Why are there World War I photos in the Polar Archives?

American soldiers walking up the road at Mont St. Quentin. Take note of the bayonets.

History Corner

Why are there World War I photos
in the Polar Archives?

American soldiers walking up the road. Mont St. Quentin, 1918.

Twenty-four-year-old Australian photographer and cinematographer Hubert Wilkins spent his time in 1912 in Constantinople photographing and filming the First Balkan War for Britain’s Daily Chronicle newspaper. This work would make him the first person to record footage of wartime combat, and the first person to use a plane as a way of taking war photographs. For the next three years, Wilkins would take this knowledge with him as he photographed the final Arctic expedition of Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Meanwhile, much farther south, the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated, beginning a chain of events leading to the start of the First World War.

Twenty-four-year-old Australian photographer and cinematographer Hubert Wilkins. Constantinople, 1912.

Stefansson’s outfit hadn’t heard about the war until December 1915. Once the expedition had ended, Wilkins began his journey back home in order to join the war efforts, specifically to see the front lines. Wilkins writes: “I came from Victoria Land in the Arctic to Coronation Gulf, a six hundred mile walk before I got the boat, then to Alaska, Vancouver, to New York, then to London, to South Africa, to Australia and across Australia by railway and then back again to London and France by way of the Cape. It was 12,000 miles back and borth (sic) to Australia, 3000 over the Atlantic --altogether about 33,000 miles to go to war.”¹

Because of his navigation skills and experience flying a plane (though minimal), Wilkins applied to be a pilot in the Australian Flying Corps. Once he arrived in London with other Flying Corps reinforcements, however, he was informed during a physical examination that he was colorblind. Even after going to an optometrist to be sure, he was told to meet with the commander at the Australian headquarters. There, he learned that Captain Charles Bean had chosen him to be an assistant to Captain Frank Hurley, the official photographer for the Australian War Records Section. Hurley also happened to be the photographer on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition and photographed the Endurance as it sat stuck in the ice just a year earlier. Wilkins was pleased with this role and headed to France with Hurley to begin their work.

George H., Wilkins permission to photograph. Correspondence, 1918.

During their time as photographers for the Australian forces, they each had a separate goal. According to Wilkins: “Hurley was to photograph such scenes suitable to propaganda and press release, while I was expected to photograph actual front line scenes and incidents, showing everything the camera could represent, notwithstanding the conditions.”³ Because of this, Wilkins was very close to massive shells exploding overhead, nearly being shot down while in flight, almost falling out of a war balloon under fire, and being wounded multiple times. In his writings, Wilkins described: “Often it took me hours to get from one shell hole to another say 300 yards away. Several times I would lie out in the open and pretend I was dead to fool the snipers. I always wore my uniform and carried my camera. Sometimes the Germans would wave at me. They knew I was a photographer. Often they shot my camera when they could have shot me.”³ He also mentions: “From the time we reached France in July 1917 until the Armistice, I was present at every battle fought by the Australians --with either the front line or reserve line.”³

Wilkins received multiple honors for his bravery and service. He earned a Military Cross after serving in France for three months and for bringing back wounded men from No Man’s Land. He also received a bar to the Military Cross for rescuing a section of American troops that were caught in No Man’s Land and captured by the Germans. You can read Wilkins’s recollection of the rescue  here (PDF).³ Wilkins was also awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal for his service.

Military Cross bar medal.

British medal (click or touch to see back).

Victory medal.

Once the war ended, Wilkins joined Captain Bean on the way to the battlefields of Gallipoli to take photos and commemorate the Australians that fought there for the Australian Historical Mission. In 1921, Wilkins would begin his second polar expedition on Shackleton’s Quest.

To learn more about Wilkins’ exploits in World War I, or any other part of Wilkins’ incredible life, visit the Polar Archives: library.osu.edu/polararchives.

Selected Images from the Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers Collection

Australian troops in the support line moving up as a consequence of the advance on 4 October 1917, to Molenaarelsthoek Ridge, in the Ypres sector.

 
A huge fortress-like concrete dug-out, built by the Germans in
the embankment of the Zonnebeke Railway, in the Ypres Sector, in Belgium, and previously used by
them as a Field Hospital for 45 patients.

A huge fortress-like concrete dug-out, built by the Germans in the embankment of the Zonnebeke Railway, in the Ypres Sector, in Belgium, and previously used by them as a Field Hospital for 45 patients. Ironically known as "Ideal House," it was used as Brigade Headquarters' by the Australian troops during the fighting towards Passchendaele.

 
The ruins of Ypres, in Belgium, viewed from an observation
balloon. In the centre of the picture can be seen the old Cavalry Barracks, at this time being used
as billets by the 1st Division.

The ruins of Ypres, in Belgium, viewed from an observation balloon. In the centre of the picture can be seen the old Cavalry Barracks, at this time being used as billets by the 1st Division.

 
A horse drawn Australian transport. Note the snow on the ground
and the crucifix.

A horse drawn Australian transport. Note the snow on the ground and the crucifix.

 
Walking knee deep in slimy mud along a communication trench at
La Basse Ville, forward of Messines, in Belgium.

Walking knee deep in slimy mud along a communication trench at La Basse Ville, forward of Messines, in Belgium. The photograph fairly illustrates the conditions encountered in the trenches of this low lying area during the winter.

 
Men of the 3rd Australian Company excavating a chamber in the
chalk in the Hulluch subway system.

Men of the 3rd Australian Company excavating a chamber in the chalk in the Hulluch subway system. The chalk was dug out with miners' picks and filled into bags. These bags were trucked along the gallery to suitable positions, hauled to the surface and emptied at night. In places where the chalk crumbled, the walls had to be revetted, as is seen on the left. Identified left to right: Captain R. J. Langton MC, Officer Commanding, No. 1 Section (holding bag); 1194 Sapper (Spr) D. C. Vecchia; 6772 Spr C. A. L. Robinson, all members of the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company.

 
141 Private A Smith, an 18th Battalion Headquarters' observer,
scans enemy territory from the camouflaged position of Ida Post in the Ploegsteert Sector in
Belgium.

141 Private A Smith, an 18th Battalion Headquarters' observer, scans enemy territory from the camouflaged position of Ida Post in the Ploegsteert Sector in Belgium. While the picture was being taken, two Germans could be seen less than 400 yards away.

 
A group of unidentified members of the 1st Division gathered in
and around one of their shelters. The shelter is surrounded by trees and camouflaged with branches,
and its roof is supported by logs and a large rock

A group of unidentified members of the 1st Division gathered in and around one of their shelters. The shelter is surrounded by trees and camouflaged with branches, and its roof is supported by logs and a large rock.

 
A group of the 46th Battalion just after coming out of the line
in front of Monument Wood, where they had experienced a period of very severe fighting, showing the
condition of the men after an attack.

A group of the 46th Battalion just after coming out of the line in front of Monument Wood, where they had experienced a period of very severe fighting, showing the condition of the men after an attack.

 
View from the old German front line trench south east of
Villers-Bretonneux. This is a composite panorama made up of two separate images. The two images are
also available separately at E02687A and E02687B.

View from the old German front line trench south east of Villers-Bretonneux. This is a composite panorama made up of two separate images. The two images are also available separately at E02687A and E02687B.

 
Members of the New Zealand Field Artillery Battery in action a
few minutes after taking up their new position at Grevillers during the Battle of Amiens on 8
August. Note the shells stacked on the ground.

Members of the New Zealand Field Artillery Battery in action a few minutes after taking up their new position at Grevillers during the Battle of Amiens on 8 August. Note the shells stacked on the ground.

 
Lieutenant C. O. Clark MC MM, Intelligence Officer of the 3rd
Battalion, with a 6 inch rule inset in the muzzle of the wrecked 15 inch naval gun taken by the
Australian troops in a bayonet attack, at Arcy Wood, near Chuignolles, on 23 August 1918.

Lieutenant C. O. Clark MC MM, Intelligence Officer of the 3rd Battalion, with a 6 inch rule inset in the muzzle of the wrecked 15 inch naval gun taken by the Australian troops in a bayonet attack, at Arcy Wood, near Chuignolles, on 23 August 1918.

 
A patrol of No. 5 Platoon of B Company, 9th Battalion, in charge
of Lieutenant King, searching dugouts during a daylight advance of A and B Companies near Cappy.

A patrol of No. 5 Platoon of B Company, 9th Battalion, in charge of Lieutenant King, searching dugouts during a daylight advance of A and B Companies near Cappy. The enemy had been seen at these dugouts a few minutes before, but were found to have returned to the village some 300 yards away. Notice the Mills bombs carried in the hands of the two rear men. The object of the photograph was to obtain, if possible, a picture of the enemy in the act of surrendering.

 
An unidentified Austrailan soldier standing amidst the ruins of
Ypres, Belgium, and looking towards the remains of the Cloth Hall.

An unidentified Austrailan soldier standing amidst the ruins of Ypres, Belgium, and looking towards the remains of the Cloth Hall.

 
A Cable Section of the 4th Divisional Signal Company laying
telephone lines with a cable wagon near Vendelles.

A Cable Section of the 4th Divisional Signal Company laying telephone lines with a cable wagon near Vendelles. Left to right: 1703 Corporal A. R. Clyde MM (back to camera); Lieutenant C. R. Bryant MM; 5246 Sapper (Spr) A. J. Picken; 7548 Spr A. Brailey; 15963 Driver W. Rodda; 14201 Driver L. W. Allen; 11033 Spr H. J. Lynch (in the far background between Picken and Brailey).

 
The 45th Battalion digging in under a smoke barrage near
Ascension Farm on the second objective in the attack made by the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions
and British Divisions upon the old British trench lines near Hargicourt and the outpost line of the
Hindenburg system.

The 45th Battalion digging in under a smoke barrage near Ascension Farm on the second objective in the attack made by the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions and British Divisions upon the old British trench lines near Hargicourt and the outpost line of the Hindenburg system. The Hindenburg Outpost Line (the third and final objective in this battle) was about a mile distant at this point. This fight was part of what is known by the British as the `Battle of Epehy', being a phase of the `Battles of the Hindenburg Line'. Identified are: Private R. J. Martin (fourth from the left), and Lance Corporal W. R. Thomson (fifth from the left).

Australian transport halted in a ruined street of Peronne. The
shell torn Citadel Tower can be seen on the right. 10-02-1918.

Australian transport halted in a ruined street of Peronne. The shell torn Citadel Tower can be seen on the right. 10-02-1918.

 

This article was researched and written by Kira Harris of the Byrd Center.  All of the photos in the slideshow, and many more, are available at the Polar Archives. They are also available online in a digital collection: library.osu.edu/dc/catalog.