Friday, October 09, 2009

Unique photographs of the Battle of the Somme

A shell bursting some 10-20 yards way on the Somme Battlefield, 1916. Photograph from the album Lieutenant J.S. Purvis, 5th (T) Battalion (1916-1918). RICGH:2005.31.6

I just came across some quite amazing and unique pictures of the Battle of the Somme courtesy of the Darlington & Stockton Times in NE England (btw I love great how you can read articles from small regional papers like this now).

They were taken by Lieutenant John Stanley Purvis of the 5th (T) Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) on the first day of the Battle of the Somme as he and his men began advancing across no man's land towards the enemy trenches. The photographs are now in the archives at the Green Howards regimental museum in Richmond, N. Yorkshire.

A unique photograph from the second line trench of troops advancing from the forward trenches on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. RICGH:2005.31.2

These are so unique because there are so few photographs of the actual combat in WWI. Most photographs we see are either some way behind the front lines or once the fighting has moved - showing the desolate shell pockmarked landscapes and so on. But there are very few show troops actually out of the trenches advancing to contact. For one thing, taking a picture under the withering enemy (and sometimes friendly) fire would - I think - put most photographers off. For another, Lt. Purvis could have been Court Martialed for taking photographs in the front line (if I recall correctly, keeping personal diaries was also prohibited on pain of Court Martial).

Other photos (there are 43 in all, still well worth looking at) taken by Lt. Purvis - more typical - though equally horrifying - show scenes of the battlefield such as "Soldiers digging into freshly made trenches in Delville Wood, October 1916" where the woods now merely consist of a few shell blasted stumps. I know there is at least one well know picture of "combat" in WWI that was used numerous times as a magazine and book illustration but was later found to have been taken during training. But of Purvis' pictures it is these two or three pictures that for me capture the eye and the imagination.

The scene of the Somme Battlefield, July 1916. RICGH:2005.31.5

What a fool, you might think, taking pictures while shells landed 10 or so yards away and rifle and machine gun fire was most likely coming in in your direction. But remember that an officer's main job was to make sure his men continued to advance into all that. Many did so armed with nothing more than a walking stick (an officer's pistol was of little use until all that ground was crossed and you were nose to nose with the enemy). So, I suppose, why not take a couple of moments to stop and take a photograph... I guess there was nothing you could do about it one way or the other....

From the paper:

"IT was the most terrible day in the history of the British Army with more than 57,000 casualties, of whom almost 20,000 were killed.

But the first day of the Battle of the Somme - July 1, 1916 - was just the beginning of a four-month operation that would end with more than 1.5m casualties.

The shattered fields of northern France ran red with blood and to this day the countries that took part remember the events with abject horror.

Now unique photographs of that first day have been made available for all to see..."

Purvis survived the war and although he went on to study at Cambridge and eventually become a clergyman, I think he had a real eye as a photographer:

A new type of barbed wire used by Germans in 1918. RICGH:2005.31.40


Todd Walker said...

Tim, that barbed wire pic goes down with Fenton's "Valley of Death" as a unique representation of terror and beauty.

Stephen said...

If you haven't already, you might want to read A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book". Only a very small part of it is directly concerned with WW1, but that's where the rest of the book is going, and by the time you get there, the scenes hit pretty hard.