Photographing the Fallen...
...a War Graves Photographer on the Western Front, 1915-1919, from Pen and Sword
Title: Photographing the Fallen
Author: Jeremy Gordon-Smith
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books
I will start by saying how interesting I found this new book from author Jeremy Gordon-Smith along with Pena and Sword. The background apparently is the author's interest in the history of the two World Wars, and the involvement of his own family members.. What he found is an unusual aspect of WW1 from his uncle, Ivan Bawtree. His uncle passed away in 1979 but had spent his working life with Kodak and a fascination and expertise for photography. Amidst this, he was one of just 3 photographers who were recruited by the Graves Registration Commission in 1915 to record the efforts to identify the burials of those killed on the Western Front, a job he did through to 1919. It was not until 1974 that the author's father was shown over 600 original glass photo slides and albums which were then donated for preservation with the Imperial War Museum, now the 'Bawtree Collection'.
Using many of these original photos, along with equally valuable notes from Ivan's diaries which were also preserved. As well as the personal story of Ivan Bawtree, what this shows us is the story of the early work of what was the Imperial War Graves Commission, now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. If like me you have visited the neatly kept CWGC cemeteries either here or on the continent, this is very much the story of where they all started from. The story tells us how the choice was made to use the style of headstone we see used, as opposed to a cross which is used by other nations. Coupled with some modern photos by the author, which illustrate what we see today, the early pictures which Ivan took all those years ago show us parts of the towns, villages and countryside devastated by the war though after the troops had left. Not only ruins but abandoned trenches in a barren landscape. The work of the Graves Registration Unit was important but obviously unpleasant and on the old battlefields, still a potentially dangerous task. Finding a body and looking for some evidence of their individual identities. The remains had to be individually put on stretchers and taken to collection points. The units used horse drawn General Service wagons where trucks could not reach and lorries where a suitable roadway was accessible. These need maintenance facilities and accommodation in camps for the workers themselves. Even in the early stages there were gardeners at work to set out the neat cemeteries. Amidst the photos we also see some of the towns, such as Ypres, starting the rebuilding process, as the displace civilians returned home to start rebuilding their homes and lives all over again.
The neat CWGC cemeteries we see today are a fitting tribute to all those who gave their lives in both The Great War and WW2. When you see how the huge task of 'where to start' I think this gives a thought provoking look at where they all began. It is of course a job that continues to the present day. Not only the maintenance of the many cemeteries where relatives still go to see their family members, but there are still new bodies being discovered 100 years on, and they need to be identified and buried with due honour alongside their comrades. An excellent book and I think worth saying thank you to the author for sharing his family history with the rest of us.
Thanks to Pen and Sword for this review copy.