Budleigh Salterton photographer and Friend of Fairlynch Museum Mo Sandford hopes that her recently completed project in the Great War centenary year will help to focus attention on the need to conserve the Western Front’s historic battle sites. Theatre of War is an arresting and sometimes disturbing study in pictures of some WW1 battlefields as they appear today
Two centuries ago the Belgian village of Waterloo just outside Brussels was about to become a major tourist attraction. The clash of nations on a field that would become famous for deciding the world’s future fired the imagination of people all over Europe. In the years following the battle on 15 June 1815, a huge mound 43 metres high was created using earth carried in baskets from the surrounding area. The Duke of Wellington on revisiting the site is said to have complained that his battlefield had been altered.
Just one hundred years pass and history repeats itself. Germany rather than France is now seen as the trouble-maker, and the slaughter is even more terrifying, carried out now on an industrial scale. And the visitors today come in their thousands.
Battlefields like Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele were, it seems, besieged by war widows in the 1920s, searching for explanations. They found only ruins, and left without answers, writes Mo Sandford in the introduction to her project on World War One battlefields of the Western Front.
Better known by her married name of Bowman as the Otter Valley Association’s photographer, Mo has found that her 35-year-long project has deep personal origins. Perhaps not as tragic as the war widows’ bitter journeys, her experience of these cruel places of pilgrimage is movingly described in the words and photos which she has entitled Theatre of War.
World War One left its mark on Mo as indelibly as any of its victims. As a child she recalled her father weeping while he watched on a flickering television screen ‘The Great War’ narrated by Laurence Olivier. Her mother recalled her own father’s “smouldering moods” and the brutal scenes of domestic violence as Mo’s grandmother was beaten by her husband, “bounced around the kitchen, wall by wall.” Yet he never spoke of The War, she says. “I wondered if other old soldiers were the same, never speaking, just re-enacting with a punch-bag.”
Theatre of War has three sections: the first consists of 171 colour photos followed by 114 monochrome images. A final section is made up of 13 conclusions in photomontage, some of them serving to voice the artist’s own message. ‘Ypres Cloth Hall revisited’ shows the magnificently rebuilt medieval Flemish landmark in colour as it stands today contrasted with the monochrome scenes of bandaged soldiers among the ruins. But some of the soldiers are laughing, as though all the devastation and the suffering inflicted on them by the Great War had been an absurd joke.
Many of the colour photos are of massive structures such as the Thiepval Memorial, erected to commemorate fallen victims of the Somme with no known grave.
Others, like the clever shot of screw pickets in a field of wildflowers, hint at the horror of the barbed wire which formerly scarred the landscape, trapping many wounded soldiers.
The monochrome images seem to convey deliberately wintry scenes, as though presenting monuments frozen in time.
This image of Fricourt in the Somme département is one of twenty showing German cemeteries. 17,000 are buried here.
One of the Fricourt images, showing a Jewish headstone amongst the Christian crosses, seems to stand as a lone voice in protest against the Holocaust. For Mo, the 1914-18 conflict, like any other, was a human tragedy from which all nations should learn lessons.
Above: The Kroonart Kemmel Trench Museum in the Ypres Salient
Her photos reflect her view of the Flanders landscapes as killing-fields capable of maiming and destroying a century later: they yield harvests of shells and bombs, still live in some cases, and occasionally unburied bones.
But she has a deep affection for the area and its people. “My pictures portray the Western Front in a time before tourists trampled the trenches smooth, and the impromptu field museums were still dusty,” she explains. Like Wellington, she is concerned about the way in which the fields that she views as sacred are being altered.
Above: The Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
“Modern life is swamping the remains of the Western Front,” she believes. She reads with dismay of land-hungry developers: her photo of Hill 60 on the Messines Ridge is described as “a fiercely fought over vantage point [...] still fighting today, with encroaching housing.” Yet, as she points out, there are local families with nowhere to live. “Only the tranquil cemeteries seem unspoilt.”
Soldiers of the Great War
Ironically, Mo’s pictures may inspire yet more visitors to follow in the footsteps of others, curious to experience the ‘dark tourism’ associated with places that reek of tragedy. But the images in Theatre of War are powerful enough to tell their own story and let us wonder at humanity’s folly.
Dancing with Death
Images © Mo Sandford FRPS 2014