Identified at last: faces of the Somme

One by one, the stories behind a wartime photographic archive are being unearthed. John Lichfield reports on a unique project

Almost 95 years after the battle of the Somme, a French photographer's long lost snap of a British soldier has finally reached his grandson, via The Independent and the internet.

The soldier, Walter Wheeler from south-east London, is the third of more than 400 "lost" images of British and Empire soldiers – salvaged from rubbish skips in France and published by The Independent – to be recognised by surviving family members.

Captain Wheeler, who was a sergeant in the Middlesex Regiment at the time of his shirt-sleeved photograph in 1916, went on to have a long and eventful life. He turned down a nomination for the Victoria Cross in 1917 but won a George Medal for defusing an unexploded German bomb near Goldsmith's College, New Cross, during the Blitz in 1941.

"I am convinced that it is my granddad," said Michael Jago, 64, a retired magazine publisher living in Chicago. "There is something about that nose and that determined look. It could only be him."

The Somme photographs – newly discovered glass negatives of Tommies, Aussies and Canadians and French civilians of the period 1915-16 – have generated extraordinary interest all over the world. The first batch of 400 was published in The Independent Magazine and on independent.co.uk in May 2009 and a second batch of 40 in May this year.

The photographs, preserved on 9 x 12cm glass plates, lay undisturbed for nine decades in the attic of a ramshackle barn near Warloy-Baillon, 10 miles behind the British lines on the Somme. When the barn was restored in 2007, the photographic plates were thrown into a rubbish skip. Passers-by rescued some. Many others may have been destroyed.

First World War graveyards and memorials are a legion of names without faces. The lost Somme photographs have given us, movingly, hundreds of faces without names.

They have since consistently been among the most visited items on The Independent's website. The first set of images has now been viewed more than 3.6 million times. The second batch has attracted 314,000 views since May.

A photograph has come to light in Britain in recent weeks which appears to confirm a theory about their origins. Many of the images show soldiers, in ones or twos or small groups, posed against the background of a battered door in the garden of what is probably a farm house. It was assumed that they were originally taken, for a small fee, by a local amateur photographer as "souvenir snaps" to be sent by soldiers to loved ones at home.

Emma May Smith from Brigg in Lincolnshire has now sent us a picture of her grandfather, George Wilfred Smith, standing in front of what is, without doubt, the same battered door, in the same house in the same village in the Somme. This is the first picture to turn up in Britain which matches the "lost" Somme snaps.

"The photograph had been handed down in another part of our family and we first saw it seven years ago," said Ms Smith, 28, a politics student at Sheffield University. "My grandfather must presumably have sent it to his own father. My dad recognised him almost immediately."

The sitting soldier in the photograph is unknown. The standing soldier, George Smith, was born in Ashby, Lincolnshire, in 1886 and conscripted in early 1916, when he was 29. He died in 1986.

Many of the images are believed to have been taken close to a clearance hospital at Warloy-Baillon, before and during the first battle of the Somme, in July to November 1916.

The historical value of the plates, as a record of the British Army during the bloodiest battle in its history, was first grasped by two local men: Bernard Gardin, a photography enthusiast, and Dominique Zanardi, proprietor of the "Tommy" cafe in Pozières in the heart of the Somme battlefields.

In 2008, Mr Gardin, 62, an amateur photographic historian, was given a batch of 270 of the glass plates by someone who knew of his hobby. Others were acquired by Mr Zanardi, 49, who has a museum and collection of Great War memorabilia at his café.

The two men combined to process the images at their own expense. Publicity turned up another 40 plates this year. Until now, only two of the soldiers have been identified. Jim Mundell from Dumfriesshire has been recognised by descendants as sitting among a large group of gunners in a photo in the first batch. He survived the war to become a farmer and died in 1955, aged 59. A kilted Scottish soldier, shown in two of the images in the more recent batch, has been identified as James Henry Hepburn of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He died in 1962, aged 64.

To them can now be added Walter Wheeler of the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, shown here in his "lost Somme photograph" but also in a later snap holding his grandson Michael, two, in Trafalgar Square in 1948. Mr Wheeler died in 1978, aged 91. He worked as a council stores manager until the age of 80.

"I can only assume that this photograph of him taken on the Somme was intended to be sent home to his family," Mr Jago said. "Whether it ever arrived, I have no idea. But you could say that it did finally arrive when I recognised it on The Independent's site the other day."

He added: "I was very close to my grandfather, who was an extraordinary man. He volunteered in 1914 and went right through the war. He once told me that his commanding officer offered to nominate him for a VC after he rescued a wounded officer in 1917. Granddad refused. The officer wanted to know why. Granddad replied: 'Because, sah, as a VC, sah, I would have to be the first person over the top every time, sah. I wouldn't last a week, sah'."

Nonetheless, Walter Wheeler was given a battlefield commission for valour late in 1917 and was later promoted to captain. As a working-class Cockney boy, he told his grandson later, he was given a "miserable time" as an officer, not by the enemy but by the snobbery of British officers.



For the full set of lost Somme photos, see http://ind.pn/glFkc2 and http://ind.pn/hifXCx

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York