The Great War: Photography on the Western Front

By Caitlin Patrick

The military, economic, political and cultural legacies of the ‘Great War’ are well documented in a range of academic literature, popular books and films. In particular, the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front have received frequent attention, often in literary and poetic forms produced by combatants. The famous phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ encapsulates a popular historical narrative emphasizing the heroism of the average soldier in contrast to the incompetence of senior Army leadership. World War I photography can be used to provide both supporting evidence for such viewpoints but can also tell a different story, one that testifies to the pride, patriotism and camaraderie of the war’s combatants and provides a more ‘positive’ assessment of the conflict, for Britain and her allies at least (Holmes, 2008).  While large volumes of unofficial photographs exist in various personal and public collections, this short essay will focus on some of the Great War’s official photographers and their outputs. All the photos shown are part of the Imperial War Museum’s archive.

There is little doubt that photography was a part of warfare at all levels for the first time during the Great War, from scientific use for surveying and mapping territory to personal mementos and propaganda material. Small, portable and newly mass-produced Kodak and Brownie cameras were taken to war in 1914 by many officers, and somewhat fewer soldiers, as ways to document their experiences. Not unlike the situation in current and ongoing wars, combatants ‘shot’ when opportunities arose despite senior ranks’ disapproval and an official ban on troop photography in 1915. The commercial sector also caught on to the appeal of photographic souvenirs. Companies like Stevenard in Dunkirk and Lelong in Amiens began producing postcards, usually showing war-damaged towns or cheerful soldiers as uncontroversial war tropes.

The acceptance of photography into newspapers, the choice public news medium of the day, was mixed. Jane Carmichael, in her book First World War Photographers, discusses the reluctance of the higher-end British press to use photos, preferring to maintain its literary traditions. The cheaper end of the market, however, did not have such qualms and the half-tone process, developed in the 1880s, allowed high quality photographs to be mass-printed. Additionally, new serial publications, such as The War Illustrated, were created specifically to provide a pictorial narrative of the conflict. In the face of such technological possibilities and great public interest, British leadership was forced to accept the inevitability of war photography and to consider how it might be integrated into the war effort without leading to dangerous information leaks from their most important theatre of war. The army was used to organising its own censorship but struggled to meet the daily demands of the now-expanded press industry. As Carmichael notes, “The pragmatic solution found during the First World War was to invite a limited number of professionals to be part of a special elite, official reporters, and then to exclude all others as far as possible from the most important areas” (p. 16). The War Propaganda Office had created a department specifically to organise the creation of official pictorial material in August 1914. Official photographs were first to be censored in the field by the military and then sent to the London-based Press Bureau for final censorship and distribution.

Battle of Pilckem Ridge 31 July-2 August, 1917- stretcher bearers struggle in mud up to their knees to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on 1 August. The look of agonised desperation on the men’s faces has made this image a favourite choice to indicate the appalling conditions on the Western Front. J. W. Brooke, copyright Imperial War Museum, London.

It was March 1916, however, before the first official war photographer was sent onto the Western Front, following much public interest in unofficial photos showing the battle at Gallipoli. Ernest Brooks, who worked for the pictorial newspaper The Daily Mirror and had been in Gallipoli, was selected, with responsibility for covering what was to become a force of over two million British troops. Approximately a dozen official photographers were eventually commissioned to shoot on the Western Front; the major allied dominions involved also ensured that their own troops were documented. Official photographers were made lieutenants and were subject to military discipline. Importantly, however, censorship of their work only affected what photos could be published, not taken, thereby leaving these photographers generally free to choose their subject matter.

As many commentators on the Great War have noted, war at such a massive scale was new and a recurring problem for photographers was how to convey this magnitude. Beyond the more portable options of hand-held folding plate and single lens reflex, official photographers also tried small panoramic or very large field cameras. Brooks and a later Canadian official photographer, William Rider-Rider, both used a Kodak Panoram No. 4, which recorded an arc of 142 degrees on 3.5 x 12 inch roll-film. The first Canadian official photographer started in the field in April 1916, just a month after Brooks, largely due to the influence of Canadian journalist and entrepreneur, Max Aitken, who had intimate access to British circles of power and was determined that Canada’s contribution to the war effort be publicized. According to Carmichael, Australia pursued a very different approach. Its war photography was organised by Charles Bean, a journalist trained as an historian who was strongly focused on the creation of a detailed record of Australia’s participation, rather than sensation or propaganda. Australia’s first war photographer reached the Western Front in November 1916.

The build-up to the first battle of the Somme in July 1916 presented a logistical challenge for newly appointed photographers. Brooks was the only photographer present to cover the huge numbers of British troops, thus it was arranged that his work be supplemented by the Royal Engineers, who had been traditionally responsible for army photography, in order to produce as many photos as possible. The press at home were galvanised by the coming battle. When the bulk of the photos from 1 July 1916 arrived in London a week later, they were widely featured. Despite the special arrangements made by the army for increased photographer numbers and access, heavy artillery bombardments kept many photographers distanced from the front line. Many battle scene photos showed troops only as tiny figures on nondescript landscapes. Regardless of this, journalists and editors recognised the unique window into the conflict that photography gave their audiences. The photo below, taken by Ernest Brooks on the first day of the Somme, indicates the drama that exploding ordnance could offer as a contrast to many close-ups of troop preparation that were also recorded.

The mine under Hawthorn Redoubt is fired at zero minus 10 minutes before the assault on Beaumont Hamel. 45,000 pounds of Ammonal exploded. The mine caused a crater 130 feet across by 54 feet deep. (Battle of the Somme, 1 July- 18 November, 1916). Ernest Brooks, copyright Imperial War Museum, London.

As Carmichael notes, because of a scarcity of resources and their own largely supportive attitudes towards the conflict, official photographers did not focus extensively on the horrors of trench warfare. Instead, in 1916 their work appeared to confirm a relatively successful battle, what the British and Allied governments wished their citizens to see. While wounded and dead troops were not ignored as subject matter and can certainly be seen in the Imperial War Museum’s archive, at this time photographers tended to focus on the less badly injured, photos of whom could be published without causing perceived public distress, as well as on aid efforts to care for troops’ needs.

The Propaganda Office demanded a wide variety of photographic subjects for distribution, including leisure activities, visiting dignitaries and troop fraternization with locals on top of the more expected battle, preparation and equipment shots. Thus, while official faking of photos was relatively rare, ‘orchestrated’ images were harder to avoid, given the practical difficulties that photographers faced getting around battle spaces. The most serious faked photos, of fighting and troops going ‘over the top’ of a trench, were the work of Ivor Castle, the second of Canada’s official photographers. Castle was replaced by William Rider-Rider just before the battle of Passchendaele (the 3rd battle of Ypres) in July 1917. Rider-Rider was known as a diligent worker who believed in making photos as authentic as possible. The relatively static nature of this fighting allowed the five official photographers involved to make regular trips to the front line. It was at this time that Rider-Rider made his personal favourite photo of Canadian troops holding the line in a morass of flooded shell-holes.

Men of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company holding the line in a landscape of mud and water-filled shell-holes, November 1917. William Rider-Rider, copyright Imperial War Museum, London.

While Charles Bean’s continuous presence ensured a well-documented and detailed Australian photo record, their growing archive and practices were impacted by the arrival of Frank Hurley as an official photographer in 1917. As Carmichael explains, “Frank Hurley was aggressively determined that Australian endeavour should receive publicity comparable to the British and Canadian efforts and that he would provide the necessary material…he tried resorting to composite photographs and combining negatives in order to convey the multiplicity of action but only succeeded in inciting the wrath of General Headquarters and Captain Bean who both felt that such tampering amounted to faking and the point of official photographs was that they should be scrupulously genuine” (p. 60). Hurley was soon moved to photograph military efforts in Palestine but, as the photo below indicates, he was often able to capture ‘legitimate’ scenes which illustrated the human costs of some of the Great War’s later battles.

An explicit photograph taken for the record of casualties during the last offensives; bodies of men killed near Guillemont Farm collected for burial. Frank Hurley and George H. Wilkins, copyright Imperial War Museum, London.

In 1918, the Great War suddenly became mobile again, with a dramatic Allied retreat from German advances. The official photographers struggled to keep up, particularly the small number of those expected to cover the actions of the whole British army on the Western Front. Photographs at this time tended to emphasize the brutality of the German invaders and the subsequent plight of displaced people fleeing the collapsing front lines. However, the arrival of American troops since mid-1917 and the development of a rudimentary but visually impressive Air Force helped to balance out the bad news. The Allies turned the tide of the German forward drive relatively quickly and, with the Armistice in November 1918, the work of the official photographers ended after brief efforts to cover the Allied occupation of Germany.

The decision to create a museum to commemorate the sacrifices and events of WWI was made in March 1917; thus, for almost two years before war’s end, official photographers were aware that their productions would likely be saved for posterity and form part of an historical record. Whether this influenced their later photographic choices is difficult to determine. For some commentators, such as Matthew Farish, official photography remained limited to “archaic images of individual suffering and heroism” (p. 279), failing to challenge the promoted government propaganda narrative. Military historian Richard Holmes, on the other hand, defends the many photographs showing camaraderie and moments of happiness amongst the troops, insisting on the legitimacy and importance of these experiences as well as those of death, injury, suffering and horror. For Carmichael, much comes down to the fact that none of the official photographers appeared to dispute the validity and necessity of the Great War. While she argues that Passchendaele represented an exception where more of the horrific costs of battle were acknowledged in photos and captions, for the most part the official photographers saw themselves as patriots and not independent observers and witnesses. Thus, while the photographic record of WWI is now open to interpretation, some of its key contributors’ beliefs in the necessity of fighting this war appear generally uniform.

For references see the section on The Great War: Photography on the Western Front in the bibliography