Battlefield photography

Bill Frost, 31 January 2014 · # ·

Cameras were quite common at the time of the Great War but out of reach to most soldiers as they were very expensive. The Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic was marketed to soldiers as the Soldier’s Kodak for 30 /-, which was 30 days pay for a British soldier. Kodak advertisements told soldiers to to take Snapshots of the War — pictures that later on will be of immense value. At Gallipoli, they were very common with Australian forces, who were paid 5 shillings a day and could afford them.

The armed forces quickly realised the intelligence value to the enemy from looking at photographs taken from captured soldiers and it became a serious offence to either take photographs, or to post them, punishable by Field General Court Martial.

Soldiers either disposed of their cameras, or took photographs when no-one else was looking. Of my grandfather’s 100 or so photos from France, only a handful show another person.

A page from Sapper Eric Frost’s photo album

So, as a generalisation, most of the photos you see were taken by official photographers. Clearly there was considerable tolerance in some units, particularly earlier in the war.

Most soldiers would have been familiar with photography as studios existed in all major towns and tens of thousands of formal portraits were taken. You may have heard of Vignacourt, where soldiers would go into the studio for their pictures to be taken. I am sure there were many other similar studios in France.

When the guns fell silent, the restrictions were lifted and some units formed camera clubs, taught soldiers photography, toured the old battlefields and developed pictures for the men for a small fee. Here is my grandfather’s camera, his name and regimental number scratched on the back:

Sapper Eric Frost’s camera

In 1918 the AIF Divisional Canteens Officer visited England to make a large purchase of cameras and films for Australian troops. These were then on-sold to troops. Not sure what ‘large’ meant, but other large purchases were 10,000 tins of boot polish, so it must have been a sizeable order!

“V.P.K.” stands for Vest Pocket Kodak