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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12 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.

  5. Pete Jones says:

    Hi MF

    Thanks for posting the Menin Road pictures, I would like to use them in something I’m writing about Ypres, do you know who I should credit as the source? I am a long time admirer of your own photos which are much better than mine of the same subjects, would you mind if I used some of yours of Erquinghem-Lys Communal Extension? I haven’t got one of the Railton memorial in particular, I will of course credit your excellent site. Our mutual friend Jack Thorpe told me you are a regular visitor to the area, I’ve got a footballer called Wilf Toman buried in Erquinghem-Lys and Railton was closely associated with my local area after the war. No problem if you would prefer to keep them private, it’s time I visited again.


  6. Magicfingers says:

    Hello Pete. Thanks ever so for your kind words. I always say that I am no ace photographer, but I do have a decent eye for a shot. Please feel free to use whatever you wish – do I get to see the finished article/tome? I rather hope to get to Erquinghem in a few weeks time to see Jack – we have things to discuss – so if there are any other photos you need – and assuming that I do get to Erquinghem – my agendas are always flexible, so I cannot promise – let me know.
    Afa copyright, the images are in the public domain as far as I can see – but obviously you need to make sure yourself. For example, this is for the second, tragic, photo: Frank Hurley – State Library of New South Wales. Permission details. This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain.
    I have just noticed that the date of this photo is 20th September 1917. Which is a bit of a coincidence that I hadn’t realised until now, because one of the posts I am currently working on is also about something that happened, not far away from these photos, a couple of miles south, on the very same day. Watch this space.
    I like to check footballers, but no links with Crystal Palace as far as Wilf is concerned; he should have come further south to play for a proper club! Lol!

  7. Pete Jones says:

    Sorry for the late reply, I had hoped to have the article finished by now to let you know the link but I write painfully slowly. It also suddenly occurred to me you might be in the Lys valley from what you said. Thanks for the photo offer, I’m fine for the moment as between Jack and I we have photographed my particular areas of interest rather a lot. If you take any in the area I’d be very interested as always. No, Wilf had no Crystal Palace connection but I so as the South London branch of my family have Selhurst Park allegiances, and I always look out for their results.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hello Pete. No problems with late replies. As I mentioned before, I’m in Flanders next weekend, although I’m still unsure of my exact plans – I’d better sort it all out soon. And I shall enjoy the article as and when it becomes available.
      Me, I’ve been a Palace fan since the last game of the ’69-’70 season (Division 1: Palace 1 Man. City 0, Gerry Queen scored, we weren’t relegated, and I was hooked).

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