WW1: The Real Faces Of War

At the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, many men from all over Europe went off to fight in the war that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in history.

Before they left, they often went to one of the growing number of photographic studios, to have their photo taken in uniform, as a memento for the loved ones left behind. Even as the war dragged on, and the extent of the carnage and loss of life became widely known, that tradition carried on, with the men knowing that this might well be the last image their family would ever have of them.

This young German soldier is adopting a classic pose.

A British junior officer, attempting to appear casual and relaxed.
I can’t help thinking that he was dreading his arrival in the trenches.

All the armies used Colonial soldiers. This Indian soldier would have been fighting in the British Army, and wanted to leave this memory behind.

Naval warfare was a large part of WW1 too. This sailor looks like a schoolboy. He tries to appear tough in the photo, and looks determined to do his part.

This mature French soldier’s photo was used a propaganda image by his government. He looks well-equipped, and ready for anything.

Another German soldier, taking his equipment to the studio to be photographed against a nice backdrop.

This handsome Australian soldier looks like a film star.
He may well have seen action in the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks.

America entered the war in 1917. Their soldiers were known as ‘Doughboys’. This smart soldier is actually Harry S. Truman.
In 1918, he was a Captain of Artillery.
He later became President of The United States in 1945, and ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Scottish regiments were an important part of the British Army. This soldier is posing in his kilt, before being posted to the front lines.

This particular soldier famously survived the war.
He was hit by bullets that lodged in a thick Bible he always carried, and that stopped them entering his body.
His story was widely reported when he returned.

Most of the men looking out at us from these photos were either killed or badly injured during that long and horrific war.
Even those that came home have long since died.

But we have these photos to remember them by.

67 thoughts on “WW1: The Real Faces Of War

  1. Great post – and moving. The faces of these young men look back at us from the past, and the events they witnessed very much shaped the twentieth century and the world of today. I’m actually writing a biography of a Great War soldier now – Bernard Freyberg – to be published in late 2020. He had his own such photos made when he reached Britain in August 1914 to serve with the RND – in 8 x 10″ prints with ‘Kia Ora’ written on them, underscoring his origins in New Zealand. It was, I guess, an extension of the nineteenth century tradition of posed photographs; but the poignancy that went with the pictures of the soldiers, sailors and airmen of 1914-18 is palpable, both then and now.

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  2. Thank goodness for photographers. I think fewer people today have professional photos done because iPhones take a good photo. That is both a curse and a blessing. WWI was truly the worst war. Those photos tell quite a story. Thank you, Pete.

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    1. That is actually disputed now, WS. (See my answer to Maria, below) Jack Cornwell served on HMS Chester, not Lancaster. Despite previous accreditation of this being Jack, it is now believed to be his brother.
      Whatever the truth, it is a powerful portrait indeed.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point. Didn’t know about the photo but the portrait of Cornwell that’s now with the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth was painted by Frank Salisbury using his brother as a model due to their strong physical resemblance to each other.

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    1. Well remembered, Maria. I did some more research, and the picture believed to be of Jack Cornwell, who you refer to, has lately been proven to be of his younger brother. So the one on this post is of the brother.
      Cornwell was 16 when he died from wounds sustained in action at the Battle of Jutland, in 1916. His rank was that of ‘Boy ( First Class)’. He was famously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. But he served on HMS Chester, and the cap band in the photo shows HMS Lancaster, which is probably how they established it was indeed his brother. Perhaps the loss of Jack gave him that determined countenance?

      Even the Imperial War Museum continues to display the photo with the name Jack Cornwell, apparently.

      Best wishes, and thanks for reading.
      Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read so much both about the first and second World War. These photos remind me of how our present admin is doing everything to keep the loyalty of our armed forces giving them more favors than the rest of the public employees.

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  4. They were so young! Many made me think of young high school students. Thanks for keeping the memories alive. Everyone of them (at least to me) had that haunted look peeking through, some more than others Very brave men.

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  5. the horrors of WW1 and WW2 are unthinkable now. truth is, war never stopped. we continue to wage war, only a different level/type. thanks for the reminder Pete.

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  6. I’ve probably mentioned this before. But back in 1974-75, when I spent 17 months in France, I frequented the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial just outside Paris, even helping to lower and fold the American flag a couple of times. According to Wikipedia, the cemetery “is the resting place of 1,541 American soldiers killed in World War I.” But the 3-hectare (7.4-acre) cemetery also contains the remains of 24 unknown soldiers who died during World War II. The white crosses of the latter are arranged in a large cross. I used to read the guestbook in which visitors (mostly French, but also American) wrote about their experience, and the comments often brought tears to my eyes. Many of the dead from World War I actually died of the Spanish Influenza.

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      1. A correction! Yes, I was in France in 1974-75 (Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris / Université de Nice), as this was my junior year abroad, but the period to which I referred in my comment was 1994-95, when I spent 17 months in Paris in the wake of a divorce.

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  7. The photos appeal to my genealogist spirit. The wars destroyed so many lives and so many families. My favorite photo of my Dad is his photo in uniform. It is a studio portrait and he is so young and innocent. Thankfuklly he was too young for WWII.

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    1. My Dad was a regular soldier already, from 1936. He served all through WW2 in the artillery, but was posted to India in 1941, and ended up having a rather splendid time of it for the rest of the war.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  8. Fascinating post, Pete. I would have never recognized Truman. He was the only American President who didn’t have a college degree. A good President, I think. He couldn’t bear to think of the cost to American troops in the Pacific trying to flush out the Japanese who were so dug in and fanatically suicidal; so he dropped the bombs. Who am I to second guess him? So I won’t. All that said, he was terribly mobbed up. As bad as JFK.
    The British sailor really strikes an accord with me. There is resolve in his eyes. And hardness. His youth has been robbed. I have no doubt that he was tough. Heartbreaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pam. The gaze of every one of these men haunts me, and always has. Right back to similar photos taken at the start of the US civil war. That confidence, occasional swagger, all so unknowing of the horrors to come.
      The man in the last photo has a different expression. This was 1918, and he had survived. You can almost see how the experience has aged his countenance.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pictures always tell sometimes incredible stories. It’s tragic to think about the lives these men have lived, and the fears they must have experienced during their times as soldiers. I hope that we will never have to face such fears in our lifetime😔 Thanks for sharing these Pete, amazing photographs.😊

    Liked by 1 person

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