The Great War From the Air: Then and Now – Gail Ramsey

No matter how hard we may try to picture in our minds the devastation wrought by years of almost continual bombardment, actual photographs still have the power to surprise, even shock, us. This book demonstrates that so vividly. There was an area of France, roughly ten miles wide, which took years to clear of all the war material and turn it back into productive use. There was another area, some seven to eight miles deep, where the devastation was so complete that every building had been ground into dust, and the actual earth itself had been so mixed with the substrate that restitution would be a long and costly job. Some people even argued that the ground was so heavily contaminated that there was no point in trying to bring it back into use and that it should simply abandoned to nature. This area covered nearly 50,000 acres.

The author quotes the words of George B. Ford, an American town planner who travelled around the Western Front soon after the end of the war: “So stupendous is the destruction in the devastated regions of France that no-one can begin to realise what it means. It is only by travelling day after day in an  automobile through village after village and town after town, often where nothing is standing erect more than a few feet above the ground, that one can begin to have any conception of its enormousness.”

This book shows some of these devastated areas in juxtaposition with present-day photographs. Such ‘Then and Now’ images are always fascinating and when it is with regard to devastation on this scale they are even more intriguing. What makes this collection of photographs particularly interesting is that most of the comparative images are aerial ones. To enable the reader place the photos accurately on the ground, trench maps are also included.

Amongst the comparative images are those of Zillebeke in Belgium and the quite unbelievable image of the Bois de Malancourt west of Verdun where the French 69ème Regiment d’Infanterie was annihilated in March and April of 1916. The US 79th division also fought there in September 1918. Almost every feature of the ground had been obliterated.

Whilst in some parts the areas have been completely restored and rebuilt and look nothing like the war-time images, in others craters can still be seen. An example is the Créte des Eparges, a dominating ridge of high ground six miles south-east of Verdun. Here mines were detonated in April 1915, and today they are still clearly visible from the air.

Gail Ramsey’s book does not just show battlefields, though the locations covered include: Bailleul, Hill 60, Loos-en-Gohelle, Serre, Beaumont Hamel, St Eloi, Zonnebeke, Polygon Wood, Bapaume, Delville Wood, Fromelles, and many more. There are also comparative images of forts, such as the Fort de Douamont and Fort de Vaux.

With the maps available for comparison with the present-day photographs and the exact area on the period photograph also clearly marked, it is easy to identify the exact points under discussion. This makes it easy for individuals visiting the Western Front to locate every place featured in the book and should, therefore be in every visitor’s hand when they make their pilgrimage to the hallowed lands.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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