Art and Death in French Photographs of Ruins, 1914–1918

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques


The avalanche of ruin photography in the archives, albums, publications, and propaganda of World War I France challenges us to understand what functions such images fulfilled beyond their use as visual documentation. Did wartime images of ruin continue the European tradition of ruiniste art that went back hundreds of years? Or did their violence represent a break from the past? This article explores how ruin photography of the period fits into a larger aesthetic heritage in France, and how the depiction of ruins (religious, industrial, residential, etc.) on the French side of the Western Front provided means of expressing the shock and grief resulting from the unprecedented human losses of the war. Using official and commercial photographs of the period, the article resituates ruin photography as an aesthetic response to war, a symbol of human suffering, and a repository of rage.

“Standing before these ruins, one thinks of the great cataclysms of nature,” wrote Alexis Léaud as he toured the remnants of Sermaize (Oise) in 1915. Director of the Ecole normale d’instituteurs in Savenay, Léaud’s classical education led him to compare this work of, as he put it, “modern Vandals” to the spectacle of Pompeii, “lying in its layers of lava,” which to him appeared “less dreary” than the fresh piles of rubble before his eyes (Figure 1).1

During World War I, artists and writers like Léaud drew upon their knowledge of ancient ruins when describing what left many observers speechless with horror or despair. Like their literary counterparts, photographers too had mental reference to classical French landscapes, engravings of Roman ruins, as well as contemporary war photographs they may have encountered over the course of their lives. While reporters like Léaud used their pens, photographers pointed their cameras (usually 6 × 13 cm glass plate format leather and wooden box cameras with tripods) at the devastation they encountered up and down the Western Front. To cope with the

Figure 1
Figure 1

Agence Meurisse photograph of the ruins of the church in Ribécourt (1915), fifteen kilometers from where Léaud was describing Sermaize. BNF/Gallica.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

fearful sights and smells they surveyed, French photographers had a mental inventory of ruin imagery to use as a source of comparison, and they had their cameras, serving (as during the next world war) as an emotional buffer between themselves and what they witnessed.2

Official and commercial photographers produced thousands of pictures of ruins in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1919, an enormous catalogue of destruction that postcards, books, and films have drawn upon for illustration to the present day.3 The avalanche of ruin photography in the archives, albums, publications, and propaganda of World War I France challenges us to understand what functions such images fulfilled beyond their use as visual records. Did wartime images of shattered buildings continue the European tradition of ruiniste art that went back hundreds of years, whereby masters like Claude Lorrain and J.-B. Lallemand painted ruins to accompany their biblical and mythological landscapes? Or did the violence of photographic imagery represent a pictorial break from the past? This article asserts that ruin photography of the period does fit into a larger aesthetic heritage in France. Just as importantly, depictions of ruins (religious, industrial, and residential) during the war provided a means to express the shock and grief resulting from the unprecedented human losses of the war. Using official and commercial photographs of the period, the article resituates World War I ruin photography as an aesthetic response to war, a symbol of human suffering, and a repository of rage.

French ruin images come from two main sources: the army photographic corps (the official Section photographique de l’armée) and two large Paris-based commercial photo agencies, the Agence Rol and Agence Meurisse.4 Local inhabitants and tourists also photographed ruins, and volunteers from the humanitarian relief agencies working in the region used cameras, although international representatives were not permitted to take unsupervised photographs in German-occupied territory. The wartime propaganda apparatus distributed photographs of ruins for a domestic French audience and for the military archives. In addition to French archival sources, collections in the US Library of Congress and the National Archives contain enormous caches of ruin photographs from the Western Front. Many of these photographs were sent to America by the French wartime state, which distributed official and published ruin photography in order to convince foreign populations of the righteousness of the French cause and the urgent need for assistance.5 Just as a small industry of books, images, and tours had sprung up in Paris after the Commune in 1871, so too did the traffic in pictures (and tourists) continue unabated between 1914 and 1918.

World War I ruin photographs fall into at least three aesthetic categories. Most are records created officially as aids for personnel concerned with restoration, reconstruction, and housing. A smaller group of images show impressive photographic technique, where it appears the photographer took care to produce an image that fully captured the emotional impact of the destruction. A few ruin photographs, perhaps the smallest in number, hint at an artistic frame of mind—images that might “stand alone” as photographic works of art, or that refer to a European tradition of ruiniste art. Even a century later, some images of World War I ruins, including early film reels, can take our breath away with their crisp depiction of annihilated landscapes.

The Section photographique de l’armée (SPA) created a total of 546 war albums, classified by department as well as by theme.6 Among the ninety thousand prints and negatives the service produced, several thousand depict the aftermath of bombardments, as well as the Germans’ destructive retreat, throughout northeastern France. Iconic sites, such as Verdun, Reims, and Arras, small country towns, as well as occupied cities of the Nord all became objects of the camera following the cessation of active combat. The main purpose of the SPA’s ruin photographs was to assist with pending reconstruction efforts, and its cameramen worked closely with the French Ministry of Fine Arts and the new ministry for the liberated regions on the documentary task.7 Official and commercial photographs had the equally important aim of providing proof of German “vandalism” for domestic and international propaganda purposes. These photographs also aided in the national assessment of war damage, which became an important series of calculations during the peace conferences and a guide for central government personnel who were studying the problem of a vast reconstruction project.8

Although these practical and propagandistic functions of war ruin photographs were clearly spelled out in the press and exhibitions of the period, a closer look at these pictures reveals deeper processes going on as well—processes involving the mental, historical, and aesthetic levels of wartime consciousness. To better understand the cultural functions ruin photographs served in France during World War I, this article will next explore the aesthetic-historical context for ruin images and analyze the descriptive language surrounding such images. War ruin scholars Nicola Lambourne and Emmanuelle Danchin maintain that representations of ruins symbolized human pain and mutilation. In other words, the meaning of ruin images was grounded in what went unspoken and unphotographed at the time: damaged human bodies. This article contends, however, that the anthropomorphic language of ruins was also linked to the determination in France to restore national infrastructure and private property to “normalcy”—that is, to prewar order and appearance. Unable to reverse the human decimation or financial consequences of the war, French officials focused their rhetoric instead on the need to return the buildings, monuments, homes, and businesses to their antebellum appearance.

Ruins in the History of French Visual Culture

A closer look at the historical interest in ruins can help explain the dominance of ruin photography during World War I. Although the task at hand for photographers was, on the face of it, very practical, French image makers were nevertheless informed by a three-hundred-year history of ruiniste art in France, a tradition that included painting, poetry, and literature.9 Some war photographs evoked the long-held fascination that artists, intellectuals, and collectors had felt for classical ruins for generations in Britain and on the Continent, beginning with the Renaissance. During the grand siècle of French painting, artists placed mythological and biblical events amid ruins, as in Claude Lorrain’s Coast View with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl,10 Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with St. Matthew and the Angel (both mid-1640s), or Jean-Baptiste Lallemand’s many rustic ruins (mid-1700s), in addition to the Italian, German, and Flemish pictures of ruins that filled the Louvre. French painters bound for membership in the Academy of Fine Arts, such as Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820) and Hubert Robert (1733–1808), spent years of their training and professional lives in Rome studying classical ruins.

Enthusiasm for ancient Roman ruins became fashionable during the Enlightenment, and the Romantic era that followed stimulated the penchant for ruins in the form of decaying Gothic architecture and even fake ruins in the gardens of the wealthy. Voltaire said in 1768, “To build is beauti ful, but to destroy is sublime,” echoing Immanuel Kant’s early critique of the sublime.11 The ongoing rediscovery of Pompeii—notably, the result of relatively sudden destruction rather than slow decay—inspired a host of novels, poems, and Continental tours. Visualizations of contemporaneous ruins perhaps began during the French Revolution with the demolition of the Bastille, continuing during the revolutions of 1830, 1848 (when photography began to be available), Baron Haussmann’s demolitions,12 and of course the Paris Commune.13 Even the French inventor of photography, Louis Daguerre, chose Scottish ruins lit by moonlight as a subject for painting (The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel, c. 1824, now held in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).

Since the mid-eighteenth century, then, an urge to document contemporary devastation joined a well-established reverence for antique ruins. It was not only the ancient achievements that fascinated artists and architects, but the spectacle of ruination in one’s own time. The spectacle of great catastrophes demands the awe of surviving observers, asserted the poets of the period. Equally, the near total disappearance of such once great cities as Thebes or Carthage might check the pride we place in our present capitals. Philosophers and poets understood too that there was a connection between ancient and modern ruins, and considered both types as sources for introspection and contemplation. Chateaubriand wrote in 1802 that he found “a secret conformity between destroyed monuments and the brevity of our existence.”14 Later in the century, Gustave Flaubert reflected on ruins that had been overtaken by vegetation: “This embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man.”15 The correlation between ruins and human ephemerality was well understood by Romantic artists, poets, and philosophers.

The Romantic surrender to mortality was updated later in the nineteenth century, when the mania for taxonomy gave the study of ruins a scientific gloss. Photography became the new medium of ruins’ representation. During the Second Empire, the Heliographic Mission as well as the Commission for Historic Monuments used the medium of photography to record the ruins of France’s medieval and early modern past.16 The cultural ambivalence surrounding Baron Haussmann’s demolitions in the 1850s and 1860s did not dim the enthusiasm of photographers like Charles Marville and Edouard Baldus, who documented the creative destruction of Haussmann’s project. Just a few years later, literary lights voiced a combination of horror and fascination when touring the destruction of Paris following the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune.17 After the Bloody Week of May 1871, Théophile Gautier and Edmond de Goncourt admitted to having “the yearning to see the grotesque” in the smoldering remains of the confrontation between Versailles’s troops and the Communards.18 Behind the imagery of World War I destruction, therefore, was a long history of painterly, poetical, and literary responses to ruins and destruction.

Is it possible to see World War I ruin photographs as continuing this rich history of art and photography, or is it more appropriate to recognize a break from the past in the World War I images—acknowledging the apocalyptic impact of the 1914–1918 period? Arguments exist for both the “continuity” and the “break” points of view. Mark Levitch, for instance, has asserted that French wartime photographers were deliberately striving for aesthetic appeal when documenting the ruins of the Western Front, indicating the continuation of a tradition. “SPA photographs,” Levitch wrote, “especially those focused on ruins, put a premium on artistic presentation,” and photographers employed their knowledge of painting and engraving while at work.19

I would stop short of attributing a mandate for artistry in the work of the SPA photographers. Yet there seems no good reason to isolate World War I ruin images from the history of ruiniste imagery outlined above. The key differences between World War I photographs and the ruin photographs of the nineteenth century were the levels of industrial production of images of the latter, and the anonymity of the producers between 1914 and 1918. But although the World War I photographs were the product of an industrial, “totalizing” national effort, they were also the product of a longer visual history.

Paul Léon, chief of Architectural Services in the Ministry of Public Instruction during the war, reminded readers in 1918 that events like the Hundred Years’ War, the campaigns of the Ligue catholique during the wars of religion, the Fronde, the Revolution, and the revolts of the nineteenth century had all left their destructive marks throughout France.20 Léon was well aware that France’s infrastructure had suffered before—often at the hands of the French themselves—and through careful restoration procedures had recovered, and would recover again. One of the plates in his book discussing reconstruction, for example, showed that damage to the portal of the Abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes in Soissons resulted from the violence of two different periods. Bombardments during both the Franco-Prussian and the current war, wrote Léon in his image caption, had harmed the eleventh- century building. Léon, then, provided evidence for the “continuity” argument rather than pointing to a qualitative change, even as he detailed the trail of destruction left by the Germans’ recent retreat.

Nevertheless, one might insist that there was a world of difference between ancient or medieval ruins rotting slowly over the course of centuries, as beloved by artists and poets, and the sudden explosion of destruction caused by the artillery of World War I. Léon himself contrasted the buried temple slowly excavated by archeologists with “bombarded monuments presenting a shapeless mass, a lamentable chaos.”21 The one type of ruin, painted lovingly by Claude Lorrain or Hubert Robert, was thought of as a natural form of decay; the contemporary war ruin was, for most French observers, evidence left at the scene of a crime. And yet, Léon’s comments about the ruins of the Western Front sometimes echoed the Romantic attitude of generations past: “In spring last year, shortly after the German retreat, an exuberant vegetation had already seized the devastated villages of the Oise and the Aisne, climbing along the stones, throwing its shoots all over the rubble, decorating with flowers these lamentable debris, sowing a new life on this landscape of death … Etiam periere ruinae.”22 Léon was able to reflect upon precedents in the distant past as well as remind readers that the modern ruin was also well-known in France, including sudden, exploded ruins. Material ruins produced by warfare were far from being a novelty in 1914.

Nevertheless, French propagandists during the war, as well as modern- day critics and photo editors, presented (and present) modern ruins as unprecedented horrors. Daryl Lee has argued that the appearance of ruins produced suddenly by man-made technology in the nineteenth century signaled the arrival of modernity itself, since this new age would be defined by the compression and acceleration of time.23 Instead of the “sweet melan cholia” that ruins used to evoke, observers in 1871 or 1918 found themselves on “a range of desolation … wonder[ing] how they got there.”24 Likewise, Michel Makarius asserted that the shocks “and the accumulation of catastrophes have conspired to turn the ruin into something intrinsic” to our view of history.25 In a way, Lee and Makarius’s arguments about war ruins and modernity agreed with French wartime propaganda, since both saw modern war ruins as new, unprecedented, and demonstrating the dark side of modern technology. Nevertheless, a simple survey of violence in France over the past five centuries supports an argument for continuity rather than change. The depth and scope of devastation between 1914 and 1918 was perhaps one of degree rather than kind.

For visual historians, then, the question of whether World War I imagery indicated a rupture or a continuity with the past requires a complicated response. It represented both continuity and change: change for the twentieth century with the mass production of mechanical images on an unprecedented scale (arguably a new era in the history of war propaganda), and continuity with some of the aesthetic and psychic concerns that had underlain ruin imagery for at least a century, and probably longer. The use of the ruin as archetype, or icon, had evolved with the military and media technology in order to continue fulfilling the expressive function for human beings grappling with death and violence.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Agence Rol photograph of a ruined house in Roville-aux-Chênes, Vosges (1915). BNF/ Gallica.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

How would one evaluate the quality of the 1914–1918 ruin photographs themselves? Despite the preponderance of relatively banal images of damage, generated by wartime circumstances of mass production and institutional constraints, a few photographers revealed talent or artistic knowledge in their depictions of ruins. Compared to the official army photographs, the commercial photographers hired by the Rol agency produced a higher proportion of images that employed imaginative angles, uses of light, and points of view (Figure 2). The decaying house depicted in Figure 2 harkens back to the ruin pictures of Hubert Robert or Giovanni Piranesi, an eighteenth-century Italian artist whose drawings and paintings of classical ruins were often reproduced by the engraving industry in France.26

Memories of ancient Greek ruins, Pompeii and Rome, or Egypt seem to haunt some World War I photographers’ pictures, even an SPA view of Bailleul’s ruined cathedral (Figure 3). Elsewhere, we might see a perhaps unintentionally Romantic effect in an army photograph of a destroyed locomotive factory, where the ghostly ruin paintings of Caspar David Friedrich might come to mind.27 Ruin photographs of the industrial Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing region, though, more often evoke the abstract or surrealist work of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde, because of the sharp lines and melted shapes in those affected areas (Figure 4). Each of the creators of such photographs showed technical mastery, understanding of chiaroscuro, and artistic literacy to produce beautiful, if terrible, images.

Figure 3
Figure 3

SPA photograph of the bombarded belfry and cathedral in Bailleul, Nord. Coll. BDIC.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

Figure 4
Figure 4

SPA photograph of a workmen’s bridge in Roubaix (Nord), “destroyed by the Germans during their retreat” (1918). Coll. BDIC.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

Bodies and Souls

Photographers’ ruin pictures had many functions to fulfill during the war, both propagandistic and archival. More often than not, ruin images were surrounded by captions or commentary that prescribed a meaning, such as condemning the enemy. The vast number of ruin photographs, spread over various media including official army photo albums, illustrated magazines, postcards, and traveling exhibitions, signals that these images were not simply routine records, but played some role in how the French population mentally processed the impact of the war. Several scholars have suggested that both picturing and talking about war ruins allowed Europeans to transfer the horror of mass slaughter onto less painful objects of attention. Ruin photographs, Alisa Luxenberg has argued, transformed “the war ‘wounds’ from bodies to buildings, skin to stone.”28 Likewise, likening German soldiers to premodern “Vandals” or “barbarians” could conceal the multinational reality of industrial artillery characteristic of the war and its devastating impact on bodies and landscapes. Historians of photography

Figure 5
Figure 5

SPA photograph of “the library sacked by the Germans” in Douai (1918). Coll. BDIC.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

have long known that what an image does not reveal is as important as what it does.

A smaller number of postbellum photographs exposed the more intimate destruction inside homes and offices that had been bombarded or occupied by Germans. Ruined interiors photographed by military photographers (Figure 5) exposed the destruction to property that occurred under German occupation in northeastern France, hinting at the violence, deprivation, or deaths experienced by local families, without showing bodies.29

The silent image of a “sacked” library leaves viewers to speculate on the fate of its French caretakers. In more gendered terms, ruined buildings could imply “ruined virtue,” as atrocity stories involving women and girls spread in the press.30 A Rol agency photograph captioned as a “safe ripped open by the Boches,” for example, evoked the idea of rape. Feelings of outrage at violation accompanied both propaganda concerning material destruction and that which focused on brutish enemy behavior toward women, as in the horrifying prints and sketches of Louis Raemaekers.31

In both fiction and nonfiction during the war, French authors continually used the language of wounds, and even murder, to describe destroyed property.32 Sometimes shelled buildings were likened to bodies, as in Maxence Van der Meersch’s postwar description of Lille as a collection of “big black skeletons of stone and iron … [whose] disemboweled houses, cut in two, exposed little rooms, their furniture hanging over gaping chasms, their beds dangling above the abyss.”33 Inspector Léaud, describing Reims in 1915 as the “ville martyre” (a common epithet), said that the city “continued to be, literally, massacred.”34 Léaud’s employment of “literally” was itself a metaphor projecting the human death and mutilation he witnessed at the front onto inanimate monuments. To other commentators, architectural treasures evoked the body, or the soul, of France, so that damage to Reims Cathedral or the belfry in Arras was described as a “mutilation” or “decapitation,” and ruins in general were described as “wounds.”35 Psychologically, anthropomorphic descriptions of ruins gave commentators a way of talking about death. More practically, cultural war damage “was useful for propagandists in that it avoided the restrictions of the censor.”36 Military censorship as well as self-censorship prevented journalists from going into any detail about human casualties. Photographed ruins provided a coded way to talk about death and dismemberment.

Another significant use of language concerned the ruins of religious buildings. As French architectural heritage took the blows of devastating bombardments, the prewar, republican campaign to marginalize the church disappeared in the rhetoric surrounding ruins.37 Arsène Alexandre, General Inspector of Museums, insisted that French men and women, regardless of political or religious faction, were “unanimous in releasing a cry of horror when they learned of the destruction of the queen of cathedrals [Reims],” because they were “unanimous in their admiration for it.”38 The ruins of Reims and other medieval churches silenced the leftist and secularist

Figure 6
Figure 6

Plate XVI from La Renaissance des ruines entitled, “A Depot for Works of Art Evacuated from the Front.” Photograph by the author.

Citation: Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 42, 3; 10.3167/hrrh.2016.420304

movement that had existed before the war. Reporting from the field, Alexis Léaud was particularly indignant that the enemy would target the humbler country churches that dotted the Western Front, “where the faith of the countryside resided, [and] where the soul of old France dreamed.”39 If the Third Republic had, before the war, attempted to cleanse civil society of religious influence, the momentum was reversed between 1914 and 1920, when a variety of officials and reporters pointed to damaged churches and cathedrals as wounds on the body of French civilization. Loving descriptions of damaged religious property obscured the recent, and heated, conflict between the Catholic Right and the anticlerical Left in France before the war.40

Indeed, “pictures of smoldering ecclesiastical ruins became something of a new photographic genre during the First World War.”41 Rubble-filled churches and decapitated religious sculptures became some of the most favored images in French photo documentation and propaganda. One photograph illustrating La Renaissance des ruines (1918) treated rescued church sculptures as though the stone representations of holy figures were human refugees of war, huddling for safety on terrain behind the lines (Figure 6). The emphasis on ecclesiastical damage was a matter not only of providing proof of German vandalism, but also of identifying such objects with French national identity, in contrast to prewar anticlericalism.42

Ruin Under the Occupation

In German-occupied France, response to the destruction of industrial property, described in reports and in the reparative demands of the Treaty of Versailles as the product of German “barbarism,” was understandably angry and indignant.43 In contrast, the fact that Allied bombardments caused enormous material damage in the fight against the Germans was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the French press or public sources. One of the largest projects at war’s end, in cooperation with thousands of owner-claimants large and small, was to document damage so that payment for commercial losses and reconstruction could go forward. Already in 1917, French journalists demanded that Germany pay to re-establish the “former prosperity” of returning veterans, in some cases maimed, coming home to damaged property.44 With over four million French soldiers returning home physically damaged, and more than five hundred thousand men missing or prisoners of war (aside from the 1.3 million French military dead at war’s end), the national need for wholeness was collectively sublimated into demands for compensation. Moreover, Paul Léon asserted bluntly, “Whatever the stipulations of the peace, the restoration of France and Belgium is emerging as a debt of national and even international solidarity.”45 The government ministers and functionaries saw this restoration process not as an opportunity for modern planning, but as a moral imperative to replicate what had been destroyed.

Industrialists and assessment officials in the northeast insisted on returning every salvageable property to the way it had been, status quo antebellum: to reconstruct as closely as possible the assets of their class and gender, with considerably less emphasis on the need to update shop floor technologies or working conditions. This replicative impulse applied to rural property as well. In a historical and architectural review of northeastern France, Léon, writing on behalf of the Ministry of Public Instruction, im agined village restoration that we might be tempted to describe as neofeudal, if not for the modern hygiene facilities upon which he insisted. “As much as is possible,” he wrote, homes “will be rebuilt in their original [ancien] locations. … It’s the France of yesterday that ought to be reborn tomorrow.”46 By studying regional architectural styles, he continued, they could reintegrate homes with the village church, farm, and workshop, even though (he admitted) industrial concentration and the railway had compromised this traditional way of life.47

Whereas violent destruction has at times been the catalyst for innovative renewal, for example, German building after World War II, or English rebuilding after explosive IRA attacks in more recent times, French planners in 1918 were committed to “turning back the clock” on the built landscape. Describing Arras after the war, Jean-Christophe Bourgeois wrote that the town “seemed to have no other aspiration than to recover its appearance and Death in French Photographs of Ruins 63 and economic function from before 1914.”48 The postwar “return to normalcy” meant restoring textile factories, coal mines, and chemical plants to how they had been before the war. The violent strife between capital and labor that marked public life in the Nord before the war was conveniently forgotten in the frenzy of business claims that closed the war in France.

It was unsurprising that businessmen in the Nord would want to reassert their dominance in the region. Before the war, northern towns like Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, and Lens formed an industrial archipelago whose prosperity and self-sufficiency had been the pride of the local population and the nation as a whole.49 But the drive to restore property to the way it was before 1914 sprang from multiple impulses beyond the reassertion of class dominance. The ruins of their transport networks, public buildings, and factories connoted both the loss of bourgeois prosperity and the fact that inhabitants had been utterly cut off from the national community during the occupation.50 Between 1914 and 1918, the Nord was isolated not only in the sense of being unfree, but also because of its lack of access to news or persons (including relatives in uniform) living in the unoccupied country. Just as importantly, the population under occupation was despised by ignorant Parisians and others who suspected northerners of collaboration.51

Novelist Maxence Van der Meersch took great pains in his fictional account to describe the dilemma faced by Roubaisien manufacturers under German occupation. Ought one to refrain from producing goods that will be utilized by the enemy, thereby leaving the local workforce unemployed? Or should one keep the works running in order to keep some control over one’s own operation? He showed that either choice the boss made, it ended up being the wrong decision, as he was either ruined by war’s end or punished for collaboration.

As the Allies systematically recaptured the invaded territories, ruin photographs from the northeast flooded the press. For northeastern French civilians, photographs of the region’s ruins might have represented “proof” that they had suffered just as much, if not more, than their compatriots to the south.52 The Michelin guide to Lille: Before and After the War, for example, gave a blow-by-blow description of the invasion, fall, and deliverance of the northern capital, including twenty photographs of war ruins.53 The reparation of property damages following liberation remained the key priority of the regional elite. Aside from reasserting class dominance, restoration of commercial property—erasing, as much as possible, the past four years—also allowed northeastern men to rejoin the nation as full-fledged Frenchmen. The impetus after 1918 was not to forge a fresh future, but to re-create the past.


As shown in this article, visual historians of World War I can use period texts and art historical sources to interpret more effectively the impressive photographic record of destruction on the Western Front. The results shed light on the photographs’ pictorial legacy, but more than that, they discern the link between human and material ruins. Embedded in images of World War I ruins is both the trauma of mass slaughter and the rage of dispossessed civilians under German occupation—rage that had a class dimension in the context of the industrial north. Although, with the benefit of distance in time, we can see a continuity, or evolution, in the French history of ruin imagery from at least the eighteenth century, it is reasonable to suppose that for the men and women living through the war, these images—as well as the sights themselves—appeared as an unprecedented catastrophe.

“Charged with an evident transience, ruins of all sorts have long symbolized the inevitability of death and decay, the fragility of life and the material world,” wrote cultural geographer Tim Edensor.54 In the case of destruction in France during World War I, the thoughts of “death and decay” evoked by ruins came on two levels. Philosophical observers concluded that time, disaster, or malice eventually destroys all man-made things. In another sense, the photographed ruins concealed, or stood in place of, the destruction of human bodies that accompanied the conquest and occupation of northeastern France. Regional testimonies are replete with the martyrdom, illness, death, and suicides of the region’s trapped civilians, though, significantly, images of French dead bodies rarely came to light until the 1920s.55 Embattled businessmen who had been forced to live under German rule for four long years likely viewed images of ruined industrial property as material evidence in their suit to restore their material prosperity—although that prosperity may have actually peaked well before the war.

Although the images illustrating this article provide evidence of thoughtful composition and technique, they do not prove that the (mainly anonymous) photographers saw themselves as part of the long aesthetic history described in the first part of this article. French wartime photographers remained silent on this point. But as former art students, studio operators, gallery employees, travel photographers, or photo club members, we can situate them within a class of image producers that had been exposed to the classic conventions of ruiniste imagery and/or avant-garde experimentation, whether through their education, training, or experiences before the war.56

French photographers, then, were operating amid a rich field of European visual culture and history, to which they were contributing. The mass production of war-related photographs, strict censorship during the period, and the anonymity of the photographers themselves, although all circumstances of a totalizing war effort, should not lead us to isolate these images from a longer history of ruin imagery in France. On the contrary, judicious comparisons of images from different eras of man-made destruction can help us better understand the mental frameworks available to photographers, editors, and curators during the war.

As propaganda media, records of ruin created between 1914 and 1918 pointed a long finger at the enemy and had the effect of silencing any lingering objections or questions surrounding the national war effort. “It is this faculty of the photograph to vanish behind a reality which it appears merely to re-create that contributed to its huge ideological success,” wrote Bernard Hüppauf.57 In other words, photography’s greatness as a propaganda tool came from its wordless realism. Ruin photographs were particularly powerful and effective, because, like all modern propaganda, they had an aesthetic component that reflected themes and icons of a longer tradition. Some of ruin photographs’ power lay in the unspoken thoughts and feelings that surrounded such images, both in terms of the aesthetic tradition to which they belonged and the destruction of human bodies that they symbolized. Like all photographs, these images performed work—emotional, ideological, evidentiary—for all those who employed them.


The author wishes to thank Brian Newsome and Linda Mitchell for their editorial generosity and the anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions.


Alexis Léaud, Spectacles de guerre: Choses vues / dans les ruines / au cœur de la bataille / la ville bombardée / au camp de la noblette / la ville martyre / à l’hôpital temporaire / face à l’ennemi, etc. (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1918), 8, 18. Léaud also compared what he saw to the destruction by volcanic eruption in 1902 of the Martiniquais town of Saint-Pierre.


At the end of World War II, photographer Margaret Bourke-White famously admitted that using a camera “was almost a relief” when confronted by the sights of recently liberated Buchenwald. See Bourke-White, Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946), 73.


Recent scholarship on World War I ruins and their representations includes Emmanuelle Danchin, “Les Ruines de guerre et la nation française (1914–1921)” (PhD diss., Université de Paris X, 2012); Nicola Lambourne, “First World War Propaganda and the Use and Abuse of Historic Monuments on the Western Front,” Imperial War Museum Review 12 (1999): 96–108; Nicola Lambourne, “Production versus Destruction: Art, World War I and Art History,” Art History 22, no. 3 (1999): 347–363. A small sample of the many French wartime publications featuring or discussing ruins includes Arsène Alexandre, Les Monuments français détruits par l’Allemagne: Enquête entreprise par ordre de M. Albert Dalimier, sous-secrétaire d’état des beaux-arts (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1918); Louis-Lucien Baclé, La Destruction systématique par les Allemands des usines métallurgiques du Nord et de l’Est de la France pendant l’occupation militaire, 1914–1918 (Paris: Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale, 1920); Paul Léon, La Renaissance des ruines (Paris: Henri Laurens, 1918); Alexis Léaud, Spectacles de guerre (Paris: Armand Colin, 1918); and the short play by Paul Gsell, Les Gosses dans les ruines: Idylle de guerre (Paris: L’Edition française illustrée, 1919), with set decorations and illustrations in the text by the artist Poulbot. Contemporary compendiums include Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett’s companion to the PBS series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (New York: Penguin Studio, 1996), which features ruins of the Battle of Langemarck on the cover (1917); Hew Strachen, The First World War (New York: Viking Adult, 2004); Jean-Yves Le Naour, La Grande Guerre à travers la carte postale ancienne (Paris: Relié, 2013).


Images discussed in this article originate mainly from the Albums Valois (SPA collection) at the Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine/Musée d’histoire contemporaine, and the Agence Rol and Agence Meurisse digital photo collections available on Gallica ( The Rol photo agency was founded in 1904 and merged with the Meurisse agency and Mondial Photo Press in 1937, forming SAFARA (Service des agences françaises d’actualité et de reportage associées), which operated until 1945. Other collections consulted include World War I images at the Mediathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine and postcard collections at the Hoover Institution, Emory University, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the US National Archives.


The US Army Signal Corps produced its own substantial collection of World War I photographs documenting the Western Front and American participation; see US National Archives, College Park, MD.


The so-called Albums Valois, now located in the library of the Musée d’histoire contemporaine at the Invalides in Paris. The name Valois came from the Parisian street on which the SPA operated an outlet for displaying and selling official photographs during the war.


Hélène Guillot, “La Section photographique de l’armée et la Grande Guerre: De la création en 1915 à la non-dissolution,” Revue historique des armées 258 (2010): 110–117, available online at


On reconstruction and the evolution of the French state, see Annie Deperchin, “Des Destructions aux reconstructions,” in Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre, 1914–1918: Histoire et culture, ed. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Jean-Jacques Becker (Paris: Bayard, 2004), 1134–1136.


See, for example, Stephen D. Borys, ed., The Splendor of Ruins in French Landscape Painting, 1630–1800 (Oberlin College, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 2005). For ruins as a literary motif, see Ingrid G. Daemmrich, “The Ruins Motif as Artistic Device in French Literature,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 30, no. 4 (Summer 1972): 449–457. For an overview of ruins in European art, see Paul Zucker, Fascination of Decay: Ruins (Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg Press, 1968).


See “Claude Lorrain—The Complete Works,” collection available online at


Voltaire quoted in Nina L. Dubin, Futures & Ruins: Eighteenth-Century Paris and the Art of Hubert Robert (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 69. Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764). He further developed the theme in his Critique of Judgment (1790).


See Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Charenton-le-Pont (Val-de-Marne), Reproduction © RMN-Grand Palais/René-Gabriel Ojéda.


On the use of photography during the Paris Commune, see Donald English, The Political Uses of Photography in the Third French Republic, 1871–1914 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), chap. 2; Gen Doy, “Women, Class and Photography: The Paris Commune of 1871,” in Seeing & Consciousness: Women, Class and Representation (Washington, DC: Berg, 1995), 82–106.


Quoted in Louis Hawes, “Constable’s Hadleigh Castle and British Romantic Ruin Painting,” The Art Bulletin 65, no. 3 (1983): 466.


Quoted in Stephen D. Borys, “Documenting and Collecting Ruins in European Landscape Painting,” in Borys, The Splendor of Ruins in French Landscape Painting, 31.


See, for example, Edouard-Denis Baldus’s photograph of the Roman arch in Orange (1851):


See Eric Fournier, Paris en ruines: Du Paris haussmannien au Paris communard (Paris: Imago, 2007).


Daryl Patrick Lee, “Uncanny City: Paris in Ruins” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1999), 107. On literary responses to ruins, see also Roland Mortier, La Poétique des ruines en France: Ses origins, ses variations de la Renaissance à Victor Hugo (Geneva: Droz, 1974).


Mark Levitch, “The Visual Culture of Modern War: Photography, Posters, and Soldiers’ Art in World War I France” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2008), 48.


Léon, La Renaissance des ruines, 39.


Ibid., 79.


Ibid. Latin translates to, “Even the ruins shall perish.”


Lee, “Uncanny City,” 120–121.


Robert Smithson, quoted in Brigitte Desrochers, “Ruins Revisited: Modernist Conceptions of Heritage,” The Journal of Architecture 5, no. 1 (2000): 38.


Michel Makarius, Ruins (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), 9.


French Army photograph of a locomotive workshop in Fives-Lille, Nord, “sacked by the Germans” (1918). From the SPA collection (Fonds Valois) at the BDIC/MHC,


Alisa Luxenberg, “Creating Désastres: Andrieu’s Photographs of Urban Ruins in the Paris of 1871,” The Art Bulletin 80, no. 1 (March 1998): 117.


Harrowing sources of testimony about conditions in the Nord during the German occupation include Mme Delahaye-Théry, Les Cahiers noirs: Notes quotidiennes écrites d’octobre 1914 à novembre 1918 par une Lilloise sous l’occupation allemande (Rennes: Imprimerie provincial de l’ouest, 1934), and Maxence Van der Meersch, Invasion 14, trans. by W. Brian Newsome (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).


The forced deportation of young girls from their homes in Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing in 1916 produced an angry reaction. See Anon., The Deportation of Women and Girls from Lille (New York: George H. Doran, 1916).


Louis Raemaekers (1869–1956) was a Dutch artist who gained worldwide fame for his anti-German cartoons during World War I. Three volumes of Raemaekers’s wartime cartoons are available on the Internet Archive (


Arsène Alexandre used the word “bruised” or “murdered” (meurtrie, meurtrier, meurtre) at least twenty times to describe the fate of inanimate objects in Les Monuments français détruits par l’Allemagne (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1918).


Van der Meersch, Invasion 14, 16–17. See also the opening scene in Les Gosses dans les ruines, which has the characters (inhabitants of a village on the Somme) creeping out of their caves to see their fruit trees cut down, their plows damaged, and their village burned down by explosives. Gsell and Poulbot, Les Gosses dans les ruines, 7.


Léaud, Spectacles de guerre, 138.


From the French introduction to Ruines de guerre (Paris: Coquemar imprimeur, 1919), a portfolio of ruin sketches by YMCA artist Daniel Putnam Brinley. The language of body-related wounds and violence was also adopted by American reporters, as in the “murdered villages” discussed in Harriet Chalmers Adams, “In French Lorraine,” National Geographic Magazine, 32, no. 5 (1917): 504.


Lambourne, “Production versus Destruction,” 355. Lambourne pointed out that the censorship law of 5 August 1914 restricted the mention of military activities in the press (including casualties). Scholars agree that self-censorship too restricted discussion of French dead in print. See Ross F. Collins, “The Development of Censorship in World War I France,” Journalism Monographs 131 (Feb. 1992): 1–25; Jöelle Beurier, “Information, Censorship or Propaganda?” in Untold War: New Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Heather Jones, (Boston: Brill, 2008), 293–324.


Prewar legislation included the French law of 1901, which closed the establishments of nonauthorized religious congregations, the law of 1904, which stripped religious congregations of the right to teach school, and the law of 1905, which formally separated church and state. Accompanying this last law was the decree of 29 December 1905, which ordered a national inventory of church property.


Alexandre, Les Monuments français détruits par l’Allemagne, 29. A sample of official propaganda focusing on ecclesiastical ruins includes Jean de Bonnefon, Les Cathédrales de France devant les barbares (Paris: Société d’éditions, 1915); Sous-Secretariat des Beaux-Arts, Les Allemands—destructeurs des cathédrales et de trésors du passé (Paris: Hachette et Cie, 1915); Société d’archeologie et de statistique de la Drôme, Protestation contre la destruction de la cathédrale de Reims et le vandalisme allemand (Valence: Secrétariat de la société, 1914); Maurice Landrieux, La Cathédrale de Reims: Un crime allemand (Paris: H. Laurens, 1919).


Léaud, Spectacles de guerre, 9.


An interesting example in prewar literature saw one of the heroes of Emile Zola’s novel Paris (1898) attempt to blow up the recently completed Sacré Coeur basilica on Montmartre, the same year in which Zola published “J’accuse” in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair.


Lambourne, “First World War Propaganda,” 97.


The German Catholic press during the war asked how it was that the French Republic suddenly became the “protective mother” of these religious buildings, when it had so “persecuted the Catholic Church, closed the convents, etc.” The point was acknowledged in Alexandre, Les Monuments français détruits par l’Allemagne, 15.


See Articles 231–245 and their annexes in the Treaty of Versailles. Detailed quantities and costs can be found in John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920). With respect to German “barbarism,” see Lambourne, “Production versus Destruction,” 358.


From the caption to a halftone illustration in Le Monde Illustré, 30 June 1917, 416–417.


Léon, La Renaissance des ruines, 67.


Ibid., 39.


Ibid., 32–33.


Bourgeois, “La Reconstruction d’Arras au lendemain de la première guerre mondiale,” 945.


On economic history in the Nord, see Félix-Paul Codaccioni, “L’Exaltation économique et humaine (1871–1914),” in Histoire de Roubaix, ed. Louis Trenard et al. (Dunkirk: Les Editions des Beffrois/Westhoek Editions, 1984): 171–304, and other volumes on the Nord by Trénard.


One representative SPA photograph taken in Valenciennes in 1919, for example, showed destroyed industrial property with the caption, “Electric factory sacked by the Germans.” Hundreds of army photographs recorded the Nord’s industrial ruins with both exterior shots of bombarded factories and workshops, and interior ruins showing piles of metal, glass, and wooden rubble on the shop floors of businesses sacked during the Germans’ retreat from the area.


Timothy Baycroft pointed out that Flemish speakers in particular were figures of suspicion. Baycroft, “The Versailles Settlement and Identity in French Flanders,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 16, no. 3 (2005): 592. On northerners’ reputation during the war, see also Philippe Nivet, Les Réfugiés français de la Grande Guerre (1914–1920): Les “Boches du Nord” (Paris: Economica, 2004).


Beginning during the war, bourgeois refugees from the Nord formed their own lobby to publicize their misfortunes and demand their rights. The mouthpiece of this group was Le Journal des réfugiés du Nord, directed by André Fage.


Michelin & Cie, Lille: Before and During the War (Clermont-Ferrand: Michelin & Cie, 1919).


Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (New York: Berg, 2005), 139.


Rare, but not totally absent. See, for example, the photographs of dead civilians in Le Miroir, 28 Feb. 1915, 4, and 28 April 1918, 12–13. On the appearance of dead bodies in the press, see Jöelle Beurier, “Voir ne pas voir la mort,” in Voir, ne pas voir la guerre: Histoire des représentations photographiques de la guerre, ed. Thérèse Blondet-Bisch et al. (Paris: Somogy, 2001), 63–69.


We know that some of the wartime army and commercial photographers came from studio businesses and suppliers because of the disputes between the military and early participants concerning image rights, costs, and personnel. Some wartime photographers had likely been members of the Société française de la photographie or the Paris Photo-Club, because their general absorption by the army was noted in the club journals and bulletins of the period.


Bernd Hüppauf, “Experiences of Modern Warfare and the Crisis of Representation,” New German Critique, no. 59 (1993): 48.

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    Agence Meurisse photograph of the ruins of the church in Ribécourt (1915), fifteen kilometers from where Léaud was describing Sermaize. BNF/Gallica.

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    Agence Rol photograph of a ruined house in Roville-aux-Chênes, Vosges (1915). BNF/ Gallica.

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    SPA photograph of the bombarded belfry and cathedral in Bailleul, Nord. Coll. BDIC.

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    SPA photograph of a workmen’s bridge in Roubaix (Nord), “destroyed by the Germans during their retreat” (1918). Coll. BDIC.

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    SPA photograph of “the library sacked by the Germans” in Douai (1918). Coll. BDIC.

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    Plate XVI from La Renaissance des ruines entitled, “A Depot for Works of Art Evacuated from the Front.” Photograph by the author.