Monday, 6 November 2017

REVIEW OF “PHOTOGRAPHING THE FALLEN: A WAR GRAVES PHOTOGRAPHER ON THE WESTERN FRONT” by Jeremy Gordon-Smith published by Pen & Sword, Barnsley, Yorkshire, UK in 2017

Jeremy Gordon-Smith has edited photographs taken by his Great-Uncle, Ivan Bawtree, who worked for the Kodak Company and who became an official photographer of war graves on the Western Front during the First World War.  Ivan worked for a special Graves Registration Unit set up during WW1 when “it was decided that each soldier, regardless of rank, should be given an individual burial with a wooden cross, later to be replaced with a headstone” (pp.13-14).  The Unit worked continuously, dangerously close to the Front Line, and in all sorts of conditions, taking photographs of the graves and cemeteries.  The photographs were developed onto glass plate negatives – fortunately Ivan made two copies – one of which he kept.  Jeremy’s father rescued the plates after Ivan’s death.   The result is an amazing book which, to my mind, is required reading for anyone visiting the cemeteries of the Western Front or anyone who had a relative killed during WW1.

Jeremy takes us on a journey of discovery from the early days of the setting up of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) to the end of the Commission’s work on WW1 graves and cemeteries on the Western Front, which was, ironically, completed in 1938.  Also included are extracts from Ivan’s diaries and an account of the personal story of Ivan’s life up to his death in 1979 and, at one stage, he worked as an Orderly at the Field Hospital next to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Ivan’s work with the Graves Registration Unit was vital for morale, as it gave those people who were unable to visit the graves of relatives who had been killed or died. “His job facilitated a way for families to mourn their loves ones who had lost their lives in the line of duty.   His work provided relatives with something tangible of what remained of their loved one;  a window they could not otherwise have had… (p. 117).  Many of the photographs in the book remind us of those who came from far away to help the Allied cause – Australians, Canadians and the grave of Li Hung Ching, a Chinese Labour Corps worker who died on 21st January 1918 (p.218)

I particularly liked the way Jeremy has blended some of Ivan’s WW1 sepia photographs – which are amazingly clear - with recent photographs he took while re-visiting Ivan’s old haunts on the Western Front.  One photograph, taken on Whit Monday at Ypres during a sports day, shows an orchestra that  “consisted of a party of German prisoners and escort.  The prisoners performed with violins made by themselves out of cigar boxes, etc. They did very well.” (p.254).

I found this book extremely moving and it is surely a wonderful memorial to the work of Ivan and his fellow members of the Registration Unit but also to all those who were killed or died on the Western Front during WW1.

"Photographing the Fallen:  A War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915 – 1919” (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2017) £25.  For further information about this book or to find out about other Pen & Sword publications, please see www.pen-and-sword.co.uk or e-mail enquiries@pen-and-sword.co.uk and/or

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