Selected by Patricia Methven, Director of Archives & Information Management
On 20th March 1917 Edward Spears, Head of the British Military Mission in Paris, in Beauvais following a joint British and French senior commanders’ meeting, had time to look about him and reflect. One of his most vivid memories of the day was of ‘the country abandoned by the Germans’. He noted that whenever the Germans had the time to do so, they cut down trees, especially fruit trees. Spears described his ‘rage at the sight of those massacred trees’ and how ‘those trees made us feel as if the soldiers we were following were demoniacs or fiends, made us want to hurt them, to make them suffer for this affront to something we all held sacred.’ ‘Some primeval instinct’, he thought, ‘had been outraged ‘. The trees’ were not part of the war’. ’Dead men’ by contrast ‘did not fill one with anger…it was just the luck of the war, they had tried to kill and been killed instead’. This photograph, held among the Spears papers, was originally sourced from L’Illustration and used in his book, Prelude to Victory (1939) alongside these reflections under the title ‘Murdered trees’.
Trees in World War One photography are typically shown as blasted remains against a desolate horizon or framing scenes of utter destruction. In full leaf, in an apparently otherwise untouched landscape, they offer a sharp visual and memorable contrast. They also provoke wider contemplation about what happened next and perceptions of values in war.
Ref: Spears 10/1