Foreign fields in a new light

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image copyrightJonathan Beamish

In the lead-up to the centenary of Armistice Day and the end of World War One, photographer Jonathan Beamish has been documenting the remaining traces of conflict on the Western Front.

Beamish has recorded the landscape shaped by war using infrared photography at some of the major battlefields in France and Belgium.

"In many places, the terrain still shows the unmistakable seams, gouges and fissures of battle," says Beamish.

"Infrared photography has always interested me as it can allow you to see beyond normal vision, to see colours normally invisible and even the ability to see in the dark."

image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionThe village of Beaumont-Hamel was close to the front line at the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest Allied offensives of World War One. By 1918, the village had been almost totally destroyed. On 1 July 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out by German fire as they moved over open ground to make an attack.

Beamish has been experimenting with the medium for some time, and is aware of its use in surveillance and military links.

"I started in Solferino near Lake Garda in Italy, the site of a terrible one-day battle in 1859 with nearly 40,000 casualties. The horrors of Solferino, especially the total lack of care for the injured would lead to the foundation of the International Red Cross," says Beamish.

It also seemed a perfect fit to document the long-lost battlefields of World War One, and the traces of a conflict now 100 years on.

image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionThe huge crater at Vimy Ridge was caused by a devastating British mine detonation beneath German bunker positions at 21:50 on 27 November 1916. The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 and saw four divisions of the Canadian Corps fighting side-by-side for the first time. They scored a huge tactical victory in the capture of Vimy Ridge.

"Though much has grown back in the countryside and farmland of the Western Front, in many places the terrain still bears the unmistakable scars, gouges and fissures of battle," says Beamish.

"I wanted to do some act of remembrance and however minor, some reconstitution or consideration of the devastating history. Like many others I have ancestors that died on the Western Front. How many of us have had the chilling experience of seeing our surnames on the Menin or Thiepval Monuments?

"And what of the disappeared people and villages and the still cratered landscape?"

image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionFront-line and support trenches for both the British and German armies remained in and around Sanctuary Wood until 31 July 1917 when the British launched a full-scale offensive on the German lines, beginning the Battle of Passchendaele.

Beamish felt that using infrared would perhaps reveal something usually unseen, or a different vision.

"Infrared photography allows a wide range of visual options especially with new digital technology. Visually it can seem ethereal and bring gravitas to an image, he says.

"The colour can seem other-worldly."

He used two processes to filter the images, one which emphasises reds and blues and a second which leaves skies blue but foliage bright and pale.

image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionOn 22 August 1914, in this woodland in Rossignol, hundreds of men were buried where they'd fallen, directly after battle. On this day in the Battle of the Frontiers, French soldiers fought German forces on five separate battlefields. More than 27,000 French soldiers lost their lives, making it France's highest ever death toll in a single day.
image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionIn February 1916, German troops captured Forts Douaumont and Vaux, the principal positions guarding the city of Verdun. The fort wasn't recaptured until October 1916. The Battle of Verdun would become the longest and bloodiest conflict of World War One, resulting in more than 700,000 casualties.
image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionThe Battle of Belleau Wood was the first large-scale battle fought by American soldiers in the war, during the German Spring Offensive. On 26 June 1918, the Americans were victorious but at the cost of nearly 10,000 dead, wounded, or missing in action.
image copyrightJonathan Beamish
image captionOn 31 October 1918, poet Wilfred Owen wrote one last letter home from the cellar of a forester's house in Ors near the Sambre-Oise Canal. He was killed with most of his raiding party trying to bridge the Sambre-Oise Canal in northern France on 4 November 1918, just a week before Armistice Day.