Images Beyond History: Photographs of the Western Front

In the second article in the Picturing History series, Sander Gilman reflects on images of the First World War and the photographs of Alan Cohen.

This autumn the BBC is planning to provide viewers with a cross between Survivors and The 1900 House. Twenty-five young men will be put into simulated trenches to re-enact the experience of the Western Front in November 1916. Each will be exposed to simulated fire and will ‘die’ at the behest of the producers, who will eventually winnow the twenty-five down to a final ‘survivor’. The experience was summarised by the Guardian (June 25th, 2001) as ‘wading through mud, living with rats and maggots, and being gassed, deprived of sleep and subjected to simulated shelling’.

Where does the set of images of the First World War that still haunt our contemporary world come from? Certainly from the experience itself – at least in part. The same newspaper reported a few days earlier that the remains of twenty soldiers from the 10th battalion the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment had been uncovered in a trench re-opened to lay a gas line near the battlefield at Arras. They had probably died on the evening of April 9th, 1917, the first day of an offensive launched by General Haig to destroy the German frontline and alter the course of the war. The corpses were probably interred provisionally, then forgotten but reappeared as the land of the battlefields was disrupted.

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