Book Review: The Battlefields of the First World War: The Unseen Panoramas of the Western Front by Peter Barton

The Battlefields of the First World War: The Unseen Panoramas of the Western Front by Peter Barton is one of the most visually stunning books about WWI I have ever read.  This work is more than just a history of British participation on the Western Front.  It makes use of officially produced trench panoramas to illuminate conditions of trench warfare better than almost any other pictorial record of WWI I have run across.

The book itself is 358 pages in length with a bibliography, picture credits, list of further reading, and index.  In addition, and one of the things that makes this book outstanding it includes two CD-ROMs that contain digital versions of all of the panoramas discussed in the book.  All the panoramas used in the book and many additional ones are also available online at the Imperial War Museum First World War Panoramas Collection site.  The photos included with the book are more easily searchable than those from the internet but the internet site is more accessible to the average person.  The book is organized into eight geographically organized chapters that start at Ypres and work their way east to Cambrai, the furthest east extension of the British Sector of the front during the war.  There are over 200 panoramas discussed in the book and each is numbered and available on the CDs.

One of the most interesting things about the photos used in the book is the amazing difference between the photos seen here and the typical image people have of the conditions of trench warfare.  Most people, myself included prior to reading this, have an image of the Western Front fixed in their minds in which the battlefield is a barren wasteland full of corpses, shell holes, and mud, in which any greenery is absent.  The photos here give the lie to that image.  To be sure there are panoramas in which that stereotype is upheld, particularly those taken in Ypres sector during the great battles fought there.  But even in those pictures, the band of destruction is relatively narrow and undamaged land can be seen just outside of the zone of fighting in almost every picture.  What was most striking to me is how much greenery is to be seen in No Man’s Land in the photos and the sheer emptiness of the landscape.  Besides some trenches, and the occasional helmet of a soldier poking above a trench there is no one to be seen.

The photos are illuminating for several reasons.  One, many photos show exactly how close the opposing trenches really were to each other.  It is one thing to read that No Man’s Land was only 30 yards across in places, it is something else to see that in pictures.  Another thing illustrated by the photos quite well is how commanding German positions were across most of the front and how big difference 90 feet in elevation can make.  When I visited the Ypres battlefields in 2004 I was shocked by how far the view was from on top of the 95-foot height of Passchendaele Ridge.  That is also illustrated in these panoramas.

The narrative text in the book puts each photo into perspective and places it within the context of the war itself and the battles themselves.  I have been to several of the battlefields in the book and the several photos from the same positions are included in the book.  These then and now contrasts highlight how little the terrain has changed in the ensuing decades since the war ended.

The panoramas are the reason for this book and they make it worthwhile to read, even for those knowledgeable about WWI.  Along with the narrative, they give the reader a whole new sense of the experience of life in the trenches.  This is an outstanding book that I highly recommend.  I just wish it was not so prohibitively expensive, which would make it available to a much wider audience.