A touring exhibition to mark the centenary of America's entry into the First World War has opened in Guildhall Yard in the City of London. 'The Doughboys 1917-1918' is the latest in the series of 'Fields of Battle-Lands of Peace' exhibitions by photographer Mike Sheil, writes Patrick Gregory.
Commissioned by the National World War I Museum & Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, as part of the inauguration of the American WWI Centennial Commission’s commemoration programme, The Doughboys 1917-1918 has begun two simultaneous tours in the US and UK.
Featuring the photographs of Michael St Maur Sheil, the exhibition focuses on the part played by the American Army during World War I, highlighting some of the American Expeditionary Force’s experiences in France.
Laid out in a similar manner to last year’s Fields of Battle-Lands of Peace: Somme100, the long, staggered row of rectangular display boards features photographs, maps, descriptive historical text and information boxes on specific aspects of the Americans’ campaign.
Sheil’s luscious photography presents scenes of modern day pastoral calm: bright, shimmering fields; a red and misty dawn breaking over the countryside near the Meuse; undulating landscapes of north-eastern France richly strewn with new crops; gentle, fading light on the Marne. All contrast sharply with the black-and-white reality of lives past, in these and similar locations 100 years ago: images of men and machines, of battle-lines, churned-up countryside and obliterated villages.
Trench in the Argonne Forest (Photo: © Mike St Maur Sheil / Mary Evans Picture Library)
The lichen and moss covered remnants of an old fortified position in the forest, captured by Sheil as verdant and luminescent, manages to marry together both the old and the new, rendering picturesque in a modern setting what was once deadly and real.
The text and information boards of the exhibition are well written and skilfully presented, useful to the casual visitor and war historian alike. They shed light on what has often been a neglected part of the World War I story, a celebration of those two million American men and women who served in Europe. Some highlight individuals’ stories – those of Sgt. Alvin York, Private John Barkley, Harry Truman – others focus on everything from the role of women and the AEF supply service to the Doughboys’ kit and the final American offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne campaign.
But centre-stage are those arresting photographs. Sheil says he hopes the collection will create a ‘gateway’ to the battlefields themselves, thus encouraging people to visit these landscapes during the centennial period and so create awareness and understanding of the events and historical implications of the war.
The tour of the work in the US moves over the next 18 months from Kansas City through Atlanta and Chicago to New York and finally Washington D.C. In the UK, the exhibition at Guildhall is followed by a display at the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, before it moves to Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Fields of Battle-Lands of Peace: The Doughboys 1917-1918 is in Guildhall Yard, London EC2V 5AE until 23 April 2017. Free.
For more information about Mike Sheil's WW1 Centenary photographic projects, see Fields of Battle-Lands of Peace 14-18.
Images: courtesy of Mike Sheil (Argonne Forest © Mike St Maur Sheil / Mary Evans Picture Library); Patrick Gregory, Centenary News (Exhibition)
Patrick Gregory is co-author with Elizabeth Nurser of 'An American on the Western Front: The First World War Letters of Arthur Clifford Kimber 1917-18' (The History Press 2016 - published in the US this April for the Centennial): American on the Western Front @AmericanOnTheWF.