25 January 2011

Treasured photographs from World War One

Originally Australian soldiers could take their own photos during World War One, or they could use the services of British professionals. But for the last 1.5 years of the war, from July 1917, things changed.

Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins became the only two Australian professionals formally commissioned as war photographers in WW1. Along with five French professional photographers, Hurley and Hubert were pioneers in the creation of coloured war images. Coloured images were becoming possible in civilian life and these men wanted to reflect the battlefields and towns of the Western Front more accurately.

Hubert Wilkins. 
George Clemenceau visited the 4th Australian Division Headquarters at Bussy France, 
July 1918

Today the Australian War Memorial in Canberra has the total collection of commissioned Australian war photography from 1917-8. The Canberra archive assembled a selection of this major collection of photos in a booklet called Captured in Colour, edited by Nola Anderson and Ian Hodges.

The editors noted that while the colour plates could not be readily incorporated into printed formats, they could be used to present slide shows in public venues in Australia, while the war was still in progress. Hurley and Wilkins themselves wanted to create dramatic, staged shots or even trick photography, to enlist public support at home. They thought they could excite the public imagination for a war that was now dependent on conscription, despite conscription being opposed by half the adult population in Australia. Edwardian Promenade has confirmed the importance of magic lantern shows in bringing the news to cinemas everywhere.

Frank Hurley, 
Lighthorseman picking memorial flowers, 
Palestine, 1918

But who had thought of dramatic presentations in Australian scout halls and mechanics’ institutes as the goal for taking war photographs? Certainly not the important Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean. He planned to use the Hurley’s and Wilkin’s photographs as historical evidence, “a sacred record” of people and events. This record would allow the soldiers’ children and grandchildren to see what had happened in the 1914-8 era.. with plain, simple truth.

This divergence of goals created a problem. And in any case, what were they to photograph? Images of young Australian corpses would have been totally unacceptable politically and would have been devastating to the grieving parents and widows at home. Likewise, images of German teenage corpses would have left Australians with an image of their boys as callous beasts. So most of the photographs were of Australian soldiers and their allies at rest from the last battle, rehearsing for the next battle, mixing with local citizens in towns along the Western Front or architecture devastated by the two warring armies. 

Note that Hurley did take some images of active battle, including photos of corpses - in Behind the News blog. And in 2008 two of Hurley photographs, that depicted the horrors of trench warfare, were acquired by the NGV in August from a Sydney collector. But these photos were never intended to be used for public lectures.

Hurley was in Palestine in late 1917, taking photographs of Australian cameliers, camel ambulances, Light horsemen, Jerusalem architecture and local citizens in cities/villages. The capture of Jerusalem in Dec 1917 ended 400 years of Ottoman rule, and was cheered enthusiastically by all the Jewish citizens. Hurley did not record how the Arab citizens responded to the British success.

Frank Hurley, 
Australian Cameliers in Egypt, 
Feb 1918.

Hurley’s colour images greatly impressed an eager public in London in May 1918 when an exhibition of official war photographs was held at the Graftan Galleries.  So I can understand why Hurley resigned his commission in July 1918, very unhappy that the Grafton Galleries Exhibition was not to be sent directly to Australia.

Hubert Wilkins continued to document the AIF experience, even after the final shots of the war had been fired. In January 1919, Wilkins joined Charles Bean and his men on the Gallipoli Mission, retrospectively examining the ANZAC area and its famous 1915 campaign. As I noted in a previous post, artist George Lambert was the important partner with Wilkins as a documenter of the ANZAC campaign.

Frank Hurley, 
Squadrons of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade in formation, 
Palestine, Feb 1918

ABlogAboutHistory refers readers to some very moving WW1 photos. The majority of these images are held by Gallica, the digital wing of the Bibliothèque National de France. Although the provenance of the photos is uncertain, it is thought they may be autochromes taken by the French photographer, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud. History and traditions of England blog has amazing photos of show troops from America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India in the UK, before leaving for the fighting front – mostly in France.

Monash University noted photographs were an inseparable part of our memory of war. They have come to play a vital role in our efforts to remember and to commemorate events of which we have no direct experience. Only people in their 60s now can remember what their grandfathers told them about The Great War. And while photos can’t bring home the terrible experience of war, they can provide us with images that at least indicate something of its horror. Monash's latest exhibition,  Icon & archive, drew on the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The exhibition in April-July 2010 included many iconic photographs that have become lodged in Australia's national memory. And some that we could see for the first time.

Monash University's exhibition literature had this sensitive studio portrait of an unnamed World War One soldier, complete with greatcoat, slouch hat and Australian army insignia. But who was he and what happened to him? 

And now a completely different collection of WW1 photographs. The Bendigo RSL Military Museum and Eaglehawk Heritage Society in central Victoria mounted an amazing exhibition of WW1 photos called A Camera on the Somme in 2009. From the Bendigo Art Gallery, the exhibition went on tour around Australian galleries during 2010 and is still travelling in 2011.

Where did the Bendigo photos come from? Two young brothers from central Victoria, Jack and Bert Grinton, found themselves serving in the trenches of France and Belgium. 90 years later, an extraordinary find came to light. Inside a biscuit tin stored for decades in a shed on the Grinton farm – and headed for the rubbish tip – was a large collection of negatives and photographs; images taken by Jack and Bert Grinton between 1916 and 1919 with the cameras they carried with them during the war.

Australian soldiers and French children, 1918, 
Bendigo RSL Military Museum

This collection is a unique addition to the historical record, for two reasons. Firstly it captured people and places often overlooked by official war photographs. Secondly it highlighted the development and artistry of amateur photography.

The booklet called Captured in Colour, edited by Nola Anderson and Ian Hodges, has since been expanded to include WW2. It has come out as a book called Australian War Memorial: Treasures from a Century of Collecting, edited by Nola Anderson and published by Murdoch Books in 2012. Anderson headed a team of the institution's experts to choose examples from a HUGE collection of items, reaching right back into colonial times.


Hermes said...

Fascinating. Raises a lot of questions about how people perceive a war (same today of course) but most of all lets us see the people and their faces.

Hels said...

Thanks for that. Collective memory is a bizarre thing, especially after such a long time. I remember my grandfather's stories of Egypt and Beersheba in 1916-8 very well indeed but I wonder if younger generations even remember the dates and locations correctly. The War To End All Wars has become just another old series of battles, the start of a whole century of battles.

But what images could they show to civilians? - this was the big question facing the photographers.
Even http://tinyurl.com/4wzbv4c , not a scene of dead bodies, was an image of blindness, pain and desperate waste.

Hermes said...

I've seen plenty of photos of bodies, so they did take them Helen, but did people want to see them at the time. I remember my grandfather saying no one wanted to listen when he came home on leave. Is say Afghanistan much different ?

Unknown said...

Fascinating post Helen.

The battle at Gallipoli is also very important to Turkish people, and there is some photographic record from that side of the conflict. One of the most haunting images was of the young Turkish boy who was from a nearby village - and with his parents permission helped deliver supplies and load munitions to defend his region from the Anzac forces.

As many of us got to see soldiers telling their stories in person or on TV as old men, it is sometimes harder to grasp the terrible toll war has on the youth of all nations involved.

You can see this image appended to an ABC Radio national broadcast transcript on 'The Fatal Shore' at this link.

Kind Regards

Hels said...

*nod* noone would listen :( Even after the war, back at home, maimed ex-soldiers were avoided as much as possible.

I am glad these exhibitions of World War One photos are being published or are going on nation-wide exhibitions. But I don't think it will influence peoples' thinking about war in general or about modern wars in particular eg Vietnam.

Hels said...

Gallipoli was a terrible place, wasn't it. Joe and I tramped all over those rugged Turkish cliffs one year, and we were overwhelmed by the sense of desperation and tragedy on both sides.

It was important that after the war, historian Charles Bean and the Australian Historical Mission photographed Gallipoli and documented the war graves there. It was even more important that George Lambert went with the photographers on the mission to create works commissioned by the government for the future Australian War Memorial.

But work done by the Australian Historical Mission post-war could never capture the same urgency and immediacy that professionals like Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins captured in 1917. Or even amateurs like Jack and Bert Grinton.

Xenophon said...

I like especially "Lighthorseman picking memorial flowers". It looks like an impressionist painting. I always thougt that the influence of paintings on photography is largely underestimated.

Hels said...


that is quite an insight, and one that I agree with on reflection. After all, what models would artists in the early generations of photography have, except for paintings?

Particularly the art of war, which has appeared in paintings (and other media) for centuries.

Hels said...

Stephen said...

Good day. Was tempted to post a comment to your screed on Hurley's work, but the technicalities were just too daunting.

You mentioned Hurley not recording what the Arabs thought of Ottoman defeat. My grandad was in the taking of both Damascus & Jerusalem and he said that the Arabs were positively jubilant, cheering and firing weapons into the air. This was all thanks to Allied propaganda promising them independence after the defeat of the Turks.

Of course when push came to shove this was not the case and, strangely enough, the Arabs were not pleased at being lied to and being placed under an even more foreign mandate. Grandpa (Trooper Gordon white, 10th Light Horse) was among a great many Aussies kept back after the war to conduct "police work" in Egypt. Essentially this meant being an occupying force intent on quelling local independence moves. It was almost 1920 before he got home.


I printed your letter because you had some insights that other people might like to share.

I loved the photo that Hurley took of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade Feb 1918, just after capture of Jerusalem in Dec 1917. I know Jewish residents were delighted with the end of Ottoman rule, because I have seen all the cheering-crowd photos and heard all the personal stories.

But your grandfather suggested that the Arab residents felt they were conned by the British (and, presumably, by the Australians). That generals and politicians tell lies should not surprise us at all. That photographers didn't photograph the bitterly disappointed response in Damascus is more problematic for us all.

Many thanks for sharing. I am grateful.

Hels said...

Two years after my article was posted, a new book called Australian War Memorial: Treasures from a Century of Collecting has been published. It is available in our public libraries and bookshops.

Australian Artists and War said...

"Follow the Flag" at NGV Australia features works by some of Australia’s most well-known artists, such as Arthur Streeton, Russell Drysdale, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan and Max Dupain. And Frank Hurley. Ranging from recruitment posters, to portraiture, to medical sketches, the exhibition comprises a diverse range of works, including paintings, photographs and sculpture.

Joseph said...

Jeff Maynard located Wilkins' lost WW1 photos plus his photos that others have claimed as their own since the war. Have a look for Maynard's book, called The Unseen Anzac.

Hels said...


at the time, Hubert Wilkins was very famous. In 1917 he joined the Australian Flying Corps and in 1918 was appointed as an official war photographer. In June 1918 Wilkins was awarded the Military Cross at Ypres. He was immediately promoted and became officer commanding the Photographic Sub-section of the Australian war records unit.

But rooster one day, feather duster the next :( I am sad other people claimed credit for his photographs but I am very pleased they have now been re-claimed and published.

Australian Museum said...

As photographer on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-17 Antarctic expedition, Australian photographer Frank Hurley captured the scene as their ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice; their survival through the winter; the open-boat journey of over 800 miles in mountainous seas; and Shackleton's trek across South Georgia to sound the alarm that saw the rescue of his men.

Hurley salvaged 120 of these images which will be the focus of a talk by historian Alasdair McGregor at the Australian Museum in Sydney this week (6-8 PM, 12th May 2016).


Hels said...

Many thanks. I will have to examine Hurley's years as the official photographer on Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Antarctic Expedition which set out in 1914 and was stuck until August 1916. So your Images of Endurance Exhibition will be essential.

I forgot that Frank Hurley could not have joined the Australian Imperial Forces until 1917.