Earlier this year I undertook a tour of the Battlefields of WWI with local company Solway Tours. I don't normally go on organised tours but I reckoned it was the best way to see a lot of places and to get expert knowledge in a short space of time. I was right on both counts. Solway Tours was outstanding. We travelled all around Ypres in Belgium and down through France to the Somme. I have to admit that prior to this trip my knowledge of this incredulous war was scant. I now know much more and although perhaps I shouldn't have - given the ongoing wars in the world today - I found it difficult to comprehend man's inhumanity to man. The scale of industrialised slaughter - 17 million dead and 20 million wounded - beggars belief.
Having been deeply moved by what I saw I decided to return a few weeks ago - just after the centenary of the commencement of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July - to make a more detailed photographic record of the places I visited. But it was more than just a desire to record. As a photojournalist I wanted to create a sense of mood and atmosphere. I wanted to express the emotions I felt - the death, destruction sadness and perhaps a modicum of hope for our warmongering species. I also wanted to further the act of remembrance of this appalling conflict and to attempt to ensure that we never forget all those - on all sides - who died or were affected by this war.
These are some of the images I took over both trips along with my brief notes of why I took them and why they are significant to me. With a few exceptions I felt that most of the images were more powerful in black and white or when desaturated of vivid colour. That in itself was an interesting experiment in the psychology of perception and emotions. I hope that you don't 'enjoy' these images but rather that they stir something inside all of us that makes us reflect on war and what it means to go down the route of armed conflict.
Early morning light over Vlamertinghe Cemetery, Belgium. This is just one of dozens of cemeteries all along the western front that was located adjacent to or near field hospitals. It was calm and serene but the long shadows cast by the morning light were a stark reminder of what lay below my feet as I walked across the grass. This small cemetery holds over 1,100 soldiers.
A lone poppy at Essex Farm Cemetery, Belgium. It was the skeletal trees here that invoked the imagery of death more powerfully than trees in full leaf or flowers in bloom. The single red poppy against a white gravestone was like a shot that still rang out across the decades. This cemetery contains over 1,200 dead of which 104 have never been identified.
The grave of one of the unidentified soldiers at Essex Farm Cemetery, Belgium. There was something cold and stark about this. The rose and the beautifully kept graves somehow belied the horrific reality of what went on here. Everything felt rose-tinted but for all the wrong reasons. The long shadows spoke volumes to me.
The shattered, bullet-riddled remains of a tree that once stood tall in Sanctuary Wood, Belgium when battle raged all around it. Despite the modern crosses and all the acts of remembrance that have taken place here - it still lies dead, shattered and broken. That is the price of war.
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, Belgium - just a few hundred metres from the battleground. A small cemetery holding 636 dead, it was serene but the dark trees around the edges and the dark clouds overshadowing the rows of white graves gave it a sense of foreboding.
This single red rose that was bending through the unmarked side of the gravestones seemed to be a marker for all the dead and not just the name on the front face of the stone beside it. For this reason I often wandered along the unmarked sides of the graves for here was the faceless, inhuman side of war.
Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium the final resting place of some 12,000 men of whom more than 8,000 are only 'known unto God'. In addition 35,000 whose remains were never found are commemorated on the walls around this cemetery. There was a brightness and hope in the light that shone through the dark clouds. It flickered across the gravestones bringing a sense of life and movement that somehow transcended the true horror of it all.
The Brooding Soldier memorial to the Canadians at Vancouver Corner, Belgium. This was the site of the first ever gas attack that claimed the lives of 2,000 men. It was the wispy nature of the clouds that seemed to speak of gas and the way it spread silently across the landscape. The light was catching the top of the memorial and it seemed to highlight the soldier's thoughts as he looked down contemplatively on another horror unleashed on the battlefield.
This is the German cemetery at Langemark, Belgium. Here are buried more than 44,000 dead. It was a strange, surreal and very different feeling from the allied commonwealth cemeteries but it was every bit as thought provoking in its mood and atmosphere. It was none the less death in all its finality.
The last post at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium - as held on every night of the year, irrespective of the weather - since 1929 (with the exception of the 4 years when the Germans held Ypres between 1940 and 1944) On the walls around the Menin Gate Memorial are the names of another 55,000 soldiers whose remains were never found.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I believe it is important that we never forget and I urge anyone to take a trip to these hugely emotional and thought provoking sites.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
- from 'For the Fallen' by Robert Laurence Binyon
In memory of my grandfather Alexander Nairn and his brother James Nairn
- neither of whom I met thanks to this conflict -
and to all those who gave their lives in this and all other wars.