A World War I Soldier’s Photo Album – Gas, Guts and Eternal Glory?

Grandpa collected a series of 350 or so photos, reprints and postcards from World War I when he was an American soldier. For some reason he wanted to save all the pictures and they fill almost two albums. Maybe it was knowing that one day someone like me would look at the pictures and reflect on the true nature of war. Who knows. But whatever his reasons I’m glad he saved them. The effect of looking at the albums is sobering.

Not much glory there in Grandpa’s photo. He looked like he could have been any young kid from any state. Or any country for that matter. It was his soldier’s photo album and World War I was the event of his life. It was like that for many that survived.

The war ended in 1918 and grandpa died in 1960. Almost everyone that fought in that great war is now dead. That much I do know. The first album is full of soldier buddy shots and shots from towns and cities in Europe, mostly France. The pictures also include numerous shots of the battlefields at Rheims and Belleau Wood, two of the war’s bloodiest battle sites.

The second album is almost entirely battlefield scenes.

It was a war not fought in the air or sea but on land and in the trenches. Funny how ‘in the trenches’ is still with us today. World War I will be remembered as the last trench warfare or the last war where one could literally see the whites of the enemy’s eyes, though maybe a couple of hundred yards away. One side charged and would capture the other side’s trench. The other side would make a hasty retreat and leave everything behind, including their dead and wounded. After a while they would counterattack.Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

The casualty rate was off the charts. The battlefields were often littered with the dead as they did not have time to bury them. And it was not safe outside the trenches. There is a photo of a soldier in a trench behind barbed wire. The barbed wire was supposed to help stop the other side from charging right into your trench. He is barely visible behind the tangle of barbed wire.

The constant attacks, the poison gas, the bombardments; it all added up to a trip to hell. Not much to smile about. The face is not real clear behind the barbed wire but it’s apparent he is not smiling.

The Germans looked so much like us. How long does it take a corpse to become a bare skeleton? I imagine somewhere a German is looking at a similar album and remarking how they ‘look so much like us — how long does it take the meat on a head to rot and leave just a skull?’

In between the trenches was ‘no man’s land’ or the area that no one controlled. There are numerous photos of no man’s land and dead soldiers and mostly destroyed countryside. Aerial shots show it wasn’t just no man’s land that was leveled, much of the surrounding countryside in a battle was also destroyed.

It was standard military strategy to bombard a trench for days to loosen it up and demoralize the troops before charging. The intent was to destroy morale but it also destroyed most of the surrounding landscape. Charging was often done by letting out a yell, standing up and running straight for the enemy trenches, just like it had been done for centuries.

Horses were used to pull wagons and artillery. There is a photo of U.S. troops headed to battle pulling their artillery with horses. A lot of horses also died. One photo shows a dead horse that was blown up into a tree.

Supposedly WWI was the last war that poison gas was allowed. Oddly enough the countries that used mega bombs and gargantuan artillery felt gas was too deadly so it was outlawed by treaty. I’m not sure if technically it is more humane to kill by bullet or by gas. As a result only renegades like Saddam Hussein use poison gas.

The real problem was poison gas was heavier than air so it would sink into the trenches. If a gas canister filled your trench the best defense was to get out and of course right into the line of fire from enemy snipers. That was part of the idea; your choice, whiff of gas or a bullet through the head.

Potent gases like chlorine gas and mustard gas would either burn the lungs out or instantly destroy the central nervous system. One whiff and it was over.

After the war the world was mad so it made Germany pay war reparations and the German economy collapsed. In the early 1920’s inflation wiped out any hopes of an economic recovery and the conditions were set for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party to take their turn. And they did.

I felt a bit queasy after viewing all the photographed carnage especially knowing this wasn’t a Hollywood set. No Charlie Chaplin or Tom Mix in these pictures. Just the boys next door, ma’am. And the boys next door from another country, too. Of course WWI did not end all wars and there have been a number of bad ones since. Or rather it might be more correct to say that there have been no good wars since. Maybe.

It all depends on our perspectives and what we learned from Grandpa’s war.