Pictures Worth A Thousand Words
The First World War: A Photographic History and Perceptions of the Great War

Aaron J. Gulyas

*Webmaster's Note: Follow the hypertext links to the captions in the text to view the accompanying image.

Laurence Stallings introduced The First World War: A Photographic History as a even-handed, unbiased collection of photographs of the Great War. He notes that "a militarist will be disappointed in [the pictures] for there are not enough pictures of guns" and "a pacifist will not find enough horror, nor enough of cadavers."(2) In spite of Stallings's statement of neutrality, the general tone of the work is distinctly anti-war. In fact, Stallings's book not only exposed the senselessness of the war, it also critiques the values and world view that justified the United States' entry into the war and informed the Wilsonian vision of the post-war era.

Laurence Stallings was a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, literary critic, and journalist who was born in 1894 and died in early 1968. His most famous work at the time he edited A Photographic History was the play What Price Glory which, as one commentator put it, "Painted World War I as an inelegant brawl between two hard-bitten veterans-- Captain Flagg and Sergeant Quirt-- over a slut who might have been called Europe."(3) In 1917, he joined the Marines and was sent to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force. At the Battle of Belleau Wood he lost a leg by won the Croix de Guerre from the French government. During the Second World War he served (with an artificial leg) as a liaison officer between the Marine Corps and the Army Air Forces.(4)

The First World War: A Photographic History was a book meant not for the military historian or the scholar but for the general readership. Stallings's book is a large one, about twelve by fourteen inches and around three hundred pages long. Aside from Stallings's introduction and a foreword by the publisher the only text is in the captions accompanying the photographs, of which there are five hundred. The photographs are of various sizes with anywhere from one to four on a page. The pictures range from shots of city streets to shots of corpses. This was not a strictly American book. Stallings presented photographs of all nations and combatants.

While the anti-war message of Stallings's book was a substantial part of its content, the photographs were not exclusively of an anti-war flavor. Quite a few, such as "King and Country,"(5) are quite patriotic in nature, showing a large group of enthusiastic young recruits marching off to training. They are the sort of pictures that one would expect to find in a wartime propaganda work. It is the anti-war pictures and captions, however, that are most striking to the reader.

A prime example of this anti-war mindset is the set of four photographs captioned "This was a home," "This was a church," "This was a forest," and "This was a man."(6) By using the same stark simplicity for the images of material destruction as he does for the image of human loss, Stallings equates the worth of a human life with the man-made constructs. Despite the intrinsic value a human life has over a building, the destruction of the war touched them both equally. Stallings often used black humor to affect readers. One example of this is the photograph captioned, "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home"(7) a reference to the $10,000 insurance payment to the next of kin. Yet another is "Bystanders in East Prussia"(8) with its neatly arranged row of corpses.

This anti-war stance was clear to the book's reviewers in 1933. R. L. Duffus in his New York Times review of The First World War: A Photographic History said, "As one looks a these photographs one realizes that the strategy, diplomacy and final outcome were not mainly what mattered. What mattered was that human life in Europe was for four years reduced to the level here depicted."(9) Duffus argued that Stallings's work revealed that the destruction of the war was contrary to the aims of the "peace" for which those fighting the war claimed to be crusading. Likewise, Robert Cantwell in his review of the book said, "I imagine that there are now very few who would not agree with the general message conveyed by the photographs; few who would not agree that the World War created vastly more difficulties than it settled. That the years while it raged represented the lowest point in man's recorded history."(10) Cantwell's claim that the "World War created vastly more difficulties than it solved" was a message found throughout Stallings's work. Such a claim runs contrary to Wilson's and others' vision for a post-war peace.

Stallings, and all Americans in 1917, were given a different perspective on entering the Great War than were their European compatriots. A regional conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia eventually engaged all of Europe because of the complex system of alliances and treaties that existed. According to Paul Johnson, President Woodrow Wilson had idealistic reasons for entering the war: "Once in the war he waged it vigorously but he did not regard America as an ordinary combatant. It had entered the war, he said in his April 1917 message to congress, 'to vindicate the principles of peace and justice' and to set up 'a concert of peace and action as will henceforth ensure the observance of these principles.'"(11) This was not simply a war with the aim of capturing or liberating territory. This was, in Wilson's mind, a war to establish "peace and justice" and to make sure things stayed peaceful and just. The Great War was to be the war to end war and make the world safe for democracy. Wilson's vision for peace and justice was consistent with the values and principle associated with "Victorianism," including a strong nationalism, an optimistic sense of progress, and a trust in traditional belief systems such as Christianity.(12)

Several pictures and captions in Stallings's book criticize these Victorian values. "Divine Guidance"(13) and "Crucifix,"(14) for example, mock the Victorian's confidence in traditional religion. The juxtaposition of religious imagery and scenes of destruction bears witness to religion's inability to protect and save. There are a larger number of photographs that ridicule traditional nationalistic sensibilities. "Keep the home fires burning"(15) takes the lyrics of the popular morale boosting song and twists them into something horrible. "And three with a new song's measure can trample an empire down"(16) sarcastically targets the celebration of armed might and its quests for empire and glory. The two photos, "The Austrians keep a secret"(17) and "The British keep a secret"(18) suggest a moral parallel between the nations at war with each other.

Stallings criticism of Victorian and Wilsonian optimism and sense of progress is apparent throughout the work. It is, in fact, evident in the title of the book-- The First World War: A Photographic History. In 1933, there had only been one world war. Stallings, through his title, implied that there will be more world wars. In addition to its use in the title, the phrase "first world war" appears twice in the introduction. Also in that introduction he alludes to the next war not being so distant. In addressing Africa's absence from the book he says, "There should be more pictures of Africa? In the next war, experts assure us, there will be."(19) As a final nod to the coming conflict, the end of the book contains a photograph captioned, "1933"(20) showing Adolf Hitler and a crowd of attentive uniformed Germans. There is also a collage of newspaper clippings which contain such headlines as "Japan wreaks League efforts to conciliate Far East dispute" and "Europe swims in fascist tide, Mussolini says."(21) These illustrations indicated that the world envisaged by Wilson and others in 1918 had not materialized.

What was the end effect of this book? Its substance was certainly not in keeping with the vague promises of neutrality of the opening sentences. Neither, however, was it completely hopeless. At the end of his introduction. Mr. Stallings offered his one hope for the future. He spoke as a veteran of the terrible bloodshed, as a writer who dramatized it, and as a journalist who chronicled and shaped it for a generation of Americans. He said, "If this picture book survives, doubtless it will get in time another preface, and one which will make sense out of chaos. In the meantime, here is the camera record of chaos, with the reader annoyed by only the briefest captions."(22) Eighty years later, the effects of that chaos are still playing out. Despite Stallings hope that someday sense would come from the chaos, none has. With his book of pictures and his words to accompany them, Stallings showed the Great War in the context of the world it created: a world of fear and uncertainty. It is a world that exists today.

End Notes

1. This is a very different paper than the one I first submitted to the review-- actually, it's a very different paper than the one I worked on the night before publication. I really need to thank Dr. Frank Luttmer for his immense help with the structure and argument of this paper, Dr. Daniel Murphy for his help on modernism, Mike Poor for not losing his mind while trying to put together the HHR, Mark Plozay for forcing me to stop throwing around big, undefinable terms, and James Savage for his last minute photo scanning.

2. Laurence Stallings. The First World War: A Photographic History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1933) iii.

3. Anonymous. Obituary, New York Times, February 28, 1968.

4. Ibid.

5. Stallings, 85.

6. Ibid.147-148.

7. Ibid. 261.

8. Ibid. 58.

9. R. L. Duffus. "The Camera's Unsparing Chronicle of the World War." New York Times Book Review. July 30, 1993. 3.

10. Robert Cantwell. New Outlook. August 1933. 55.

11. Paul Johnson. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper and Row, 1983). 23.

12. For a more complete consideration of American Victorianism, see Daniel Joseph Singal, "Towards a Definition of American Modernism" in Modernist Culture in America, Daniel Joseph Singal, ed. (Belmont California: Belmont Publishing Company, 1991), 1.

13. Stallings, 53.

14. Ibid. 54.

15. Ibid. 58.

16. Ibid. 227.

17. Ibid. 90.

18. Ibid. 96.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid. 293.

21. Ibid. 298.

22. Ibid. iv.

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