A mysterious photograph album containing 86 black and white images of Australia’s World War 1 presence in Palestine has been in the collections of the State Library of Queensland for decades.
There is no accompanying donor information, no inscription and no captions.
As part of the Q ANZAC project I was asked to begin the research into these puzzling images.
The album has a green cloth cover with a gold sunburst motif and ‘PHOTO GRAPHS’ in the lower right corner. Inside a brand stamp reads ‘The Newlyn Album No S 1495. Johnsons, London’.
My heart sank as I turned the pages. Nameless snapshots of desert landscapes, troop encampments, horse lines, captured enemy soldiers and field graves. Also unidentified walled Ottoman villages, ancient springs and archaeological scatterings.
Who was this person that 100 years ago carefully slip-mounted these images? Images intentionally selected to record and perhaps explain the desert experience.
I began by searching databases of other Australian institutions in the hope of finding similar images. At the Australian War Memorial I found a match. A photograph of Lieutenant Colonel David Gifford CroIl, commander of the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance, the outfit that provided medical aid to the 2nd Light Horse Regiment.
This image was in the unknown album. Could I now speculate that I was researching the property of a soldier also in the 2nd Light Horse Field Ambulance?
I continued to trawl through other collections finding multiple identical matches and often with captions.
The unknown album could now be given provenance. It seemed that the Dead Sea region including the towns of Amman, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho was the area represented and daily life of the Light Horse the subject.
However I also noted the ever present backdrop of Middle Eastern antiquity and it struck me that the soldier was as anxious to record the history of the place as he was to record Light Horse activities.
The ruins of a wall outside Jerusalem appeared to have particularly piqued his curiosity. Several shots of it including from one from inside a small opening to the outside are represented. The soldier was right to be curious.
This area was excavated after 1972, and the wall subsequently proved to be part of the vast Palace-Fortress of Herodium built by King Herod in 23BCE.
Another site represented extensively in the album is the 5th century Mar Saba Monastery. Close-ups and long-shots, the old Monastery is depicted from all angles and although it played an important role in the capture of Jericho in 1918, one gets the impression that its inclusion in the album relates more to its intrinsic value as an ancient monument.
Elisha’s Springs, the reservoirs of ancient Jericho are another example. Although they were a life-saving water supply for many World War One regiments, the old walled pools seem to have caught the eye of the solider more as curious historical edifices than for their contemporary use in watering horses and filling canisters.
The album continues in the same vein, an alchemy of Middle Eastern antiquity and Light Horse action. Amphitheatres and classical colonnades inextricably entwined in horse lines and encampments.
Perhaps the album’s owner carried the popular Vest Pocket Kodak in his kit? After all, this was the first war where cameras were small enough for soldiers to create a visual record of their own observations.
However as so much of the album is duplicated in collections of other Australian institutions, it is likely that the photographs were purchased when the soldier was on leave in Cairo. World War 1 diaries from the Middle East also in the collections of the SLQ refer to this practice.
Curated through the eyes of one Queensland soldier, this photograph album was perhaps intended as a personal explanation of the experience of fighting in an ancient country during an unimaginable war.
One hundred years later the album has great value to researchers in contributing to the accumulating visual record of the Light Horse as well as containing some of the last images of the old Ottoman Empire before 20th century development and future conflicts and destruction altered this ancient world forever.
- World War Photography. British Library
- International Encyclopedia of the First World War
- National Media Museum: The Vest Pocket Kodak Was the Soldier’s Camera
- National Library of New Zealand, First World War
- Forbidden Cameras, State Library of Queensland Blog. Marg Powell
- The Soldier’s Kodak. The Telegraph 21 July 1915, p7
Guest Blogger: Janet Campbell | QANZAC Volunteer State Library of Queensland