The Power of an Historical Image: Stretcher Bearers at Passchendaele

The Power of an Historical Image: Stretcher Bearers at Passchendaele

Photographing war has a long history dating back to at least Mathew Brady's photos of the American Civil War. Some images become inextricably linked to the events they portray. So what is it about this image that makes it so powerfully representative of the First World War?

This famous photo was taken by John Warwick Brooke on 1 August 1917 during the Battle of Pilckern Ridge (Passchendaele). It has become synonymous with World War 1 and, in particular, trench warfare. It's, obviously, monochrome and, combined with the stretcher bearers, speaks of the time it is from. If I hadn't have said where and when it was taken, then we would have limited understanding of the context of the image, other than it was likely World War 1. For me, the punctum of this image is the gas mask of the front right soldier — it is incongruous, in both shape and shade, to everything else. I then see the mustache of the front left soldier before moving around the image, my eyes finally settling on the stretcher. In short, we have a casualty, with the seven stretcher bearers.

The scene naturally raises a series of questions. Where was the casualty injured? And how? How important was the battle? How far from the front line are they and where are they going? The mud is extraordinary and just imagining carrying another human being in such conditions is horrific. How long have they been walking for and did they do this all day, everyday? The image opens up a situation which we know something about and invites us to question it further.

To an extent, it is now part of the cliche that presents the folly of industrial warfare: the horrors of trench life (the mud) and the human loss (the casualty). It's an image that has progressed to become iconographic and in that sense we question it's longer context, that of the war, rather than the immediate context, that of the people. Our understanding is being mediated by the time that has elapsed since the image was taken and our social conditioning. Indeed, a US context and interpretation to the image will likely be different to that of the UK, France, or Germany. A photograph presents the reality of those pictured, but how it communicates that information, and our interpretation and understanding of it, will vary significantly. One message, infinite understandings.

Moving to a Factual Understanding

If we are to move beyond iconography, then we need to understand more of what is actually in the photo. There are five soldiers from Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), the remaining two likely from an infantry regiment. The front right soldier has three holes on his epaulet which was predominantly seen with Territorial infantry. Oddly, no one is wearing "Stretcher Bearer" or "Red Cross" armbands, which would possibly suggest they are far from the front line. If this was the case then they could have been moving the casualty from a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). The former was the first aid post behind the lines. It's also unusual to see so many RAMC personnel on a stretcher crew at the front line, again reflecting they maybe moving to a CCS as this was their responsibility. Stretcher crews typically numbered 4-6, with 7 here probably a result of the conditions. It would likely have taken them 6 hours to travel 2 miles. An utterly exhausting journey.

All the men are wearing the Brodie helmet, introduced in 1916. Two have the straps under their chins, the remainder behind their heads where it was more comfortable. All, bar one, are wearing the Small Box Respirator (SBR) at the alert position (the flap open). This was introduced in early 1916, however the soldier front right is also carrying the "Dickie Bird" gas hood, which pre-dates the SBR, probably as a backup. Inexplicably the soldier front left has no SBR and, strangely a rolled up trouser leg.

All are wearing Service Dress (SD) uniform and trousers with puttees. The soldier front right has two good conduct chevrons. The first was for 2 years service and the second for 5 years. Most of them appear to have their lower pockets filled. The stretcher is standard wartime issue that was used well in to the 1950s. It's possible that the casualty is lying on his front, which would indicate a frontal wound.

A German stick grenade, a purely factual image

A German stick grenade, a purely factual image

Photos as More Than Icons

This photo is an excellent example of perceiving an image holistically for it's impression and the context in which it's employed, to communicate a particular message. In short, photos can become disembodied from their content and used propagandistically to push a specific agenda. Here we are speaking to the the consequential horrors of war. We are not shown the graphic impact of war - other photographs of World War 1 depict the dead and injured. Indeed, press photographers such as Don McCullin (Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier) and Robert Capa (The Falling Soldier) have never been shy at portraying the reality of conflict. This image is about those that were alive and the harshness of everyday life. War is referenced in the casualty, but he is faceless. Did he survive? In fact, was he alive when the photo was taken? We can never know, but simply reference his suffering.

Equally, however, we can approach the interpretation of a photo in a purely informational sense — on a balance of probabilities, what can it factually inform us about the people, the place and their interaction. Given the instant of time at which the photo was captured, what can we glean about who the people are, what they have been doing and how their future might unfold? That will be informed by their location and how the different elements relate to one another. In this instance we have a good idea of the ranks and responsibilities of the men, how long they have served, where they are going, and why. We can trace their functional roles at that specific point in the war and understand the make-up of the image, something I would call situational awareness.

We might also question why this image was taken. It's important to remember that the photographer is not a benign, invisible, witness to events. They are every much a part of real events and, knowingly or unknowingly, can influence what happens. We know the photographer, John Warwick Brooke, was one of only two official war photographers at the time. How did he work? Was he tasked with documenting all aspects of the war, providing positive news stories, given free rein, or required to perform to a tight brief? Staged photos were certainly used early in the war, but the “Propaganda of the Facts” banned this style from 1916. He likely worked with a medium format plate camera, which meant taking photos was san involved task. This particular image would have been as difficult for him as the stretcher bearers. Or did he have a support team? We can't know the answers to these questions, but it is important to remember them when we view the resulting image. The example below is rich in information, but what really was the setting when it was taken?

Sandbagged entrance to a dugout

Sandbagged entrance to a dugout

As an exercise in image interpretation, take a recent press photo and view it both iconographically and informationally. How does it speak to you? A great starting point for this are finalists in the World Press Photo which provides plenty of food for thought.

With thanks to Ieuan Smith for comments on "Stretcher Bearers". Lead and final image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia. Grenade image courtesy of the Auckland Museum, used under Creative Commons.

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2 Comments

Rod Kestel's picture

Thanks for a fascinating article, more please. (I finally signed up so I could comment [CAPTCHA sucks!!])

At the War Memorial here in Canberra were running an exhibition of photos taken in a small French studio. I wondered through the sad, poignant images thinking what these people went through. Miserable stuff, and yet we still do it. Old men send young men off to war.

Then to my amazement, the original backdrop was there. So I propped my camera on a display case with my jacket to align it, and took a single self portrait. It seems to fit the mood.

Mike Smith's picture

What an amazing backdrop - a witness to those that left for war. Poignant