Images of War: New Zealand and the First World War in photographs, by Glyn Harper, (Harper Collins, 2013), 399 pp., $99.99
‘You were in the Great War?’ I said. ‘Tell me about that.’
‘I’ve been in all the wars,’ Johnston said, ‘but I couldn’t tell you anything about it.’
‘You won’t talk about it?’
‘I couldn’t tell you anything even if I did. It wasn’t anything. You wouldn’t understand unless you saw it. Even if you did see it you wouldn’t understand it.’
Man Alone (1939), by John Mulgan
Images of War, a tombstone-sized book, a coffee-table tester, is the overgrown bastard brat of a rather better publication by the same author that came out five years earlier, primarily re-issued, we assume, to cash in on the Great War nostalgia market. A ‘stunning’ large-format book, says the blurb. I am duly stunned. This tome weighs in at 3 kilos (according to our bathroom scales), and has a grey cover that looks thick enough to stop bullets. The cover design is of a singular unattractiveness, with lettering masking a fine photo of Kiwi soldiers looking out at us, which has been combined with a design of another photo of men scampering across a battlefield to their grey death.
The book’s archive of photographs was largely made largely possible because the technology of the time had recently enabled the vest-pocket-sized camera, placed in the hands of any untrained operator, to produce photos of an acceptable quality. Kodak’s slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ had been around for a while and had beome a practical reality around the time the ‘Great War’ began.
Many soldiers involved in World War I set out to document their experience, at least partially, usually without authorisation or censorship (by the time of World War II regulations were far stricter). So this work pays tribute to a unique and epic collective effort; it’s a combined personal view of the disastrous 1914–18 conflict.
The mass contribution of photographs means it is not an easy book to review, the more so as its contents are often horribly tragic, showing the massacre of a generation as well as the agonising aftermath of damaged young men returning home, and focusing, naturally, on New Zealand.
Our celebration of Anzac Day as an annual remembrance of the essential futility of war is, in a way, a sorrowfully inadequate effort, because we keep on producing more soldiers, so the war industry survives. Ian Cross announced that the national mood was ‘never again’ in his novel After Anzac Day (1948), but that was many colonial and post-colonial wars ago.
We look at this book’s massive photographic record, the tragedy it depicts, and note the irony of men who seem to be smiling at the camera, concealing the deeper suffering. Open the book at random – you may as well, there is no real order apparent here except for a loose division into various theatres of war, with a kind of ragbag of fascinating leftovers tacked on halfway – and discover the introduction is spattered with pictures of New Zealanders trying to fight the evil Bolsheviks in 1919: completely irrelevant and anachronistic and with no relationship to the text.
So, smiling men:
Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag and smile, smile, smile …
New Zealand men, how incredibly cheery and healthy they look as they set out on a wee adventure, a bit of OE before going on with their planned lives, taking over the sheep station, going to varsity, working in uncle’s hardware shop – a dream of a future many will be cheated out of. By death or mutilation. We remember that 1930s scene in the movie Angel at my Table, at Janet Frame’s Dunedin aunt’s place, where her uncle Alf is obviously coughing his lungs out after poison gas contamination two decades before.
There are smiles or grins in the initial set of photos in the book that show young Kiwi soldiers heroically taking over Samoa from the German colonial administration, an episode a bit like something out of a C.S. Forester novel. The grinning troops here look like undisciplined farm-boys; their uniforms improvised, they are diversely hatted but armed with newly issued Lee Enfields. A few Samoans idly watch the entertainment of the day.
Again, I open the book at random and see a photograph – official propaganda – of New Zealand politicians William Massey and Sir Joseph Ward visiting sick and wounded soldiers in an open-air field hospital. My initial reaction is that these soldiers are wearing their ‘lemon-squeezer’ hats because of regulations, but then I think actually the poor buggers are trying to keep the glaring sun out of their eyes, possibly damaged by gas. And yes, two of the three have their faces set in a kind of rictus:
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe …
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.
(Wilfred Owen: ‘Smile, Smile, Smile’)
The soldiers’ expression for a wound that would see you transported out of the fighting zone was ‘Blighty’ (slang for Britain). Leaf through the pages and note: no smiles when you’re blasting away with a deafening 18-pounder; or when you’re burying a comrade (one of the few who got as far as being formally buried on the Western Front, rather than placed in a mass grave); no smiles when you’re trying to take cover, crawling alone over a field in No Man’s Land with shells bursting over you.
Again, Wilfred Owen’s angry and sad verse says it best, as in this fragment from 1915 with its allusion to Rupert Brooke:
Not one corner of a foreign field
But a span as wide as Europe;
An appearance of a titan’s grave,
And the length thereof a thousand miles,
It crossed all Europe like a mystic road,
Or as the Spirits’ Pathway lieth on the night.
And I heard a voice crying
‘This is the Path of Glory.’
There’s a smile of a totally different kind in the photo of a group from the NZ Rifle Brigade, taken after the conquest of Bapaume in August 1918, with them grouped in front of a shellhole in the wall of a farmhouse. These are victors; they have retaken, and completely pulverised, a German redoubt around the village. The cost was 2200 casualties, of whom 400 were killed outright in a couple of days. Look, a camera, look, we have come through, look we are smiling because we are alive, because we are the victors. But our grins are grim and forced, we know that next week will bring more violence more carnage. ‘A chap can’t go on forever,’ a New Zealand soldier in a decimated division is quoted as saying a month later (quoted in Chris Pugsley’s The ANZAC Offensive (2004)).
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Another photograph: another smile; but one could write an essay or give a paper about this image. We’re looking at an Australian soldier in the Crimean theatre of war, who is looking at the camera from a sunlit trench, with three corpses filling the bottom, Ottomans (Turkish soldiers) apparently. This is a boy, maybe 17, 18 years old. He is in an adventure story, out of Rider Haggard or John Buchan, and as in their books there is a scattering of dead Lascars, Kaffirs, Sepoys, Ottomans, wogs of some kind. A vicious colonial reading is tempting.
All that cant about the white man’s burden: Pax Britannica.
Fairfield College, Hamilton 1962. I remember when I was in the School Cadets seeing a military training film from the 50s. An unlawful assembly in Malaya somewhere, with troops assigned to ensure order. There’s an excited Malay agitator speaking to the crowd. A fruity British-accented voice through a powerful loudspeaker reads the riot act to the crowd, gives a warning; then a Bren gun in a canopied truck opens fire, neatly stitching the orator with bullets, knocking him dead off his soapbox, while the troops advance in wedge formation with fixed bayonets and the panicked crowd ducks down alleyways.
But a subtler reading of this bloodthirsty and triumphant young Anzac soldier, standing over his kill, might register a strong element of fear woven into his expression; the kind of fear and confrontation one might have on one’s first pig hunt, seeing death at that level. His face is slightly twisted as he is looking into the strong sunlight, but there is a kind of complicity and conspiracy implied here. We are at some fundamental level in the presence of desecration. Still with the colonial rendering as a bass continuo: who will I send this one to? Mum? That girl in Bondi? Some school chum I played cricket with?
These are men who die, not flowers for poets’ tearful fooling. Owen again.
So, in summary, we are looking at a fascinating collection of deeply disturbing pictures; however, the writing and editing of this heavy volume are occasionally close to disastrous. Firstly, the bibliography is very thin indeed on the history, let alone theory of photography, but then Harper is a war historian, we are told. A war historian? No, Mr Harper, it will not do to say that: ‘It is now generally accepted that the Germans were responsible for causing the war.’ There is no footnote to this assertion, no evidence presented, no marshalling of the various arguments, for and against.
It’s possibly true that the perception of most New Zealanders at the time would have concorded with this assessment, making a gospel of the whole Rule Britannia argument and the enormous naval and military buildup, but we surely are less convinced of this jingoism now.
Dead young men, decimated economies, years of sorrow and misery. Yet it bonded us into a feeling of being a nation, and gave us a kind of identity, as James Belich has reminded us. Harper does state that: ‘The New Zealand experience (in WWI) should not only be defined as a bleak requiem – it is far more complex than that.’ His collection of images certainly indicates this, and it’s surprising therefore that he’s still blaming Germany’s actions alone.
That other, and deeper, readings of the photographic evidence are possible is made clear by a slim volume that came out at the same time as the original edition of this work: Sandy Callister’s The Face of War (AUP, 2008). There is very litte overlap between her photographs and those of Harper, who found most of his material in the Kippenberger Military Archive in Waiouru; she seemed to have drawn a lot from the Hocken Collection and from National Library newspaper archives. But the big and deeply significant difference is that Callister looks at the work in a transactional way: who were the photos taken by, and who for. And what kind of use was made of them, both by the press and in the context of memory and mourning. ‘All photographs are memento mori,’ she states, quoting Susan Sontag’s 1978 essay, and she makes allusion to many of the theoretical framing and studies that have come out in the last two decades. If only Glyn Harper had been as scrupulous.
So, in my view, a magnificently oversized near-miss of a book, undone by both its tenuous argument and its boilerplate presentation, as if by and for the military-minded only.
On the other hand, last night at the dinner table here in Mornington the book was out, and a friend of mine was meticulously studying the pictures one by one: he was looking for his grandfather.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer and writer who divides his time between Geneva, Switzerland and Dunedin, New Zealand. He formerly lectured in photography at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art.