The picture at the top of this page, which depicts a group of French infantrymen arrayed in a firing line, is often used to illustrate books, articles, and blog posts about the opening weeks of the First World War.  Indeed, the scene depicted is often described as taking place during a particular event, the famous First Battle of the Marne.

A reverse image search on the picture turns up more than 250 instances in which the photo is associated with the fighting that took place in France in the summer of 1914.  (These include entries in such authoritative sources as catalogs of the French National Library, the Imperial War Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) The same search, however, also reveals a few instances in which the scene in question is described as taking place during a training exercise.

The most compelling argument for the “training exercise” theory can be found in an article published in a French-language blog in 2014.  The author of that piece, Arnaud Carobbi, observed that neither the officer (wearing a jacket rather than a long coat) nor the sergeants (identified by the stripes on the sleeves of their coats) are wearing packs.  He also noted that the ammunition pouches on the belts of all of the riflemen seem to be empty.

Inspired by these observations, Monsieur Carobbi did a bit of research in the copyright registration files of the French National Library, where he uncovered two photos with adjacent serial numbers. One of these showed the exact same scene as the original image. The other member of the pair showed the same group of soldiers, led by the same officer, taking part what seemed to be a simulated bayonet charge.

Further exploration in the National Library turned up another case of a single picture “doing double duty.” That is, while the file copy places the moment captured on film in the grand maneuvers of 1913, which took place just east of the city of Toulouse, the same image appears on a postcard claiming to depict a scene from peacetime exercises of a more modest type at the training camp near Mailly. (The some 600 kilometers separate Mailly from Toulouse.)

The sharp-eyed Monsieur Carobbi is not the only researcher to question the provenance of the pictures used to illustrate books and articles about the First World War. The Wikimedia page for ‘Grandes manœuvres de 1913’ displays four photos taken during that exercise that have been published with captions that claimed that they captured scenes of actual battle.

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