Monday, August 20, 2012

Photographs of the First World War

One of the varied and interesting collections in Israel's State Archives is the collection of the second president of Israel, Yizhak Ben-Zvi. Ben-Zvi was an avid researcher of the oriental Jewish communities, the Samaritans, the Karaites, the Druze and other related topics; his collection was originally housed in the Yad Yizhak Ben-Zvi institution, for the research and dissemination of knowledge relating to Jerusalem, the Land of Israel and the Jewish communities of the East.

Among the many documents and photos of the Ben-Zvi collection are a group of undated pictures of unknown origin file (פ 4122/16). They contain fascinating images from the First World War and from the Western Front. One can assume that they were given to the Yad Yizhak Ben-Zvi institution or to President Ben-Zvi himself, probably by a German Jew who took them while serving in the German Army during the war.

Three of the photos depict ruined French villages. Two of these are captioned "a village in the Vosges plain". The Vosges Mountains are in Lorraine and were the scene of limited but constant fighting during WWI. German soldiers can be seen standing among the remains of the destroyed houses. Another photograph is captioned 'Erain'. A search on Google Maps finds villages with similar names only in western France, so it is unclear if this is the real name of the village, the German version of the French name or if a village by this name was destroyed in the war and not rebuilt afterward. (Or perhaps Google Maps simply lacks the information.)

Two other photos in this set show a German command post, situated in a log cabin. One of them features a sign over the cabin with the words "Villa Barbara" – probably intended as a humorous reference. A German officer poses in the entrance of the cabin. Another photograph shows what appears to be the same officer viewing a map in the cabin itself. A caption on the photo says it was taken during the winter of 1915-1916.

Another photograph shows French trenches that were taken by the Germans in the Vosges plain. The trenches look hardly-used – no damage is apparent, nor any trash or debris; it is as if they were built for show or for the purposes of a demonstration of some sort.

The last photograph is the most interesting, in our opinion. It depicts a group of French prisoners taken by the Germans. The caption says that they were caught during the attack on 'Fresens'. Again, searching Google Maps, one finds several places in France that could fit the description. In one of these, situated in the Pas-De-Calais area, heavy fighting took place between the Germans and the French in 1915. Two other places with that name are situated in the vicinity of Nancy and Verdun, in the Meurthe-et-Moselle area – another front line zone, and geographically close to the contents of the other photographs.


The picture itself offers a few more clues as to its dating. The French soldiers are equipped with Adrian-style helmets and horizon-blue uniforms. These were introduced by the French Army in 1915, which had initially marched to war in August 1914 wearing blue and red uniforms (one reason for the dreadful casualties suffered by the French in the early months of the war, as noted in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August). Another clue to the date of the photograph is the fact that two of the French soldiers in the foreground are wearing sheepskin vests, introduced to the service in the winter of 1915. By contrast, the German soldiers in the background of the photograph are wearing Pickelhaube (a German spiked helmet, worn in the early years of the world war) and not the Stahlhelm - the famous and more advanced helmet, introduced only in 1916. The Germans also seem not to be equipped with winter gear of any sort. All these observations, and the fact that the trees in the background are bare, can give us a possible time frame for this most interesting photo – autumn of 1915.

Do you spot any other clues that might help with the identification and dating of these photographs? Leave them in the comments below, or send them to us at the address to your right.

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