July marks the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. A new book by Richard Van Emden looks at images taken by soldiers during the bloody conflict. He talks to Amy Davies
Perhaps a recurring theme across most war photography is the fact that much of it is captured by outsiders. So often the images we see are taken by journalists or freelancers who have taken themselves to the conflict in order to bring back images to display to the rest of the world. However, it’s not often that we see images actually captured by individuals directly involved in the conflict. Such pictures must surely offer a unique perspective.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in France – one of the bloodiest and deadliest battles in human history. Unofficial photographs taken during the battle are rare, but offer a fascinating insight into life on the Western Front. Someone who has spent time getting to grips with this insight is First World War historian Richard Van Emden. He has produced a book examining photographs taken by soldiers during the five-month-long battle that resulted in more than one million casualties.
At the start of the war in 1914, there were no restrictions on the use of cameras or photography, as Richard explains: ‘I’m sure the Army’s attitude wouldn’t have been entirely positive towards photography, but at that time they were far more excited by what was going on, and the threat of Germany, to worry about cameras.’
What may seem odd, at least to modern sensibilities, is that there were no official photographers sent over to cover the action.
‘It didn’t even occur to them that photography and propaganda in the Great War would be useful,’ says Richard. ‘So there were no images for the British press.’
To satisfy their readers’ desire for imagery, newspapers started to offer money directly to soldiers who had taken their own cameras. The vast majority would have been officers, because of the high cost of camera equipment and film. It soon became clear that good photos could be worth vast sums of money.
‘Most photographs weren’t worth that much, but if you got an extraordinary one, it could be worth a small fortune,’ says Richard.
‘An everyday picture of Tommies at the front would get you a few shillings or a couple of pounds. However, if you got a photograph of men under fire, for example, it could be worth a lot: up to £600-£700 per photograph, or £50,000-£100,000 in today’s money.
‘These pictures started to appear in the British press – uncensored – but the military authorities started to notice. They got extremely upset that there was a lack of control. I think they also felt that men were possibly loading, aiming and shooting their cameras as opposed to their revolvers and rifles.’
Eventually, a ban on cameras came via a General Routine Order (GRO) just before Christmas 1914.
‘The problem was that a GRO wasn’t relayed to the men who were about to go to France – only the men already in the field,’ says Richard. ‘You had thousands, or even tens of thousands, of men coming over from Britain with cameras unaware of this order.’
The result was that in 1915, a more serious ban, a War Office Instruction, was put into place, over a year before the Battle of the Somme began. Initially, some men still flouted the ban, but as the war progressed it became harder to avoid.
‘In September 2015 we have the Battle of Loos, which is the first really major allied offensive’ says Richard. ‘There was a huge crackdown on cameras.’
‘Anybody caught with a camera faced a court martial. For an officer, that could mean being kicked out of the Army and being dishonourably discharged. For another rank, it could mean months of hard labour.
‘As a result, images from the Battle of the Somme are much rarer than photographs from 1914 and 1915, when there were in fact far fewer men. There were up to two million men on the Western Front in 1916, but there are fewer photographs than when there were half a million men in 1915. Fortunately for posterity, enough of them kept cameras.’
Finding their pictures takes time, effort and, crucially, a large bank balance.
‘The albums can go for well over £1,000 each, if they’re good,’ says Richard. ‘In fact, one album that I bid for recently, because it was very, very good, I lost when the bidding went over £2,500. I’ve bought a lot of albums for between £800 and £1,200, and I’m pretty pleased if I get them for less than £500.’
As you would expect, their price depends on the quality of the images they contain.
‘If they’re not very good, you can get them cheaply, but then you probably won’t use the images,’ says Richard. ‘You are really looking for quality photographs that haven’t suffered from silvering or deterioration. Also, the quality of the camera is critical. The better the quality, the better are the pictures.
‘Having said that, you can get amazing pictures with cheap cameras if the guy was a good photographer and knew how to fix the camera, and how to expose.’
Unlike some other wartime collectibles, Richard says it’s relatively easy to establish authenticity in photography.
‘You can’t build yourself a trench system and line it with men. Well, you could, but it would be expensive, so photographs tend to be genuine.
‘Now, you don’t know that they’re not copied – an officer might make prints for other men. One of the reasons I ducked out of the £2,500 album is that I knew someone who had that album in their collection and had it replicated.’
To place and date the photos, Richard employs a variety of techniques.
‘If you’re lucky, the man who took the photograph has got the picture in an album and has written the date and location underneath it,’ says Richard. ‘If they’ve written nothing, which happens about 50% of the time, you can tell the date from the kit they’re wearing.
‘You can also tell the likely date by the style of the trench, or the location from its geology. On top of that, you’ve got landmarks in the background.’
By 1916, the government had realised that official photography was necessary, but sent just two photographers to the Western Front. Their images aren’t as realistic as unofficial sources.
‘Although they took fantastic photographs, many of their pictures were staged,’ says Richard. ‘It wasn’t that these men weren’t in a frontline trench, but they would go along and say, “OK lads, can you pretend to be cleaning your gun?” and they’d all stand around and make a pose.
‘These men didn’t look like they felt comfortable with an official photographer taking a picture. When you see photographs taken by soldiers themselves, the men are much more comfortable and much more relaxed.
‘You’ve only got two photographers on the Somme. They would have to be very lucky to capture extraordinary moments, whereas if you’ve got enough men with cameras, you will get instances where shell bursts will be right over the top of the trench as one of them clicks his camera.
‘Crucially, the official photographer doesn’t name people, either. The photographers were there to take an impression of the Western Front, of the fighting on the Somme; they were not interested in identifying mere individuals.’
After the bans, some soldiers continued to risk taking their own pictures. Richard has discovered several accounts of soldiers being punished for taking them.
‘One officer was sent home; someone from another rank got three months hard labour; and another got Field Punishment Number One, which is being spreadeagled on a gun carriage in front of all your mates,’ he explains. ‘It isn’t painful, just humiliating. The punishment you received depended on the commanding officer.’
In order to avoid being caught, soldiers came up with various tactics to conceal cameras and film.
‘If they were caught with a roll of film, they would automatically lose your leave, so if they took pictures home they were very careful about doing so,’ says Richard. ‘They relied on film being sent out from home, or from friends who had been out on leave. If you needed another roll, you would have a secret message that you could agree with a family member. For example, “It’s a very indifferent day today”, which they would know meant, “Send me a roll of film.”
‘An interesting story is a guy who was just a private but must have had the cooperation of his commanding officer, because he actually took a camera out there with developing solutions and all sorts of stuff, and his photographs are extraordinarily detailed. He must have transported his equipment in a wagon. I’m intrigued by the fact that he was able to do that and nobody seemed to stop him.’
Of course, the soldiers who took photographs faced other technical challenges, as Richard explains: ‘Most of the soldiers used the Vest Pocket Kodak, which was marketed directly to soldiers just prior and during the early months of the Great War. It was something with retractable bellows, which [you] would store in your jacket pocket or your haversack, and was easy to use.
‘It also had rollfilm, so you could just put in the rollfilm and take your photographs. These cameras were small and portable, so that was what most men used.
‘With a VPK, you had to look down on the viewfinder. For you to take a picture of men going over the top, or in action, you’d have to expose half your body to get the shot. You could literally just lift the camera above the trench top, but you risked the picture being shaky, or taking a picture of the sky. So, the pictures where you actually see men in action, where you see extremely dangerous situations are very rare.’
As the Battle of the Somme continued, the number of images taken by soldiers dwindled.
‘I think part of the reason they lost cameras is not just because of the attitude of the authorities, but also people were starting to get sick of it. Sick of fighting and sick of death. They decided it wasn’t fun any more, or something they would want to remember after the war.
‘I’ve seen lots of albums taken on the frontline where the number of dead in those pictures, given how many there must have been around, are very few. In one album I borrowed, there was a caption that said something like, “This person being carried down, he died shortly afterwards”, but the picture had been removed.
‘Objectively, you could say that was probably one of the most interesting ones he took, but at some point he decided, “I don’t want anyone else to see this; I shouldn’t have taken it.”’
Until now, the public has never seen most of the photos in Richard’s book. It’s for this reason that Richard became interested in showcasing forgotten shots.
‘I’m so keen because nobody else has bothered with these images. They are incredibly rare and often stunningly taken, but totally forgotten about. I’ve really made it my business to bring something entirely new to the public.
‘When I write about the Great War, I’m not interested in generals, or tactics particularly; I’m interested in writing about things about which people might say, “I cannot believe that happened.”
‘With these photographs I want to bring something fresh to the story instead of repeating the same stuff over and over again.’