Millions of Europe’s best men marched off to the “Great War” in 1914 ready to be home by Christmas — but four years later their graves would make World War I one of the most savage and brutal conflicts known to mankind.
A deadly combination of advanced weaponry (i.e. the machine gun, chemical weapons, field artillery, etc.) and antiquated battlefield tactics resulted in the wholesale slaughter of an entire generation of men in Europe.
Consider the Battle of the Somme: Nobody remembers the six miles of ground won by allied forces. No, the Somme Offensive, which began on July 1, 1916 and ended on November 18, 1916, is remembered primarily for its death toll: 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German soldiers.
That’s 1,120,000 casualties over a 141 day period — all for six miles of land.
But perhaps the greatest tragedy of World War I is the fact that many who fought had no idea what they were fighting for. Unlike its sequel, World War II, the “war to end war” had no tyrant threatening the rights and liberties of the free peoples of Europe. Rather, World War I was sparked by the assassination of a relatively obscure archduke and his wife. International treaties had to be honored and alliances needed to be observed.
The average soldier did not understand this. All he knew was that his county called and he answered.
Dulce et decorum est and all that.
So, without any further introduction, we thought we’d share with you some rare photos (some in color) of people whose lives were touched by “The Great War.”
Noted English author C.S. Lewis:
Although Lewis rarely spoke of his war experiences, he did touch on the subject in his 1955 partial autobiography “Surprised by Joy”:
Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire.
Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother.
I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father.
But for the rest, the war – the frights, the cold, the smell of H. E. (high explosives), the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet – all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else.
And here’s a collection of rare photos taken during the last two years of the war by the French Army. Using Gallica, bibliothèque numérique de la Bibliothèque nationale de France as its primary photo source, this site has done an excellent job of collecting and cataloging colored photos from the French National Archives.
“Although color photography was around prior to 1903, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, patented the process in 1903 and developed the first color film in 1907,” the site notes, explaining the colored photos.
“The French army was the primary source of color photos during the course of World War One,” the site adds.
1. Senegalese & other French African colony soldiers
2. French Soldiers Receiving Haircuts
3. A French Girl in Rheims
4. The Tomb of a French Officer Killed in Rheims
5. Algerian Troops Pose For the Camera
6. An Algerian Sentry Stands at His Post
7. Australian Soldiers Discuss What Is & Isn’t a Knife (Maybe)
8. A Belgian General
9. Swiss Troops Guard Their Border
10. A Canadian Forestry Unit
11. German Artillery Shells
12. French Clerics & Officers
13. Soldiers & Healers
14. An Allied Anti-Aircraft Crew
15. Allied Anti-Aircraft Crew, Part Deux
16. An Allied Soldier Writes Home
17. A Hospital Director (Standing) & Her Aide
18. Children Among the Ruins
19. Russian Soldiers Await Further Instructions
20. In the Trenches
21. In the Trenches, Part Deux
22. Two Allied Marine Riflemen Looking Undeniably Hardcore. (Drie-Grachten, Belgium. September 3rd, 1917).
23. An Indochinese Sergeant
24. The French Line at Het-Sas. (Belgium September 10th, 1917).
And here’s some rare aerial footage taken by a French pilot that shows the type of destruction WWI wreaked on the European countryside:
Lastly, because we think it’s cool, here’s American poet and playwright T.S. Eliot’s draft registration card:
As the card shows, Eliot wrote that his wife was solely dependent on his support, which, of course, exempted him from the draft.
Have you thought about following Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter today?
(H/T: Peter Jesserer Smith). Featured image courtesy worldwaronecolorphotos.com.
This post has been updated