Max Arthur’s “The Faces of World War 1”

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Sometimes patience is rewarded. A couple of months back I noted the publication of Max Arthur’s photo collection, The Faces of World War 1, but I didn’t buy it then. Now it’s on Amazon, reduced from the original £25 to £10 (or for real cheapskates like me, on Amazon Marketplace from £8.30).
The postperson brought my copy this morning, and it’s a terrific compilation, mostly of photos from the Imperial War Museum collection. Inevitably there are photos one has come across before, but Mr Arthur has researched diligently, and chosen cleverly, so that there are plenty of surprises – like the image above, which was new to me, at least.
As a story of the War, the book has its limitations. It is very Anglocentric, with little sense of the global nature of the conflict. There are good pictures of Germans, fewer of the French, and very few indeed of other combatant nations. And then the view of pre-war Britain at the start is, to say the least, tendentious. Mr Arthur represents the Edwardian era by printing pairs of photographs – toffs at the Eton v. Harrow match beside the gruelling poverty in the slums. This contrast existed, but the Edwardian age was also the age of the lower middle class, the Pooters of the suburbs, the aspiring clerks, the ambitious young lady typists…

The pictures are left to do most of the work, with just a few lines of caption, and the occasional quotation from ex-soldiers remembering. Mr Arthur’s title promises faces, and these are there in plenty – self-consciously grinning for the camera, looking strained and serious, or ghastly with psychological shock. Sometimes it is skulls that stare at us, and two fascinating pages show how Dr Derwent Wood used painted masks to reconstruct faces smashed by the war.

There is plenty of grimness – mud, amputees, dead horses – but an enormous amount of cheeriness, and lots of soldiers showing off to the cameras with their trophy German helmets.
The picture above fascinates me. It’s of a wall in Fleet Street, probably in 1915. Is that poster about the black heart of Europe an official one, or the result of private enterprise? (I can’t see the small print at the bottom that you’d get on an official war poster). Whichever it is, some totally unofficial propagandist has elaborated on its racial subtext to present a thumping reinforcement of current gender and racial ideology. Yet another example of grass-roots enthusiasm outrunning official efforts in propagating support for the war.

One Comment

  1. Charles Hause
    Posted November 9, 2008 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I believe there’s an incorrect caption in “The Faces of World War I.” I’ve written the publisher twice without response. Is there a way to contact the editor or author about the error?


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