Sights to make the heart sigh

Few of those who faced the horrors of the First World War survive. But their tales - and an astonishing find from the archives - will change the way we think about life in the trenches, says Mark Bostridge
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The Independent Culture

These are tortured landscapes, too alien for human habitation, with their twisted and uprooted trees, their churned-up ground, huge craters and gigantic sump holes. The battlefields of the Western Front have been imprinted on our collective consciousness for 90 years now, yet they retain their capacity to shock and, in this new collection of panoramic vistas (The Battlefields of the First World War by Peter Barton, Constable/IWM £50) of the ground fought over at such vast cost in lives and for so long, to surprise as well. Here are gentle pastoral scenes, which bear no mark of war at all: a village church, a farm, green fields and dense forestland. Gazing through a mass of cornflowers one suddenly realises, with a jolt, that this is a British section of the Somme battlefront shortly before the onset of the devastating offensives of 1916.

The rediscovery of over 200 panoramic photographs of battlefields from Ypres to the Somme is an astonishing find. Peter Barton, who came upon them in the Imperial War Museum, where they had lain unseen since the Armistice, says that the photographs provide us with a view into a lost world. We are well used to the iconic images of the war, sometimes posed or faked for propaganda purposes, or of photographs taken from the trenches where the photographer is below ground level and his field of vision narrow. But these panoramas present us with a soldier's eye view of every battlefield of the British Western Front, as they actually were rather than as the authorities wished the public to see them.

The panoramas were photographed, with skill and ingenuity, and at great personal risk, by the Royal Engineers, for the purposes of military intelligence and reconnaissance. "I had several narrow shaves," wrote one of these photographers, Lieutenant OGS Crawford, whose camera had once been shattered by a German sniper's bullet. "It was a lengthy business, involving anything up to a dozen or more exposures of several seconds each, between which the plate has to be changed. The camera revolved on a graded tripod." Some 12,000 individual images were taken, making up a total of 1,000 separate panoramas. Relatively few contain the figures of soldiers, and only a handful visible casualties, but they provide compelling, if mute, testimony of the particular reality of the Western Front. The book includes two CD-Roms with the panoramas in interactive form, and is superbly illustrated with supplementary photos of the areas under inspection. One of these made my heart sigh. It shows the mud-filled trenches at Hébuterne at Christmas 1915, where, just days before, Roland Leighton, whose letters I edited, was mortally wounded.

Photography has played an essential, if not always trustworthy, role in the way the experience of the First World War has come down to us. So, too, have the memories of the men and women who played a part in it. Max Arthur's Last Post: The Final Word From Our First World War Soldiers (Weidenfeld, £16.99) is yet another contribution to his highly successful series of oral histories of the war (his name as author on the covers of these books gives the misleading impression that he has written them, when in fact he is responsible for conducting, transcribing and editing interviews with survivors). This latest volume interviews the last 21 known British veterans of the conflict, whose ages range from 104 to 109. Since Arthur began his work in August 2004, 12 of them have died. They are a remarkable band of men and the book tacitly salutes their courage, endurance and the phlegmatic manner in which many of them dismiss the war as merely as passing phase of their lives. What unites them is hatred of the lice that caused them so much discomfort in the trenches, their bond of comradeship with fellow soldiers, and an unwillingness to relive wartime experiences until relatively recently. Many of them also condemn the war itself. Fred Lloyd of the Royal Field Artillery, who died in April, remembers his brother Bill who was killed in the war. "He used to hold my hand when we went to school... It broke my heart when he died. I would have liked to have died with him - but I didn't, and here I am today."

The question of the modern memory of the war as these survivors die out and the conflict passes definitively into history is one that concerns Dan Todman in The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon, £19.99). Todman's is a carefully researched book, which argues for a less homogenous view of the war, and disputes the dominant myths of futility, perpetual misery, and of "lions led by donkeys" associated with the war. "The war could mean survival, victory (personal and national), disappointment, comradeship, unity, sorrow, shared purpose, betrayal, redefined status, and enjoyment: sometimes all at the same time."

Todman suggests the memory of the First World War in Britain will continue to live on, not least as a branch of the 21st century's fascination with family history (visit the website www.cwgc.org.uk and search for an ancestor in the record of "Soldiers Died") Family stories of involvement in the first modern total war, he concludes, will be handed down, and "will outlast not only those that experienced the war, but those who knew them too".

To order copies of any of the titles mentioned above, some at discounted rates, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Mark Bostridge is the editor of 'Letters from a Lost Generation' (Abacus)

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