A glimpse into an acclaimed public exhibition that embodies the spirit of the centenary of the First World War.
Fields of Battle Lands of Peace 14 -18 is an exhibition created by photographer and battlefield guide Michael St. Maur Sheil, who has spent the past seven years exploring the fields of battle seeking to capture the history and emotions of the First World War. The project embodies the spirit of the centenary in honouring those who fought, acknowledging in the spirit of unity, a history now shared by a modern generation of Europeans.
Here, we publish a selection of images that make up the exhibition, along with detailed captions provided by Michael St. Maur Sheil. Following critical acclaim at the Jardin Du Luxembourg in Paris, Fields of Battle Lands of Peace 14 -18 was launched officially by HRH The Duke of Kent KG in St James's Park on August 4th, to mark the outbreak of the First World War. Find out more here.
Unexploded ordnance is a familiar feature of the Western Front: as they uncover the shells, the farmers simply leave them by the road side to await collection by the French and Belgian disposal teams who every year collect over 300 tons of live munitions.
At 0310 on June 7th 1917 the British exploded 19 mines packed with a total of 450 tons of HE under the German lines along the Messines-Wijtschate Ridge. It was the largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear era and it is estimated killed 10,000 men in a matter of seconds.
“Out of the dark ridges of Messines and Wytschaete there gushed out and up enormous volumes of scarlet smoke all lighted by the flame spilling over into mountains for fierce colourso that all the countryside was illuminated by red light” Philip Gibbs - Daily Telegraph.
Tyne Cot Cemetery which lies just outside the town of Ypres in west Flanders was established in 1917 during the battle of Passchendaele. With 11,956 graves, of which no less than 8,369 are unidentified, and a memorial marking another 34,948 men who have no known grave, it is the largest British Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world.
From the outset, the cemeteries were conceived as places of tranquillity and contemplation and within months of the end of the war they became places of pilgrimage for the wives and families of the men buried there. This photograph is taken from atop the German bunker which now supports the Cross of Sacrifice: King George V stood at the same point in 1922 and quoted the words of Rudyard Kipling who wrote:
“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”.
The ground about the Ouvrage du Thiaumont bears testimony to the ferocity of the fighting.
"The infantryman has no function except to get himself crushed, he dies without glory...at the bottom of a hole, far away from any witness"
Lt. Raymond Jubert 151st RI “Verdun 1916”
The Somme: Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel. The most easily accessible, well defined trenches on the entire Western Front.
On 1st July 1916 - the 1st day of the battle of the Somme it was the scene of the disastrous attack by the 0845 1st Newfoundland Reg. They were ordered into the attack from a reserve line to north and west of modern road from Auchonvillers in direction of Y Ravine Cmtry. The communications trenches leading to the front line were blocked so NR advanced from 3rd line trenches over surface where they presented an easy target for the German machine gunners in Y ravine. In less than an hour they had lost 710 men out of 752 before they had even reached their own front line.
This mine was dug by 185th & 179 Tunnelling Coy and used two charges totalling 60,000 lb of ammonal. It was blown at 0728 on July 1st 1916 and originally was 300ft in diameter and 90ft deep. The initial attack failed as the Germans got to the crater rim first and it was not until the 3rd that the 10th Worcesters took the crater losing 30% of its men in the assault.
“At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky...flinging the machine sideways...[it] rose, higher and higher to almost four thousand feet...A moment later came the second mine...again the roar, the upflung machine...Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters....the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun”. Cecil Lewis.
The marshes of the Ancre near Authuille. It has been suggested that these marshes gave J
R R Tolkien the scene of the "Dead Marshes" in Lord of the Rings where Frodo
"There was a faint hiss, a noisesome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. "There are dead things. dead faces in the water", he said with horror, "Dead faces!"
Tolkien was very affected by his experiences and wrote that
"My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself".
And is clearly describing his own responses to the death he witnessed
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."
London Irish Loos Football
This is the football which the London Irish Rifles kicked across No Mans Land on Sept 25th 1915 as they attacked enemy positions in the town of Loos.
The following description was written by Patrick Macgill who achieved fame after the war as a poet and writer and who was a stretcher bearer during the battle.
Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy's parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental precision, and twice on the way across the Irish boys halted for a moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there was some confusion and a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench.
By the German barbed wire entanglements were the shambles of war. Here our men were seen by the enemy for the first time. Up till then the foe had fired erratically through the oncoming curtain of smoke but ... the Irish were now met with harrying rifle fire, deadly petrol bombs and hand grenades. Here I came across dead, dying and sorely wounded; lives maimed and finished ... Here, too, I saw, bullet-riddled, against of the spider webs known as chevaux de frise, a limp lump of pliable leather, the football which the boys had kicked across the field.
First mentioned in 893, this was established by the Benedictines monks as a fortified during the 14thC.
During the 1st WW the French used the underground quarries used to produce the building stone as a place of refuge and the poilus (lit. ‘bearded ones’ as the French soldiers were called ) carved this altar in the rock and named it after their heroic chaplain Pere Paul Doncoeur who served with the 35/RI - Marne, Aisne, Champagne & Verdun. Seriously wounded on the Somme: 7 citations, Croix de Guerre, Legion D’ Honneur. After the war determined that the sacrifices should not be in vain and became the Chaplain to the French Boy scout movement.
This is probably the last soldiers battlefield burial site memorial left intact on the Western Front with the soldier's equipment left on the grave, along with a plaque placed there by his father Jean in 1919.
Grave of Edouard Ivaldi, Cpl 7/RI from Pavillons sous Bois. Killed 30 April 1917.
Helles - V Beach. Seddulbahir Castle from the site of SS River Clyde.
SS River Clyde was a 4000 tn collier converted to land 2,000 soldiers on V Beach beneath the Sedd el Bahr castle at Cape Helles, on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. She was commanded by Commander Unwin, and had a battery of eleven MG’s mounted on the bow behind boiler plate and sandbags. Holes had been cut in the steel hull to provide sally ports from which the troops would emerge onto gangways and then to a bridge of smaller boats linking the ship to the beach.
Three attempts were made to get ashore by companies of the Munsters, the Royal Dublins and the Hampshire Regiment but all ended in costly failure. Further attempts to land were abandoned and the surviving soldiers waited until nightfall before trying again. The efforts of sailors to maintain the bridge from the ship to the beach, and to recover the wounded, were rewarded by six VC’s.
All images by Michael St. Maur Sheil