Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

War and peace

War and peace

The battlefields of the first world war have long since turned into centres of remembrance. In this photo essay, Brian Harris captures their stillness and symbolism

The battlefields of the first world war have long since turned into centres of remembrance. In this photo essay, Brian Harris captures their stillness and symbolism

July/August 2014

One evening last March, Brian Harris stopped his car at the side of the road near Douaumont in north-eastern France and walked into the forest. After about 50 yards he came to a trench winding its way through the trees. He’d been there earlier in the day, but the light had been too sharp, the shadows cast by the trees too deep, and children from a school party had been running up and down the trench, their picnic laid out nearby. But now the light was softer, and the woods were gloomy and quiet. “I wanted to photograph the darkness where that trench went,” he says. “I knew that if you dug down into that ground you would find bits of body. In that forest there are the remains of men. Those roots are feeding off men.” 

He was standing on the Verdun battlefield, one of the bloodiest of the first world war, which began 100 years ago this July. During ten months of fighting in 1916, up to 976,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded at Verdun. Many of the dead were never found. “To stand in a wood and listen to the quiet,” Harris says, “and realise that 100 years ago, where you’re standing, was carnage – that’s chilling.” The trench he photographed led from Belleville to the front line and the fort at Douaumont. “It was a pathway to death.” His image – haunted, sombre, terrifyingly tranquil – is his elegy.

Although most of the pictures here were taken last winter, they are the result of a 45-year fascination. In 1969, when he was 16 and living in Romford in Essex, Harris went on a school trip to Belgium. “We stayed in Blankenberge, played on the beach, got drunk on Stella Artois. And we went to Tyne Cot cemetery on the battlefields of Passchendaele. None of us had a clue. I was utterly taken by what I saw. I just couldn’t believe that each headstone represented a life.”

Two weeks later, he joined a Fleet Street picture agency as a messenger boy. He went on to become a photographer at the Times and then the chief photographer at the Independent in its early days, when it was bringing a new elegance and soulfulness to newspaper pictures. As well as covering famines, presidential campaigns and the fall of the Berlin Wall – a subject he returned to for Intelligent Life in 2009 – Harris’s interest in the war kept taking him back to those battlefields and cemeteries. “I did little stories about the re-carving of headstones, or the burial of bodies.” In 2007 he collaborated with the writer Julie Summers on a book called “Remembered”, a photographic history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “I see myself as a historian with a camera,” he says.  

The photographs here are the culmination of this work, and his most personal yet. He chose to travel in February and March, when the forests and fields would be free of undergrowth and crops, the trenches and shell-craters well defined, and the light muted. His picture of a line of trees stretching to the horizon on the Somme would have been impossible to take in the summer, when the trees coalesce in a mass of cheerful greenery. And the form of the photograph – the trees as a bare column heading to the ridge, a dark contrast against the sky – is integral to its power. “As soon as I saw the trees I said, ‘Soldiers going into battle, look at them’. The line of trees follows the route of the advancing British troops. That horizon is the German defence line. Men died in that field, attacking that ridge.”

The placid surfaces of these photographs tremble with this mixture of stark fact and strong feeling. Harris knew the history of his locations, and would then sink into their atmospheres. “I have to honour those who fought and died with my time,” he says. “Sometimes I would walk for an hour in a wood or field before taking a photograph.” His knowledge carried him beyond the obvious. Behind him on the Somme was the stately red-brick memorial at Thiepval, but it was the trees that shook him, none of them more than 95 years old. At the Lochnagar crater at La Boiselle – one of the largest on the Western Front – he was walking the rim when he saw a wreath hanging from a fragile branch, intimate and easily missed. “The crown of thorns. That’s what I felt when I took that picture.”

Looking at his images now, Harris thinks of a painting, “Menin Gate at Midnight” (1927) by William Longstaff. It shows ghosts rising from the ground on the plains outside Ypres. “I think you could superimpose those ghosts onto my pictures. I was photographing a ghost story.” ~ SIMON WILLIS

LA BOISELLE, FRANCE
The wreath that brought the crown of thorns to mind. It overlooks the Lochnagar crater, left by a mine detonated on the first day of the Somme

PENNSYLVANIA STATE MEMORIAL, VARENNES-EN-ARGONNE, FRANCE
A memorial to the offensive in the Argonne forest in September 1918, then the largest battle in American history, involving 1.2m soldiers. “I was wondering how I could make my image more than just a picture of a monument,” Harris says, “and then these two kids started playing tag. I thought that in a few years’ time they’ll be the same age as most of the men the monument commemorates

VERDUN, FRANCE
This fortified trench allowed supplies and troops to be sent to the French front line and the dead and wounded to be taken away. It is known as the London Trench. The metal uprights supported a concrete roof. “What attracted me was the stark trench,” Harris says, “and then the root structure, which is very Tolkienesque. None of the trees would have been there then. Maybe there’s something about those trees – growing out of death, growing towards life”

THE SOMME, FRANCE
The trees that reminded Harris of soldiers going into battle. “I’ve seen those trees in summer, when they’re full of leaf, and the form just isn’t there. They follow the route of a natural drainage ditch, which would have been the easiest way up that hill”

YPRES, BELGIUM
The concrete pillbox behind the second post was part of a chain of defences around the Ypres salient, built by the Germans in 1915-16. In the background is the church at Bikschote and the re-built Bikschote windmill. The path and posts mark the original track to the pillbox

MENIN GATE, YPRES, BELGIUM
In 2002 Harris was asked to photograph the anniversary of the gate by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He took this picture for himself. “I was drawn by the smallness of the people and the huge quantity of names. It shows our fragility.” The names belong to men whose bodies were never found

FORT DE VAUX, VERDUN, FRANCE
Fort de Vaux was built by the French after the Franco-Prussian war as a defence against the Germans. In the foreground is a fragment of one of the cast-iron cupolas which covered the gun emplacements, destroyed during the first world war. “The land is completely cratered. You can just imagine how big the explosion must have been”

SAINT-YVES, YPRES, BELGIUM
This field is the site of the Christmas truce in 1914, where soldiers played football in No-Man’s-Land. “I’d never seen the footballs before. They are laid almost as wreaths. As I stood there, I hoped that nobody kicked the footballs. I hope they stay exactly where they are, and the leather disintegrates and becomes part of the landscape”

HATTONCHATEL, FRANCE
This figure of a peasant woman, by the French sculptor Louis Ernest Nivet, was erected as a memorial to the dead of Hattonchâtel, a hilltop town largely destroyed during the war. “To me she represents the mourning of every wife, mother, sister or daughter – and, glowing in the evening sun, the triumph of light over dark”

YPRES, BELGIUM
A British bunker on an island near the road from Ypres to the Messines Ridge. “I had seen these bunkers before, but it was only when I was driving past and I saw something move in the doorway, and it was a donkey, that I wanted to photograph them. The visual allusion is to the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’” – soldiers and their generals

ARGONNE FOREST, FRANCE
A German trench line, where French and German troops fought during 1915 and 1916. “I was very unsettled in the Argonne forest,” Harris says. “It was almost as if it was still happening. I wanted to get out. This trench might not even exist in 50 years. The landscape might have taken it back”

AISNE-MARNE AMERICAN CEMETERY, BELLEAU, FRANCE
There are 2,289 graves here, at the foot of the hill where the battle of Belleau Wood was fought in June 1918. When Brian Harris was there, a new watering system was being installed, so the grass wouldn’t be parched for the centenary. He was struck by the effect. “It’s emotive. If you want the water to be rain, it’s rain. If you want it to be tears, it’s tears”

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.