Australians on the Western Front: Portraits of courage

CONFRONTING: Photographers Frank Hurley and George Wilkins saw these dead and wounded Australians in a railway cutting near Broodseinde Ridge on October 12, 1917. Picture: AWM E03864
CONFRONTING: Photographers Frank Hurley and George Wilkins saw these dead and wounded Australians in a railway cutting near Broodseinde Ridge on October 12, 1917. Picture: AWM E03864

George Wilkins and Frank Hurley, late arrivals to the Western Front in August 1917, took some of the most enduring and dramatic photographs of the First World War.

Both were renowned polar adventurers, photographers and early cinematographers – Hurley spending five years with Mawson and Shackleton’s expeditions in the Antarctic and Wilkins three years in the Arctic.

They landed in France due to the persistence of Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean who had complained about “the rules” that thwarted him from gathering a “national record” of photographs of Australians at battles such as Bullecourt and Messines.

Bean was not permitted to carry a camera on the Western Front and Australian soldiers who had used Kodak Vest Pocket cameras at Gallipoli were also banned from using them in France and Belgium.

By mid-1917, with casualties rising and enlistments slowing, British generals understood the value of battlefield images as propaganda – but Bean’s British-assigned photographer was too ill to continue.

The solution came when Hurley and Wilkins joined Australian troops fighting in Belgium during the Third Battle of Passchendaele.

Captain Hurley was to take shots for newspapers and propaganda while Lieutenant Wilkins was to systematically document everything for Bean’s ambitious post-war record.

Both quickly earned a reputation for daring, even recklessness, as they risked their lives to get as close as possible to the action with their bulky tripods and glass plate negatives.

Wilkins, who was wounded nine times, would slither forward pretending to be dead to deceive the snipers, according to biographer Jeff Maynard, in The Unseen Anzac.

Wilkins himself wrote:  "The Germans frequently waved to me, good-naturedly; they knew I was a photographer and would shoot at my camera when they might easily have shot me."

At Broodseinde Ridge, Wilkins was blown unconscious into a shell hole full of gassed water. He avoided drowning because his Graflex camera beneath his chest kept his head above water.

Australian war artist Will Dyson said: “I sometimes wonder if George is really trying to get killed.”

INTREPID: Captain Frank Hurley (right) with his photographic equipment and driver in Belgium September 14, 1917. Picture: AWM E01995.

INTREPID: Captain Frank Hurley (right) with his photographic equipment and driver in Belgium September 14, 1917. Picture: AWM E01995.

Hurley wrote of countless hair’s-breadth escapes as Australian casualties soared in the muddy battlefields east of Ypres in October 1917.

In his diary, Hurley recalled seeing a group of dead soldiers under a partly-sheltered bank in a railway cutting near Broodseinde Ridge.

“Sitting by them in little scooped out recesses sat a few living; but so emaciated by fatigue and shell shock that it was hard to differentiate. Still the whole was just another of the many byways to hell one sees out here.”

Hurley and Wilkins were friends despite their differences in style and temperament.  

Hurley is famous for artistically-framed photos of soldiers marching past Ypres’ ruined Cloth Tower, walking on duckboards through shattered Chateau Wood or tunnelling in oozing mud at Hooge Crater.

But he clashed with Bean over his use of composite photographs – sweeping images created in the darkroom by combining elements of several negatives.

Historian Peter Cochrane, in The Western Front 1916-1918, says Hurley insisted that his composites allowed him to depict the real drama of battle – a case of artistry needed to match real events.

“His superior, Charles Bean, was horrified. Bean believed that Hurley’s composite photos were pure distortion.”

Tensions escalated and Hurley left for Palestine to photograph Australian Light Horse troops where he found willing participants to re-enact battle scenes.

The commercially-minded Hurley ended his First World War duties unhappily after a London photographic exhibition in 1918.

Meanwhile the self-effacing Captain Wilkins continued to compile an enormous catalogue of soldiers on the battlefield and behind the lines for Bean’s historical record.

Jeff Maynard has argued that some of Wilkins’s photographs were credited to Hurley and this “has meant that the magnitude and beauty of Wilkins’ photographs have been overlooked.”

In 1919 Wilkins joined Bean at Gallipoli to photograph the battlefields of 1915 then edited a book of  Australian War Photographs that identified some as Hurley’s work but failed to identify his own.

Twice awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous courage, Wilkins was knighted in 1928, becoming known as Sir Hubert Wilkins.  

Today, photographs by Hurley and Wilkins are found in museums across Belgium and France, in London’s Imperial War Museum and, of course, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

However, the pair were not the only Australians to leave a record of the Western Front.

Peter Cochrane says many soldiers ignored the ban on using their cameras and compiled a personal record of travel, mateship and life on the battlefield.

“Their imagined audience was not the nation but the mates in the battalion and the family or other loved ones at home. The end result is a genre with purpose and meaning all of its own.”

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.