The Illustrated War reports – Trench Warfare contains 128 pages of pictures of the fighting in the Western Front’s trenches. Selected from The War Illustrated, a contemporary news magazine, the pictures show dramatic artists’ reconstructions of real life events.
For the non-combatants, the desire to understand what was happening in the war drove a huge demand for news and pictures from the front. In most cases it was impractical, dangerous and, in later years, forbidden to take photos and so talented war artists were hired to fill the vacuum.
With any artistic activity that purports to portray actual events, the challenge is to understand what is fiction and what is a faithful representation of what really happened. It is important to remember that the artists were influenced by their publisher’s demand for marketable images and were using anecdotal descriptions for their inspiration. Given these constraints, it is important to treat each picture with a large pinch of scepticism, understanding that the heroes and their accomplishments are generally being drawn larger than life. The pictures cover a range of artistic styles, from comic-book heroism to landscapes that could pass as photographs. It is clear that the artists involved in creating these images were highly skilled at their craft.
Focussing on trench warfare, it is natural that the pictures mainly show events from the Western Front and coming, from a British news publication, are exclusively from a British point of view. With all these pictures, the reader must consider where the boundary between storytelling, propaganda and factual history lies.
Each picture is presented on its own merits with little captioning apart from a description of the picture and the event depicted. Some of the pictures clearly have a large dose of dramatic licence; cliches such as clean-cut Brits defeating bald-headed Germans abound. However, most are based on real events that can be traced, with the emphasis on tales of heroism and success; Michael O’Leary’s Victoria Cross winning action is a case in point. With cursory research, it is generally possible to trace pictures to their contemporary inspiration, a case in point being an occasion in 1914 where a wounded British officer carried an injured German soldier back to the German trenches.
The paperback book starts with a solid introduction which covers the general work of a number of war artists, however, it is not clear if the artists mentioned in the introduction are carried through to the pictures the book; my impression is not. The artists who created the pictures remain nameless, this may be because they were paid journeymen doing a job for the publication and not deemed worthy of credit. If not, and their names are known, the absence of credit in the captions is an odd decision; this book is more about the art and its creators than the soldiers depicted.
The book charts the course of the war, following the war’s general chronology, however specific dates are not generally mentioned. A publishing date would perhaps have given the reader an easier path for further research should the urge come upon them!
The pictures are well-curated and varied, covering everything from heroic actions, mass attacks and everyday scenes of trench life. Each picture shows the skill of the artists in interpreting overseas events into something that could be consumed in a regular news magazine to help satiate the demand for news from the front.
One aspect of this book that strikes the reader is the advantage that the artist has over the war photographer. Unconstrained by the practicalities and dangers of positioning a physical camera, the artist is able to adopt an almost cinematic perspective that would often not have been possible. This advantage has been thoroughly exploited in the powerful and creative pictures in this well-produced and intriguing book. This collection of pictures helps the reader to understand a little of the mass desire to understand what was going on just over the channel.
The Illustrated War Reports – Trench Warfare can be bought here.
Alternatively, in the month of October 2017, this website is running a competition to win our review copy. All you have to do is follow us on social media or retweet or like tweets or their equivalent on other social media platforms; each action you take becomes an entry into the prize draw. The winner will be picked from the rusty tin hat shortly after the 30th October.