Thursday, March 01, 2007

Books: Concentrated awfullness.

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.


Anonymous said...

Is it only photos or is there text and more importantly is it in English? I had a grandfather that fought in World War I in AEF.

BobG said...

An old acquaintance of mine fought in that war; he was in the German army. He had a lot of interesting stuff, including an Iron Cross and a photo of Kaiser Bill hanging it on him. He had a lot of fascinating stories, and even had his old uniform, complete with spiked helmet. After he died his grandkids made off with everything.

NotClauswitz said...

Amazon needs to link personal preferences from one language-site to the other.
An important mentor of my dad's following Seminary was an older Pastor who'd been a machine-gunner during the First WW, and turned anti-war pacifist and Minister.

Anonymous said...

One of my great grandfathers was a soldier in the Austrian army during WWI. They eventually sent him back from the front lines to work in a munitions plant. There was an accidental explosion one day and he became almost completely deaf.

Anonymous said...

Recently read a good book on WW1--actually it's a diary: "Some Desperate Glory". Young (19) English subaltern in France. Fascinating reading. He didn't want it published because he thought his children would think he was a lush. . . he died in '31 and the diary was discoverd by his brother about 40 years later in a cabinet.. . Edward Campion Vaughan was the soldier. My grandfather was over there. . .hated the trenches, volunteered to go around commandering horses from local farms. . .

The Fudgie Ghost

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good book to have.

These three links also show the horror of the trenches and the people of the war torn land.


Anonymous said...

When I was a young whipper-snapper (in the 70's), I had a chance meeting with the elderly vets of that war at a restaurant in Southern CA. They were getting scarce even then. I thanked them for their service because I figured that they went to WAR so I wouldn't have to. As I recall, it was a regimental gathering or some-such.

Today, I have a Manlicher-Steyer M95 & I do think about them occasionally. I am definitely going to investigate this book at my local library.

Anonymous said...

Posted this elsewhere, at some time or another: Mid-sixties I bowled with a league in NJ. An older gentleman on the team had gone into WWI as a cavelryman! He went because a number of his neighbors, with more money, got to stay home. And died of the flu. His stories of the war were horrific... OldeForce

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather was in the German army in WWI. He denied doing any fighting, though. The British Empire lost about a million troops on the Western front; roughly half of them remain missing. In some places in France today, the farmers are still pulling up live explosive and gas shell from the war.

Anonymous said...

"Uncle Benny" who my folks bought a farm from in the 60's and I remember as a kindly if smelly old man in the early 70's, had been on the mule trains serving the trenches.

He'd spoken a little to my father, and recounted using corpses to make a path over old trenches for the mules and the horse wagons.

he also recounted the mud and the lice.

My mother used to make us put any toy guns away before he called around.

A former colleague was passionatly interested in the first war and used to visit the somme valley several times a year.

he has photos of stacks of artillery shells brought up by ploughing and waiting at the sides of fields to be de fused and disposed of.

As to the cemetries, it is not unusual for there to be over 100,000 names of soldiers whose remains were never recovered, and for what?

apparently both sides had huge problems with pacifism and went to great lengths to cause enough bitterness to get their conscripts to fight.

Mark said...

That copy of "They Drew Fire" that I picked up in Atlanta a few years back was pretty harrowing. Some darn good art in there, though.

I'll keep 'em peeled for this book as well. Thanks for the heads-up.

Anonymous said...

Just tried to post a comment about much of the world's gun laws coming from the chaos during and after WW1, and the **** of a server crashed.

oh well, s'pose it saved you all the trouble of reading it

T.Stahl said...

Hi Tam!
I'm glad you like the book. :-)
Actually I'm bad at finding propper presents, unless the presentee has the right hobbies.

Not WWI, but when I was a little pre-teen kid, I spent a lot of time with my mom's parents. Grandpa had served in WWII, drafted in August '39, sent to Poland, France and Russia, captured in '44 and one of the very few to make it back a) alive and b) in time for Christmas '45.
From him I heard stories about the war, some were funny, some were interesting, some were gross.
Stories about how he went fishing in Russia, how he met one of his brother for the last time in France, how he went to a comrade's family to tell them their son died in captivity.

I could have used those stories to back up a conscientious objection to serve my term in the Army, but instead it made me want to serve, to make sure it wouldn't happen again.

Anonymous said...

Check out The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne. A friend of mine used it to convince a bus load of college students on a tour of France to visit Verdun. Theres a graveyard of 10,000 not far from Ft Douaumont that impressed me till my friend led me back to a window that looked into the ossuary, holding the bones of over 100,000. I think something like 1.25 million died around Verdun.
The capture of Ft Dumont was interesting. The French had emptied the garrison out of the fort so they could "fight with elan" out on the fields, and the tattered remains of a German squad just walked in and captured a defense thought to be impregnable.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tam, I've been thinking more and more about that war. In a lot of ways we are still fighting it (perhaps we should have left the Arabs under Ottoman rule).

In a lot of other ways, it gave huge examples of gross stupidity. The example of the French abandoning a defensive position. (i'm told that the french had a policy of "always attacking" and were rewarded by machine gun fire),

The months of creating mud with artillery fire, then finding that within the first five minutes of the barrage stopping for an infantry assault, the opposing side had occupied all of your shell holes...

The bayonet charges accross half a mile of mud, shell holes and wire against machinegun positions.

British trenches where the sandbags were so neat that even a fly looking out would be obvious.

My grandmother considered her self lucky to have married. Hundreds of thousands of british women in her generation could not find a man to marry.