The First World War has been called “the war of the camera” and it’s thanks to Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook.
Don Bourdon, the curator of Images and Paintings at the Royal BC Museum, explains that “Max Aitken was a Canadian newspaper tycoon, and he had a huge influence in political circles in the uk. He advocated for a Canadian War Records Office that would [not only] document Canada’s participation in the Great War, but also supply images For newspapers for home consumption.
“They’re about as close as we can get [to the front] even though they were admittedly collected for propaganda purposes and for publicity purposes,” Bourdo said.
There were principally two photographers involved in making about 8,000 plates. They were enlisted men, and they were assigned to the Canadian War Records Office, and then subsequently all these prints were generated for newspaper use and as a record of the war.”
But the camera was large, cumbersome, and required a tripod.
“So clearly you couldn’t be in no-man’s land standing there with a tripod,” Bourdon said. “You had to be in a much more secure place. Nonetheless, the photographs that they secured are as close as you can get to action on the western front.”
There were also photographs taken by a much smaller camera, often referred to as the soldier’s camera.
“It’s a Kodak vest pocket camera,” says Bourdon. “It was very compact for its time. It’s only a bit bigger than your phone, and very portable, but there was a routine order-prohibition for use of camera by soldiers at the front. They did use them during leisure time. Snapshots were often made while soldiers were recuperating when they were in hospital, but nothing really in the heat of battle.”
One hundred years later, it is hard to imagine what British Columbia soldiers and nurses experienced during the Great War. These photographs, official and candid, help us appreciate their sacrifice.