Shape shifting in Flanders

The Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917, stands out for two reasons, one military and the other historical. Firstly it has been viewed as the most successful local operation of the war, certainly of the Western Front: meticulously planned, the aims were achieved in a day.

Historically, just before the attack 455 tons of ammonal explosives, compressed into 21 mines (though two failed to blow), were detonated under German lines which killed more people than any other non-nuclear man-made explosion in history and was the largest recorded planned explosion until the Trinity nuclear tests in 1945. On the evening before the attack by the British Second Army commander, General Herbert Plumer, said to his staff: ‘”Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.”

The target of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914: it featured in Sebastian Faulks’s First World War epic, ‘Birdsong’. The attack was also a precursor to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele.

No war in history has combined such a vast theatre of operations fought in such proximity to the forces of Nature: firstly the elements of wind, rain, storms and snow created the all-pervasive mud and water – sometimes referred to metaphorically as ‘slime’ – along with the horses, mules, dogs and canaries, as well as rats and mice, all sharing the hell of the trenches with humans. Secondly, the geography and topography dominated the fighting: every small hill, river or indentation that would provide even a tiny advantage was a battle-ground.

Furthermore WW1 was the first war to be fought and recorded in and from the air, whether dog-fighting or photographing the enemy lines: in that sense, combined with the under-ground tunnels that could be thousands of feet deep, it was the first war in true 3D.

The First World War in the first two years was portrayed to the British public as a fight played out across a landscape that a British person could recognise, if not exactly the same. This was done principally by war artists exercising their own censorship by making the war look familiar and providing images of it from which both the dead and the suffering living had been entirely excluded. In one sense the name ‘Birdsong’ captured this idealised pastoral vision of noble death among metaphorical fields but at the same time it was an ironic commentary.

This general approach changed as the true horrors of the war could not be avoided: men, machinery, animals and landscapes were shown mangled, destroyed and often saturated in layers of mud and water. Here black and white photography was particularly potent and came of age as a medium in war: not just for public record but also aerial reconnaissance of enemy positions, often at great danger to the pilot. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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