The Faces of World War I

Max Arthur

Images of the War to End All Wars!
By Mike O'Connor

British military historian Max Arthur presents a largely visual guide to World War I in this hefty 2007 volume from England's Octopus Publishing. Arthur, author of various books on the Great War, selected over 240 photographs from the Imperial War Museum, Corbis, Getty Images and other collections to create this look back at that long-ago conflict.

FACES OF WORLD WAR I's photographic coverage begins with pre-war scenes of Edwardians and Germans at work and play. Innocent views of Etonian cricketeers give way to shots of British Army recruiters and German officers in their comic-opera Pickelhaube helmets. Franz Ferdinand's assassination provides the spark; loyal Brits are soon cheerfully marching off to war as are their German counterparts.

Arthur then devotes succeeding chapters to events in 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918, ending with a brief 'Aftermath' section. Herein are found many shots of troops on the move, preparing for battle, going over the top, wounded heading for rear-area hospitals, life in the trenches, etc.

Given the horror, slaughter and misery that characterized WWI trench warfare, FACES OF WORLD WAR I presents a surprisingly upbeat view of its subject matter. Yes, there are scenes of dead or wounded soldiers but there are an equal number of shots of Tommies hamming it up after a battle, indulging in a game of soccer, etc. This de-emphasis of the horror reflects Arthur's goal, as stated in his introduction, to capture "the enduring spirit of the solder and civilian...his humour, his ability to endure, his sense of defiance and his courage to withstand the often appalling conditions on the front line." While I understand Arthur's goal, I wonder if the historical record might have been better served by a few more photographs of, for example, the horrid living conditions the soldiers endured.

Leafing through FACES OF WORLD WAR I is, by turn, a horrifying, humorous, uplifting and sad experience. Arthur's book stands as a thoughtful tribute to all those forgotten warriors who struggled so mightily in the muck and mire almost a century ago. Highly recommended.