The Old Front Line

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In 1989 I was commissioned by the Mai de la Photo festival in Reims to photograph the traces of war in the Champagne region. Since my maternal grandfather had been mortally wounded in a September 1915 attack on the strongpoint of La Main-deMassiges, I went to see if anything was left of an offensive that had cost 250,000 lives. The landscape at first glance was devoid of any evidence of the then unprecedented three-day, nine-hundred-gun French bombardment. Tractors plowed the chalky fields, and the first spring buds were appearing. Local farmers, however, knew where to look, and they showed me around. In a week I had enough photographs for an exhibition at the Episcopal Palace, next to the thousand-year-old Reims Cathedral.

 
 
 

By that time friends were urging me to photograph other parts of the front. “What about Flanders, the Battle of the Somme? Have you been to Alsace? You should see the Chemin des Dames! Go and look at the soldiers’ carvings in Picardy.” Their suggestions pointed to one logical solution: Photograph all the remaining traces of war on the Western Front before they are gone. Already there were ominous signs: forests were being leveled; scavengers with metal detectors were digging up battlefield relics; bunkers were being bulldozed to make way for high-speed rail lines, highways, shopping malls, agribusiness, housing projects. Not to mention the fact that the surviving veterans were all past ninety years of age and fading away rapidly.

 

Beginning in 1990, my wife, Anna, and I began seriously discussing the possibility of the two of us attempting what we were already calling “The Western Front Project.” The advice from experts, historians, and specialists was fairly unanimous: “You can’t do it. It would take years, and besides, it’s all gone anyway” and “What about money?” Eventually Anna and I pooled what savings we had, and in 1991 I left for a fund-raising trip to Europe. There were vague promises, but nothing concrete. When I returned to New York, however, things began to look up. A generous donor offered a five-thousand-dollar seed grant, and we decided to head for France and Belgium immediately. We would cover as much ground as possible between September and Christmas, and if no further grants were forthcoming, we would return home and try again later. We rented a little red Renault, headed first for Belgium, and then sped across France.

 

At first we went about finding sites to photograph by trying to match old military maps to modern l:25,000-scale ones, but this system didn’t work: Most trenches had been filled in, and bunkers weren’t where we thought they should be, or had been destroyed long ago. Eventually we asked the local people to show us what was still visible in their community, took the photograph, and then matched the site to the old map—in effect, shooting first and asking questions later, the “questions” being the research that would have to be done to correlate the visual information to what had taken place there.

As we were driving and hiking about northern France, good news came: The University of London’s King’s College had agreed to act as a sponsor for the project, and the Leverhulme Trust grant we had applied for had been approved. I became a senior research fellow of King’s College with a research assistant to help identify the vestiges we found.

 

Anna and I returned to New York in January 1992 to print the several hundred negatives we had made in the first three months of the project. By the time we returned to Europe the following month, we had developed the system that we stuck with for the rest of the project. First we would write ahead of time to the mayors of the townships along the old front line, asking for their help in locating sites. In many cases people had been living for so long next to First World War vestiges that they had become blind to them and very often could not think of any when first asked. But a few days or weeks later they would remember, and we would always tell the villagers that we’d return in a few weeks, then continue back and forth on our itinerary from the North Sea to the Vosges. We did three such round trips along the front, totaling more than twenty thousand miles.

As we went along, we stayed in gîtes ruraux , usually older farmhouses that could be rented by the week. The furnishings were often primitive, but we could walk in with muddy boots and no one was there to object; we saved time and money by doing our own cooking; and, most important of all, we could develop our four-by-five negatives each night in the bathroom.

Several battlefield experts working alone or with associations were most generous in sharing information with us, and we met men of all ages, some in their twenties, who had spent months exploring, noting, and photographing the remnants in their regions. In some areas what they had done made unnecessary our doing it over again. In Aubers, for instance, where more than ninety-five German bunkers had been recorded by the local historical association, it did not make sense to do the job again, and we photographed only some of the most representative vestiges.