The Great War may have ended nearly a century ago, but its legacy lives on. As these remarkable images taken by Irish photographer Michael St. Maur Sheil illustrate, it's going to take a very long time for the scars of this war to completely heal.
All images Michael St. Maur Sheil; they are republished here with permission. Be sure to check out his exhibition project, Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace 14-18, which will be opening in London on Aug 4th. More pictures can be seen at WesternFrontPhotography.
Top image: The Somme in Northern France. Though it's been nearly a century, the scene of one of the Great War's most infamous battles still bears its telltale marks. Trench lines criss-cross the landscape, while the craters from artillery shells continue to pockmark the fields where more than a million men were wounded or killed from July 1st to November 18th, 1916.
Following the failed Nivelle Offensive in April and May 1917, British and Territorial forces launched an attack on the Germans that eased the pressure on the demoralized French troops to the south. The battle, which raged from June 7th to 14th, claimed over 50,000 casualties on both sides. At one point, 10,000 men were killed in an instant when the British detonated 19 mines under German lines.
This is the site of the most intense and protracted engagement of the Great War. For nearly 11 months, German and French troops waged an unrelenting battle. Despite the horrific losses on both sides, the iconic Battle of Verdun failed to be decisive for any of the combatants, though it effectively marked the end of Erich von Falkenhayn's military leadership. Today, the farmers' fields still bears its tortured marks.
"Here is a shot of one of the most iconic items from WW1: this is a football kicked into action by a British Regiment - The London Irish Rifles - as they attacked German trenches," St. Maur Sheil told io9. "They kicked this football ahead of them and charged after it. It is shot on the actual ground where this action took place." The football was kicked by the LIR across No Mans Land on Sept 25th 1915 as they attacked the German positions in the town of Loos. [read more about this at bottom]
This was the site of three major battles during the war, the First (1914), Second (1917), and Third (1918) Battles of the Aisne. The second battle was the scene of the Nivelle Offensive — an engagement that cost the French 40,000 casualties on the first day alone. After 12 days of battle, French losses amounted to 271,000, compared to 163,000 German casualties. It was considered a disaster by the French public — one that cost General Robert Nivelle his job.
At 7:28 AM on July 1st, 1916 — the first day of the Battle of the Somme — British forces detonated 24 tons of ammonal (an explosive made up of ammonium nitrate and aluminium powder) in a packed mine underneath German forces. The explosion, which was reportedly heard in London, was witnessed from the air by 2nd Lieutenant C.A. Lewis of No. 3 Squadron RFC:
The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris.
The crater remains to this day, running nearly 70-feet deep.
This used to be a small village. Located atop a strategic ridge, both sides resorted to digging and setting off explosive mines underneath the hill. In all, some 531 mines were detonated, including a 60-ton mine that vaporized the church and 108 men along with it. By the end of the engagement, the village ceased to exist in any recognizable form. It's estimated that 8,000 French and German soldiers went missing on the hill, their bodies never found.
From June 1915 to November 1917, Italian forces fought the armies of Austria-Hungary in a series of 12 battles along the Isonzo River. Also known as the Isonzo Front, the engagements were disappointing for both sides and without any tangible tactical merit. But the casualties were enormous; about 300,000 for Italy and 200,000 for Austria-Hungary.
This is the scene of the first major battle fought by American soldiers in the Great War. The Battle of Belleau Wood (June 1st-26th, 1918) was, in the words of General Pershing, "for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy." Some 1,811 American soldiers were killed, but the marines were largely successful in expelling German forces from the forests.
In 1915, Allied troops staged an amphibious landing in an effort to secure the Gallipoli peninsula and open a new front in Turkey. But after eight months of fighting, the land campaign had to be called off — an ill-planned and poorly thought-out engagement that forced Prime Minister Asquith to end his Liberal government and form a coalition with the Conservative party. It also cost Winston Churchill his job as First Lord of the Admiralty. In the picture above, the remains of an ancient castle, Sedd el Bahr Kale, can be seen from V Beach.
Early in the war, in order to support France in the west, Russia launched an attack on Germany. Though outnumbered 2-to-1, the Germans responded by flushing out the Russian armies in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. It was a crushing defeat for Russia — one that contributed significantly to the prolongation of the war and the stalemate in the West.
In regards to the soccer ball picture, the following description was written by Patrick Macgill who achieved fame after the war as a poet and writer and who was a stretcher bearer during the battle:
I peered over the top. The air blazed with star-shells, and Loos in front stood out like a splendid dawn. A row of impassive faces, sleep-heavy they looked, lined our parapet; bayonets, silver-spired, stood up over the sandbags; the dark bays, the recessed dug-outs with their khaki-clad occupants dimly defined in the light of little candles took on fantastic shapes. From the North Sea to the Alps stretched a line of men who could, if they so desired, clasp, one another's hands all the way along. A joke which makes men laugh at Ypres at dawn may be told on sentry-go at Souchez by dusk, and the laugh which accompanies it ripples through the long, deep trenches... until it breaks itself like a summer wave against the traverse where England ends and France begins.
Many of our men were asleep, and maybe dreaming. What were their dreams? . . . I could hear faint, indescribable rustlings as the winds loitered across the levels in front; a light shrapnel shell burst, and its smoke quivered in the radiant light of the star-shells. Showers and sparks fell from high up and died away as they fell. Like lives of men, I thought, and again that feeling of proximity to the enemy surged through me.
A boy came along the trench carrying a football under his arm. "What are you going to do with that?" I asked.
"It's some idea, this," he said with a laugh.
"We're going to kick it across into the German trench."
"It is some idea," I said. "What are our chances of victory in the game?"
"The playing will tell," he answered.
It was now grey day, hazy and moist, and the thick clouds of pale yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from the scene of war. The word was passed along. "London Irish lead on to assembly trench." The assembly trench was in front, and there the scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death, as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands, and at a little distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard.
Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy's parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental precision, and twice on the way across the Irish boys halted for a moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there was some confusion and a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench.
By the German barbed wire entanglements were the shambles of war. Here our men were seen by the enemy for the first time that e and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever. Here, too, I saw, bullet-riddled, against one morning. Up till then the foe had fired erratically through the oncoming curtain of smoke; but when the cloud cleared away, the attackers were seen advancing, picking their way through the wires which had been cut to little pieces by our bombardment. The Irish were now met with harrying rifle fire, deadly petrol bombs and hand grenades. Here I came across dead, dying and sorely wounded; lives maimed and finished, and all the romancof the spider webs known as chevaux de frise, a limp lump of pliable leather, the football which the boys had kicked across the field.