Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Lost Romance of War

If anything I've seen ever conveyed the idea that after 1918 war never regained the charm it had once held for Europeans, it's these illustrations for the 1895 Illustrated Battles of the 19th Century. The combination of exotic motifs and beautiful belle epoque design lend a remarkable air of romance to the subject at hand. What's interesting, though, is that while many of the battles in this book are the sort whose British participants, at least, might have remembered as high-spirited romps with natives, there are also a number of battles that weren't in many important respects, that different from those of the first world war. Indeed, if you think about it, the Charge of the Light Brigade, written about the 1854 Battle of Balaclava (below), explicitly references almost all of the elements that gave World War One its anti-heroic character, yet weaves them together into a heroic poem. Tennyson depicts the charge as one with massive casualties ("All that was left of them / Left of six hundred"), death from artillery rather than hand to hand combat with enemy soldiers ("Storm'd at with shot and shell"), as well as one of utter futility resulting from commanders' incompetence ("Was there a man dismay'd? / Not tho' the soldier knew / Someone had blunder'd"). Moreover, it was all fought for a cause (preventing Russian expansion in the Balkans) whose importance would have been no more obvious to ordinary citizens than those that sparked the First World War.


Many, many more (all from the British Library's remarkable Flickr account),  after the break...