The first day of the battle of the Somme (1 July 1916) was the costliest in British military history. To commemorate the centenary of this tragic battle, writer and photographer, Jolyon Fenwick has created a series of photographic panoramas taken at the exact position (and time of year and day) from which 14 battalions attacked in the first wave at 7.30am BST (ZERO HOUR) that fateful morning.
Annotated by hand in the manner of the battle eld panoramas of the time with the points of tactical significance as they existed immediately before the battle, they powerfully juxtapose the hellish reality of the nation’s bloodiest battle with the pastoral peace of these ‘forever English’ fields today.’
ArtAttack had the pleasure to speak with Jolyon about his upcoming exhibition.
When did you first have the desire to undertake a project on the Somme?
When I was little, I deduced (I was never instructed quite) from my quite old father – someone of great religious conviction – that there were certain things that were sort of unutterably sacred. One of these was the sacrifice of the two world wars. But while the second war carried with it in part a wholly approved of aspect of action adventure (Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed etc were a family staple), the ‘Great War’ remained almost taboo (The Western Front doesn’t freely lend itself to an Alistair Maclean treatment after all). I remember one occasion particularly when (always keen to impress my father – a great reader of history), as an ingénue seven year old, I proudly showed him a (as it happens rather rare) graphic description in a book I had found of a Great War soldier’s death. ‘Old forgotten far off things,’ was his chastening reply through his pipe smoke. I didn’t know at the time he was quoting Wordsworth but I did realize, I think, that human suffering was not for the delectation of small boys. I remember the doom-laden resonance of the words ‘the Somme’ being holiest of all. It has since always had a great significance for me.
It’s hard to imagine that this landscape of quiet woodland and rolling farmland was once the setting of such human suffering – how does your work juxtapose these two aspects?
The origin of the ZERO HOUR PANORAMAS lay with my discovery some years ago of the battlefield panoramas created for strategic purposes by the military of the time. Annotated by hand with the landmarks of the German positions (invariably christened by the British soldiers themselves), they were used to give officers a panoramic field of view of the battlefield from the safety of their dugouts. The finished panorama included the location of the photographer, the date, the total field of view in degrees, the direction the camera was facing and a scale of degrees to inches. They were also, like almost all practical documents of the time, very handsome.
My discovery gave me the idea of borrowing their approach as a device to juxtapose the benevolent-looking now with the doom-laden then – by overlaying the authentic official military stamps and annotations (exactly – and as accurately – as they might have been set out by the Royal Engineers of the eve of the battle) on a present day panorama. Where now are rich fields of corn we therefore can see were once German trenches. Where now stretch the wire fences of a French smallholder’s enclosure once stretched the barbed wire of the German front line. Where now are grazing cows were once German machine gun positions – the same machine guns responsible for so many of the crosses and graves that appear in the photographs. Overlaying the annotations also allowed the explanation of the picture to be part of the picture. If you look at each picture closely enough, it reveals (as well as authentic, technical information) when it was taken, where it was taken from and therefore why it was taken.
There was a pathos too, it occurred to me, in that the ordinary soldiers, whom for so many the view displayed in the panoramas was their last sight on earth, would have had no access to the information revealed by the military panoramas of the time. What we ourselves can see now in the panoramas, they were ignorant of. There is also something affecting in the names that we can see the ordinary British soldiers gave their own and the enemy positions: Gin Alley, Sausage and Mash Valley, Whiskey and Soda Trench etc – in front of Hawthorn Ridge, we see that one battalion (that would lose 90% of its number that morning) advanced from a trench they had christened Happy Valley.
Looked at from the other perspective, it could be said that the panoramas tell an optimistic and redemptive story. The horrors of war have been replaced by the healing powers of nature. The soldiers who inhabited the world of the annotations (many of whom thought quite literally that the war would never end) might be consoled to see that the world has moved on and that their sacrifice is still honoured, that wooden benches for tourists now stand on the site of the great mine craters and that the only killing is dispensed by insectide from the back of a farmer’s tractor.
How did you choose the points from which the photographs were taken?
The creation of the panoramas took two years of development and research and over a dozen trips to the battlefield. Using both the original military maps of the time and the first-hand testimony of soldiers who were there – together with the incredibly generous help of experts in the German defences – I tried to make the substance of the annotations (the positions, distances and military map references) as accurate as possible. The greatest challenge was choosing the points from which the photographs were taken – points that were at once strictly faithful to history, that would allow the best composition for the photographs and that would tell a comprehensive story of the battle. I got to know the 15-mile battlefront pretty well, taking experimental panoramas from over 150 locations before choosing 14 that worked against the above criteria.
This project has clearly taken years of research, what part of this process did you most enjoy?
I have to say all of it. The one great piece of luck that I would wish for any children of my own is that they find themselves utterly rapt by a process of personally making something.
– Harry Dougall
‘The Zero Hour Panoramas’ will be on view from 1-15 July 2016 at Sladmore Contemporary, Private View 30 June at 6:30PM; 32 Bruton Place, Mayfair, London W1J 6NW; Open Monday – Thursday 10am-6pm, Friday 10am-5pm, Weekends and evenings by Appointment; Admission: FREE