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The Photographer

 

Fields of Battle-Lands of Peace 14-18 is the work of the photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil.

Captured over a period of seven years, Michael’s photography combines a passion for history and landscape and presents a unique reflection on the transformation of the battlefields of the Great War into the landscape of modern Europe.

 

Michael commented:
“This collection represents a legacy which I hope will create a gateway to the battlefields themselves, thus encouraging people to visit these historic landscapes during the centennial period and so create awareness and understanding of the events and historical implications of the First World War".

 

The images below provide an insight into a selection of Michael's work, many of which will feature in the launch of the Heritage Lottery funded, Fields of Battle Lands of Peace Street Gallery in St James's Park opoosite Horse Guards in August 2014.


HLF_logoroyal_parks

 

 

 

 

 

Buy your own copies of images from the exhibition

 

 

Just click on the image you want, choose your product and order.
Click HERE or on the gallery images below.


Michael says:

“This collection represents a legacy which I hope will create a gateway to the battlefields themselves, thus encouraging people to visit these historic landscapes during the centennial period and so create awareness and understanding of the events and historical implications of the First World War".

 

Paris Images London Exhibition Somme Verdun Vosges champagne Chemin des Dames Ypres Argonne Masurian Lakes

Mike St. Maur Sheil will be donating 5% of his profits from the sale of prints to the Fields of Battle 14-18 Charitable Trust.

 

Fields of Battle to collaborate with SingUK and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall September 2014.

The whole purpose of Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace 1418 is to show that time and nature heals the scars of battle and so to be asked to provide the visual content to accompany this music is really very exciting.

 

War has always involved the use of music either for militaristic purposes or purposes of celebration or commemoration.

“The Armed Man” by Karl Jenkins is the latter: it is a stunning piece of music and I am honoured that Fields of Battle has been invited to collaborate with SingUK in a concert with 600 student voices together with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall on 28th September 2014.

 

There will be choirs from Belgium, France, Germany and the UK: what a fantastic message of reconciliation that will be.

 

So please, come and support SingUK on the night. Visit their website for more info: http://www.singuk.org/tam

 

THE WESTERN FRONT IN BELGIUM

The performance of the Belgium Army under the inspired leadership of their charismatic King Albert, is generally overlooked in histories of the 1st World War. At the outset of war, their army, which had been discounted by the German High Command as “chocolate soldiers”, fought with an unexpected determination which slowed the German advance through Belgium.

 

However, after the final collapse of the Liege forts, King Albert withdrew his troops towards Antwerp and thence westwards past Ostende to Nieuport where at the end of Oct 1914 the tidal lock gates of the Yser were opened to enable the flooding of a wide area of the Yser plain down toward Dixemude. The resultant inundation halted the German advance and created a unique landscape.

 

“Water is everywhere: in the air: on the ground, under the ground. It is the land of dampness, the kingdom of water. It rains three days out of four. The north-west winds ... carry heavy clouds of cold rain formed in the open sea. As soon as the rain ceases to fall, thick white mists rise from the ground giving a ghost-like appearance to men and things alike” is how it was described by a French marine, Charles le Goffic.

 

belgium

 

Above: Little has changed in the past 100 years in this little known part of the Western Front but to the discerning visitor there are numerous reminders of the past and thick white mists still cling to these largely forgotten fields of battle.

Chapelle du Pere Doncoeur

One of the myths of WW1 is that generals cowered in luxurious chateaux, keeping themselves out of danger miles behind the lines.
This memorial, in the same cavern as the Chapelle du Pere Doncoeur shown in the previous posting, gives the lie to this oft quoted fallacy.

 

It is a memorial to General de Villaret and General Manoury, GOC 6th Army, who were both severely wounded near here by the same bullet which cost Manoury his sight. The British had already lost one General killed and another seriously wounded by a shell at a critical juncture in the fighting at Ypres in October 1914 and at Loos in Sept 1915 they were to lose 3 generals killed whilst commanding in the front line so the realisation dawned that losing generals was not the way to effectively control an army in modern warfare.

 

Quite simply, in the war of 14-18, the British lost 97 generals who either died or were killed and another 146 were wounded or taken prisoner. In total 13% of generals died against 11.5% of private soldiers. The reason for their presence in chateaux was simply that as soon as a general walked away from the telephone on his desk, he could no longer be contacted with information or a request for orders.

 

The only effective way a general could exercise control was by communication and during the 1st World War, that meant the telephone.

So whilst the two generals commemorated here are the consequence of what must surely have been militarily one of the most effective bullets ever fired, far more importantly the memorial serves to refute the commonly held opinion that generals were callous cowards.

Chappelle Doncoeur

 

HIDDEN PLACES OF THE WESTERN FRONT - The Chapel of Pere Doncoeur

Carved by the Poilus (French Infantry) into the rock of a subterranean limestone quarry, or "creute", near Soissons, this chapel is surely one of the most extraordinary reminders of the conflict. Named after the heroic Chaplain of the 35th RI it is in a series of "creutes" which served as a refuge for the French as they clung to a hilltop position overlooking the Aisne.

Today, the colours of the painted altar are muted and the stair-case by which the men ascended to reach the front line overhead is blocked but the presence of the men of 14-18 abounds in this hallowed place. Richard Holmes told me that “when I stand there I am always deafened by the silent sound of the soldiers singing the Marseillaise”.

 

Soissons Chapel

 

Recently I was given this extraordinary description of Christmas Mass 1915 written by an anonymous soldier,

"... a sergeant in my company, Theo Potel, is an amateur painter and at the end of the cave we have made, in a big oval niche, a cross with Christ around which he has painted the light of the rising sun in a superb red. The inspiration which inspired our friend is superb: Christ wishes to be able to descend from the cross, neither his hands nor his feet are nailed. He is simply lifted into the air above us and is an allusion to God being delivered from the cross just as we French will soon rid us of these barbaric Germans.

On the two sides of the chapel Potel has painted flowers for us which has a beautiful effect. ... for light there are two small candlesticks each with four candles on the altar: two other big ones with six candles stand on either side of the altar. For decoration on either side there are two splendid fir trees.

 

...on the altar four vases holding Christmas roses which we found in the garden near the cave: two of the vases are German shell-cases, the other two jam-jars. The little things placed on the altar by our priest create a splendid effect. Now comes the hour. The lights are glowing and the singers are near the altar ... our verger is a superb territorial called Furnon whose beard is at least 30 cms long is carrying a superb looking halberd made from the handle of a pitch fork, a German bayonet and a curved bill-hook. A huge crowd of men take their place in the corridor. Everyone gathers their thoughts and the mass begins. The moment of the elevation comes: the piquet are carrying arms as the bugles have just sounded the call to arms. ... and then to finish the Mass we sing three verses of the Marseillaise.

 

At that moment, it was so beautiful it brought tears to one’s eyes ..."

As always, Richard was right.

Cantigny - Montdidier, France

The village of Cantigny near Montdidier is where the American Army “doughboys” really entered the First World War and began the process whereby the USA would become the dominant power of the 20th century.

 

It was in the battles of the First World War that many of the men who were to lead the USA through the 20th century came of age.
The attack on Cantigny was planned by the young Lt.Col. George C Marshall who would become both Chief of Staff of the United States Army and U S Secretary of State in which office his “Marshall Plan” would enable the economic recovery of Western Europe after WWII.

It would also earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953: for many people it must seem an oddity that a soldier should win a “peace” prize but the simple fact is that soldiers are those with the greatest understanding of the real cost of war. 'Killers' they may be, but they are the ones who have the most to gain from the coming of peace and the return to their loved ones.

 

In WW1 terms Cantigny was not a huge battle - the capture of the village cost them just 100 casualties although they lost more men during subsequent counter-attacks - but it gave the Americans battle experience.

Above: The real significance of Cantigny was that it heralded the American challenge both to the German army and the European domination of the world for in this little French village is where the awakening American giant first flexed its muscle in the 20th century.

German graves in the forest of Tete des Faux in Alsace

These graves suggest to me that we need to accept that the “enemy” is not de facto a bad or evil man. Rather he is a young man ordered into battle in the name of duty and honour. It may be that, once the fighting started he enjoyed the camaraderie of war but the simple fact is that wars are generally started by just a few men of power who are then on-lookers to the mayhem they have caused.

 

Kipling, the poet of the British Empire wrote an epitaph for his son Jack which I think must surely be one of the most poignant and honest apologies that any public person has ever made:

“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied”.

 

The young German soldiers who were buried in this Vosgienne forest were simply young men doing their duty as ordered, fighting for their homeland. Whether dressed in “feld-grau” or khaki, they were just young men who happened to be soldiers doing their duty and obeying orders.

 

So, a century later, let us just honour them as men who died doing their duty. They only fought because the politicians - their “fathers” - told them so to do. The war has become history and let us just leave it at that.

 

Alsace

 

 

 

THE BLACK MAN’S BURDEN - The White Man's 'palaver'

In all the debate about the effect of the Great War upon participant nations it is a shameful fact that little attention is ever given to the effect of the war in the African colonies upon the native population.

 

In all truth, there are no accurate figures but even taking the lowest estimates the overall picture is truly horrendous and even allowing for the exigencies of war, is a shameful reflection upon all involved.

 

All the armies needed huge numbers of carriers to carry their essential supplies. Thus whilst the British army put over 120,000 men into the field of whom 11,189 died, they needed over 1m. carriers of whom 95,000 died.

 

In the Kikuyu province of Kenya with a total population of 700,000 in 1914, 45,000 were recruited as carriers of whom over 9,000 died. The huge losses of men meant that the production of food was severely lessened so when the global influenza epidemic reached the region in October of 1918 over 70,000 people died within months and overall it is suggested that 1.5m people died in sub-Saharan Africa. Famine took its toll and it is suggested that in Ruanda, Urundi & German East Africa over 300,000 died.

 

I would suggest that in the coming years we would do well to reflect upon these massive losses of innocent people, who were coerced into a war which had neither relevance nor meaning to them, before we start our somewhat self-indulgent consideration of our own casualties.

 

True, every man that died was one man too many but the fact is that today in all our obsession with the “Western Front” we totally neglect any consideration as to the impact of the First World War upon the native peoples of Africa . And that is shameful.

 

Africa

Above: The railway from Taveta to Voi which was built in 1915 to supply the British army.

 

St Quentin Canal and the Riqueval Bridge

Bridges were always of great strategic importance as they crossed rivers and canals which formed natural lines of defence. One of the strongest defence lines during the war, the St Quentin Canal and in particular, the Riqueval Bridge North of Bellinglise were of great importance.

 

It was captured on 29th September 1918 by a small group of men from the 1/6th Batt North Staffordshire Regiment under the command of Capt A H Charlton who charged out the mists of early morning and surprised the German Pioneers who were supposed to destroy the bridge in the event of an attack. Charlton managed to cut the detonating wires and for his actions on the day he was awarded the DSO.

 

St_Quentin_Canal

Above: The Riqueval Bridge North of Bellinglise - France

 

Verdun - Even after one hundred years, the region has a somewhat grim and sombre aspect and this chaotic landscape at Thiaumont shows the true nature of the battlefield.

The all powerful artillery has simply obliterated the trenches leaving nothing but holes punched into the ground so that as French veteran Lt Raymond Jubert wrote in his book “Verdun 1916”

"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"

 

In recent years Verdun has become a symbol of reconciliation between Germany and France - a fitting recognition that during the 10 month battle the opposing sides suffered over 700,000 casualties in total. This was indeed a “war within a war”

Verdun

Above: Verdun, with its battered forts and pockmarked landscape, epitomises the reality of the First World War for the French nation.

 

Lochnagar

Created by British tunnellers who dug a 600m tunnel to reach a point under the German lines where they then placed 50,000lb of high explosive which was detonated at 0728 on the 1st July 1916, creating a hole over 90m wide and 30m deep.

An RFC pilot, Cecil Lewis was in the air at the instant of detonation and wrote:

“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”.

 

Today the eye is still open to the skies, an open grave for both British and German soldiers who died in combat here.

 

I would like to think that Lewis was smiling upon me on the day I took this photograph as I was using a micro-light which cannot really have been much different from the wire and canvas aircraft that he was flying in all those years ago.

 

Lochnagar_Crater

 

Above: Lochnagar Crater is one of the iconic remnants of the Somme battlefield and just as in the war, one can really only appreciate its true scale from the air.

 

 

During the Great War aerial photography was an essential tool for all armies in discovering the details of the defensive systems of their opponents. Aerial photography provided essential intelligence and the flights to collect this vital information became a prime target for early aerial combat with one side seeking to protect their slow moving "scout" planes whilst the other side sought to shoot them, and their photographic evidence, out of the skies thus giving rise to 'dog-fighting' between opposing fighter aircraft.


100 years later, every detail of the battlefield of Beaumont Hamel, the trenches and shell-holes are still revealed to the "eye in the sky" just showing how naked and exposed the infantry would have felt.

 

beaumont_hamel

 

Above: Newfoundland Park, Beaumont Hamel, France.

 

 

Above: Looking east & north along the railway line towards the Nova Scotian memorial east of Zonnebeke - Passchendaele road.

 

Vosges_today

 

Above: Vosges now.

Mittel Rehfelsen is a rocky outcrop on the southern slopes of Hartmannswillerkopf which was tunneled and fortified by German troops. Hartmannswillerkopf was also known to the French as “Le Vieil Armand” a 900m hill rocky spur with extensive views over the Rhine plain North of Mulhouse. Of obvious strategic significance, it was heavily fought over for much of the war and has some of the most extensive German fortifications of any region of the Western Front.

 

Below: Vosges then.

German troops pictured in Vosges in deep snow.

 

vosges

 

 

Above: Messines Ridge

The Messines ridge, south of Ypres, had been held by the Germans since 1914 but at 0310 on the morning of June 7th 1917 the British exploded 19 mines packed with a total of 450 tons of High Explosive 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.

“great leaping streams of orange flame shot upwards, each a huge volcano...along the front of attack followed by terrific explosions and dense masses of smoke and dust which stood like pillars towering into the sky, all illuminated by the fires below”.

 

 

 

Above: Passchendaele

The annual "iron harvest" bears witness to the fury of the artillery assault during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as 'Passchendaele' in 1917.