World War I was the first time in history that it was possible for people to see and read about a major conflict essentially as it happened.
Of course, still photography of war existed in an applicable form as early as the Crimean War of the 1850s, but the equipment and processes made action photographs extremely hard. The American Civil War truly showed photography as an important documentary device with fairly short time frames from exposure to viewing by the public. Again, capturing action was not generally feasible, but that did not stop some well-known photographers from staging photos to give the allusion of action just past.
The Boer War in Africa at the turn of the 20th century had still photography and early film images made, but the small nature of the war created little clamor for images at the time.
By the start of World War I in 1914, still photography and motion pictures were well established to truly document all phases of this global conflict. Both mediums provided the sweeping diorama as well as the personal views and visually recorded events taking place on the spot.
War photography was also an art form used to not only impart information and propaganda but to elicit reactions from the viewers through its composition, lighting and content. “Art and war are old companions,” one historian has asserted. “Battlefields and soldiers have been popular subjects with artists since earliest times.”
The sheer magnitude of the war could be reflected in seemingly simple images, such as one of Italian soldiers in a trench reading mail, or of a destroyed village.
Very quickly after the start of the war, publications such as newspapers and periodicals utilized photography to illustrate stories. One Italian periodical, La Guerra Italiana: Cronistoria Illustrata Degli Avvenimenti, featured photographs of the uniforms and equipment of the soldiers, troop maneuvers, panoramic scenes of cities and towns, architecture, leaders, ships, artillery, war dogs, the allies and the enemy and individuals.
For many around the globe who had no personal experience of the war or even a visual concept of what it was like, a still image and motion picture footage could help illustrate the utter destruction in the theatres of war. The European nations quickly learned the importance of not only recording events, but that the material could be used for training. Much of the civilian population was unaware of women’s contributions to the war effort until they saw the photographic images.
When the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, it was woefully prepared to arm, train, ship and command large forces, to mobilize the nation and to fight in a global conflict, but still and motion pictures were there to record the earliest efforts.
The U.S. Signal Corps scattered its camera operators across the states, photographing cantonments and other war activities to the minutest details. Contract and private photographers were also employed. These photographs and films were then made public in newspapers, periodicals and motion picture theaters throughout the U.S., with the result that people saw with their own eyes how their soldiers were preparing themselves for the defense of the nation.
A current exhibition at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, Devastated Lands, prominently features period photographs of the destruction on the Western Front. From scenes of environmental degradation on an unfathomable scale, obliterated villages with only rubble to mark their place, vast cemeteries and massive destruction, much of the landscape of the Western Front in 1919 looked like an uninhabited planet.
Adelaide Travis, an American Red Cross Foreign Service canteen worker, wrote home on May 19, 1919, from France: “No description, picture or amount of imagination would give you any idea of the destruction.”
Jules Andre Smith, one of eight official war artists of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), wrote:
“When war poses for its picture it will sit with hands folded for those who wish it to, or it will strut with clanking sword, or pose as a mother of mercy, or the invading barbarian, or the valiant hero, or the cringing coward, or better yet, a composite of all of these enveloped in a fury of sound and sight and horror.”
–By Doran Cart, Senior Curator, National WWI Museum and Memorial (photos courtesy National WWI Museum and Memorial)