10 bleak but beautiful Australian photographs from World War I

With good reason the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign looms forever large in our perception of Australia’s World War I experience, but from March 1916 onward the young men of the Australian Imperial Force – many veterans of the Dardanelles, or the subsequent Middle Eastern front against the waning Ottoman Empire and their Central Powers allies – found themselves knee deep in the mud and blood of Northern France.

They had arrived just in time for the Somme, a futile meat-grinder that chewed up 23,000 Australian lives. A year later they were committed to the Third Battle of Ypres – also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, the Battle of the Mud – where a further 38,000 Australians lay dead and wounded for the sake of a single village and the German lines surrounding it.

James Francis (Frank) Hurley and George Hubert Wilkins joined them in 1917 there on behalf of the Australian War Records Section, and what follows are 10 of the most starkly beautiful images from their two volume project, Official Australian War Photographs, a gallery of which is held by the National Media Museum.

Accompanying them are excerpts from Letters from France, a collection of missives from war correspondent CEW Bean who followed the AIF from the unflinching rocks of Turkey to the venomous soil of France and Belgium.

These images were taken for propaganda purposes, but the loaded commentary by some unknown hand and the bleak vistas depicted, bedevilled by razor wire and corpses, cannot be spun.


1. The Gas

Gas shell, musty with chloroform; sweet-scented tear shell that made your eyes run with water; high bursting shrapnel with black smoke and a vicious high explosive rattle behind its heavy pellets; ugly green bursts the colour of a fat silkworm; huge black clouds from the high explosive of his 5.9’s. Day and night the men worked through it, fighting this horrid machinery far over the horizon as if they were fighting Germans hand-to-hand—building up whatever it battered down; buried, some of them, not once but again and again and again.


2. The Canadians

Whether they were done or whether they were not, they spoke of those Canadian bombers in a way it would have done Canadian hearts good to hear. Australians and Canadians fought for 36 hours in those trenches inextricably mixed, working under each others’ officers. Their wounded helped each other from the front. Their dead lie and will lie through all the centuries hastily buried beside the tumbled trenches and shell-holes where, fighting as mates, they died.


3. The Bus

Down the narrow road below sagged a big motor-bus, painted grey, like a battleship; and, after it, a huge grey motor-lorry; and, in front and behind them, an odd procession of motor-cars of all sizes, bouncing awkwardly from one hollow in the road to another.

Out of the dark interior of the motor-bus, as we passed it, there groped a head with a grey slouch hat. It came slowly round on its long, brown, wrinkled neck until it looked into our car. “Hey, mate,” it said, “is this the track to the races?” Then it smiled at the landscape in general and withdrew into the interior like a snail into its shell. In this bus was an Australian Brass Band.



4. The Wire

I have seen Germans who were in the line in front of that attack. They state that they were not surprised. In the light of their flares they had seen numbers of “Englishmen” advancing over the shoulder of the hill. When the rush came, one German officer told me, he, in his short sector of the line alone, had three machine-guns all hard at work. The attack reached the remnants of the German wire. Some brave men picked a path through the tangle, and, in spite of the cross-fire, managed to reach the German trench. They were very few


5. The Dead

The first trench was a wretchedly shallow affair in places. Most of the Germans in it were dead—some of them had been lying there for days. The artillery in the meantime had lifted on to the German trenches farther back. Later they lifted to a farther position yet. The Australian infantry dashed at once from the first position captured, across the intervening space over the tramway and into the trees.


6. The Loot

We were in a room lighted with candles. In the midst of an interested crowd of half a dozen young officers was a youngster in grey cloth, with a mud be-spattered coat, a swollen face, and two bandaged hands. On the table were a coffee-pot, some cups, and biscuits, and a small heap of loot—gas masks and bayonets, and such stuff from German dug-outs. Most of the crowd was interestedly fingering a grey steel helmet with a heavy steel shield or visor in front of the forehead, evidently meant to be bullet-proof when the wearer looked over the parapet. The prisoner was murmuring something like “Durchgeschossen,” “Durchgeschossen.”

“He says he’s shot through,” said someone, who understood a little German.


7. The Calm

The cold Scotch mist stands in little beads on the grey cloth—the bayonets shine very cold in the white light before the dawn—the damp, slippery brown earth is too wet for a comfortable seat. But there is always some Australian there who will give them a cigarette; a cheery Melbourne youngster or two step down into the crowd and liven them with friendly chaff; the blue sky begins to show through the mist—the early morning aeroplane hums past on its way to the line, low down, half hidden in the wrack.

The big bushman from Gippsland at a neighbouring coffee stall—praise heaven for that institution—gives them a drink of the warm stuff. And I verily believe that at that moment they emerge for the first time out of a frightful dream.


8. The Trench

Presently, and quite suddenly, the trench shallowed. The sides which had been clean cut were tumbled in. The fallen earth blocked the passage, and the journey became a switchback over tumbled rubbish and into the trench again. Someone had before been living in the trench, for there were tools in it and bits of soldiers’ gear. Here and there a shattered rifle stuck out of the terra-cotta soil. The trench shallowed still further. There had been little hastily scraped dug-outs in the sides of it.

They were more than three parts filled with earth; but in them, every now and again, there showed a patch of muddy grey cloth above the debris. It was part of the uniform of a German soldier buried by the shell that killed him. It must have been an old German trench taken by our men some weeks before. It can scarcely have been visited since, for its garrison lay there just as the shells had buried them. Probably it had been found too broken for use and had been almost forgotten.


9. The Road

There is only one time when that unearthly landscape returns to itself again. I suppose men and women lived in those valleys once; French farmers’ girls tugged home at dusk up[Pg 208] that ghostly roadway slow-footed, reluctant cows; I dare say they even made love—French lads and sweethearts—down some long obliterated path beside those willow stumps where the German patrol sneaks nightly from shell-hole to shell-hole.

There comes an afternoon when the sky turns dull yellow-white like an old smoker’s beard, and before dusk the snowflakes begin to fall. Far back the cursing drivers are dragging their jibbing horses past half-frozen shell-holes, which they can scarcely see. And out there, where the freezing sentries keep watch over the fringe where civilisation grinds against the German—out there under the tender white mantle, flickering pink and orange under the gun flashes—out there for a few short hours the land which Kultur has defaced comes by its own.


10. The Wounded

It was after dark on a winter’s night that he and his men—about sixteen of them—crept out up a slimy trench deep to the knees in sloppy mud; peered at the enemy’s wire against the skyline; half crawled, half slid through a gap in it, and disappeared, Tim leading. A white flash—a shower of bombs—red and orange flares breaking like Roman candles in the sky—the chatter of a machine-gun—the enemy’s barrage presently shrieking down the vault of heaven.

A dozen wounded men came back before dawn. And Tim—Tim lay with his face to the stars, dreaming for ever and ever of red plains and travelling sheep.

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