Windmill Military Cemetery, Monchy le Preux, east of Arras, 1918
This image was taken during the last months of World War I and shows a scene which became all too common during the long and bloody years it lasted. The four men at the back, almost silhouetted against the grey sky, locate the image in its context, reminiscent as they are of the lone figure in Ernest Brooks’ photo taken on Pilkem Ridge near Ypres in 1917.
The shadow figure of a survivor reflecting at the side of a grave is the image of the Great War and while these men are not quite silhouettes, they are nonetheless unknowable, just like the dead next to whom they stand. In Brook’s iconographic photo the silhouetted man and the corpse are one and the same thing, as if the dead man’s shadow, is for a time, living a while longer. There is then little to divide the four men and the two on either side from those over whom they stand, just as throughout the war, the gap between life and death could be measured by the thickness of a cigarette paper.
In the image from the Windmill Military Cemetery, over a dozen men await burial, some with makeshift crosses on which their names and dates of death would have been inscribed. Behind the men, crosses planted in the ground, stand like a wood, broken into matchsticks by the relentless pounding of shells. Everything in this image has been reduced. Men have been reduced to corpses, corpses reduced to names, the landscape reduced to ruin. On top of it all, the whole scene has been reduced to a picture; time itself reduced to a moment. There’s no colour and little by way of life.
An area in which I’ve become particularly interested as regards historic trauma and in particular, World War I, is our ability to empathise with those who suffered. If anything hinders an empathetic engagement with the war, it’s the sense that it’s always already happened, that its victims have always been dead. Reminding ourselves that the past was once the present, through an awareness of our own contemporary experience, is a vital part of the empathetic process. In this image we see a number of men. Those who ‘live’ within the image we know are now dead. Those who are dead, seem always to have been so. So how can we empathise with an image such as this; an image which is very much of its time and very much removed from our own?
The bodies are clearly dead, but the difference between them and the six men surrounding is, as I’ve said, slight. Looking at the hand of the body in the bottom right hand corner of the image, I can easily imagine how it once moved, once wrote a letter to a loved one back home, one touched a loved one, held a cigarette or a pint of beer.
There is something about it that’s painfully alive, as if it reminds us, that this photograph is a moment in time behind which there were many more moments, that those who died lived as we do today. Beneath the crosses in the background are many more bodies, of men who once lived. Their presence, or rather absent-presence, extends well beyond the limits of the moment, just as the landscape extends well beyond the limits of the photograph.
A photograph is captured in an instant and yet we ourselves are rarely aware of an instant in time. Of course we are aware of time passing and the difference between now and a few moments ago, but the moment we experience as ‘now’ is smudged to take in a part of the past. And of course, within our bodies, we carry our entire past, albeit one accessible only through the fragments of what we can remember. When a photograph is taken, the difference between the past and the present in which it was captured is much more stark. The shutter is like a knife, cutting one away from the other. But through thinking about ourselves and our own experience of the world, that sharp edge can be softened.
In an image like this, that process is made more difficult, not only because it was taken so long ago, but because what it depicts is so far beyond our own understanding. But the hand of the body I’ve described helps us bridge the divide. It’s something with which we can all easily identify; a way, albeit small, in which we can begin to empathise.