Friday, August 28, 2009

Contemporary Photographs of the Western Front

Mike St. Maur Sheil is a British journalist who was inspired to document the battlefields of the Western Front of World War One after visiting Dunkirk with his father, who was there during the evacuation in 1940.

As St. Maur Sheil puts it, "Oddly enough he featured in what has become one of the iconic images of that battle but what came as a complete suprise to me was the extraordinary memory which he had for what appeared to me to be feature-less fields. His soldier's eye was able to match the angles of church towers to the trenches they had dug and for the first time I appreciated the importance to the infantryman of even the merest ripple on the surface of a field. We visited Ypres and I watched him as he stood erect at the Menin Gate, fighting back his tears: it was an emotion I had never been exposed to before and I began to visit other battlefields and started taking pictures.

The men of 1914-18 largely saw the land torn apart and stripped of its covering mantle of grass and trees, it's bones literally laid bare as they sought shelter within its protective skin. Today living memory of those times has, sadly, all but disappeared but the landscape which was the setting for those tumultuous events still reflects its violent past. Nature may have healed the tortured landscape of the battle but the searching eye can frequently spot the place where concrete and steel push upwards from the soil like some strange fungus and the imprint of fighting trenches indicate where men fought and died. For me, the challenge is to combine the elements of light and land to document the dramatic history of these fields."

I learned about St. Maur Sheil's website,, via the chatter on the Two Fat Lardies discussion group, and it was well worth bookmarking. The quality of the pictures, the sense of what these landscapes have witnessed, and the recuperative power of nature, is amazing. Here's a sample:

The website's caption for this image: "The disused railway line which intersects the Broodseinde Ridge to the south of Passchendaele was the scene of one of Frank Hurley's kmost famous pictures taken about 100m away from where this shot looks towards the furthest extent of the Allied advance in 1917."

By comparison, the same landscape as photographed by Frank Hurley click here for a larger version and for more Hurley photopgraphs):

1 comment:

Mike Sheil said...

As the photographer responsible for these photographs I am flattered by your comments. Makes all the cold early morning starts worth while! And if ever you feel like visiting these fields of battle would be delighted to meet with you and show you some of the hidden places which, after almost 100 years, still seem to smell of cordite.

Enjoy the light!

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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