At Large  August 4, 2022  Caterina Bellinetti

The Tragedy of WWI through the Eyes of its Photographers

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Ernest Brooks, British infantry from The Wiltshire Regiment attacking near Thiepval, 7 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, photograph, 1916,

On June 28th, 1914, journalists and photographers were crowding the streets of Sarajevo to report on the visit of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. At 11:15 AM, the 18-year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip emerged from the crowd and fired two shots at the Archduke. The death of the Archduke ignited the fragile continental political situation. On July 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and within a week alliances were established: the Allied Powers—Russia, Belgium, France, and Great Britain—backed Serbia against the Austrian-Hungarian and German empires. In time, more countries joined in. Italy, Japan, and Romania sided with the Allied Powers, while Turkey and Bulgaria sided with Germany and Austria. The First World War had begun.

Initially, the war seemed a swift affair and experts on all sides believed that it would be over by Christmas. The images that appeared in newspapers and magazines showed cheering crowds waving off battalions of young volunteers. This optimism was short-lived and by December 1914, both France and Russia had already suffered almost one million casualties. The images and reports coming from the battlefields lost that initial elation.

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William Rider Rider, Canadian soldiers having a quiet game of cards during the Battle of Amiens, photograph, 18.

Many countries decided to impose very strict regulations on the press in order to limit, or completely prevent, the circulation of negative accounts. Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of War, made sure that the control on correspondents was so watertight that the photojournalist Jimmy Hare reported that “to so much as make a snapshot without official permission in writing means arrest.” In a similar way, the Italian Army created various photographic teams whose task was to record military operations—only for historical purposes—and an official press office that controlled every aspect of photographic production and distribution. 

The images that were created under these restrictions attempted to hide the tragedy of death during wartime. The fallen soldiers were frequently represented under a patriotic light that aimed at celebrating a man’s sacrifice for the good of the nation. Similarly, life in the trenches glorified the camaraderie of soldiers: the time spent between sentry duty, writing letters home, or preparing meals. Yet, these regulations did not take into account the fact that, thanks to new lightweight and portable cameras, officers and soldiers were also taking photographs. British magazines like Illustrated War News and The Daily Mirror encouraged soldiers to send their images and offered prizes for the best ones.

The number of photographs taken during the war is overwhelming, yet the majority of the photographers remain unknown. Those who emerged from anonymity, such as the British Ernest Brooks (1876-1957) and the Canadian William Rider Rider (1889-1979), did produce good but somehow monotonous photographs. Brooks was the only official photographer to cover the Battle of the Somme (1916) and the longest-serving British war photographer. His background as a professional photographer is evident in his work. The images created by Brooks are well composed, technically advanced, and characterized by the use of dramatic silhouette. His most famous shot is arguably Troops Moving at Eventide, Men of a Yorkshire Regiment on the March.


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Ernest Brooks, Troops Moving at Eventide, Men of a Yorkshire Regiment on the March, photograph, 1917.

Rider was also a photographic journalist before the war. Dispatched to the Western Front, Rider photographed the horrors of life in the trenches and the damages caused by gas bombs and heavy artillery on soldiers. Few images are of ongoing combat because the chalky terrain and dust from the bombardments made it almost impossible to keep the camera lens clean. Rider’s work, although constrained by circumstances, is less stiff than Brooks and better conveys the hard times on the battlefield and in the trenches.

Wikimedia Commons

William Rider Rider, Rendering First Aid to a Wounded Canadian Soldier, photograph, 1918.

During WWI, the question of whether photographs could tell a story on their own or be just a crutch to written articles was unresolved. Publicly, magazines and newspapers used photographs as means to make a point more than representations of events. Privately, it was a way for soldiers to inform their families and document their own personal experience of the war. The many who took images might be unnamed but their contribution paved the way for the development of war photography as we know it today.

The war that was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914 lasted four years. Over 65 million soldiers from more than thirty countries were mobilized. The total number of military and civilian casualties is around 40 million, making the First World War one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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