Review Article – Image, Narrative and Identity in the First World War

Jack Holroyd, Images of War: American Expeditionary Force France 1917-1918. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2012. pp. 143

Philip Payton, Regional Australia and the Great War. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2012. pp XVII + 254

We take images of the First World War for granted and as commonplace. In the popular memory, we select a handful of images of the War, in monochrome, recording mud, battlefield detritus and ordinary individuals or groups of soldiers engaged in their tasks. Considering the multiplicity of forms of depicting people at war whether in uniform or as civilians engaged in the process of war, and whether as paintings, drawings, cartoons, photographs or films we imagine them to be soldiers who are victims of war rather than actors in their own narratives. They are to be regarded by the image-maker as part of the narrative which it is wished to create from the figures portrayed. Imagining the First World War should begin however with the imagined object – the uniformed figure, whether military or civilian – and the purposes of the image-maker, that is art, record, commerce, propaganda or ideology. Meaning depends upon the understanding of those who perceive of the imagined object, whether as a representation of reality or as a mythical image. Meaning is also provided by those whose identities are captured by the image-maker in the instant of making. Images are visual constructions, constrained by the possibilities of choice, the limitations of technique and the controls of governments. The imagined object, whether individual or group, sought to negotiate the terms upon which their image was captured. Their perception of identity was essential to the construction of meaning which, despite the aim of uniformity intended by their circumstances, concerned their personal narratives and experiences. In Britain for example a familiar image at the War’s outset was of the experienced soldier whose dishevelled cap from which all wire, stiffening and shape had been removed, could be moulded into a form chosen by the wearer, most distinctively as the cloth cap symbolic of British working-class life and community.

In the First World War people participated, whether at the Front, in the fields or factories, carrying a range of self-identities constructed from their locality, affiliation, class, beliefs, trade or industry. Localism provided the most enduring identity but self-image was complex and exceeded their national origins. As Philip Payton, writing about the myth of ANZAC, the simple description of Imperial origin was not enough. British troops were lumped together as “chooms”, a collective noun parodying the northern/Midland accents of many British battalions, whereas those from Wales, Ireland and Scotland were separately identified. Even such national identity was often more complex. Canadians might actually be Newfoundlanders or even British emigrants, despatched to Canada from the Foundling Hospitals of Liverpool and London, or through the Clearances from the Highlands of Scotland. The most famous Australian of the War was probably John Kirkpatrick Simpson (and his donkey). He was born in South Shields in Great Britain and joined up in order to return from Australia where he had jumped ship. After his death at Gallipoli, he was hailed as “the Australian spirit personified” by the Melbourne Argus in 1933. When Private Geoffrey Husbands was posted to the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters (a British Territorial Battalion), he wrote:

The 5th Battalion always purported to be Derby town in its personnel; the 6th was known as the Wild Men from the Peak, being largely recruited from Bakewell and the Peakland villages; the 7th Battalion was the pride of Nottingham – the famous Robin Hoods, who drilled as a rifle regiment and wore the black buttons of riflemen; while the 8th Battalion was recruited largely in Worksop, Newark and other parts of Nottinghamshire. (Bourne, J.M. and Bushaway, Bob (eds), Joffrey’s War: a Sherwood Forester in the Great War, Salient Press, 2011 p. 462).

The Images of War series continues with Holroyd’s contribution on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Drawn from the collection of official photographs prepared by the US Signal Corps with additional images from the Taylor Library, Holroyd has produced a photo-documentary of Americans at war which follows the familiar chronology: “rookies”, training, farewells, the Front Line and the road to victory. Although the collection is based on an official record, one photograph stands out (ref:65 US). A group of Soldiers from the American 1st Division are shown about to relieve a brigade of French Moroccans near Coeuvres-et-Valsery. They are battle-ready but not battle hardened. No-one is smiling or in conversation and all appear to resent the photographer’s presence. They slouch against a wall, surrounded by their kit, holding their helmets and rifles. The view is reminiscent of similar photographs from the American Civil War which picture soldiers as glum heroes locked into their own thoughts, awaiting action.

Philip Payton’s excellent study of regional Australia – the Northern Yorke Peninsular, South Australia, around the mining districts of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo in the First World War – is a major edition to the historiography of identity. Based upon the experiences of the Quintrell brothers, Paton explores the complexity of identity. “The old KIO” is the popular regional descriptor for the area which was originally populated by miners and their families from Cornwall. Mary Ann Quintrell (nee Datson) was born in Cornwall in 1844, moving to South Australia at the age of three. She had thirteen children but by the end of the First World War was a widow with only six surviving children. As Paton suggests, a “. . . blend of Imperial and Australian patriotism underpinned her pride in the sacrifice of her three sons in the Great War . . . but, born in Cornwall and the widow of a Cornish miner, Mary Ann – who had lived all her adult life on Moonta mines – was also exposed to another kind of local patriotism, an adherence to a strong regional identity forged in the copper-mining communities of Northern Yorke Peninsula” (p6).

Billy Bray, Payton recounts, a Moonta stalwart, in an estaminet in France during the War, tried to explain to a waitress from whence he originated. Drawing a circle in the slops to represent the world, stabbed a finger in its centre saying, “This is where I come from – Moonta.” (p219). Billy Bray was a famous Cornish name. He was the Victorian Cornish miner-preacher who, according to the late John Rule, once exclaimed;

The Devil! Who is he? What can he do? . . . I am Billy Bray! God is my heavenly Father! Why should I fear thee, devil? Come on, thee thou devil; I fear thee not! (John Rule, Cornish Cases, Clio, 2006 p185).

Both Billy Brays, confident in the expression of their local identities, faced the world and their enemies knowing that they were shaped at , in Moonta’s Billy Bray’s words, “the hub of the universe” (Payton, p219).

Dr. Bob Bushaway, Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of the review here.

One response to “Review Article – Image, Narrative and Identity in the First World War

  1. Having just utilized a very small portion of the Signal Corps images at MHI in Carlisle for my book, I can state without reservation how wonderful they are–so many that have not been published. I look forward to seeing this book, and picking it up for my bookshelf.

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