A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
Ostende, a port city of West Flanders on the North Sea in northwestern Belgium, was an important stronghold and also a key to holding the inland port of Bruges, which is something that the Germany Army was able to do until the very end of World War I. Under constant occupation by an invading force, the city was only liberated by the armistice signed two days before this photo was made, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. (The original photo is available for purchase via our blog bookstore, here.)
Some of these children might still be alive, though all but two of the soldiers of this war are all dead. I remember talking to my grandmother ten years or so ago, asking her about what she did to celebrate the end of the war. She laughed, and then told me that she and her sisters and brothers went out to the street (in their small town of Housatonic, Massachusetts) and danced and danced. She then said that a few other children went to their kitchens to come out with pots to bang with wooden spoons--and then it struck me, taking away my breath, that what she was talking about was celebrating the end of WWI, not WWII, which is what I thought she was going to talk about.
The caption stamped on the back of the news photo service agency photograph (from the Western Newspaper Union) said that the bitter cold encountered by these Canadian soldiers on the Western Front in the winter of 1916 "was one of many difficulties encountered by the soldiers". "Great hardships have been caused by the frigid weather in this region" continues the caption. Indeed. Even for Canadians this was a cold winter, though not so cold that the Canadian trooper in the foreground stopped to put on his gloves to remove the ice from the water trough. These soldiers may have been cavalry, as there is a horse-like medallion on the front of their lids. (This photo is available for purchase from our blog bookstore, here.)
Evidently the role of the cavalry in the BEF along the Western Front is an under-appreciated thing, or misunderstood, at least. I'm not sure how they influenced the outcome of this stagnant section of the war, where the line of battle remained essentially unchanged throughout the duration of the war. Millions of troops were deeply entrenched over hundreds of miles of battlefront, wailing away at one another with massive artillery barrages, countless machine gun nests, and then eventually tanks, planes and poison gas. Back in February 1916 there weather was so tough and frigid that the battle of Verdun was postponed a bit, waiting for less intense weather conditions. Dozens of millions of artillery shells and billions of bullets later, in 1918, there was little change in the positions of the armies, except of course for the millions of casualties.
I just finished posting this from yesterday on a sea of shells and what those explosives meant in terms of overall destructive firepower for WWI. This explosives image is a little easier, in a way, just showing hints of the vastness of what might be an acre of large ammunition.
This photo (dated 15 April 1916 by the news photo service of Underwood and Underwood) shows a French senator--H. Charles Humbert--viewing "a field literally covered with shells", the photo really only giving some glimpse of the extent of the palleted shells, which fade into the distance behind M. Humbert and extend deeply into the field in front of him. (The original photo is available here at our blog bookstore.)
M. Humbert (1866-1927) would've had more of an interest in this scene than most, as he represented the Meuse district, and at this point int he war the shells were headed to a part of that area, Verdun. Verdun of course was one of the major battles of WWI, fought from 21 February to 18 December 1916, in the hills and dales of north-eastern France, at Verdun-sur-Meuse. There were 306,000 battlefield deaths at Verdun, plus another 500,000 wounded, in what may have been one of the most gruesome battles of modern times.
Humbert was also an Army veteran and wrote on the military, and as it turns out, as the war approached he adopted a call to arms for more canons and more shells for the defense of France the inadequacy of the defenses of the French Army, and the insufficiency of officers and munitions ("Des canons, des munitions!"). He certainly would've been relieved with what he saw here. Of course this is photo would represent a percentage well to the right of the decimal place of all those shells used at Verdun, which numbered an inconceivable 40 million. When this photo was made in April the battle was already wicked and had been fought for two months--there were still eight months of gore to go.
There are 1500 or so of these news service war photographs here, and one of the remarkable things that I've discovered about them--trivial things to be sure compared with their overall message, ephemeral bits of semi-nothing--is that in many of the very-large-group images that there is sometimes just a single person who is doing something that no one else is doing, and it has been captured almost forever in the photo. There are photos of thousands of troops, all facing east, with on solitary soldier facing west; there's the solitary waver; there's the one bare-headed man in a sea of a thousand men with hats; there's the one person raising his hat to the photographer in a sea of people looking at the camera but not raising their arms. Then of course there's the group photo of a mass of German WWI POWs, with only one soldier without a hat or helmet, and he looks just like me.
Here are two other examples--the first is a detail from a photo showing British children cheering their American allies in 1917, showing one man clearly reacting to the hundreds of screams by covering his ears. And is the only one doing so. The second detail shows a large contingent of American soldiers leaving for Europe on a steamer--there is only one man who turns to the camera and waves.
Both original photographs are available from our blog bookstore, here.
The second detail:
The entire first image, showing the children cheering the raising of the two flags:
And the second, showing a group of hundreds of soldiers waiting to leave Hoboken, New Jersey, for the fight in Europe, 1917. Most are pulling themselves inside their coats as much as possible; I suspect being right there on the harbor--and seeing the floating bits of ice in the water--that it was wet and very cold. Our one adventurous Doughboy gives the camera a spread-fingered wave....he also seems to be quite tall. He is the lone waver. There also seem to be a lot of smiles in the crowd.
This indelible image was made by an anonymous photographer for the Central News Service of New York City in 1918. The Central News Service was a photographic supply house that would send requested photos to newspapers throughout the United States for publication as illustrations for a story. They would've been sent rolled in a tube with a description of the image and with the stern warning to "Watch Your Credit Line", making sure that once the newspaper had paid for the use of the photo that it also told its readers the source of the (agency) photographic.
The image is insatiable--it demands that you look at it and look at it long and hard, as it tries to give some sort of idea of the tremendous number of shells that were shot from canons by the just British against the Germans during the First World War.. There were something like one million tons of these fired against Germany; this picture represents about .001% ( of that total). We see approximately 800 shells at two hundred pounds apiece, surrounded by a group of about 150 soldiers.
I looked very closely at this photograph. Of this single line of soldiers along the perimeter of the bomb cache, of the 150 of them, there are, it looks like, only five of them who have placed their hands on one of the bombs, and four of them are touching the fuse with just their middle finger. It is an odd picture of restraint, these soldiers paying the weapons of mass destruction the respect of room.
I think that this is an extraordinary photograph of the testament of understatement and small, small percentages--even with this photo being so enormously graphic it still gives you absolutely no idea of how much explosive material was hurled back and forth, even knowing in your mind's eye that this image represents something like FOUR ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE less than the total tonnage of bombs used. By the British.
This difference in orders of magnitude is roughly equivalent to the difference in size between an ant and a human being, or between an amoeba and an ant, or between a human and one of the pyramids, or between the earth and the sun. Basically, the shells in this photo meant nothing whatsoever to the total of shells used during the war.
I do believe that this is a Lewis Machine Gun, one of the most popularly-used automatic weapons by the BEF (and of American design). It was a gas-operated weapon firing a .30-06 Springfield at 500/600 rpm with an effective range of about a half-mile. The drum magazine (not present here so far as I can see) held 47 and 97 rounds. These soldiers were all business.
I recall, I think, that this was the largest photograph of war printed during World War I, looking to be something on the order of 8x16 feet or so. This photo of the photo was printed by Underwood & Underwood, and stamped "British Official Photograph", printed sometime in 1918. It seems that this is an actual battle scene, which was a very uncommon thing among war photographs for the Great War--more so for this group of photographs(News Photo Service) produced by pool photographers for equal distribution among subscribing newspapers and periodicals. Actual combat photos distributed by the News Photo Service agencies were not a high priority, unless they depicted routed or retreating or being-defeated Germans--it was not a popularly-disributed subject, mainly for propagandist purposes. (The original photo is available for purchase here.)
I expect that this photo would've given the view a you-are-there effect, as the main characters in the composition were about life-sized--an attempt of slice-of-life experience. There is a surprising amount of foreground in this picture, though.
This news photo service image (available from our blog bookstore) shows the action in "one of the busiest military centers on the British Western Front in France", with a British soldier using a traffic semaphore to take care of the hustle and bustle. The caption--almost always supplied with these photos as they were made by a pool of uncredited photographers covering the war for a consortium of newspapers and paid subscribers providing images and content for paying media--reads that the picture "might well be taken for an everyday scene on Fifth Avenue, New York, if it weren't for the landscaping and the costumes".
Indeed. Actually, if you removed the landscaping, the vehicles, the background and the uniforms (clearly whoever wrote this copy had no feel for the fact that actors wear "costumes" and soldiers wear "uniforms"), and replaced it with paved roads, buildings on all sides, crowds of people and packed it all with automobiles and placed the scene on Fifth Avenue, then the scene would have looked like Fifth Avenue.
On the other hand, even if it were never to look at all like Fifth Avenue this intersection would have been exceptionally busy from time to time; I'm sure it could have seen thousands of troops per day, particularly since the Brits fielded probably a million troops in this region alone, and those troops needed to be fed and cared for, which means there would've been a constant flow of people, and machines, and materiel.
This is a fantastic photograph,though, though the captioning folks did it little justice.
I can't quite make out the BEF-made sign in the background, placed for the use of the troops.
This is a photograph of an American aid distribution center established in Venice, an action as a direct result of the recent invasion by Autro-German forces. The Venetians look remarkably composed. [This photo is available for purchase at our blog bookstore, here.]
And the aid workers:
Elsewhere in this blog I've written a short paragraph on the casualties of WWI--Italy suffered 3.48% of its total population being wounded or killed, including over 650,000 civilian casualties. 1
The U.S. lost .13% of its population to casualties (125,000 killed and 205,000 wounded) during the war--a war which by the time America got here had already been visciously fought for three years, costing dozens of millions of lives. The figures for everyone else weren't nearly so "fortunate" as the U.S.: New Zealand's 18,000/41,312 killed/wounded amounted to 1.6% of its population. The U.K. lost 2.19% (964,000/1,663,000), Italy was 3.48% (650,000/953,000 plus 650,000 civilian casualties), while France suffered a 4.29% (1.4 million/4.27 mil) blow of its total population to war. Things were worse on the other side: Germany 3.82% (2 mil/2.4 mil plus 426,000 civilian deaths, and the Ottoman Empire 12% (400,000/771,000 plus 2.1 million civilian deaths. Worst of all was the Ally Serbia, suffering a catastrophic 16% loss of its population to war, including 275,000/725,000 plus 426,000 civilian casualties. As gruesome as the numbers were, the Americans felt only a small percentage of the total sting of war--by 11 November, more than 21 million soldiers would have been wounded, with 9.7 million soldiers and 6.8 million civilians killed. It was an enormous price
Most of the stuff that was blown up in WWI was an end result of explosive shells being fired from canons--only a miniscule amount of the percentage of all bombing done during WWI was from airplanes, and another very slight percentage from tanks. On the other hand sappers played a much larger role in WWI than in just about any other war, placing explosives by hand and then detonating them. (I wrote earlier in this blog about the extensive underground trench fighting that went on with sappers tunneling under No Man's Land and placing explosives underneath an enemy's trenches. And I guess you could tunnel under the tunnel, and so on. This sort of warfare is extremely old, though the name is not, being about 150 years old. These soldiers were forward combat engineers, and had training across a number of different areas—they were responsible for many technical chores, like building (and blowing up) bridges, laying/clearing minefields, general demolition, defense construction, and, of course, fighting. It could be a tremendously difficult job, unimaginable.)
This photograph reminds me in some odd way of Arthur Rothstein's iconic photograph of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, but only a little. (This photo is available for purchase from our blog bookstore, here.)
The caption of this news photo service image identified these soldiers for blowing up trees to obstruct the canal in the background. If you land enough trees in a canal like this you are definitely going to cause corruption and heart attacks for anyone trying to move men or ordnance down the canal.
And this detail:
I thought for a bit that these men might actually be threading barbed wire through the trees to make the job of removing that even more heinous. But there's no way that you could lay hundreds of yards of barbed wire without gloves and without slicing your hands up--maybe you could do it carefully for a little bit, but not for long.
But I've got to say that this really doesn't look like demolition materiel....
I suppose there there was little to lift morale more than to have troops return to divisional from the front line to enjoy a hot shower--outside of course than to be brought home away form the fighting, entirely. These soldiers were about to enjoy what I am sure was a well worn break from the action. (The original photo is available for purchase at our blog bookstore.)
The soldiers were riding a narrow gauge railroad, brought to France from Canada, headed back to safety and "the baths".
[Also, in keeping with my previous post, to represent all of the casualties of WWI you would need this trainload of men to extend from NYC to L.A. and almost all the way back again, about 6,000 miles of people.]
And this, below--I see the soldier at the far right is reading a letter, I'm guessing a letter from home, as he has his knees tucked up maybe trying to protect its contents from prying eyes. The soldier to his right is engaging in the age-old custom of reading someone else's mail over their shoulder, desperate for any news from anywhere. Who knows--maybe the guy was sharing.
And then--as we are told in the caption for the photograph--they were given as much time in hot water as they wanted. And then:
I think the return trip would've looked much different.
.003% That's what I reckon this column of soldiers would represent of the total casualties of WWI.
Generally images like this are a virtual image-host for me, a bucket of ice cold water thrown onto a sizzling summer sidewalk, all sorts of ideas steaming from it. But for photographs of Doughboys1 marching, especially assembling for parade, this one struck me a little more oddly than most, giving instant pause, making me concentrate on the haze, or dust, that allowed the columns of soldiers to blend into one another and fade, losing their boundaries with their mass receding into a dull blur.
The Western Newspaper Union was selling this image for insertion in newspaper or journal stories about the war, for a small use fee. There were a few American organizations like Western Newspaper that were created to photographically cover the war, using pools of photographers who would distribute their work anonymously and which was available for common, general use for a small charge. The photographs allowed out were certainly restricted and censored, though in my stash of these of objects (numbering about a thousand) I'd say that 10% of them look pretty edgy to my eyes. Most of the action of war was not covered, but then again this aspect was still fairly technically difficult in 1918. Images of pain were almost never allowed, and certainly not pain of Allied troops. Aid stations were almost never covered as well, as were dead bodies, or at least those again of Americans or Brits or French or Canadian. The imaging of the war was certainly under a fair amount of supervision and control. (The original is available for purchase through our blog bookstore. here.)
The image shows American troops assembling for a parade through the streets of London before being deployed. The mistiness of the composition looks like a statistic to me, these men standing for those who had come before and fallen.
The U.S. lost .13% of its population to casualties (125,000 killed and 205,000 wounded) during the war--a war which by the time America got here had already been visciously fought for three years, costing dozens of millions of lives. The figures for everyone else weren't nearly so "fortunate" as the U.S.: New Zealand's 18,000/41,312 killed/wounded amounted to 1.6% of its population. The U.K. lost 2.19% (964,000/1,663,000), Italy was 3.48% (650,000/953,000 plus 650,000 civilian casualties), while France suffered a 4.29% (1.4 million/4.27 mil) blow of its total population to war. Things were worse on the other side: Germany 3.82% (2 mil/2.4 mil plus 426,000 civilian deaths, and the Ottoman Empire 12% (400,000/771,000 plus 2.1 million civilian deaths. Worst of all was the Ally Serbia, suffering a catastrophic 16% loss of its population to war, including 275,000/725,000 plus 426,000 civilian casualties. As gruesome as the numbers were, the Americans felt only a small percentage of the total sting of war--by 11 November, more than 21 million soldiers would have been wounded, with 9.7 million soldiers and 6.8 million civilians killed. It was an enormous price.
And that's what I see in the mist of what may be something like 10,000 soldiers on display n this photograph. .003% That's two of these columns every day, twice a day, for the entire 1550 or so days of the war.
1. The origin of the term "Doughboy" is unclear, or varied, or rich, but it is at least pretty oldm beginning around the time of the Mexican American War in 1846-1848--evidently when the soldiers marched through dry, tough terrain they wound up being covered by earth with the color of dough. Doughboy.
He's satisfied with his place there in the tractor, rather than his soldier brothers whop were trying (impossibly) to leverage the beast out of a shell-made muck hole. At least the guys on foot had a comic sense of what their task was supposed to be. [This original photograph is available for purchase at our blog bookstore.]
This news service photograph (a Canadian Official Photograph from the Western Newspaper Union) shows a line of German prisoners of war in the Canadian lines at the battle of Courcelette, France. [The original is available at our blog bookstore.]
It was a battle that took place within a battle, in the last third of the enormous 18-week series of battles and actions known as the Somme Offensive. The photograph was made between early September and mid-November 1918, which is when the Canadians joined the British offensive.
The landscape is bleak, the soldiers worn. I rarely see expressions of pain in this series of 1500 photographs from a collection of war images that I purchased. This is one of a very slim minority.
I'm not sure what this photo depicts specifically but in general it sends an image of exhaustion and wear. The caption for the image says that it shows "the condition of the Hun troops" and that the subject "Herr Professor" is learning "a good many things not hitheroto found in books". Maybe he was a teacher, maybe not. Machts nichts. His pants looks velour-like and his boots (if that's what his footware was) look very thin. He is ragged, his double-fold glasses look like they're at their limit, his face looks swollen behind his beard, and he just looks "done", in general.
I'm not sure what he is doing, or where he is. He may be trying to figure out local currency to purchase whatever it is the vendor-woman has on the tray at her hip--she os holding out her hand, and looking at his. The soldier definitely has something there, and he looks basically too weary to comprehend it. the hand language is ambiguous to me. He may have received something already, some sort of food, and he is staring at it now, thinking perhaps how little of it there was. He's eating, and already has taken a bite of whatever bread-like thing is in his left hand. I'm not sure what attracted the attention of the boy in the center--perhaps it is simply the camera, and he wanted to be in the shot.
There's a shadow in the foreground-left of what looks like someone making a photograph of teh scene--probably not our photographer, but another, with a brownie or some such smaller camera.
At the end of years of fighting every general soldier deserves respect and, at least, some free food--I hope this guy got his.
And the accompanying text to the news photo service image, to be used if published: