Letter: Poignant truth in a war photograph

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The Independent Online
Sir: I would like to respond to Fred Parrott's question (letter, 18 August) about the authenticity of the photograph showing troops going over the top which accompanied your feature on court martials of the First World War. The Imperial War Museum holds the 40,000 photographs taken by official photographers during the First World War and it is one of these, catalogued under the reference number Q 5100.

Like many of our photographs of the Western Front, it is now used, as Mr Parrott says, as an 'icon' to illustrate the general nature of the war rather than a particular battle. In fact, the original documentation tells us it is one of a group of four photographs showing a raiding party waiting, leaving and returning to a trench in early 1918, somewhere near Arras. It is not entirely clear whether the soldiers were 9th or 10th Battalion Scottish Rifles or whether the photographs were taken at the end of March or the beginning of April 1918, but there is little doubt that this is an authentic 'over the top' photograph. The fact that it was a raid and not a major attack accounts for the lightly equipped troops.

It was taken by John Warwick Brooke, who worked on the Western Front from 1916 until the end of the war. He was one of a limited number of professional photographers deliberately commissioned by the Forces as official photographers during the First World War. They wore uniform and, with lowly honorary rank, found themselves very small cogs in the enormous war effort.

After the first appointments to the Western Front in 1916, an average of four photographers worked there, covering this most important theatre. It was a fundamental principle of official photography that it should be as authentic as possible and, with very few exceptions, the official photographers held to this brief.

Yours sincerely,


Keeper, Photographs

Imperial War Museum

London, SE1