In Flanders Fields: the Great War through the Stereoscope

Over on my Twitter page, I’ve been exploring the sights and horrors of the First World War through the stereoscope (take a look here). 

11 November 2018 will mark one hundred years since the signing of Armistice between Allied powers and Germany. Signed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne it formally ended fighting on land, in the sea, and in the air. Even though the Armistice had to be extended until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (which came into effect on 10 January 1920), the ‘Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month’ is the time, date, and month, that people remember.

We still use the ‘Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month’ as the focal point for Remembrance events in Britain; today, Remembrance Day is used to remember and contemplate all of those who fought, worked, and died during all wars.

But it’s important to remember the momentous events – and sheer amount of death and destruction – that led up to the selection of 11 November as our ‘Remembrance Day’. This is where photography (and film, to an extent) comes in.

Much focus is placed on the poetry of the Great War, and rightly so: the written word can convey so much, and can be useful in understanding the first hand experience of the First World War.

But photography lets us see the people that fought in the trenches, see the bodies of the unknown dead, see nurses at work, see zeppelins in the sky, see the wounded being treated in a military hospital. With a stereoscope, that effect is put in to three dimensions: we are in the trenches with the soldiers, watching the nurses, in the military hospital with the wounded. We are in the place with them, to a certain extent sharing their experiences, and in some cases, meeting their gaze.

Stereoscope card showing the ‘Interior of the Commodious Hospital at Brighton’, when the Royal Pavilion Estate was requisitioned for use as an Indian Military Hospital in 1914-16. Here we see a ward in what is now the Brighton Dome Concert Hall, formerly the Stables and Riding School built for George IV. (Own collection.)

That’s why I thought it was so important to share stereoviews of the First World War, from the Great War Through The Stereoscope series. At the time, people were aware of the horrors of global war in a first hand way that we, one hundred years later, are not.

Included in the series are scenes of battles, hospitals, soldiers, trenches, zeppelins, and more. They are scenes of events that affected large swathes of the British population, either directly or indirectly, and these scenes were produced for exactly that. They were mass produced for the massive consumer market in stereoscope cards, and they would have played a role in collective mourning, memory, and discussion of the war.

The stereoviews of the Great War allowed people to process the sheer loss and violence of the First World War, and today, we can use them to get an idea of this.

I’ll be posting more stereoviews each day in the run up to Armistice Day, on Sunday 11 November 2018. Make sure you follow me on Twitter, and watch this thread here

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