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Records of War - Photography and Letters from World War One

Personal Memories

Personal Memories

During World War One portable and more affordable cameras allowed soldiers, for the first time, to make their own personal records of the war. These included snaps of friends and members of their company, tourist-type photographs of the places they passed through, the people they saw there and war ruins.

Occasionally they found ways of marking major events such as Armistice Day. However, soldier photography, as it came to be known, was, like diary keeping, contentious with Government censorship and strictly controlled. Personal photographs of front line action, particularly on the Western Front, are rare.

In the early months of the war rumours circulated that soldiers with cameras on the front lines would be court martialled and shot. This was untrue but in the early years of the war soldier photography depended on the tolerance of superiors. From 1916 onwards restrictions on the Western Front were more strictly enforced and a few soldiers were court martialled for owning cameras in a war zone. More lenience was given to soldiers in the Middle East. Further from home photography was not seen as such a threat to security.

 

One such soldier photographer was Captain Charles Beattie Anderson from Annan who, as a member of the Territorial Army before the war, was one of the first to join up. Charles was sent with the 5th Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) regiment, to defend the Suez Canal, Egypt before being transferred to the 1st KOSB in northern France where he took part in the first Battle of the Somme. A small collection of photographs documenting his journey to Egypt survive. Perhaps the tighter restrictions on the Western Front explain why there are no photographs of that time.

Charles was shot in the left arm in October 1916 but recovered and fought at the battle of Arras in 1917. He survived the trenches and, as a respected marksman, was transferred to the Mountain Warfare School in Abbottabad to train the Indian Army in musketry. He remained on the North West Frontier until his return home in 1919. The photographs he took during this time include tourist snaps and record the Sikhs and soldiers from different tribal groups he oversaw. He captured images of their celebrations on hearing the news of the Armistice.

Later Charles recorded powerful images when he and his companions returned to the Western Front in 1923 and again in 1924. Why did he record these still bleak places? Was it a tribute to his comrades, a means of remembering for him and for families of dead soldiers unable to make the journey to Flanders? Charles had worked as a journalist before the war. Perhaps he photographed what he saw with a knowing eye, making not only a personal record but also an historical record. As early as 1919 Charles began carefully annotating his photographs, detailing places, dates, the names of his fellow soldiers and occasionally stating the date of death of a comrade. Photographs which are not so precisely annotated may indicate that these were not his own images. Others are duplicated. Perhaps soldier photographs were swapped as a means of sharing experiences and remembering.