Military historian Prof Peter Stanley tells Cassie Mercer how to look for clues in military portraits.
Of the 320,000 Australians who served in World War One, around 10 per cent have a portrait that survives to this day – held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Almost double that number of men appear in group photographs with their unit. Then there are countless photographs in state, local and family collections around the country.
Here, military historian Prof Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra, analyses three different portraits of World War One soldiers and reveals what we can learn from them.
Portrait 1 Walter Marcus
Portrait 1 Walter Marcus
Start with looking for the clues you can see. It sounds obvious, says Prof Stanley, but it’s important to look at the bigger details just as much as the smaller ones. This young man, pictured here soon after signing up, had an extraordinary war experience. Walter Marcus served as a Field Ambulanceman on Gallipoli and the Western Front and made it back home alive. Not only that, he didn’t suffer a wound or fall sick the entire time. How can we tell this portrait is taken before he left Australia? “The background is a giveaway,” says Prof Stanley. “It’s of an Australian landscape. With the outbreak of war, photographers soon realised that there was a market in soldier portraits and did a roaring trade taking photographs. If this portrait had been taken in Britain, the backdrop would have been more of a domestic scene rather than one depicting a military camp.”
It’s also important to understand what is missing in the image. “Marcus is wearing his full kit but without his pack, showing that he has probably just been issued his uniform, so this portrait would have been taken soon after he signed up.”
Portrait 2 Lieutenant Albert Hales
Visual clues are so important when it comes to dating photographs. Take the portrait of Lieutenant Albert Hales for example, who was killed in action in October 1917. He sat for a portrait during his service, but the date of the portrait is unknown. Thanks to Prof Stanley though, we can date this image to within a few months. Take for example, Hales’s posture. “It’s quite a relaxed repose, his sleeves are rolled up and he holds a palm leaf fan in his hand,” says Prof Stanley.
“I would imagine this to be taken in Egypt, where the weather was obviously hotter and Hales was off duty. Another clue are the woollen ‘puttees’ Hales has wrapped around his calves. Officers didn’t wear puttees, so this photograph was obviously taken earlier in the war before he was promoted to Lieutenant .”
A quick look at Hales’s service record backs up Prof Stanley’s dates. “I can see he served on Gallipoli, before going on to the Western Front via Egypt. He was promoted through the war, as so many men were. On 29 September 1917 he was promoted to Lieutenant, and sadly was killed just 10 days or so later. But it does mean that the portrait would likely have been taken when he was in Egypt between Sep 1915 and early 1916.”
Portrait 3 Sergeant George Spencer
Just as much can be discovered in a headshot as a full-length portrait. This image of Sergeant George Spencer includes only his face and shoulders, but Prof Stanley can still glean a lot of details from the portrait.
To the trained eye, the portrait of George Spencer, taken after the war ended in October 1919 in Australia reveals much about Spencer even without consulting his service record. In this instance, the date of the portrait is known as it’s written on the mount, but what can we learn about Spencer himself? “For a start”, says Prof Stanley, “the patch on his upper left shoulder. Everyone had colour patches – the shape dictates the unit. I can tell even in black and white, that this is an artillery colour patch from the 1st Division.”
The letter ‘A’ in the middle of the colour patch is also highly significant. “The A stands for Anzac – this denoted that the soldier served on Gallipoli. Similarly, the round rosette below the patch was issued to Gallipoli men in mid 1918 when the original Anzacs were given home leave.”
The other interesting note is Spencer’s attire. “He is wearing a white collared shirt under his uniform,” says Prof Stanley. “If he were still overseas when this was taken he would be wearing grey or khaki. So I can tell he’s on leave. He’s a Gallipoli survivor and is proud of it. A lot of men still wore their military uniform even after the war ended.”
“The other interesting visual clue is his Military Medal ribbon, a gallantry declaration as no one at that stage had campaign ribbons. We can find out what he did from other records such as AWM28 Honours and Awards, digitised by the Australian War Memorial. And that’s one of the many great things about photographs – they can send us off to investigate other records to find out the full story.”
Through the use of photographs and records we can unearth so much more information. “They can tell you a huge amount if you train your eye to know what to look for,” says Prof Stanley. Too right!
Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.