Wade Davis, in his brilliant book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest conveys the brutality and madness of trench warfare as witnessed by those who subsequently attempted the ascent of the world’s tallest mountain. Davis’s phrase “the topography of Armageddon” haunted me as I searched for battlefield photographs within the collections of the BC Archives to juxtapose against the shots of smiling recruits leaving Victoria Harbour. Battlefield photographs are few and far between; by contrast, those of departing soldiers number in the thousands.
The photograph selected to serve as a sobering reminder of war’s grim reality, in our initial installation commemorating the First World War (1914-1918), was made at Courcelette, France, September 16, 1916, the day after a major attack by Canadian Troops. My colleagues were initially hesitant to include a photograph showing the dead. But that is what war is primarily about, killing the enemy and securing control over land, even land that has been obliterated by pounding artillery fire.
Does time heal wounds? The land is amazingly resilient, for today the countryside at Courcelette has regained its verdant beauty. Courcelette is the site of one of seven monuments recognizing the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in France and Belgium. Its park-like setting is a poignant reminder of what peace should look like and how nature erases human destruction. What about the wounds of the Great War generation nearly one hundred years hence? Davis points out: “In four years, an area of shattered ground one could walk around in a day would see no fewer than 1.7 million casualties.”1