In a year in which we have gone out of our way to recall the 75th anniversary of the Blitz, the World War II German bombing campaign against English cities that lasted from September 1940 to May 1941, there’s a neglected book on wartime London featuring the photographs of Robert Capa that deserves our attention this Veterans Day.
That book, originally published by Random House, is the 1941 The Battle of Waterloo Road, which Capa did with the British journalist Diana Forbes-Robertson, and it captures with visual brilliance what happens when a war of terror is unleashed on an entire population and the population fights back with the only tool at its disposal—its pluck.
It’s no surprise that Capa, the most famous combat photographer of World War II, has never gotten the credit he deserves for his work in The Battle of Waterloo Road. His photographs of British citizens coping with effects of the Blitz lack the drama of the terrifying pictures he took at great personal risk on D-Day of American forces landing at Normandy.
But what the quiet heroism of The Battle of Waterloo Road reveals about how the Allies won World War II tells us as much about the path to victory and the stamina it required as more remembered battle accounts.
The Battle of Waterloo Road was published in the same year that the novelist and journalist James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their account of Alabama tenant farmers struggling through the Great Depression. What the two books share is their admiration of the resilience of ordinary men and women in dark times.
Where they differ is in the link Capa and Forbes-Robertson drew between such resilience and patriotism. The title for The Battle of Waterloo Road deliberately evokes the 1815 Battle of Waterloo in which the Duke of Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon’s army. For Capa and Robertson, the Londoners in the working-class district of Lambeth, where Waterloo Road is located, are engaged in a struggle as fundamental to England’s welfare as the soldiers of Wellington were. As Forbes-Robertson writes of the residents of Lambeth, “Their everydayness is an answer to Hitler.”
The principal figures in The Battle of Waterloo Road are Tom Gibbs, a London policeman; Mrs. Gardner, a charwoman in the Air Ministry; Father Hutchinson, the vicar of St. John’s, Waterloo; and Frank Hibbs, the superintendent of a Lambeth tenement and a lieutenant in the Home Guard.
Forbes-Robertson’s text focuses on how these men and women cope with the destruction they have endured at the lands of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Her profiles put the people of Lambeth in a context in which we are reminded of historian Peter Stansky’s observation in The First Day of the Blitz: “Until the middle of 1944, there were more British civilian deaths than military.”
What Capa does in the face of these wartime conditions is let us see what the people Forbes-Robertson writes about look like as they deal with conditions for which they have no precedent. The result is a series of black-and-white photos that occupy the middle ground between portraiture and the personal, news reports Edward R. Murrow provided Americans on his CBS broadcasts from wartime England.
Capa wasn’t out to duplicate the kind of iconic photo of the Blitz that Herbert Mason took for the Daily Mail when he photographed St. Paul’s Cathedral majestically arising out of a haze of smoke and fire after a Dec. 29, 1940, bombing raid.
Capa deliberately chose to operate at a lower register than Mason in his London photographs. Capa’s photos aren’t compelling in their use of light or background, but significantly, time and again, he made sure that his camera lens was positioned below his subjects. We continually look up at people in the most telling photos in The Battle of Waterloo Road.
It is from this angle that we see Tom Gibbs (his foot on his spade) standing next to his wife in their garden, Father Hutchinson walking down the street with a group of schoolchildren trailing behind him, and Frank Hibbs, a World War I veteran, marching his Home Guard soldiers as if they were crack troops rather than primarily those too young or too old for the draft.
“Still another reassuring book about London,” The New York Times’s 1941 review of The Battle of Waterloo Road patronizingly began. It’s hard to imagine how the Times’s reviewer arrived at such a judgment. Capa’s photos are worthy companion pieces to the moving shelter drawings that the sculptor Henry Moore did of Londoners spending their nights in underground subway stations in order to keep safe during German bombing raids. At the heart of Capa’s war photos of London’s citizens is the same mix of camaraderie and vulnerability that Moore depicted.
We are reminded that what made Capa’s combat photos so memorable is that they were not primarily about guns and explosions. His best work captured World War II through close-ups of those fighting it. He never saw the battles he covered as an impersonal clash of armies just as he never saw the men and women of Waterloo Road as anonymous victims of Germany’s air war.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is at work on a book about Ernest Hemingway and his World War II circle.