As the years draw on, the events of the First World War slowly fade from living memory. Scattered across the globe, the battlefields – once witness to the carnage of industrialised slaughter – today rest in relative peace.
We are now well into the centenary of the ‘war to end all wars’, and programmes of commemoration have been rich and varied. But photojournalist Mike St Maur Sheil thinks that, a hundred years on, the way Britain publicly remembers the war ought to change.
‘We have got to start looking at the First World War in a different manner,’ he says, as we sip tea under the awnings of a chic French café in leafy Chiswick. ‘At the moment, it’s all about commemoration, and “our lads” going off to fight.’
At 03:10 on 7 June 1917, the British detonated 19 mines at Messines Ridge. Buried beneath German trenches, the 450 tons of explosives resulted in the largest man-made explosion prior to the Nuclear Age. Photo: Mike St Maur Shiel
But today, if you observe the lands in which countless young men were sent to their deaths, you witness ‘places of great beauty’, where the enduring message imprinted on the now tranquil landscapes is one of ‘reconciliation’.
It is this message that Sheil attempts to capture in his magnificent, haunting photographic work, Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: 1914-1918. Touring erstwhile theatres of war across the globe in a project ten years in the making, Sheil’s photographs reveal a series of wistful landscapes, deeply scarred by the trauma of war, but now retaken by nature’s graceful silence.
Sheil started his career as a photojournalist documenting Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the 1970s. Prior to that he had been a geography student at Oxford University, where he began experimenting with photography, shooting in black and white with his first camera, a Nikon F.
Jerusalem. The memorial in the foreground is to the Egyptian Labour Corps, who worked on the construction of railways and roads, and the supply of provisions in support of the British campaign in Syria and Palestine. The corps numbered 55,000 in 1917. Photo: Mike St Maur Shiel
It was when he met renowned battlefield historian Richard Holmes that his interest in military history really took off, turning the focus of his work to First World War landscapes. Sheil would arrive at his chosen historic sites at the crack of dawn, as it was in this light that soldiers from both sides of the conflict would stand to, alert for the signs of an attack.
According to Sheil, the secret to the perfect shot is getting your hands dirty. ‘We look at the First World War from the wrong point of view: standing up,’ he explains. ‘Most of my shots are taken no more than 15 inches from the ground.’
Sheil’s photos cover the whole gamut of the First World War’s many combat zones, from the muddy, waterlogged fields of Flanders and Ypres to the icy, mountainous terrain of the German borderlands, then away to the Dolomites, the dusty plains of Kenya and the Transvaal, and the dry desert around Jerusalem.
London Irish football, Loos. This ‘bullet-riddled, limp lump of pliable leather, the football which the boys had kicked across the field’, is the Loos Football. The soldiers of the London Irish Rifles chased after it as they attacked enemy trenches on 25 September 1915. Here it is seen on its return to the field below the coal heaps of Loos-en-Gohelle, where that ‘game’ was played over a hundred years ago. Photo: Mike St Maur Shiel
Although these stunning shots have been published in his latest book, Sheil’s main purpose is to bring the work out onto the streets. Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace has occupied a variety of outdoor public exhibition spaces, with the aim of drawing in onlookers who know nothing about the subject.
Sheil is now raising funds for his next project, through which, in conjunction with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, he hopes to showcase work from more than 50 countries with quotes from each participant nation of WWI about the meaning of war, peace, and reconciliation.
For more information about Sheil’s work, visit www.fieldsofbattle 1418.org. His book, Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: 1914-1918 (2016), is available to purchase online.