Posted for Marjorie L. Haines, Spring Digital Library Intern, Villanova University:
Beatrice Mae Correia’s WWI scrapbook, now a feature of Villanova University’s Special Collections, displays graphic and often disturbing images from the Great War. Many war-themed scrapbooks tend to portray personal or familial involvement, such as the scrapbook of Einer Smestad, WWI US Infantryman, or Captain James Archbald’s scrapbook of the Mexican Revolution Border War. Correia’s collection, on the other hand, exhibits the gruesome death and destruction of WWI. A number of the photographs appear to be acquired from retail sources, as duplicates are found in other WWI special collections. Photography of war corpses developed into a popular practice, particularly during the American Civil War, and Correia represents the consumer market for this distinctive product.
Photos of war corpses wash away the clean, sanitary picture of war and bring to light the ghastly consequences. Yet today’s surplus publication of gore and death, as seen in movies, YouTube, and other media sources, seems to dampen the sobering effect. Reality and imagination tend to merge, predominantly with the former morphing into the latter. The people viewed in this scrapbook existed. They were someone’s child, sibling, parent, friend, and confidant. They had dreams and aspirations. Where would you draw the line of respect and remembrance in regards to these immortalizations of others’ suffering and death?
“Deadman’s hill. Verdun 1916.”
The first page of Correia’s scrapbook contains an image of Deadman’s Hill commonly found on the face of postcards. This photo depicts dead Germans at Morte-Homme – Deadman’s Hill – in France after the Battle of Verdun. In 1916 the Germans sacrificed a significant amount of men and arms in an attack that was intended to acquire a swift and decisive victory; this anticipated success was to come at a time when Germany needed to reaffirm her superiority in the face of internal dissention and external skepticism. The resulting German ‘defeat’ led to Verdun’s nickname as “The Slaughter-House of Germany.” (The Battle of Verdun (1914-1918), p. 29, 1919, Michelin & Cie: Clermont-Ferrand, France) The photo acutely conveys the horror of the aftermath, notably with a bare leg bone protruding from a disfigured boot in a fashion worthy of Hollywood carnage scenes.
“Refugees Fleeing Before German Adfance Near Chateau Thirry”
It is estimated that WWI generated a minimum of 10 million refugees, almost a fifth of which were internally displaced French persons. (Refugees, 2014, Gatrell, Peter, International Encyclopedia of the First World War) Imagine your own life as a WWI refugee. Fleeing meant leaving your home with the understanding that it will likely be uninhabitable when – if – you return. You could only take what you could carry. You would lose contact with almost everyone you know. Your livelihood would depend on the goodwill of strangers, who may eventually tire of the influx of refugees. You may try to stay near your home, hoping to return soon, only to be pushed farther and farther away along with additional refugees.
“Mine Explosion. Chevoncourt.”
This image, on record in two other locations (WorldWar, Durham Museum), likely shows the German mine explosion in French-occupied Chauvoncourt, France on November 18, 1914. (The New York Times Current History: The European War, Volume 2, p. 1011, 1917, New York Times Company) Where would you prefer to be in the Great War: on the surface with poisonous gas, bullets, and explosives, or below the ground with poisonous gas, potential tunnel collapse, and explosives?
“After the Marne fighting 1914. 1916.”
Countless skulls, long bones, and ribs, all piled together in an indistinguishable mix. Is it easier to objectify these corpses, as they no longer resemble a single, complete human form, with no human identifiers such as clothing? Does it matter if these are allies or enemy? This grisly pile of human bones represents only a sampling of the death accumulated, on both sides, during the Great War.