Thanks to the invention of the camera in the early 1800s and advancements in photography in the years that followed, by the time the First World War broke out in 1914, photography was becoming more common. Due to the cost of buying a camera, it was primarily the middle classes that could afford them, but for some of the amateur photographers heading off to war, this was a prime opportunity to use their cameras to capture extraordinary photos.
Despite security concerns and worries that photographs may fall into enemy hands, hundreds of photographs were taken during the First World War and many serve to offer us a great insight into the lives of soldiers in battle and their families at home.
Here are just a few WW1 photos that show the severity of the war and capture the horror that both soldiers and civilians witnessed at the time.
At the start of the First World War, Britain was unprepared for air attacks on its civilian areas. Planes had only been invented 10 years earlier, and so the country’s main priority had been defending the coastline rather than its airspace.
More than 5,000 bombs were dropped on towns across Britain, causing more than £1.5 million in damage and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.
Air raid shelters were introduced to protect civilians from the bombs and as many as 300,000 people sought refuge in underground stations while 500,000 slept in cellars and basements.
Due to the number of poison gas attacks during World War One, gas masks soon became a necessity. Not only did they save the lives of soldiers in battle, but also civilians in the UK. Exposure to this gas could cause death, burns, temporary blindness and respiratory problems.
When enemies first started to use gas, soldiers realised that ammonia could help to neutralise the chlorine found in airborne poisons. As a result, they would cover their mouths with socks or rags soaked in urine to protect against the gas. However, with such methods making it difficult to fight, attempts were made to develop better protection. Over time, soldiers began to receive gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators.
Women at work
With men being sent into battle, over 600,000 women were brought into laboratories, mills and factories to assume traditional male occupations. Although some women had already worked in industrial roles prior to the start of the war, due to the sudden shortage of men and an increased demand for weaponry and defences, housewives were required to join the workforce too.
Making everything from gas masks to ammunition, many women enjoyed working. Despite the risks involved, joining the workforce gave them the opportunity to earn their own pay and many were excited by the prospect of progression.
For the first time in history, women were allowed to become police officers too. However, their main responsibilities involved monitoring women’s behaviour in factories and hostels.
With so many women entering the workforce, more nurseries were introduced across the country to care for their children. However, those unable to afford the cost of childcare had to rely on friends and family while they were at work.
Life in the trenches
The trenches were home to thousands of soldiers during the First World War. Enemy trenches were often not far away and the land between the two forces was known as ‘No Man’s Land.’
Soldiers didn’t get much sleep in the trenches and had to take it in turns so that others could stand guard and raise the alarm in the event of an attack. A number of curious soldiers died on their first day in the trenches after peering over the top of the parapet to look into No Man’s Land.
Although the trenches were designed to protect soldiers, not all could escape the threat of disease which claimed many lives. Rats were a large part of the problem and were attracted to the trenches by the smell of bodies. With so much food on offer, rats could grow to the size of cats. Lice were another source of infection and often resulted in Trench Fever, while the cold, wet and unsanitary conditions could cause Trench Foot.
Injuries in battle
Approximately two million British soldiers were injured in the First World War and with new weapons such as machine guns and bombs causing unprecedented casualties, doctors and nurses were forced to adopt new types of treatment and medical technologies.
Placed on stretchers and carried to nearby doctors and nurses for treatment, soldiers often had a long way to travel before reaching the help required. Amputations were common, with thousands of soldiers having to have limbs removed.
Many soldiers suffered emotional trauma such as ‘shellshock’, but doctors and the War Office were often suspicious of these men and believed they were pretending to be ill to avoid fighting. Minor physical injuries were also viewed with suspicion, particularly if the injury in question would not have a great impact on the soldier’s life after the war.
Although many soldiers had minor injuries from which they could soon recover from, others were permanently disfigured.
If it wasn’t for Harold Gillies, a pioneer of plastic surgery, many men may not have recovered at all. Shocked by the facial injuries he saw, Gillies set up his own plastic surgery unit to help injured soldiers. Before the First World War very little had been done in the field of facial reconstruction, so much of Gillies’ work was experimental.
After Lieutenant William Spreckley lost his nose in battle, Gillies took a section of rib cartilage and implanted in Spreckley’s forehead. After leaving it there for six months, he swung it down and used it to construct a nose. The process took three years to complete, but the result was extraordinary at the time and, once healed, Spreckley’s scars were barely visible.
World War 1 pictures can bring the stories of soldiers and civilians to life and make students understand the impact the war had on ordinary people. A school trip to Ypres or Somme could be another way to teach students about the tragedies that occurred during the Great War.