One of the gentlemen at T.Stahl's shooting club is an historian. Thorsten thoughtfully sent me an autographed copy of his newest book for my birthday, and I've spent the morning leafing through it.
The book is titled The Face of War, and is a collection of the photos of one Lt. Armin Stäbler. Lt. Stäbler was a regimental staff officer in a German infantry division who happened to be an inveterate photographer. Assigned to one of the hottest areas of the front for several years, he documented his surroundings with an honesty and an eye for art that leaves the viewer more than a little shaken.
World War One remains the single greatest example of long-term, large-scale awfullness in the history of our species. Take a swathe through the heartlands of Western civilization a few hundred miles long by fifty or so wide. Make sure it contains bucolic farms, scenic villages, old churches, and productive factory towns. Then fill it with millions of young men armed to the teeth, and let them go at it with cannon, high explosives, chemical weapons, and every other bit of frightfulness they can lay their hands on, and let them stay in there and keep doing so, over and over, for four years straight. The results are chilling.
The photographer was originally stationed at regimental HQ in a small village behind the front lines. There are pictures of the French civilians being evacuated, the hopelessly twee little village square, the village manor house, the old church, the Lieutenant's comfy quarters in a commandeered townhouse. Unfortunately, the village was right smack in the path of the British Somme offensive, and the slow motion destruction is relentlessly documented over the course of the next year or so. A shell crater here, a hole in the church there... By the time they're transferred, the village is a pile of rubble, only identifiable because the photographer was careful to take his pictures from the same viewpoint.
There are pictures of smiling and hopeful young men at the start of the war, and the grim-faced professional survivors skulking in the cratered landscape towards the end. It's an amazing and fascinating book that should only be read if one is in a thoroughly and unshakeably good mood before one picks it up. But if you're a history buff and can get your hands on a copy, the opportunity should not be passed up.