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Remembering World War I’s executed deserters

It’s unmissable, the memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. It can be seen from a distance, across the rolling fields, and if there were any doubt of the power converging on and emanating from this place, a sign reminds visitors that they stand on hallowed ground. The Great War cemeteries in France and Belgium too, even ones with only a dozen graves, exert a hold on the land that surrounds them. Places where time has stood its ground, they allow whatever lies outside the low cordon of walls to return to purpose: for fields to be plowed, fruit to be grown, crops to be farmed, lives to be lived. When no grave or memorial is in view, one still understands — one feels — that this is more than just a conventionally pleasing landscape, even if the particulars of what has happened remain unknown. History has taken root here.

Each of these photographs by Chloe Dewe Mathews is of a place where something happened, enormous and terrible in itself, but easily, perhaps deliberately, overlooked in the context of the larger cataclysm of the First World War. They are part of a series called Shot at Dawn, for which Dewe Mathews visited sites where soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion in the face of the enemy. All were taken as close to the time of execution as possible — either at dawn or, in two instances, at dusk — and at pretty much the same time of year. The weather may be different, but within the larger, planetary scheme of things the light is as it was.

It’s tempting to assume that the point of view in each of the photographs is that either of the firing squad or of the man they were shooting (in which case the photograph effectively removes, almost a hundred years later, the blindfold placed over his eyes in the last minute of life). This might be the case in some of the images, but it’s impossible to know for sure. A couple are not of the execution sites but of places nearby where the condemned men spent their last nights. They are pictures of and in the vicinity of death.

With one exception — a wall covered with traces of graffiti, a palimpsest from which an archaeologist might hope to uncover the last words scrawled in the cell of Second Lieutenant Eric Skeffington Poole on December 10, 1916 — the photos are devoid of messages or inscribed meanings. They cannot be read in the way that the landscape was clearly legible to the Romantics (like the place where a murderer was hanged, his name carved in — and the grass annually cleared from — the spot, so that when the young Wordsworth comes across it, years later, the “letters are all fresh and visible”). Though idyllic, the fields are scattered with faint reminders of battle: a steep bank presents hikers with an entirely safe equivalent of going over the top, a wire fence stands in for thousands of miles of barbed wire, a drainage ditch looks like the waterlogged residue of a trench.

The bodies, of course, are nowhere to be seen, but the bucolic settings, combined with knowledge of what has happened, bring to mind a recent series of photographs in which they — the dead — are horribly present. In 2011, Fernando Brito won a World Press Photo Award for his series Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape, which showed victims of the drug wars in northern Mexico: corpses, often mutilated, dumped in the middle of what might otherwise be beautiful scenery — fields of wheat, a river, plowed earth. When I look again at Dewe Mathews’s work, it seems as if the thing that gives each spot its meaning — a dead body — has been painstakingly removed.

That, of course, has been achieved not by the photographer or by digital manipulation but by a burial party — and by time. A question naturally arises: How much time is there in these pictures? Shutter speeds may have been only a fraction of a second, showing what a place looked like at a certain time on a certain day in 2013, but the image resulting from that brief exposure sometimes contains the passage of nearly a century: from the moment an individual life ended, through the long aftermath of the catastrophe that engulfed the landscape, to a present that may or may not be steeped in forgetfulness. At which point the question of time becomes impossible to separate from that of memory.

In the daily life of the trenches, dawn and dusk were “exactly the moments of heightened ritual anxiety.” (The words are Paul Fussell’s, from The Great War and Modern Memory. Among other things, these shots of dawns offer useful evidence with which to weigh Fussell’s charge that “[d]awn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it.”) Dawn was the period of maximum potential danger, when soldiers on either side of no-man’s-land had to stand to, in anticipation either of attack (going over the top) or of being attacked. In Wilfred Owen’s poem “Exposure” (a title that doubles the conceptual pun of Dewe Mathews’s project), “Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army / Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray, / But nothing happens.”

Except, in these particular places, at a particular moment, something did happen: time stopped. After which, if we consider things slightly differently, nothing could ever happen again. While some pictures seem to contain almost a century’s worth of time, others offer a stark alternative: that they contain none at all, that the places depicted exist in an atemporal present. We are used to the idea of photographs stopping time; in some of these photographs, it seems that the landscape itself became arrested in time, that this is what the photographs duly record. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of how “time ticks blank and busy” on the wrists of men about to go over the top in a dawn attack, about to die. What is left afterwards is what we see here: dead time.

Having survived the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1984, Margaret Thatcher spoke of “the day I was not meant to see.” Joseph Brodsky, in his “Homage to Marcus Aurelius,” writes that “all one stands to lose by dying is the day when it happens — the day’s remaining part, to be precise — and in time’s eye, still less.” By these terms, execution at dawn is designed to rob the individual of as much life — as much time — as possible, while those shot at dusk lose only the twilight of their lives. Either way these pictures show what was lost — and what remains of that loss.

Shot at Dawn is commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.

is a photographer based in London. She is represented by Panos Pictures.


’s most recent book, Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush, was published last month by Pantheon. His article “A Brief Period of Rejoicing” appeared in the November 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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June 2014

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