Hi! I just wondered, do you have a favourite world war 1 photograph?
“Favourite” is an awkward way to put it, and there are too many powerful photographs from the war to choose from.
Yet this blog’s avatar comes to mind. It is a photograph of a German uhlan, a cavalryman, on October 14, 1914.
The Great War is a story of large structures: endless battles with millions of casualties, an enormous growth of state power, mass oppression and cruelty and death. In terms of individuals and numbers it is literally impossible to visualize or understand. As the soldier and playwright Ernst Toller wrote, “We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why.”
Who knows what happened to this man afterwards? Maybe this was the last photo taken of him. As a soldier in the horrendously bloody battles of autumn 1914 on the Western Front, it is likely he did not survive.
It is not a moment of great feeling, neither triumph nor tragedy. Its
subject is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. He is easy to distance yourself from; the
photo is black-and-white, he wears old-fashioned clothing.
Yet I felt this snapshot captured a brief moment of humanity in a dehumanizing, industrial war. Here is a human being fully alive, happy, handsome, a slight smirk on his face; proud perhaps in his dashing uniform? He has an emotional inner life, family, loved ones, just like any of us.
It is the same sense of individual humanity we can get from other photos of the war: A Scottish factory worker defiantly presents her tattoos remembering fallen friends. A Tanzanian man parts from his family to go fight on a distant continent for colonial oppressors. These photographs are just as powerful, if not more. We mourn the death of soldiers every November 11, but often forget workers, women, imperial subjects, and all others who participated in the war, often with far less choice and equal suffering as the men in the trenches.
But simply by reminding me of one individual life in the massive scope of the Great War, I find this rushed battlefield portrait touching. Perhaps others will find it moving too.