There’s something in the air…

Gas attack Somme

In ‘The Natures of War’ I include a brief discussion of the ways in which chemical gas attacks on the Western Front militarised the atmosphere:

Gas warfare turned the very air the soldier breathed into a potential enemy and, to Peter Sloterdijk, inaugurated a ‘new “ecologized” war’, a battle ‘conducted in the atmospheric environment [that] was about conquering the respiratory “potentials” of hostile parties’.  Here the French and the Germans led the way. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale but these discharged tear gas which in most cases was not lethal, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.  These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater harvest.

They yielded their first (poisoned) fruit on 22 April when the Germans launched the first lethal gas attack at Ypres. Unlike those earlier attempts this did not involve artillery – which is how the High Command persuaded themselves they were not violating the 1899 Hague agreement that prohibited the ‘use of projectiles the sole use of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or noxious gases’  – and instead released chlorine gas from specially adapted industrial storage containers hidden in the German trenches and then relied on the wind to disperse the gas cloud. On that first, fateful evening more than 5,000 cylinders discharged 150 tons of chlorine gas. It billowed into a yellow-green cloud nearly six kilometres wide and 600-900 meters deep, which was then carried on a north-easterly wind towards two French divisions at 2-3 meters a second. The gas attacked the bronchial tubes and victims suffocated by drowning in their own fluids. German infantry advanced behind the gas cloud which had breached the French lines, and while they did not press home their advantage all sides concluded that gas was the way ‘to break the “riddle of the trenches”’ by flushing troops from cover and ending ‘the stalemate that had confounded all.’  But the reliance on wind as a dispersal vector was risky, not least because the prevailing wind on the Front was from the west – the initial attack had been postponed time and time again until conditions were favourable – and on 25 September the British launched their own gas cloud attack at Loos. This too went awry as a result of changing wind direction, and soon both sides had reverted to artillery delivery systems. They also developed deadlier agents (all derived from chlorine), and from 1916 gas of more than 60 types was in every engagement by artillery on all sides for both offensive and defensive purposes.

These gases affected more than the surface environment because they were all heavier than air. Chlorine and the far more deadly phosgene seeped into craters and shell holes, ‘corrupting the very areas of relative safety where men took refuge’. Mustard gas lingered even longer. It was designed to disable not kill – a blistering agent, it burned the skin and caused (usually temporary) blindness [see John Singer Sargent‘s famous Gassed, below] – and repeated intermittent exposure deadened the sense of smell so a man could no longer detect it. Since mustard gas remained dormant for days, it ‘consigned the soldier to a state of permanent unease’ in which ‘every puddle [became] an imagined trap’; in the winter of 1917-1918 there were reports of soldiers tracking frozen mud contaminated with mustard gas into their dugouts where it melted and gassed their companions.  Here too, the psychological effects of this militarised nature were as significant as their physiological ones. Gas turned out not to be the decisive weapon of the war; it accounted for around 1 per cent of British deaths but caused disproportionately more casualties. One of its main purposes, Tim Cook concludes, became disruption: spreading surprise, uncertainty, and fear on the battlefield. By 1918 gas made up 20-40 per cent of all shells within the artillery dumps on both sides and ‘all soldiers on the Western Front lived in an environment where gas was a daily fact of life…’

John Singer Sergeant, Gassed (1919)

The bibliographic references are in the draft text under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I rehearse all this because Sarah Everts has a richly illustrated and informative new essay on ‘When chemicals became weapons of war’ here – it’s an excellent survey.

The Natures of War

Frank-Hurley-2008-Photographing-the-First-World-War-Hurley-Document-Name-06-copy sm

I have – at last – uploaded what I hope is the final version of ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  It’s the long-form version of the first Neil Smith Lecture I gave at St Andrew’s (Neil’s alma mater) almost exactly a year ago (you can access the online video here).  The basic argument remains the same, but the written version is substantively different (and much longer).  If you do have any comments or suggestions, or you spot any egregious errors, please let me know.  Here’s the introduction:


In his too short life, Neil Smith had much to say about both nature and war: from his seminal discussion of ‘the production of nature’ in his first book, Uneven development, to his dissections of war in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in American Empire – where he identified the end of the First World World and the end of the Second as crucial punctuations in the modern genealogy of globalisation – and its coda, The endgame of globalization, a critique of America’s wars conducted in the shadows of 9/11. And yet, surprisingly, he never linked the two. He was of course aware of their connections. He always insisted that the capitalist production of nature, like that of space, was never – could not be – a purely domestic matter, and he emphasised that the modern projects of colonialism and imperialism depended upon often spectacular displays of military violence. But he did not explore those relations in any systematic or substantive fashion.

He was not alone. The great Marxist critic Raymond Williams once famously identified ‘nature’ as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’ Since he wrote, countless commentators have elaborated on its complexities, but few of them have paused to note that ‘war’ was not one of Williams’s keywords (though ‘violence’ – ‘often now a difficult word’ – was). Williams was radicalised by the rise of European fascism; he joined the British Army in 1941 and served as a tank commander during the Second World War. Yet at its end he found the world had turned, and it was for that very reason that he sought to find the terms for a post-war world in which, seemingly, ‘war’ had no place.

‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge. University term had already begun, and many relationships and groups had been formed. It was in any case strange to travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college. I had been away only four and a half years, but in the movements of war had lost touch with all my university friends. Then, after many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war, when the formations of the 1930s, though under pressure, were still active. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language’.’

I want to track backwards and forwards from Williams’s war-time experience to trace three different co-productions of nature and military violence: the soiled earth of the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War (an armoured campaign very different from the European theatre in which Williams served), and the rainforests of Vietnam. My accounts can only be sketches, but they share a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities. The spoils of war include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’. For nature too is a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted.

I speak of ‘co-productions’ and ‘formations’ in order to signal in advance three issues that will reappear across all three studies. First, each of these wars was in large measure what Paul Saint-Amour calls, in relation to the first of them, an optical war: they depended on geo-spatial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which in its various forms provided the essential basis for the maps, plans and orders that activated the war machine. And yet the remote orderings of military violence were never autonomous projections onto a pure plane; they also depended on the bodies of soldiers whose apprehension of the battle space was always more than visual. In part, this was a matter of affect, but it was also a matter of knowledge – of a corpography rather than a cartography – whose materialities also inflected imaginative geographies of militarised nature. Second, those diverse stocks of knowledge about the battle space were invested in the co-production of a ‘trickster nature’. It was commonplace to describe the Western Front as a surreally empty landscape in which the capacity for military violence was hidden from view once men withdrew into the troglodyte world of the trenches. But I have in mind a more pervasive sense of uncertainty instilled by a militarised nature: one where the earth and air could kill through an infected wound, a buried mine or a cloud of gas, and whose camouflaged landscapes could wreak havoc with the military gaze to dissemble and distract, lure and entrap. Third, this was a hideously hybrid ‘cyborg nature’ whose terrain and life-forms were saturated with the debris of violent conflict: burned-out vehicles and bombed-out buildings, barbed wire and exploded munitions, discarded weapons and abandoned supplies, toxic residues and body parts. So far so familiar, except that none of these entanglements was inert; they shaped the military operations that took place through them. In all three ways each of these battle spaces was composed of ‘vibrant matter’ that was often also deadly matter.


This version is so long I’ve cut all the illustrations, but I have uploaded the original lecture slides too (DOWNLOADS tab); I’ve already posted early versions of some of the sections – and those were illustrated – here and here.

Journeys from No Man’s Land


I’ve agreed to join a panel organised by Noam Leshem on Remnants of No Man’s Land: history, theory and excess at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago next April (I imagine this is a follow-up to the session at the RGS/IBG in September).

The no-man’s lands of the First World War were never limited to the killing fields between the trenches. Their impact was never fully confined by the time and space of the battles: it lingered on the bodies of soldiers, in contaminated ecologies and in the radically altered post-war intellectual landscape. The violence that is unleashed in the no-man’s land and the destruction it wrought does not result in emptiness, in a terra nullius, but in excess that can never be fully contained.

This session invites additional reflections on the excessive quality of no-man’s land: its materialities, ecologies, cultural expressions and political-ideological articulations. It aims to deepen the theoretical import and conceptual power of ‘no-man’s land’, and move beyond its use as merely a convenient colloquialism. Similarly, we seek to engagements with other histories of no-man’s lands that are not solely confined to the Western Front during WWI.

LOBLEY Dugouts in the embankment near Le Cateau

Despite that last sentence, this is what I’ve come up with; these abstracts are always promissory notes, of course, written so far in advance that they can provide little real indication of what eventually transpires.  Fortunately we are now no longer lumbered with the Yellow Pages-style book of abstracts so I doubt anybody will actually read this on the day.  But here goes:

Journeys From No Man’s Land, 1914-1918

During the First World War on the Western Front a central logistical preoccupation of military planners was the deployment of troops to the front line and the evacuation of casualties from the battlefield. These priorities were closely connected – the aim was to provide medical treatment as close to the site of the wound as possible so that troops could be returned expeditiously to the line – but they also often confounded one another as hospital trains headed for the coast were shunted into sidings to allow troop trains to move up. In this presentation I address three questions. First, what it was possible to know about the ‘lie of the land’, particularly in the deadly spaces between the front-line trenches? Here I focus on the connections between aerial reconnaissance, night patrols and trench maps. A second question concerns the arrangements made in advance of major offensives – the disposition of stretcher bearers and aid posts, field ambulances and casualty clearing stations – and the ways in which these visible geometries of the medical-military machine affected the sensibilities of soldiers waiting to go ‘over the top’. Finally, how did the wounded apprehend and navigate No Man’s Land, and how did they make what Emily Mayhew calls their precarious journeys away from the fighting?

There’ll be more posts on this as I circle in towards the presentation.  It’s part of my new research project which explores military-medical machines and the casualties of war 1914-2014, but which is now widening to include other aspects of medical care in contemporary conflict zones like Gaza and Iraq/Syria and the militarisation of medical intervention in West Africa.

Siegfried’s Lines


The BBC reports that Siegfried Sassoon‘s diaries from the First World War have been digitised by Cambridge University Library and are now available online (more illustrated reports here and here).  The journals and two notebooks of poetry include not only Sassoon’s jottings but also sketches like the interior of a military hospital (above).

IM.0942_zpUnlike edited printed transcriptions, the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed of members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.

The journals give a fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon records for example the first day of the Somme (‘a sunlit picture of Hell’; MS Add.9852/1/7, folios 10r-12v) and the moment when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras (MS Add.9852/1/10, folios 6v-9r), along with manuscript drafts and fair copies of his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ (MS Add.9852/1/10, folio 45v-46r; MS Add.9852/1/11, folio 21-23). His drawings from France range from studies of towns and churches (MS Add.9852/1/5, folio 36v; MS Add.9852/1/9, folio 8v) to a psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’ (MS Add.9852/1/7, folio 3r). The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best known works, including an early version of ‘The Dug-Out’ with an additional, excised verse: MS Add.9852/6/2, folio 76r).

I read Sassoon’s (fictionalised) Memoirs of an infantry officer several times, for ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The natures of war’, and again more recently for my new project on the casualties of war,  and didn’t find it a patch on, say, Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of war.  But I’m looking forward to working my way through the notebooks because it’s already clear to me that there’s an immediacy and rawness to the writing that Memoirs often, understandably, seemed to lack:

‘July 1st 1916…  Since 6.30 there has been hell let loose.  The air vibrates with the incessant din.  The whole earth shakes and rocks and throbs.  It is one continuous roar.  Machine guns tap and rattle, bullets whistling over head – small fry quite outdone by the gangs of hooligan-shells that dash over to [illegible] the German lines with their demolition parties…. One can’t look out as the m[achine] g[un] bullets are skimming.  Inferno – inferno – bang – smash!!’


I’ve been scribbling some notes for a short essay Léopold Lambert has invited me to write for his Funambulist Papers.  The brief is to write ‘something about the body – nothing too complicated’, so I’ve decided to say something more about the idea of corpography I sketched in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab), which will in turn – so I hope – prepare the ground for the long-form version of ‘The nature(s) of war’ for a special issue of Antipode devoted to the work of Neil Smith [next on my to-do list].

In ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (and in a preliminary sketch here) I contrasted the cartographic imaginary within which so much of the First World War was planned with a corpography improvised by soldiers caught up in the maelstrom of military violence on the ground; unlike the ‘optical war’ that relied, above all, on aerial reconnaissance, projected onto the geometric order of the map and the mechanical cadence of the military timetable – a remarkably abstract space, though its production was of course profoundly embodied – this was a way of apprehending the battle space through the body as an acutely physical field in which the senses of sound, smell and touch were increasingly privileged in the construction of a profoundly haptic or somatic geography.


This is hardly original; you can find intimations of all this in classics like Eric Leed‘s No Man’s Land, and once you start digging in to the accounts left by soldiers you find supporting evidence on page after page.  What I’ve tried to do is show that this constituted more than a different way of experiencing war: it was also a different way of knowing and ordering (or, as Allan Pred would surely have said, of re-cognising) the space of military violence.  These knowledges were situated and embodied – ‘local’, even – but they were also transmissable and mobile.

On the Western front, corpographies were at once an instinctive, jarring, visceral response to military violence –

‘When sound is translated into a blow on the nape of the neck, and light into a flash so bright that it actually scorches the skin, when feeling is lost in one disintegrating jar of every nerve and fibre … the mind, at such moments, is like a compass when the needle has been jolted from its pivot’ [‘A Corporal’, Field Ambulance Sketches (1919)]

– and an improvisational, learned accommodation to it:

‘We know by the singing of a shell when it is going to drop near us, when it is politic to duck and when one may treat the sound with contempt. We are becoming soldiers. We know the calibres of the shells which are sent over in search of us. The brute that explodes with a crash like that of much crockery being broken, and afterwards makes a “cheering” noise like the distant echoes of a football match, is a five-point-nine.The very sudden brute that you don’t hear until it has passed you, and rushes with the hiss of escaping steam, is a whizz-bang… The funny little chap who goes tonk-phew-bong is a little high-velocity shell which doesn’t do much harm… The thing which, without warning, suddenly utters a hissing sneeze behind us is one of our own trench-mortars. The dull bump which follows, and comes from the middle distance out in front, tells us that the ammunition is “dud.” The German shell which arrives with the sound of a woman with a hare-lip trying to whistle, and makes very little sound when it bursts, almost certainly contains gas.

‘We know when to ignore machine-gun and rifle bullets and when to take an interest in them. A steady phew-phew-phew means that they are not dangerously near. When on the other hand we get a sensation of whips being slashed in our ears we know that it is time to seek the embrace of Mother Earth’ [A.M. Burrage, War is war]

National Library of Scotland (Tom Aitken)

This was not so much a re-setting of the compass, as the anonymous stretcher-bearer had it, as the formation of a different bodily instrument altogether.  As Burrage’s last sentence shows, corpographies were at once re-cognitions of a butchered landscape – one that seemed to deny all sense – and reaffirmations of an intimate, intensely sensible bond with the earth:

‘To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her, long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security…. ’ [Erich Remarque, All quiet on the Western Front]

And corpographies were not only a means through which militarised subjects accommodated themselves to the warscape – providing a repertoire of survival of sorts – but also a way of resisting at least some its impositions and affirming, in the midst of what so many of them insisted was ‘murder not war’, what Santanu Das calls a ‘tactile tenderness’ between men.  This, he argues,

‘must be seen as a celebration of life, of young men huddled against long winter nights, rotting corpses, and falling shells. Physical contact was a transmission of the wonderful assurance of being alive, and more sex-specific eroticism, though concomitant, was subsidiary. In a world of visual squalor, little gestures – closing a dead comrade’s eyes, wiping his brow, or holding him in one’s arms – were felt as acts of supreme beauty that made life worth living.’


A hundred years later, I have no doubt that much the same is true in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and so my interest in corpography is also part of my refusal to acquiesce to the thoroughly disingenuous de-corporealization of today’s ‘virtuous war’.

In fleshing out these ideas I’ve been indebted to a stream of work on the body in human geography. Most of it has been remarkably silent about war, even though Kirsten Simonsen once wrote about ‘the body as battlefield‘, but it’s now difficult for me to read her elegant essay ‘In quest of a new humanism: Embodiment, experience and phenomenology as critical geography’ [Progress in human geography 37 (1) (2013): open access here] – especially Part III where she discusses ‘Thinking the body’ and ‘Orientation and disorientation’ – without peopling it with bodies in khaki, blue or field grey tramping towards the front-line trenches, clambering over the top, or crawling from shell-hole to shell-hole in No Man’s Land.

That is partly down to the suggestiveness of Kirsten’s prose, but it’s also the result of my debt to the work of Santanu Das [Touch and intimacy in First World War literature], Ken MacLeish [especially Chapter 2 of his Making War at Fort Hood; the dissertation version is here] and Kevin McSorley [whose introduction to War and the body is here] which directly addresses military violence.  I wish I’d been able to attend the Sensing War conference that Kevin co-organised in London last month; I had to turn down the invitation because I was marooned on my mountaintop in Umbria, but the original Call For Papers captured some of the ways in which the materialities and corporealities of war in the early twentieth century continue to inhabit later modern war:

War is a crucible of sensory experience and its lived affects radically transform ways of being in the world. It is prosecuted, lived and reproduced through a panoply of sensory apprehensions, practices and ‘sensate regimes of war’ (Butler 2012) – from the tightly choreographed rhythms of patrol to the hallucinatory suspicions of night vision; from the ominous mosquito buzz of drones to the invasive scrape of force-feeding tubes; from the remediation of visceral helmetcam footage to the anxious tremors of the IED detector; from the desperate urgencies of triage to the precarious intimacies of care; from the playful grasp of children’s war-toys to the feel of cold sweat on a veteran’s skin.

Thus far, like most of the writers I’ve drawn from here, I’ve been thinking about corpographies in relation to the soldier’s body, but as the (in)distinctions between combatant and civilian multiply I’ve started to think about the knowledges that sustain civilians caught up in military and paramilitary violence too. Some of them are undoubtedly cartographic – formal and informal maps of shelters (the images below are for Edinburgh during the Second World War), camps, checkpoints and roadblocks – and some of them rely on visual markers of territory: barriers and wires, posters and graffiti. Today much of this information is shared by social media (as the battle space has become both digital and physical).

Guide to Edinburgh Air Raid Shelters WW2



But much of this knowledge is also, as it has always been, corpographic.  Pete Adey once wrote – beautifully – about what he called ‘the private life of an air raid’, drawing on the files of Mass Observation during the Second World War to sketch a geography of ‘stillness’ even as the urban landscape was being violently ‘un-made’.  ‘Stillness in this sense,’ he explained,

‘denotes apprehending and anticipating spaces and events in ways that sees the body enveloped within the movement of the environment around it; bobbing along intensities that course their way through it; positioned towards pasts and futures that make themselves felt, and becoming capable of intense forms of experience and thought.’

This was a corpo-reality, and one in which – as he emphasised – sound played a vital role: ‘Waves of sound disrupted fragile tempers as they passed through the waiting bodies in the physical language of tensed muscles and gritted teeth.’  But, as he also concedes, this was also a ‘not-so private’ life – there was also a social life under the bombs – and we need to think about how these experiences were shared by and with other bodies.  These apprehensions of military violence, then as now, were not only modalities of being but also modes of knowing: as Elizabeth Dauphinée suggests, in a different but closely related context, ‘pain is not an invisible interior geography’ but rather ‘a mode of knowing (in) the world – of knowing and making known’  [‘The politics of the body in pain’, Security dialogue 38 (2) (2007) 139-55]. During an air raid these knowledges could be shared by talking with others – the common currency of comfort and despair, advice and rumour – but they also arose from making cognitive sense of physical sensations: the hissing and roaring of the bombs, the suction and compression from the blast, the stench of ruptured gas mains or sewage pipes.

London air raid shelter

Steven Connor once suggested that air raids involve a ‘grotesquely widened bifurcation of visuality and hearing’, in which the optical-visual production of a target contrasts with ‘the absolute deprivation of sight for the victims of the air raid on the ground, compelled as they are to rely on hearing to give them information about the incoming bombs.’  Those crouching beneath the bombs have ‘to learn new skills of orientating themselves in this deadly auditory field without clear coordinates or dimensions but in which the tiniest variation in pitch and timbre can mean obliteration.’  What then can you know – and how can you know – when your world contracts to a room, a cellar, the space under the bed?  When you can’t go near a window in case it shatters and your body is sliced by the splinters?  When all you have to go on, all you can trust, are your ears parsing the noise or your fingers scrabbling at the rubble?

Air raid drill in children's home WW2

Here too none of this is confined to the past, and so I start to think about the thanatosonics of Israel’s air strikes on Gaza.  Sound continues to function as sensory assault; here is Mohammed Omer:

‘At just 3 months old, my son Omar cries, swaddled in his crib. It’s dark. The electricity and water are out. My wife frantically tries to comfort him, shield him and assure him as tears stream down her face. This night Omar’s lullaby is Israel’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, with F-16s forming the ground-pounding percussion, Hellfire missiles leading the winds and drones representing the string section. All around us crashing bombs from Israeli gunships and ground-based mortars complete the symphony, their sound as distinct as the infamous Wagner tubas…. Above, the ever-present thwup-thwup of hovering Apache helicopters rock Omar’s cradle through vibration. Warning sirens pierce the night—another incoming missile from an Israeli warship.’

And, as before, sound can also be a source of knowledge.  Here is Wasseem el Sarraj, writing from Gaza in November 2012:

In our house we have become military experts, specializing in the sounds of Israeli and Palestinian weapons. We can distinguish with ease the sound of Apaches, F-16 missiles, drones, and the Fajr rockets used by Hamas. When Israeli ships shell the coast, it’s a distinct and repetitive thud, marked by a one-second delay between the launch and the impact. The F-16s swoop in like they are tearing open the sky, lock onto their target and with devastating precision destroy entire apartment blocks. Drones: in Gaza, they are called zananas, meaning a bee’s buzz. They are the incessant, irritating creatures. They are not always the harbingers of destruction; instead they remain omnipresent, like patrolling prison guards. Fajr rockets are absolutely terrifying because they sound like incoming rockets. You hear them rarely in Gaza City and thus we often confuse them for low-flying F-16s. It all creates a terrifying soundscape, and at night we lie in our beds hoping that the bombs do not drop on our houses, that glass does not shatter onto our children’s beds. Sometimes, we move from room to room in an attempt to feel some sense of safety. The reality is that there is no escape, neither inside the house nor from the confines of Gaza.

The last haunting sentences are a stark reminder that knowledge, cartographic or corpographic, is no guarantee of safety. But military and paramilitary violence is always more than a mark on a map or a trace on a screen, and the ability to re-cognise its more-than-optical dimensions can be a vital means of navigating the wastelands of war.  As in the past, so today rescue from the rubble often involves a heightened sense of sound and smell, and survival is often immeasurably enhanced by the reassuring touch of another’s body.  And these fleshy affordances – which you can find in accounts of air raids from Guernica to Gaza – are also a powerful locus for critique.

Gaza Hands and Grave

So: corpographies.  I thought I’d made the word up, but as I completed ‘Gabriel’s Map’ I discovered that Joseph Pugliese uses ‘geocorpographies’ to designate ‘the violent enmeshment of the flesh and blood of the body within the geopolitics of war and empire’ in his State violence and the execution of law (New York: Routledge, 2013; p. 86). This complements my own study, though I’ve used the term to confront the optical privileges of cartography through an appeal to the corporeal (and to the corpses of those who were killed in the names of war and empire).

And I’ve since discovered that the term has a longer history and multiple meanings that intersect, in various ways, with what I’m trying to work out.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it also serves as a medical term: cranio-corpography is a procedure devised by Claus-Frenzen Claussen in 1968 to capture in a visual trace the longitudinal and lateral movements of a patient’s body in order to detect and calibrate disorders of the ‘equilibrium function’.  More recently, corpography has also been used by dance theorists and practitioners, including Francesca Cataldi and Sebastian Prantl, to describe a critical, creative practice: a ‘dance of things’ in which the body is thoroughly immersed as a’ land.body.scape’, as Prantl puts it.  Meanwhile, Allan Parsons has proposed a ‘psycho-corpography’ – explicitly not a psycho-geography – as a way of ‘tracing the experience of living-a-body’.  Elsewhere,  Alex Chase attends to specific bodies-in-the-world, those of cultural ‘figures’ (Artaud, Bataille, Foucault, Genet, Jarman and Mishima among them), that resist normalization – hence emphatically  ‘queer’ bodies – and which figure bodies as events.  ‘I hope to develop a methodology of “corpography”,’ he says, ‘which would write between biography and textual analysis, material lived bodies and fictional work, life and representation, in order to work through other queer concepts such as temporality, space, and ethics.’

It would of course be absurd to summon all of these different usages onto a single conceptual terrain. But they do take me back to Kirsten’s essay (and to long-ago memories of an enthralling seminar in Roskilde which she introduced through her dance teacher), to ways of apprehending the danse macabre on the Western Front as both a cartography and a corpography whose junction was to be found, perhaps, in a choreography, and to think about the ways in which the sentient bodies of soldiers were at once habituated to and resisted the forceful normalizations of military violence.  They also make me wonder about civilian corpographies – about the multiple ways in which violence is inflicted on the body and yet may be resisted through the body – and in doing so they direct my steps from the past to the present and to the fragile bodies that continue to lie at the heart of today’s conflicts.  If that is to speak with Walter Benjamin, I want to insist that the ‘tiny, fragile human body’ does not only lie ‘in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions’, as he wrote in 1936: for the body is a vector as well as a victim of military and paramilitary violence.  And it can also be a means of undoing its effects.

I suspect that these ideas will eventually thread their way into my new project on the evacuation of combatant and civilian casualties (and the sick) from war zones, 1914-2014, where it’s already clear to me that cartography and corpography are tightly locked together.  All of this is highly provisional, as you’ll realise, and as always I would welcome comments and suggestions.

‘The land of rotting men’

No man's land

Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton have embarked on a fascinating new project, Re-inhabiting No Man’s Land: from dead zones to living spaces here:

Nearing the centenary of the First World War, this project explores the ongoing relevance of no-man’s lands in the 21st century. Rather than merely empty, divisive spaces, the project considers the material substance of no-man’s lands, their changing social-cultural meaning and their relevance as productive political and geopolitical spaces.

As a figure of speech, No-Man’s Land is applied to anywhere from derelict inner-city districts and buffer-zones to ‘ungovernable’ regions and tax havens. But what is no-man’s land? What are the conditions that produce it? How is it administered? What sort of human activities do no-man’s lands harbour? These are the questions that prompt us to think about the no-man’s lands not as dead zones, but as living spaces.

WWI consulting a map

News of this arrived from Noam just as I finished the long-form version of Gabriel’s Map: cartography and corpography in modern war, which you can now find under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll down).  Most of the essay is about the First World War on the Western Front (I explain the title at the start of the essay; it comes from William Boyd‘s Ice-Cream War and, in particular, the First World War in East Africa, and the title of this post comes from Edward Lynch‘s Somme Mud: the experiences of an infantryman in France, 1916-1919), but I also end with these reflections on the 21st century:

In this essay I have been concerned with the First World War but, as we approach its centenary, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which modern warfare has changed – and those in which it has not. Through the constant circulation of military imagery and its ghosting in video games, many of us have come to think of contemporary warfare as optical war hypostatised: a war fought on screens and through digital images, in which full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers allow for an unprecedented degree of remoteness from the killing fields. In consequence, perhaps, many of us are tempted to think of the wars waged by advanced militaries, in contrast to the First World War, as ‘surgical’, even body-less. These are wars without fronts, whose complex geometries have required new investments in cartography and satellite imagery, and there have been major advances in political technologies of vision and in the development of a host of other sensors that have dramatically increased the volume of geo-spatial intelligence on which the administration of later modern military violence relies. All of this has transformed but not replaced the cartographic imaginary.

And yet, for all of their liquid violence, these wars are still shaped and even confounded by the multiple, acutely material environments through which they are fought. In Sebastian Junger’s remarkable despatch from Afghanistan, he notes that for the United States and its allies ‘the war diverged from the textbooks because it was fought in such axle-breaking, helicopter-crashing, spirit-killing, mind-bending terrain that few military plans survive intact for even an hour.’ If that sounds familiar, then so too will Kenneth MacLeish’s cautionary observations about soldiers as both vectors and victims of military violence:

‘The body’s unruly matter is war’s most necessary and most necessarily expendable raw material. While many analyses of US war violence have emphasized the technologically facilitated withdrawal of American bodies from combat zones in favour of air strikes, smart bombs, remotely piloted drones, and privately contracted fighting forces, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not carry on without the physical presence of tens of thousands of such bodies…

In consequence, the troops have had to cultivate an intrinsically practical knowledge that, while its operating environment and technical armature are obviously different, still owes much to the tacit bodily awareness of the Tommy or the Poilu:

‘In the combat zone there is a balance to be struck, a cultivated operational knowledge, that comes in large part from first-hand experience about what can hurt you and what can’t… So you need not only knowledge of what the weapons and armor can do for you and to you but a kind of bodily habitus as well – an ability to take in the sensory indications of danger and act on them without having to think too hard about it first. When you hear a shot, is it passing close by? Is it accurate or random? Is it of sufficient caliber to penetrate your vest, the window of your Humvee or the side of your tank?’

In the intricate nexus formed by knowledge, space and military power, later modern war still relies on cartographic vision – and its agents still produce their own corpographies.

The notes contain various references to No Man’s Land in the First World War, though I’m increasingly interested in what lies on either side.  One of the reasons so many commentators seem to think that ‘war among the people’ is a recent development is that the imagery of the Western Front draws the eye again and again to No Man’s Land, but behind the front lines on either side were farms, fields, villages and small towns where people continued to live and work amongst the shelling, the gas attacks, and the billeted troops.

As usual, I’d welcome any comments/criticisms/suggestions on the (I hope near final) draft of the essay: an extended version will appear in War material.

In the literary trenches


Until now, my knowledge of the French experience on the Western Front has been largely confined to Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire.  I was particularly taken by his striking evocation of the materiality of war – of the ‘slimescape’ – which features in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The Natures of War’ (both soon to be available in written form):

The earth! It is a vast and water-logged desert that begins to take shape under the long-drawn desolation of daybreak. There are pools and gullies where the bitter breath of earliest morning nips the water and sets it a-shiver; tracks traced by the troops and the convoys of the night in these barren fields, the lines of ruts that glisten in the weak light like steel rails, mud-masses with broken stakes protruding from them, ruined trestles, and bushes of wire in tangled coils. With its slime-beds and puddles, the plain might be an endless gray sheet that floats on the sea and has here and there gone under. Though no rain is falling, all is drenched, oozing, washed out and drowned, and even the wan light seems to flow. Now you can make out a network of long ditches where the lave of the night still lingers. It is the trench. It is carpeted at bottom with a layer of slime that liberates the foot at each step with a sticky sound; and by each dug-out it smells of the night’s excretions. The holes themselves, as you stoop to peer in, are foul of breath. I see shadows coming from these sidelong pits and moving about, huge and misshapen lumps, bear-like, that flounder and growl. They are “us.”

Or again:

We begin to flow again in one direction. No doubt it is a movement planned up there, back yonder, by the chiefs. We trample soft bodies underfoot, some of which are moving and slowly altering their position; rivulets and cries come from them. Like posts and heaps of rubbish, corpses are piled anyhow on the wounded, and press them down, suffocate them, strangle them. So that I can get by, I must push at a slaughtered trunk of which the neck is a spring of gurgling blood.

The ground is so full of dead that the earth-falls uncover places that bristle with feet, with half-clothed skeletons, and with ossuaries of skulls placed side by side on the steep slope like porcelain globe-jars. In the ground here there are several strata of dead and in many places the delving of the shells has brought out the oldest and set them out in display on the top of the new ones. The bottom of the ravine is completely carpeted with debris of weapons, clothing, and implements. One tramples shell fragments, old iron, loaves and even biscuits that have fallen from knapsacks and are not yet dissolved by the rain. Mess-tins, pots of jam, and helmets are pierced and riddled by bullets—the scrapings and scum of a hell-broth; and the dislocated posts that survive are stippled with holes.

It’s a clunky old translation, but the power of Barbusse’s prose still shines through.  Small wonder that he later confided: ‘I once used to think that the worst hell in war was the flame of shells; and then for long I thought it was the suffocation of the caverns which eternally confine us. But it is neither of these. Hell is water.’ (If you want more on these imaginative geographies, incidentally, I recommend Susan Grayzel‘s short essay on Barbusse and, more generally, Claire Keith‘s ‘Pilgrims in a toxic land: Writing the Trenches of the French Great War’ in Jeff Persels‘s collection, The environment in French and Francophone Literature and Film (2013) pp. 69-85).


I’ve spent the last several days reading two other accounts by French authors.  The first, Louis Barthas‘s Poilu, has only recently been made available in English translation (it was first published in France in 1978).  ‘Poilu’ means ‘hairy one’, but probably the closest English-language equivalent is the much more recent ‘grunt’, for Poilu presents  the view of the (not so) common soldier.  It’s a carefully assembled account, as Robert Cowley explains in his helpful introduction:

‘Few documents from the Great War are as remarkable as the war notebooks of Louis Barthas, published in English for the first time in Edward M. Strauss’s fine translation. They are special for a number of reasons. Their author left a record of four years of service at the front, an unusual span of survival. He was not an officer but a common soldier, a corporal, a man approaching middle age who in civilian life had been a barrelmaker from the Languedoc region of France, a wine-growing center…. After he was mustered out in February 1919, Barthas began to assemble a narrativeRead more at describing his time on the Western Front that would eventually run to nineteen notebooks. He would work on it after he finished a long day of barrel-making, fleshing out the original diaries with quotes from letters home, official reports and orders that he had kept, and accounts by fellow soldiers that he had written down at the time, as well as with ephemera such as postcards and newspaper clippings. Those sources he put together in the book you read here, one that is part diary, part memoir.’

It’s been praised to the skies – see, for example, this review in the New York Times and this review at the Daily Beast – and Barthas’s spirited socialism and pacifism make it all the more interesting.  But, for me at least, it doesn’t capture the slimescape with the same intensity as my second book: Gabriel Chevallier‘s Fear.


I confess to being taken aback by its very existence.  In another life – in grammar school – my French teacher, a wonderful man called Robert Bratcher, recommended Chevallier’s Clochemerle as a way, I now suspect, of teaching us what ‘Rabelaisian’ meant without actually having to read Rabelais.  It’s a brilliantly comic novel (or at least it seemed so to this fifteen year-old), shot through with word play, artful phrases and visually, almost viscerally immediate staging in which the body – and the fear of/fascination with  its functions – loomed large.

It turns out that the same sensibilities run through Fear, which is a novelisation grounded in Chavellier’s own experiences. Malcolms Imrie‘s fine translation was made available in the UK in 2012, but the New York Times is now publishing a US edition.  ‘At times,’ Neil Fitzgerald wrote in the TLS (in a review tellingly entitled ‘When the body takes charge’),

reading Fear feels like being led through the damnation panel of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, the front line “blazing like some infernal factory where monstrous crucibles melted human flesh into a bloody lava”. There are wince-inducing close-ups of mutilated men and corpses. Chevallier’s turn of phrase, brilliantly rendered in Malcolm Imrie’s translation, makes this distant war feel horrifying and close. Dartemont’s ultimate triumph, beside surviving, is in never having allowed himself to become dehumanized.

It turns out that others were also taken aback by its very existence.  Fear was originally published in 1930, as Tobias Grey explains, and the French officer class rose up against Chevallier’s merciless assault (which you can also find in Barthas):

Subsequent criticism of “Fear” meant that it was withdrawn from circulation in France on the eve of World War II and did not reappear until 1951. Chevallier, who had scored a big hit with his satirical novel “Clochemerle” (1934) in the meantime, declined to kick up a fuss. “Once war has come, the time has passed for warning that it is a disastrous venture with unforeseeable consequences,” Chevallier reasoned in the preface of “Fear.” “That is something that must be understood earlier, and acted on accordingly.” When “Fear” was recently re-published in France after many years out of print, one critic still felt it necessary to point out that pages like the ones he had just read “would have had the author shot during the war.”

As I’ve indicated, central to Chevallier’s account is the human body and the hapticity of war: its sensual, physical apprehension and its corporeal inscription.  Grey concludes:

… above all “Fear” is a novel whose most indelible passages describe the sensory degradation of war on the human body. These baroque descriptions are generously translated into English by Malcolm Imrie without a hint of stiltedness [in fact, Imrie won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for his translation]. A face is described as seeming to “acquire a dull, gray coating, as if someone had forgotten to dust it, and the beard, drawing strength from the compost of unhealthy flesh, spread rapidly, seeming to drive out life, like ivy takes light from the front of a house.” It is the kind of powerful prose that helps to make Chevallier’s long-neglected novel one of the most effective indictments of war ever written.

All of this reading is in part preparation for a trip later this month with an old friend to the battlefields of the Western Front (we’re still arguing over which of us is Blackadder and which is Baldrick, but it’s really no contest): watch this space for a report.

Unknown soldiers

Diary of an unknown soldier STILL

Via the Funambulist I’ve stumbled across an early film by the young Peter Watkins, The diary of an unknown soldier.  Made in 1959 when Watkins was just 24, six years before The War Game, it recounts – in what was to become Watkins’ signature documentary style – the last, desperate hours before a young soldier on the Western Front goes into combat for the first time.

This is how Watkins himself tells the story behind the film:

In the mid 1950s, I underwent compulsory military service in Britain. Managing to avoid being sent on a draft to fight the Mau-Mau in Kenya, I landed a clerical post in Canterbury, Kent, where I fortunately met a group of people running an amateur theatre group called ‘Playcraft’. This group regularly staged a series of very clever productions in the small living room of Alan and June Gray – with Alan and Anne Pope, Stan and Phyllis Mercer, and other friends who acted, helped with designs and sets, and invited the local audience to the twenty or so seats tightly crammed into the room. A drama student bitten by the ‘acting bug’ in London before my military service, I acted in several of Playcraft’s productions – including in R.C. Sheriff’s anti-war drama, Journey’s End, set in the trenches during World War I. Immediately following my release from the army, I was bitten by another – amateur filmmaking – ‘bug’, and acquired a Bolex spring-driven 8mm camera…

By 1959, while Watkins was working as an assistant film editor at ‘World Wide Pictures’, alongside a number of documentary filmmakers from the old Crown Film Unit, he wrote the script for ‘The Diary of an Unknown Soldier’.  Here it is (the narrator is Watkins himself):

The film is remarkably effective at conveying the visceral nature of the landscape of fear confronting the anonymous young man – the shattered branches that turn into sharp bayonets – but above at showing the materiality and corporeality of the violence that was to come.  As Léopold Lambert notes, ‘the way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high-rank[ing] officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud.’

Watkins was hired by the BBC’s documentary department in 1963, and the rest is indeed history…

The connections with “Gabriel’s Map” are very clear (at least to me: there are several sequences in which a young subaltern annotates his map).  But what about the other ‘unknown soldier’ (or, rather, soldiers)?

The origins of this iconic memorial go back to 1916, when a British Army chaplain serving on the Western front, David Railton, saw one of countless graves on the battlefield at Armentières, this one marked by a simple cross bearing the words: “An unknown British soldier.”  He became determined that those un-named soldiers from all over the British Empire who had fallen on the Front should be honoured by a single public memorial in Britain.

Finally, in early November 1920 the body of an un-named soldier was exhumed from each of the four major battlefields – the Aisne, Arras, the Somme and Ypres – and one of them was placed in a coffin and transported to London.  On 11 November, two years after the Armistice, the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was re-buried in Westminster Abbey:

Similar memorials were constructed in other European countries, Australia and the United States.

HANSON The unknown soldierYou can find the full, much richer story in Neil Hanson‘s beautifully written and carefully researched  The Unknown Soldier (2005), which splices the story of the iconic ‘unknown soldier’ with the stories of three others – British, French and German – who were declared missing during the War.

The classic discussion of some of the wider issues remains Jay Winter‘s Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history (1998), while later this year David Crane promises to provide an account of the personalities and the politics involved in the construction of war graves in Empires of the Dead (2013).

3-D War

It’s strange how things sometimes come together….  News of the online publication of Stuart Elden‘s paper, ‘Secure the volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power‘, coincides with a short post from Jasper Humphreys at the Marjan Centre, ‘Shape shifting in Flanders‘, which describes the war on the Western Front as the first 3-D war.  What Jasper has in mind is the combination of aerial reconnaissance (and artillery spotting) with the elaborate tunnelling under enemy lines to detonate huge explosions.  But if we extend the terrain beyond the Western Front then the claim becomes a more general and I think an even more powerful one, with the bombing of civilian targets far beyond the front lines by airships and aircraft and the unrestricted use of that ‘ungentlemanly weapon’, the submarine. (Stuart cites Paul Virilio‘s Bunker Archaeology, which identifies the emergence of ‘volumetric’, deep three-dimensional warfare with the Second World War, but the genealogy is clearly older than that).

BARTON et al Beneath Flanders FieldsIt’s the underground war – the tunnellers’ war – that captures Jasper’s attention.  He focuses on the mining of Messines Ridge in June 1917, which (as he notes) appears in Sebastian Faulkes‘s Birdsong, but the tactic was a general one that not only scarred the landscape but also left an indelible impression on everyone who witnessed it, even by proxy: the detonation of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge in July 1916 was filmed by Geoffrey Malins for The Battle of the Somme (below).

Mining had started with the onset of trench warfare, and was dominated by the Germans during 1914 and 1915: ‘Although Germany had rejected military mining by 1914,’ Simon Jones notes, ‘it was nevertheless able quickly to revive its capability through the availability of fortress troops which could be attached ot its field army.  There seemed no alternative but to mine on the Western Front as a means of breaking the strong field defences.’  For the British and their allies mining evolved, if that’s the right verb, into three main phases: the Somme in 1916, Arras in April 1917 and – though its efficacy was by then undermined by the German strategy of defence-in-depth – Messines in June 1917.

Hawthorne Ridge mine

Hill 60 on the Messines Ridge had been mined in 1915, but the re-mining in June 1917 – as part of ‘the largest mining attack in the history of warfare’ (Jones) – was hugely spectacular:

‘The artillery preparations which for days had been intense had died down and the night was comparatively quiet…  Suddenly, all hell broke loose.  It was indescribable.  In the pale light it appeared as if the whole enemy line had begun to dance, then, one after another, huge tongues of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, followed by dense columns of smoke which flattened out at the top like gigantic mushrooms.  From some craters were discharged tremendous showers of sparks, rivalling everything ever conceived in the way of fireworks.’

I’ve taken this from an essay by Roy MacLeod, ‘Phantom soldiers’, which provides an excellent discussion of Australian tunnellers in the underground war and emphasizes that theirs was a profoundly scientific campaign that involved knowledge of geology, engineering and – crucial for counter-mining – acoustics.  If it was science, it was doubly hellish science, both for the conditions endured by the tunnellers and for the consequences on the surface. In Underground warfare Simon Jones includes this report from a British artillery officer:

‘At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began.  The timing of all the batteries in the area was so wonderful and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo.  At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up…  First there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake.  I was nearly flung off my feet.  Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven.  The whole country was lit with a red light like a photographic dark-room… The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming.  It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration…’

Barely two months later photographer Frank Hurley peered down at the huge crater in horror:

‘After, we climbed to the crest of hill 60, where we had an awesome view over the battlefield to the German lines. What an awful scene of desolation! Everything has been swept away: only stumps of trees stick up here & there & the whole field has the appearance of having been recently ploughed. Hill 60 long delayed our infantry advance, owing to its commanding position & the almost impregnable concrete emplacements & shelters constructed by the Bosch. We eventually won it by tunnelling underground, & then exploding three enormous mines, which practically blew the whole hill away & killed all the enemy on it. It’s the most awful & appalling sight I have ever seen. The exaggerated machinations of hell are here typified. Everywhere the ground is littered with bits of guns, bayonets, shells & men. Way down in one of these mine craters was an awful sight. There lay three hideous, almost skeleton decomposed fragments of corpses of German gunners. Oh the frightfulness of it all. To think that these fragments were once sweethearts, may be, husbands or loved sons, & this was the end. Almost back again to their native element but terrible. Until my dying day I shall never forget this haunting glimpse down into the mine crater on hill 60, – & this is but one tragedy of similar thousands…’

The nightmare scene was also the subject of Paul Nash‘s famous sketch, completed in November:

NASH The Crater

JONES Underground warfareThe BBC has a gallery of images of the underground war, which includes two maps of trenches and tunnels, here, and there’s a fascinating report of contemporary archaeological excavations of the same site here.  There are also helpful discussions and diagrams here. But the most comprehensive discussion is undoubtedly Simon Jones‘s Underground warfare 1914-1918 (2010), which includes compelling first-hand accounts from the tunnellers and countless others.

In the course of his own discussion, Jasper makes two other observations that also intersect with some of my current preoccupations.  The first is about the familiarization of the landscape of war by the first artists despatched to the front, though I’m less interested in the pastoral aesthetic than in subsequent, thoroughly modernist attempts to capture the ‘anti-landscape’ of the war.

The second is about the earthy, material medium through which the war was fought:

‘No war in history has combined such a vast theatre of operations fought in such proximity to the forces of Nature: firstly the elements of wind, rain, storms and snow created the all-pervasive mud and water – sometimes referred to metaphorically as ‘slime’ – along with the horses, mules, dogs and canaries, as well as rats and mice, all sharing the hell of the trenches with humans. Secondly, the geography and topography dominated the fighting: every small hill, river or indentation that would provide even a tiny advantage was a battle-ground.’

I’ve posted about these ‘slimescapes‘ before, and they loom large in my presentation on ‘Gabriel’s map’, but earlier this year I agreed to give a new public presentation this May (at the Vancouver Aquarium – where else?) on ‘The natures of war’ in which I develop the argument in more – er – depth.   I won’t be confining myself to the First World War, though I expect to have much to say about trench and tunnel warfare, and in particular I want to think through ‘nature’ less as the arena over which conflicts are fought (‘conflict commodities’, ‘resource wars’, and the rest) and more about nature as the medium through which conflict is conducted.  I’m assuming we can all agree that ‘nature’ is just as complex as Raymond Williams said it is, and that here it’s just a shorthand that will need very careful unpacking – or perhaps excavating.  More soon…

‘The largest picture in the world’

I was in Lexington Thursday-Saturday to give the first of this year’s Committee on Social Theory lectures at the University of Kentucky.  The theme this year is “Mapping“, and this was the first outing for “Gabriel’s Map: cartography and corpography in modern war”.  The video will be posted online in a week or so, and there will also be an online interview with the journal disClosure, which is moving to a digital platform.  I was last in Kentucky soon after I moved to UBC, so some time around 1989/90, to give one of the first of these lectures, and this occasion was as enjoyable as the first: many thanks to Jeremy Crampton and his wonderful colleagues and graduate students for such warm hospitality on such a chilly week!  That said, being invited to talk about “Mapping” by Jeremy is like being invited to talk about Marxism by David Harvey, so I was relieved everything went so well; I learned much from the questions, comments and conversations, so no doubt the second outing will see a different presentation.  Then, somewhere down the line, I’ll translate it into written form.

One of the most enjoyable parts of preparing a presentation, for me anyway, is the image research and design, which invariably takes me to sites and sources I’d never otherwise find.  And because it can take an age to find the right image, it slows down the process and gives me time to think more carefully (and I hope creatively) about the argument I’m developing.  This was no exception: again and again, as I raided image banks on the First World War, I encountered the work of Australian photographer and film-maker Frank Hurley (1885-1962).  In fact, it’s one of his photographs that I cut for the banner of this blog (‘Moving Forward/Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector’).

HURLEY Moving forward

McGREGOR Frank HurleyWhen the First World War began Hurley was in Antarctica as the photographer for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Ernest Shackleton‘s legendary attempt to reach the South Pole on foot in 1914-1917, which ended in near disaster when the expedition’s support vessel became trapped and was eventually crushed in the pack ice.  The First Officer on the ill-fated Endurance described Hurley as ‘a warrior with his camera’ who would ‘go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.’

Frank HurleySure enough, soon after he returned to England Hurley was appointed as one of two official photographers to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in July 1917 with the honorary rank of Captain.  (War correspondents were expressly forbidden to take photographs, which is why official photographers were appointed – and subject to regulation and censorship). Hurley left England the following month for what he called ‘the grim duties of France’.  He was constantly haunted by the horror gouged into the landscape of the front line:

‘After, we climbed to the crest of hill 60, where we had an awesome view over the battlefield to the German lines. What an awful scene of desolation! Everything has been swept away: only stumps of trees stick up here & there & the whole field has the appearance of having been recently ploughed. Hill 60 long delayed our infantry advance, owing to its commanding position & the almost impregnable concrete emplacements & shelters constructed by the Bosch. We eventually won it by tunnelling underground, & then exploding three enormous mines, which practically blew the whole hill away & killed all the enemy on it. It’s the most awful & appalling sight I have ever seen. The exaggerated machinations of hell are here typified. Everywhere the ground is littered with bits of guns, bayonets, shells & men. Way down in one of these mine craters was an awful sight. There lay three hideous, almost skeleton decomposed fragments of corpses of German gunners. Oh the frightfulness of it all… Looking across this vast extent of desolation & horror, it appeared as though some mighty cataclysm had swept it off & blighted the vegetation, then peppered it with millions of lightning stabs. It might be the end of the world where two irresistible forces are slowly wearing each other away.’

Or again:

Frank HURLEY  Menin Road, 1917‘The Menin Rd is one of the, if not the, most ghastly approach on the whole front. Accretions of broken limbers, materials & munitions lay in piles on either side, giving the road the appearance of running through a cutting. Any time of the day it may be shelled & it is absolutely impossible owing to the congested traffic for the Boche to avoid getting a coup with each shell. The Menin road is like passing through the Valley of death, for one never knows when a shell will lob in front of him. It is the most gruesome shambles I have ever seen…’

But throughout his diary he is also evidently entranced, even thrilled by the aesthetic effect of such spectacular violence:

‘The battlefield in the night was a wonderful sight of star shells & flashes. The whole sky seemed a crescent of shimmering sheet lightning like illumination. It was all very beautiful yet awesome and terrible.’

Frank HURLEY Ypres 1917At Ypres, he confesses that the shattered town is now ‘aesthetically … far more interesting than the Ypres that was’.  Making his way along the Menin Road at twilight:

‘No sight could be more impressive than walking along this infamous shell swept road, to the chorus of the deep bass booming of the drum fire, & the screaming shriek of thousands of shells. It was great, stupendous & awesome.’


‘The shells shrieked in an ecstasy overhead, & the deep boom of artillery sounded like a triumphant drum roll. Those murderous weapons the machine guns maintained their endless clatter, as if a million hands were encoring & applauding the brilliant victory of our countrymen. It was ineffably grand & terrible…’

Above all, Hurley was tormented by the difficulty of conveying the full extent of what he saw in a single exposure.  In his diary he confided that

‘We have even a worse time than the infantry, for to get pictures one must go into the hottest & even then come out disappointed. To get War pictures of striking interest & sensation is like attempting the impossible.’

He later explained:

‘None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by the camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered — the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke — shells will not burst where required — yet the whole elements of a picture are there could they but be brought together and condensed.’

Hurley passionately believed that it was only by the superimposition of different negatives to form a single, ‘condensed’ image that he could re-present the violence of war – and, I think, its shocking, thrilling aesthetic.  Towards the end of September 1917 Hurley recorded

‘a great argument with Bean about combination pictures. Am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to secure effects – without resorting to composite pictures.’

Charles BeanCharles Bean was Australia’s Official War Correspondent (more here, and for the documentary-drama, Charles Bean’s Great War, see here), and he was equally adamant that Hurley’s method was itself so violent that it destroyed the truth: to Bean, Hurley’s montages were ‘little short of fake’ and violated the imperative to view photographs as ‘sacred records’ of the war.  Indeed, Bean insisted that ‘press photography in this war is such a construction of flimsy fake,’ and ‘that is the last thing a historian wants to build on.’  In October Bean presented an ultimatum to which Hurley responded in a characteristically uncompromising fashion:

‘Had a lengthy discussion with Bean re pictures for Exhibition & publicity purposes. Our Authorities here will not permit me to pose any pictures or indulge in any original means to secure them. They will not allow composite printing of any description, even though such be accurately titled nor will they permit clouds to be inserted in a picture. As this absolutely takes all possibilities of producing pictures from me, I have decided to tender my resignation at once. I conscientiously consider it but right to illustrate to the public the things our fellows do & how war is conducted. These can only be got by printing a result from a number of negatives or reenactment. This is out of reason & they prefer to let all these interesting episodes pass. This is unfair to our boys & I conscientiously could not undertake to continue the work.’

The next morning Hurley resigned:

‘I sent in my resignation this morning & await the result of igniting the fuse. It is disheartening, after striving to secure the impossible & running all hazards to meet with little encouragement. I am unwilling & will not make a display of war pictures unless the military people see their way clear to give me a free hand. Canada has made a great advertisement out of their pictures & I must beat them.’

According to Robert Dixon’s engaging essay ‘Travelling Mass-Media Circus: Frank Hurley and Colonial Modernity’, Hurley had Canada in his sights because the Canadian War Records Office had staged a highly successful photographic exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London the previous December, which had included vast enlargements using multiple negatives; the follow-up exhibition in July had as its centrepiece what was advertised as ‘the largest photograph in the world’, ‘Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield’, which occupied an entire wall of the gallery.

Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield

Within days a compromise of sorts had been reached: Hurley was allowed to make six ‘combination enlargements’ for his public exhibition, provided they were clearly labelled as composites, and he withdrew his resignation. (For more on the spat between Hurley and Bean, and the vexed political-epistemological issues at stake, see here).

But it was not until May 1918 – after he had completed a photographic expedition to record Australian troops fighting in Palestine – that Hurley was able to prepare his photographs for the London exhibition (the catalogue for the later show in Sydney is here).  He was particularly excited by two montages.  The first, ‘DEATH THE REAPER” was made up of two negatives: ‘One, the foreground, shows the mud-splashed corpse of a Boche floating in a shell crater.  The second is an extraordinary shell burst: the form of which resembles death.’

HURLEY Death the Reaper

What is striking about Hurley’s gloss – and the composition of the image itself – is the evident striving for a particular aesthetic effect: the compulsion to ‘secure effects’ (above) that were also affects.  Hurley reserved his most extravagant self-praise for a second photo-work which was made from 12 separate negatives:

‘Our largest picture, “THE RAID”, depicting an episode an the Battle of Zonneke [south-west of Passchendaele] measures over 20 ft. x 15’6″ high.  Two waves of infantry are leaving the trenches in the thick of a Boche Barrage of shells and shrapnel.  A flight of Bombing Aeroplanes accompanies them.  An enemy plane is burning in the background.  The whole picture is realistic of battle, the atmospheric effects of battle smoke are particularly fine.’


You can see an animation of the composition process here and a video here, and although Hurley claims this as a ‘realistic’ photo-work, the process of composition is, again, an artfully studied one that was plainly intended to produce a particular aesthetic – and cinematic – effect.

Even more than this, though, Hurley was – as Julian Thomas makes very clear here, a show man: Robert Dixon argues that by the 1920s ‘Hurley had become not only the ring-master but also the main attraction in his own travelling, international, multi- and mass-media circus.’  (Given how much I enjoy devising my own presentations, perhaps that’s also why I find the man so interesting….).

HURLEY The Raid leaning against a wall

And ‘The Raid’, sometimes also called ‘Over the top’ (shown leaning against a wall in London, left) was his bid to produce ‘the largest picture in the world’ (a quest which shows no sign of coming to an end).

You can find online galleries of Hurley’s photographs from the First World War here.  I used several of them in my presentation at Lexington, and so this excursion into Hurley’s war work is not a side-track: I also used passages from several novels (clearly noted as such), partly to trouble the simple distinctions between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ and to draw attention to the constructedness of our histories, but partly too because there are some truths (sic) that can be conveyed most effectively through the imaginative resources of the novel.  In the case of Tom McCarthy’s luminous novel C, which I’ve invoked before, there are complex relationships between the documentary record and the fictional narrative: C is clearly a work of prodigious imagination, but just as clearly saturated in archival research.  I’m left wondering what a latter-day Hurley would have made of it – and whether photographs are still subject to more stringent protocols than texts as a result of a presumptive indexicality.  What now counts as ‘fakery’ once Bean’s ‘sacred records’ have become secularised?