By Guest Author Milan Madge · August 25, 2017
Although the Battle of Cantigny is best known as the first American offensive in World War One, it was also the site of another first, one that would profoundly change the way we view history.
The way in which the public experiences war has changed enormously within the past century. Prior to the work of Matthew Brady during the Civil War, military conflict had seemed very far away to the American people. By contrast, the Second World War brought black and white images into people’s homes. By Vietnam, full-colour motion pictures were no longer confined to the theatres. Now, anyone can find footage of current conflicts through their smartphones, wherever they are. In parallel to public consumption, combat photography itself has also evolved. Historians in years to come may just as likely be studying images of war torn areas taken by teenagers on smartphones, as they will be looking at official Army photographs. However, the two world wars are different. These two pivotal events in human history will forever be remembered through work primarily produced by the U. S. Army Signal Corps, and that all started in a tiny French village—Cantigny.
Private Edward R. Trabold was attached to the 1st Infantry Division. He had photographed the front lines around Cantigny before combat began, with his images being used to construct mock battlefields and plan attack strategies. Then at 2am on May 28, 1918, he moved to the front lines once again, this time to make history as the first Signal Corps combat cameraman.
Trabold and his commanding officer, Captain Paul Miller, moved through the war-torn woods south-west of Cantigny early on the morning of the attack. Upon reaching U.S. lines, the first images were made of the U.S. First Division watching the shelling of the town. Their photographic duties would make it necessary for them to move beyond the men. They were to photograph the troops going over-the-top at 7am. Shelling was heavy and coupled with heavy camera equipment and the need to stop to help casualties, the pair barely made it into position on time. Trabold later recalled that this was his first encounter with dead and wounded men. However, much like the Signal Corps cameramen that would photograph the next war, he had a clear objective. He later wrote, “I then and now wish that we never had to see or take such pictures; but this is the fortune of war and history would not be complete without it.”
Miller almost became a casualty himself. Moments after Trabold had expressed concern about their slow progress and remarked that this particular spot was “not a healthy place to be,” a shell landed three feet directly in front of the Captain. It was a dud.