Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
Lantern Slide: The Western Front

Lantern slide. A view of a battlefield on the western front
© National Museums Northern Ireland

ENQUIRIES: 

  • From the evidence of the images here, as well as other pictures you have seen, what did the landscape on the Western Front look like? Why? What health hazards were there?

  • Why were trenches built? What were conditions in the trenches like? Were all trenches the same?

  • Why might the picture in this lantern slide have been taken? Who might have seen it?

What were conditions like on the Western Front?

This stark image encapsulates the destructive force of modern warfare. High explosives, heavy artillery and tanks have created an unrecognisable and desolate landscape, lacking trees or grass, littered with debris and human corpses.

Glass lantern slides such as this were frequently shown as projected images, accompanying lectures and public talks. Along with the government newsreels and exhibitions of the time, they played an important role in informing people about the reality of the war.

After a large battle, as we can see here, bodies might lie for some time – decomposing, gnawed by rats and finally sinking into the mud, only to be uncovered in the next round of fighting. Fields and woodlands were turned into flooded waste-lands, pocked with craters so deep that wounded soldiers and horses could easily drown.

At Passchendaele in 1917 – known as the 'Battle of Mud' – fighting was brought to a halt by the thick clay soil, compounded by heavy rains and the shelling of the local drainage system.

Modern weapons made unprotected fighting in the open impossible. One machine gun firing up to 500 bullets a minute could kill hundreds of soldiers. In order to survive, the armies dug a line of deep trenches stretching from the Channel to Switzerland.

From 1914-18, millions of men were stuck in these trenches, unable to break through the enemy's defences. In some places, only a few metres separated the two front lines. 

The trenches brought diseases, many of which were carried by rats attracted by the poor sanitation and stinking, rotting bodies. Permanently soaked feet caused a painful condition called  'trench foot', or 'foot rot'; left untreated, it could lead to gangrene and amputation.

Soldiers ate and slept in crowded shelters called 'dug outs'. They lived on army rations of tinned beef, biscuits, bread and jam for days on end.

Whilst thousands of lives could be lost in a single day of fighting (as happened on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme), most battalions rarely spent more than five days a month in the line of fire.  The most usual experience of trench warfare was of long periods of boredom, inactivity, and uneventful military routines.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Find out about the trench system and how it helped soldiers survive: 

How much time did soldiers spend in the trenches? What did they do when they were not fighting?

Listen to these soldiers describing their personal experiences of trench life.

BBC: Soldier’s Stories

  • Remains of soldiers continue to be discovered on the Western Front battlefields, and some are identified.  Carry out your own research online and find out how 100-year-old bodies are identified.

BBC: First World War Soldiers Named via DNA

  • Look at paintings of the Western Front by official war artists, including:

Zonnebeke by William Orpen (Tate T07694)

Menin Road by Paul Nash  (Art.IWM ART 2242)

After a Push by Christopher Nevinson (Art.IWM ART 519)

How have these artists expressed the destructive force of war on the landscape?  

How has the landscape of the Western Front been represented in poetry?

First World War Poetry Archive

Look at, for instance, 'The General' by Siegfried Sassoon; 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

Filter objectsSelected tag:All objects (11)

Tank in Palestine

A sepia photo entitled 'A burnt-out tank on Outpost Hill before the Gaza stunt' in Palestine in 1917. 1st/4th…

Charge of the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood, 11 July 1916

About 4,000 men from the Welsh Division were killed or wounded in this attack during the first Battle of the…

Trench weapons, used by British soldiers on Western Front

These trench weapons were bought or made by individual British soldiers for use on the Western Front during…

Ration Biscuit

Huntley and Palmer army biscuit inscribed with First World War details. Soldiers often made biscuits like…

Letter written by 2nd Lieutenant Sidney Snowdon

Letter written by 2nd Lieutenant Sidney Snowdon on  1 July 1916, to his friends, 'The Merrymeeters', in…

William Orpen

by Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen
oil on canvas, circa 1910
NPG 5982…

Paul Nash

by Bassano Ltd
whole-plate glass negative, 29 April 1918
NPG x19065…

Christopher Nevinson

by Barney Seale
bronze bust, 1930
NPG 5914…

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon

by Lady Ottoline Morrell
vintage snapshot print, 1926
NPG Ax142432…

Wilfred Owen

by John Gunston
bromide print, 1916
NPG P515…