Hurley revealed the human capacity to transform the environment.

Hurley revealed the human capacity to transform the environment. Photo: National Library of Australia

For a long time we would not accept the enormity of the crisis that faced us, and which we had created.

Having blundered into the crisis, we seemed either reluctant or incapable of working out effective strategies to deal with it, even as the consequences of our inadequate response produced devastation of both the physical and built environment, and an appalling loss of life, year after year.

I am of course talking about the events that we describe as World War I. Do you know when the British and French generals first got together to discuss joint strategy for fighting their mutual enemy, the Germans? December 1915. The war started in August 1914.

Recent histories such as Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace have argued that World War I was everybody's fault; all the rival nations connived in pushing each other over the edge into catastrophe.

It was not just the leaders; many citizens embraced the idea of war, even if they could not comprehend how it would be fought.

If everyone was to blame in 1914 - if only for misunderstanding the effect of their own choices - doesn't that imply that we, both leaders and the led, might share responsibility for the problems that plague our world today? Or that at least we should proceed cautiously in pursuit of our ambitions?

So what does World War I mean for us today?

Appropriately, there's something of an informal alliance on that subject between the British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and Australia's Education Minister, Christopher Pyne.

The war was fought to preserve freedom and liberal democracy from German tyranny, says Michael Gove. Teaching about Anzac Day, ''the birth of the nation'', should be more ''prominent'' in Australian schools,

Christopher Pyne insists, in order to ''celebrate our national history … the Australian public are yearning for a view of our history which is not the black armband view of our history''.

A couple of famous images by Australian war photographers suggest other lessons. The first, taken by Frank Hurley, shows five Australians standing on a duckboard on the Western Front battlefield in 1917, amid a forest stripped to sticks by gunfire.

Hurley revealed the human capacity to transform the environment. We could do whatever we liked with it, efficiently and quickly, ruthlessly reshaped for our productive or destructive needs.

Another photographer - probably Hurley, we're not quite sure - brought our ability to productively kill each other into sharper focus. It's a photo taken at a railway cutting on the Broodseinde ridge on October 12, 1917, part of the bloody struggle on the Western Front we call the Third Battle of Ypres. That's right, number three; the war was prolonged by a tendency to keep repeating the same mistakes.

Some 76,000 Australians became battle casualties in 1917. In the Broodseinde photograph we are presented with a snapshot of that vast trauma; a ditch that marks the point of a failing attack. Having captured the ridge and the rail cutting earlier in the month, the Anzac Corps had been ordered to push beyond it, only to be decimated and thrown back to the point where they had started.

In the ditch are a few bodies; some dead, others alive, ''so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock that it was hard to differentiate'', Hurley wrote in his diary. Two exhausted Diggers stare at the camera. In the foreground a figure deformed by shellfire draws our gaze. Perhaps Australian, perhaps German, at least he can't stare at us; he has no face.

The eminent military historian John Keegan says that Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief who ordered the attacks we call the Third Battle of Ypres, should have stopped at Broodseinde, after the initially successful assault.

Haig had pushed his men far enough in an offensive that had begun at the end of July.

Haig did not stop. Haig demanded the Australians and New Zealanders continue their assault up the ridge towards the obliterated village of Passchendaele; and when the Anzacs broke under the strain he ordered the Canadians to renew the attack, and fulfil his need of a result that he could represent as a victory, however bereft of strategic value.

The Canadians finally secured their hold on the stumps of ruined homes and the gutted church in November. A few months later the Germans recaptured Passchendaele.

We continue to inflict our craving for production and destruction on the planet, and on ourselves. Those sobering snapshots from 1917 should caution us to restrain our instincts.

Dr Mark Hearn is a lecturer in the Department of Modern History and Politics, Macquarie University.