Sunday, 26 July 2009

Reality of War 1

A couple of days ago, the last British Tommy of the First World War, Harry Patch, died aged 111. I can remember meeting him on the Somme during an event to mark the 80th anniversary of that dreadful battle. In his latter years, he became very anti-war. It is perhaps apt that, today, I rediscovered another album of several hundred historical photographs and postcards showing not only the battlefields of France and Flanders, but also a little of the human cost of war. I make no apology for publishing so many images in one post, but stick with it. As you work your way through the images, you will notice the subject move from propaganda to reality - certainly very noticeable when compared to the - in my mind - distasteful, but allegedly morale-boosting propaganda postcard that starts this post . . . Remember to click on an image for a closer look.

A nurse offers comfort to a wounded officer in this propaganda shot. Note the unbloodied bandage around his head and how clean his uniform is.

A Christmas souvenir for these wounded soldiers in just one of several hundred military hospitals that were established in towns and cities across Britain. The two soldiers, front centre, have been encouraged to pull a cracker. No doubt, the popular wartime cry -" Are we downhearted? No!" was shouted here! The photograph was taken in the dining hall of the Colchester military hospital.

More wounded soldiers pose here in their 'hospital blue' uniforms. Look more closely and you will see a number of facial injuries have been patched up.

Anzac soldiers at an unknown rural location. The nurse and a soldier in the front are both holding kittens. A remarkably candid comment by one of those in the photograph is recorded on the back of the photograph - "Just a postcard - I look as if I had s--t myself!"

A group of nurses pose with wounded Tommies. Look closely at the soldier sitting to the right of the nurse in the front. Using a pistol carved from wood, he is pretending to shoot the nurse in the head . . . Sinister or what?

I am not sure who this is meant to encourage? This photograph captures the finish of a race between one-legged servicemen. There more I think about it, the more disturbing a piece of propaganda I find it.

More realistic is this snapshot of two convalescing servicemen in the grounds of Victoria House in Blaenan Festiniog, Wales. One has lost an arm, the other a leg. One of them is recorded as R O Hughes, but I don't know which. They could be Royal Marines as the man in the wheelchair looks to have a Globe and Laurel badge in his lapel.

The capbadge on the cap of the central figure looks to be that of someone serving with the British Red Cross and St John of Jerusalem organisation. The two men each side have each had both legs amputated. They are sat in special wheelchairs that were to prove such a common sight on the pavements of Britain after the war. There is a handle of each side that is pulled independently to propel the chair forwarde. I can remember seeing old men in such vehicles in the late 50s and early 60s, but they were a really rare sight by then.

Of course, with so many wounded soldiers losing limbs in the war, special factories were established to manufacture artificial limbs made from wood. This work is captured in this photograph.

And for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, work continued for years after the war to find the remains of the missing and rebury them in War Cemeteries around the battlefields. Here, a graves registration team exhumes human remains at Lagnicourt on June 23, 1920. I wonder why the photographer has recorded it as a re-exhumation? Note the skull at the feet of the figure on the right. There is a second balanced on the side of the excavation, just to the left of the middle figure in the trench.


  1. Powerful, and yes, the race is the most unsettling.

  2. Laurie, thank you for your well-written and informed commentary. I don't think I could have followed the photos otherwise. I think our Civil War was very similar: at the beginning the was was glorified and romanticized; at the end there were photos of row after row of men missing limbs, not to mention the many cemeteries, the largest perhaps in Gettysburg.

  3. Most people can not tolerate pictures of the cost of war. Several years ago I did a short study on facial reconstruction as it dealt with forensic reconstruction. However, this tecnology was "born" from WWI battlefield facial wounds. Even I found it a difficult study as the beginning of this study were hundreds of photographs of living men. I deal with the dead in one hand and a sandwich in the other...but the facial wounds that were survived are beyond the pale of the mind.

  4. Thanks, everyone. What a terrible thing War is.

    I know what @eloh means. Dead bodies never bothered me, but then I normally first saw them through the lens of a camera. That said, I attended a course in Albuquerque in 2002 and saw a photograph of a serviceman who showed off [at a party] by popping a detonator in his mouth. You've guessed it, it went off and removed his lower jaw. The look in his eyes in a hospital photograph with his tongue hanging down haunts me every time I think of it . . .

  5. Amazing post! A dear old friend of mine (now deceased) was an author and he wrote a great book called "Gunner Inglorious" about his time in WW2, its by Jim Henderson if you can track it down it's well worth the read. I remember one year Jim was quite excited as he was getting a new half leg and the joy on his face when he saw his new limb had individual toes was quite a treat!

  6. ooohh...thanks very much for this...some great photos here...

  7. Hi Laurie, this past week was too crazy, I wanted to sift through this slowly... these photographs are just amazingly poignant. What a job it must have been to try to relocate all the hundreds of thousands of remains to Commonwealth War Graves sites. And to rebuild limbs or faces destroyed by shrapnel and bullets. Will post some pictures soon of a site near Paris where people with disfiguring facial wounds could live out their lives in peace and reclusion... les Gueules Cassées.

    Don't know if you might be familiar with the Tavistock Institute in England, they did a lot of work on the psychology and social aspects of adapting back to "normal" life after wartime experiences... a founder was Dr Eric Trist. I knew his daughter...

    In any case, you have done an extraordinary job in these latest posts. Bravo...

  8. Powerful and painful. I sometimes wonder what were people thinking??? Times were surely different then. Your powers of observation are incredible.