Why Photos Failed to Capture Great War

The British photographers were stationed on the front lines of the Somme, ready to capture the â??Big Pushâ? as it unfolded. Starting at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, line after line of British soldiers weighed down by 70â??plus pounds of equipment trudged straight into German machine-gun fire. Later that hot day, which would become the costliest day in the history of the British military and one of the deadliest single days of combat in any war, the wounded lay stranded in no-manâ??s-land. The lucky ones found shelter in shell holes; the rest were left exposed and baking in the sun. They could not be rescued yet, and so an anonymous official photographer attached to the Royal Engineers did what he could to record the scene. The picture he took, though, tells almost nothing without a caption. The landscape is flat and featureless. The dead and wounded look like dots. â??Like a million bloody rugs,â? wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Somme carnage. In fact, you canâ??t make out blood. You canâ??t even tell youâ??re looking at bodies.


Starting in the American Civil War, photographers could claim to have provided the iconic representations of war. Reproduced on stereographic cards and exhibited at Mathew Bradyâ??s gallery in New York, Alexander Gardnerâ??s pictures of dead soldiers strewn about the Antietam battlefield shocked the divided nation, and remain the searing record of destruction. Robert Capaâ??s falling soldier (possibly a staged picture) came to define the Spanish Civil War, as Joe Rosenthalâ??s picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima did, for Americans, the Second World War. Nick Utâ??s photo of the crying, naked girl burned by napalm conveyed the horrors of Vietnam, it is often said, in a way that words could not. But in this litany, the First World War is the notable exception.

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