Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Alleged Photographs of German Skirmishers Advancing Towards a French Position at La Moncelle During the Battle of Sedan

There has been a lot of discussion of these photographs online about whether or not they are authentic combat photographs from the Franco-Prussian War. At the moment I think they are images from some sort of elaborate recreation that were made to sell postcards or else some other attempt to document the conflict by photographing a reenactment. If these photographs were real, the hardest thing to explain would be the position of the photographer as he would have been in an extremely exposed position. What I once thought were French soldiers in the second and third photographs in the foreground are actually clearly firing towards the photographer in sharper versions of the photographs I have found, which would mean that they are more German soldiers. There doesn't seem to be any blurring in the photographs caused by movement of the soldiers which was a common trait in photos of the era and could be a sign that the photographs are posed. Cameras with fast exposure times which would minimize any blurring existed at the time but their use was not very widespread.

The first photograph.
What I have deemed the first photograph is on a postcard that is said to show lines of German skirmishers advancing towards a French position at La Moncelle during the Battle of Sedan in 1870. A few fascinating details that are discernible in this photograph are the trail of what some think is blood flowing from a spot next to the doorway of the house in the foreground, the bullet holes visible in the same house, the columns of German soldiers marching down the road, and the large amount of smoke rising in the distance to the left. I have also assembled seven related photographs below, possibly for the first time online, that were taken at the same event:

Uncropped lower resolution version of the photograph from Getty. Source.

The second photograph. Source.

Second photograph taken from another angle at a noticeably different time. What look like German soldiers in the foreground who seem to be facing the camera and firing. They appear much closer than they were when some of them presumably were in their skirmish lines and columns in the first photograph. What appears to be additional columns of German infantry can be seen marching down the road in the left background. The puffs of smoke in the trees in the right background look much more prominent than they do in the first photograph.

Uncropped lower resolution version of the second photograph from Getty. Source.

The third photograph. Source.

A third photograph taken from what looks like the same position as the second image. The German soldiers in the foreground look like they are clearly aiming their rifles in the direction of the photographer. There seems to have been at least three other versions of postcards featuring this photograph I have collected below.

A second version that is sharper but cropped. Source.

A third cropped version. Source.

A fourth uncropped version that has much less detail. Source.

What looks like the same house today in La Moncelle which is featured in all of the photographs. Source.


Dave said...

Having looked in detail at the ground using both Google maps and Geoportail, I'm convinced that the photo is a genuine photo of the actual ground that was fought over. The closer photo of the house could easily have been taken from the window of a house further back up the hill (that is still there incidentally). Additionally the second photo could have been taken from a small rise to the left of the road further back up the rise. Both of these would have given some cover to the photographer whilst he made his exposures.
The big question is whether the figures were painted onto the plate afterwards. I'm no photographic expert perhaps others may comment.

Unknown said...

Bigger question is was it staged after the event for some reason. Its hard to say definitively from the photo, even the zoomed in version going round but they all appear to be german with spiked helmets. The house in the foreground has battle damage, so it seem to have been done some time near the battle if not during it. I cant tell if some of the figures have been put on the plate afterwards. Some appear to have very similar poses and outlines but that could be that a) there all got pretty much the same kit and b) theres only so many ways to fire a rifle and reload it.

I may have been a german recreation say 2 days after or something. As for being taken at the time, theres a treeline back up the hill to the left (north) of the road that was probably the photo spot and would be a natural blocking position if you were a) french and b) trying to stop the germans heading to Sedan. But stuffed if I would be sitting there with a tripod and heavy camera. Maybe he stuffed it over a rock wall and took a photo and then pulled it back down, reloaded and tried again.

The later pictures with germans quite close look at the camera seem a bit sus (i.e. staged) but if you were staging something you would tell people NOT to look at the camera. Maybe the german rifleman were really in combat and were going "What the heck is that?" :)

US2UK said...

The exposure time for outdoor photos in good lighting would be a fraction of a second at this time, i.e. the time it took to remove the camera lens-cover and replace it. It is not so far-fetched to think a photographer would take combat photos, especially of something like the tragic death of the Second Empire.