Photographer brings a pictorial tribute to World War I battlefields to Washington
By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 8, 2017
WASHINGTON — Not too far from the National Mall, the epicenter of monuments to American history, there is a small park nestled in between a few restaurants and one of the city's innumerable office buildings.
It’s called Pershing Park. As its name might suggest, it’s a monument to World War I and Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Force on the front lines of that conflict.
The park is usually devoid of the crowds that gather at the World War II memorial or the Vietnam Wall. Indeed, most of the traffic is comprised of wayward tourists cutting through the park as they amble toward the Washington Monument or the White House.
Thanks to British photographer-turned-historian Michael St. Maur Sheil, visitors to the nation’s capital now have a more compelling reason to stop at the park ... at least for a little while.
That reason is a collection of stunning photographs of World War I battlefields and artifacts taken by Sheil over a 12-year period. It’s called the “Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace: The Doughboys, 1917-1918,” and it sits on the eventual site of a more permanent memorial to the Great War, which breaks ground on Thursday.
Sheil and the staff of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., combed through 19,000 of his photos, culling them down to the 65 that are on display at Pershing Park.
Some took days to capture. Others he took at risk to his personal safety, strapped into a motorized hang glider as it drifted over overgrown WWI trenches. He spent time with troops with historical unit ties to some of the areas, as well as families who now own land that was once a war zone.
He captured in colorful clarity the legendary U.S. Marine Corps proving grounds of Belleau Wood; the river Marne, where the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division earned the nickname “Rock of the Marne;” and other battlefields famous and forgotten.
“These are not battlefield photographs, bodies and burning tanks," Sheil said. These are fields where battles took place.”
He added that he hopes the still-healing scars of the European landscape will move visitors and get them to think of reconciliation. “They are now lands of peace. They’re really rather beautiful.”
The display has an identical twin traveling across the U.K., and has drawn a considerable crowd there. In Liverpool alone, more than 1.6 million people visited the display in the span of a month. The setup in Pershing Park is going to be around until December 3 before moving to Atlanta in the spring.
“I wanted this exhibition not just to be British … we’ve been in nine different countries now, and America was an obvious one to come to,” Sheil said. “Just the fact that few Americans know about the first World War is the very reason for being here.”
“If you asked the average American what’s the biggest battle involving American troops, most people would say Gettysburg, or D-Day, or in Vietnam,” Sheil said. “No, it’s Meuse-Argonne [with] 1.2 million men in action. It’s huge, colossal. And forgotten.”
The photos on open display in Pershing Park are mounted on weatherproof stands, exposed to both the elements and the everyday passers-by. That level of accessibility, Sheil said, is the entire point.
“If you put it in a museum or an art gallery, you limit the audience to people who are already interested in the subject,” Sheil said. “Because if you put it here, people bump into it and hopefully they get drawn in.”