Images of the Somme
November 11, 2009 3:00 AM   Subscribe

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Lieutenant John Purvis risked court-martial by taking some snapshots of the battlefield. Now his photograph album has been put online. It gives an extraordinary insight into what it was like to be an ordinary soldier in the middle of the battle, marching up to the front, resting in the forward lines, taking cover as a bomb explodes, advancing into battle, watching a shell burst, digging into freshly made trenches, or moving forward over captured ground.
posted by verstegan (35 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
A standing building? That must have been unusual.
posted by vbfg at 3:09 AM on November 11, 2009

Fascinating images, although Green Howards needs a better interface. Thanks for posting.
posted by Rangeboy at 3:38 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

War is Hell.
posted by bwg at 3:41 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's a pity that we don't know more about how he managed to take photographs without being arrested. Were his officers aware of what he was doing and tolerated it?
posted by Sova at 3:56 AM on November 11, 2009

ugh that interface is awful. Thanks for linking to the individual pictures, as I would never have had the patience to go through and find things! Really amazing pictures, though. What were cameras like in 1916? Would it have been bulky and cumbersome to carry the camera?
posted by bluefly at 4:48 AM on November 11, 2009

Wow. Thanks.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:53 AM on November 11, 2009

Now that's some photography.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:23 AM on November 11, 2009

Very neat pictures. The before and after pictures of the village are particularly striking when all that remains is turned up earth.
posted by Atreides at 5:23 AM on November 11, 2009

I really like this one. Lots going on there. Trench periscope, huge ass fixed bayonet...awesome composition.
posted by TomMelee at 5:33 AM on November 11, 2009

FWIW - I just finished rereading "The Face of Battle" by John Keegan, which has an interesting discussion of the mechanics of the Battle of the Somme and what the battlefield was like for the average soldier. (IANAMH)
posted by qldaddy at 5:44 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Amazing. And seconding Keegan's books on WW1.
posted by jquinby at 5:50 AM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, these are great. This has pretty much been the default image in my head for WWI for years.
posted by mediareport at 6:10 AM on November 11, 2009

What were cameras like in 1916? Would it have been bulky and cumbersome to carry the camera?
Here are some examples.
posted by Floydd at 6:35 AM on November 11, 2009

And they called it the War to End All Wars.
posted by tommasz at 6:40 AM on November 11, 2009

These are super-interesting, thanks
posted by shothotbot at 6:58 AM on November 11, 2009

Awesome post. Yeah the interface wasn't the best, but the content - wow. Whole towns turned not to rubble, but to dust.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 7:03 AM on November 11, 2009

I 'd wager that this picture might have been used by the makers of the movie Passchendale, which is a film about Canada's participation in WWI. The romantic plot that takes up much of the film is pretty treacly, but the battle scenes were pretty horrifying. Which I take to mean as accurate.
posted by spoobnooble at 7:06 AM on November 11, 2009

I like his artistic choice to do them in black and white, although it would have been nice to have a few color ones for reference. I wonder how these were preserved, because I don't think SD or CompactFlash cards are designed to last 80 or so years. I'm also curious if his digital camera did video? Sure, it's probably not HD, but it would be neat nonetheless.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:47 AM on November 11, 2009

posted by the cuban at 9:08 AM on November 11, 2009

Maybe I did not pay attention during my history class, but it looks like I have studied much more about the second WW. This summer we stayed a couple of days in Ypres, Belgium. What an eye opener! The museum there gives a good example of what devastation and the sheer size of it, happened during WW1. The fact that they still remember the Great War there every day (!) says enough. On our way to Paris I had the map on my lap. The overwhelming amount of War cemeteries makes you quiet.

Great post, thank you!
posted by kudzu at 9:15 AM on November 11, 2009

I'm actually in the middle of a documentary, "World War 1 in Colour", that might be of interest to a lot of people here.
posted by markkraft at 9:29 AM on November 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

Amazing. And seconding Keegan's books on WW1.

I'm actually reading that right now. It is indeed a fantastic book.

Thanks for this post.
posted by Caduceus at 9:36 AM on November 11, 2009

Wow. I guess I always assumed that the image of a trench guarding a blank, dusty horizon was some kind of cartoon invention. Christ.
posted by cmoj at 9:52 AM on November 11, 2009

What were cameras like in 1916? Would it have been bulky and cumbersome to carry the camera?

We can just check the EXIF da-- err... wait.
posted by d1rge at 9:52 AM on November 11, 2009

Oh, and...
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:00 AM on November 11, 2009

It must have been like doing battle on the moon. But probably worse.

Great post, thank you.
posted by Darth Fedor at 10:39 AM on November 11, 2009

Although we've all read or heard this before:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
posted by bearwife at 11:03 AM on November 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:31 PM on November 11, 2009

Bearwife, sorry for the derail, but I must note that while the first two verses are quite good, the last verse of Flanders Fields is blind, stubborn rejection of a negoiated peace, a peace that would not only have saved millions during the war, but might also have averted the coming to power of Communism and National Socialism and all the horrors they created.
posted by mojohand at 2:56 PM on November 11, 2009

posted by LobsterMitten at 4:14 PM on November 11, 2009

Mojohand, I'm not espousing or endorsing the third verse. I do think the poem as a whole gives a great sense of what many of the soldiers depicted in these photos thought and felt, whether they were right or wrong.

I also don't think your comment is a true derail, since you are talking about the war time choices that gave rise to the photos that are the subject of the post.
posted by bearwife at 6:25 PM on November 11, 2009

Incredible, thanks!
posted by you just lost the game at 7:20 PM on November 11, 2009

This is the poem that comes to mind when I think about WWI.

Dulce et Decorum Est (1917) by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
posted by amarie at 7:25 PM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, great post. My great-grandfather fought in WWI and I've only ever seen one photo of him from that time--the photo of him in his uniform that used to hang on my great-grandma's wall. I've heard that he drove a donkey cart that carried ammunition and supplies to the guys on the front lines.
posted by amarie at 7:28 PM on November 12, 2009

My great-grandfather was also sent over for the war. Apparently, he was just a few days away from being to the front line for the first time when the eleventh day of November rolled around. The war over, the army wasn't ready to let their man leave without serving his year, resulted in him being placed in charge of guarding prisoners for a year. In terms of heirlooms, we have letters he wrote to his new wife, his uniform, a bunch of miscellaneous but neat American Expedition Force material (from how to avoid getting STDs to other things), postcard booklets of places in France he visited, what looks to be a little bit of trench art, and a poor poster that marked the dates and ships of his departure to France and his return to America.

In terms of photographs, there's a picture of him before going off as a country boy in ill fitting clothes, scruffy haircut, and then a photo taken of him later in his uniform, fit perfectly with a suave haircut and expression. Utter transformation. Then there's a tiny photograph, taken in France of his friends/fellow soldiers that's about half the size of a playing card, replete with dough boys and their campaign hats.

Just over twenty years later, his oldest son returned to Europe in the army, this time to fight in the mountains of Italy.

The First World War is one of those conflicts that came very close to greatly affecting my family and as a result, always carries with it a great "what if." What if my great-uncle had gone to the front line, and poof, ceased to exist...which would render me gone as well!
posted by Atreides at 9:17 AM on November 13, 2009

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