Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: The Doughboys
Renowned photographer, Mike St Maur Sheil, discusses his work which is appearing at The Doughboys exhibition, in the City of London's Guildhall Yard.
April 7th to 23rd
Guildhall Yard, London EC2V 5AE
April 6, 1917: 100 years ago, the USA formally entered the First World War by declaring War on Germany. A century later, the City of London's Guildhall Yard is host to a must visit free exhibition commemorating the occasion. Photographer Mike St Maur Sheil documents the battlefields of the First World War as they are today, offering an opportunity to reflect on the horrors of battle in the context of how those landscapes appear today. A prescient exhibition, here the focus is on The Doughboys, The American soldiers who fought in World War One. Ahead of the exhibition's launch on April 7th, we spoke to Mike about his work and his inspiration.
Looking at the images on display as part of the Doughboys Exhibition, are there any landscapes which feel particularly poignant for you?
I try to be dispassionate about my work but if there was only to be one picture it would be the shot taken from the Chemin des Dames looking down across landscape of fields and woods. My lovely friend, Prof. Richard Holmes, with whom I started this project and who is now sadly dead, wrote of this picture.
"I think that this is perhaps my favourite view of the Western Front ... as one stands there one cannot but be humbled by the spirit and endurance required of the soldier in battle. You cannot really understand a battle without viewing the ground on which it was fought. Part of the process is intellectual: to see how ridges provided fields of fire and woods offered cover. But, part of it, too, is emotional. This landscape was once peopled by soldiers, embedded deep in the seams of the soil. All those elements are to be found in this landscape. When I look at it my throat tightens as I think of the brave spirits who died fighting on these slopes. Here is the story of war, the essence of which we are seeking to tell."
So for me this is the picture:
How can modern photography reflect on historic events such as World War One?
Very simply - by simply showing these fields where battles took place one can introduce a modern generation to the subject and ask them to consider the events and issues. My job as a photographer is simply to tell the story as it is today. I deliberately shot in colour so as to distance myself from the pictures of the period which were largely shot in black and white: indeed we use many archival pictures but colour has enabled me to create a separation and distance between the war and my current work.
What was your inspiration to review historic battles in the context of how those battlefields look today?
I have always been a photographer that wanted his pictures to tell a story so once I had thought of marking the centenary of the First World War in some way it simply became a matter of deciding how best to tell that story. For the past century it has been customary to depict battlefields as sombre places by using black and white film: that made me choose colour and then the reason for shooting so many pictures at dawn was simply because this was the time of day known as ‘Stand-To’ when men of all armies would be roused and alert in case of attack so this light was a common experience, shared by all men who fought.
Do you aim to capture your own feelings of being on the battlefields through your pictures?
If one is not feeling emotional in places such as these then one is not really thinking about where you are standing. My feelings aside, there is also a need to tell the story of the events which happened in these places so every picture has an event or person to which it is associated. Wherever possible I have used the seasons and the light to create an image which will hopefully attract the viewer and thus draw them into the picture and its story.
Finally, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the entry of the USA into World War One, what do you hope visitors to your exhibition will take away from their experiences of viewing your work?
I think that the picture of the place where the last US soldier, Henry Gunther, was killed just seconds before the end of the war at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918 shows the total futility of war. He was killed by men who clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to shoot him: he persisted and so he was shot by men who moments later would probably have embraced him as one of their own because he was the son of German immigrants. What a cruel irony to be killed by men who had he lived and talked to them, would have embraced him as “Mein bruder”.
I would also like people to realise that after war, there is also peace and with that peace, if it is carefully guarded, can also come reconciliation and friendship between former enemies.
To see Mike's photography, The Doughboys Exhibition at the Guildhall Yard, London EC2V 5AE is free to attend, and open from April 7th to 23rd. See more at www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/whats-on