mentioned, it is impossible to photograph standing, in the middle of the battlefield. However, here, the framing proves the opposite: we are on the same level as the soldiers and very close to them.

Suffice to say that, obviously, we are in the presence of one of those many stagings whose significant function is to evoke war in a heroic way. Such photographs rival the work of painters and war designers whose works are published regularly in the illustrated press or in the form of patriotic postcards.

  • army
  • battles
  • War of 14-18
  • patriotism
  • photography
  • hairy
  • reconstitution

Bibliography

Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

Laurent VERAY, "Showing war: photography, cinema", in Jean-Jacques BECKER, Jay WINTER, Gerd KRUMEICH (dir.), War and Culture, Paris, Armand Colin, 1994.

Laurent VERAY, "These fakes that make history", in 14-18 Today, Today, Heute, no 3, Paris, Noêsis, November 1999, p. 209-217.

To cite this article

Laurent VÉRAY, "Photographing the Great War"


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