Every Picture Tells A Story No.2

For a number of years now I have wanted to show you two particular photographs, and, now that both are in the public domain, I can do just that.  Not that there is anything unusual or particularly special about them as photographs, but there is a story attached to the second one of which, it seems, most people are unaware.  Both were taken by controversial Australian photographer Frank Hurley near Birr Cross Roads on the Menin Road (although I should point out that there is nothing contentious about these photos) in September 1917, the above picture showing British walking wounded and German prisoners as they trudge away from the battlefield, passing stretcher cases awaiting evacuation as they go.  The ditched vehicle that looks remarkably like a camper van (it does!),…

…is actually this trailer, and a number of the walking wounded passing by in this second photograph, all Australians, have since been identified, including Major G. A. M. Haydon, 8th Bn. Medical Officer (in jodhpurs with walking stick and with his left arm in a sling, looking straight at us).  Three other men are also now identified, but unfortunately the only caption I can find is horribly irritating in its ambiguity, so I shall irritate you too by copying it near-verbatim: ‘To his left is Private W Bain and next to him is Private ‘Spud’ Murphy. To Private Murphy’s left (wearing a pack) is 58 Lance Corporal Roy Arthur Findlay MM, all are members of the 1st Field Ambulance.’  So which one is Findlay?  See what I mean?  Anyway, it’s a decent photograph, no doubt, and very likely one you have come across before, but the real story behind this photograph is not the walking wounded, but the stretcher cases clustered around the ditched trailer, awaiting evacuation to the nearest casualty clearing station. And it is not the story of how these men came to be here, but of what was about to befall them.

Mere seconds after the photograph was taken, a German shell landed on the road at about the point Major Haydon is standing, wiping out most of these men on stretchers (and, I believe, blowing Lance Corporal Findlay, who had presumably lagged behind the others after the photo was taken, beneath the ditched transport, although he survived).  If you were unaware beforehand of the impending doom arcing through the sky as this photograph was taken, I’m afraid you will never look at these men in the same way ever again.  What’s more, this cannot be the only Great War photograph where tragedy is about to strike, it’s just that we usually don’t know about it.  Sorry, but it had to be done.

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8 Responses to Every Picture Tells A Story No.2

  1. Andrew Brennan says:

    Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them.

    May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Andrew. A slightly tenuous link, but there is a fine book with wonderful photos called Light Perpetual by David Beaty – a study of Aviators’ Memorial Windows. Well, someone might be interested…….

  2. Nigel Shuttleworth says:

    Another very interesting post MJS. I went to an exhibition of Frank Hurley’s Mawson and Shackleton Antarctic Expeditions photographs when Sally and I were last in Sydney. Hurley was a very interesting man, the ‘Don McCullin’ of his day and served as a war photographer with the Australian Forces in both WW1 and WW2 (North Africa).

  3. Daisy says:

    Hello Magicfingers,
    These are a couple of famous Australian photographs and some of the most requested and copied from the Australian war memorial for many books on Australian military history have these photographs included, particularly the shot with the soldier on the stretcher peering into the camera. I have only read one other time about the split second terrible aftermath. Thanks for putting these up for us to see.
    His other famous shots are the ‘Supports going up after battle to relieve the Front Trenches’ with troops silhouettes against water and ‘Chateau Wood Ypres 1917’ with Australians on duckboards in what’s left of the wood. This is coincidentally the area where your Major Courtney-Welch would have fought and been buried.
    I have always loved Hurley’s composites as a cross somewhere between photography and art… you imagine he would have enjoyed using ‘photoshop’.
    Hurley also photographed the Second World War and the AWM has thousands of his negatives..

    • Magicfingers says:

      Oh yes, Hurley would have been a great photoshopper – he’d have loved it. And thanks for backing me on the aftermath – the photo is often used, but rarely with the whole story.

  4. Nick Kilner says:

    A quite remarkable photograph when given its context, remarkable anyway really.

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