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Belligerents and Participants
Many real photo cards were produced during the Great War with no indication of who the publisher or photographer might be. Some of these cards were captioned, many more were not. Now it is sometimes impossible to tell what country the photo was taken in. This can best be explained by the way Army commanders viewed the dissemination of imagery; they didn’t like it. In general the military tried to retain strict control over the battlefront and it was rare when a reporter got anywhere near one. Local commanders did not always allow photographers to work in their sector even when they arrived with official permission to do so. News was to be generated by the General Staff, not by reality. Taking unauthorized pictures became a crime that could be punished by death. Publishers back home were afraid of reproducing any image, even those by official photographers that did not pass military censors.
Despite these attempts to create news that would only suit military and political needs through propaganda, it was impossible to completely control imagery in an age when cameras had become so plentiful. While it may have been easy to enforce the prohibition against cameras among soldiers in the ranks, there is no way of telling how evenly or strictly this was actually enforced. Many photos were definitely taken by men in uniform, but it would be officers that were most likely to have cameras with them and they were the least likely to be reported. Enforcement tended to be lax in early days of the War, but this changed after April 1915, at least amongst the Allies on the Western front. Offenders were usually arrested, not executed. The situation for German solders was very different after the Kaiser authorized personal photography off the battlefield.
Besides military officers, there were certainly civilians with cameras including professional photographers that lived in areas where the war raged. While they might not normally have access to the battlefront, the battlefront sometimes passed right over them. At other time unofficial access might have been gained through the age old method of bribery if not indifference. As the military created photo bureaus, the need to staff them took many away from their commercial studios to become official war photographers.
Strict censorship only created a great demand for uncensored war images, which meant there was money to be made selling them. Publishers solicited this material outright and even created photography competitions. This was enticement enough for some to take the risk in providing them. Few depicted combat for the risk of working in these situations was rather high. Many of these photo cards depict the aftermath of battle when the belligerents had moved on and it was safe to photograph amidst the dead. Some of these real photo postcards were obviously home made by amateurs because of the flaws they contain. Others have the quality of professional production and were produced in great numbers. In both cases there was a lot of incentive for photographers and publishers to remain anonymous. Few of these unauthorized photos were sent though the mail for obvious reasons. This makes their production impossible to date even when we can recognize the event depicted. Most private photos taken during the War may have been printed afterwards and sold to soldiers remaining for the occupation.
While there is no proper way to date scenes of littered abandoned trenches, those filled with dead bodies are certain to date from the War years. Changing attitudes toward the workings of propaganda allowed official photographers to produce more disturbing images by mid-1917 as long as the dead depicted was that of the enemy. This dating of unmarked photos becomes a bit more tricky when dealing with skeletal remains because bodies continue to be found every year. Even though a great effort was made to clean up the battlefields of the Great War it was a monumental task. Some areas that contained too many unexploded devices or bodies were just fenced off.
The number of Russian war photographs taken are far fewer than found on the Western Front. While their armies were larger, far fewer soldiers could afford cameras. The lack of a coherent propaganda effort provided little incentive to establish an official photo bureau and none was ever set up. While censorship in Russia was lax in some areas, the publication of photographs were strictly controlled by the government, which discouraged many photographers from going off to the battlefield. After the October revolution in 1917, all published depictions of the War ceased. There were those however, amateur and professional alike who did work at the front lines, but they largely produced a great body of anonymous images.
Because of reasons of military security, news from the front line in France lacked specificity when it came to identifying places. All the American public would get was that it was taking place somewhere in France. This phrase became so common that in 1915 Somewhere in France was used as the title of a novel by Richard Hardind Davis. This phrase was propelled further into popular culture when a movie with the same name was released the following year by the New York Motion Picture Company. When the American Expeditionary force was deployed to Europe, soldiers writing home were not allowed to mention where they were deployed other than the country they were in. Those that failed to do so would have that part of their message blackened out by their commanding officer or other sensors. To avoid wasting what little space there was on a postcard, many just took up writing from Somewhere in France. This became so common that publishers soon began issuing their own generic cards with the same caption. It can even be found on printed signs that were used as props for posed real photo postcards.