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Illustrating the Warriors of Empire

Philip John Hatfield

The centenary of the First World War generated many projects designed to commemorate, archive, and reflect upon the conflict. One of these, Europeana 1914-1918, is a collaborative EU project undertaken by national archives, libraries, and museums with an aim to digitizing material related to the war and making it available to researchers and members of the public online. Work to digitize material for the British Library’s Canada and Australasia contributions highlighted the extensive visual record of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand’s role in the conflict with hundreds of photographs, illustrated books, and pictorial publications digitized, archived, and made available on the Internet. Such a record provides an opportunity to take a broad look at how the First World War was depicted by those, in the front lines or working on the home front, who participated in the war.

Work in this field has already been done, in particular Tim Cook’s (2003a, 2006) accounts of the memorialization of the Canadian fighting effort for the First World War, but recent digitization work allows us to consider the practice and politics of visual memorialization on a wider scale than has been undertaken before. This chapter sets to consider the photographic record of Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand soldiers and other military personnel who participated in the conflict from 1914 to 1918. Much has been written about how the war has been depicted in print (Cook 2003b), art (Brandon 2000; Tippett 1984), and physical memorials (Tippett 1984) but the broad photographic record of the contribution of these nations to the conflict is due some reappraisal, especially when we consider how these visual works operated as a form of image formation independent of the colonial metropole.

Some nations, Canada being one example, already had an established practice of photographically depicting their involvement in the foreign conflicts of Empire. During the South African War, Canadian servicemen were photographed to mark their embarkation to South Africa and as part of ceremonial events on their return (Hatfield 2018). In British Columbia, in particular, the practice associating governance with colonial responsibility and martial prowess, all captured and memorialized through the lens of the photograph, was practiced extensively with South African War veterans participating in parliamentary ceremonies (Hatfield 2018). However, these processes of depiction and memorialization were locally focused and small in scale, a representation of what British Columbia or Saskatchewan could contribute to the Empire as opposed to a contribution by Canada. The photographic practices of the First World War, be they from Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, were different, national-level undertakings.

As Tim Cook (2003b) has argued, the memory-making practices relating to the First World War of these three nations have had a profound effect on their development as nations. The work of individuals such as Lord Beaverbrook and organizations such as the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) not only recorded colonial contributions to the war but began a process of nationalistic assertiveness which still underpins an idea of nationhood in these countries today, as illustrated by the significance of Ottawa’s memorial landscape and the Australian practice of ANZAC Day. However, as has been noted in a number of areas, these practices are problematically one-sided (Johnson 2005). The memorialization predominantly practiced is markedly masculine, white, and Christian in its formulation and this construction is increasingly critiqued in academic and media writings. The root of this construction can be seen in the visual records produced during the First World War, most notably through its photographic works.

Recent digitization work provides an opportunity to look at this material in the round. We can consider how Australian publications informed the early practice of photographic works and pictorial publications by the CWRO, which would, in turn, dominate the production of visual records of British Empire citizens participating in the war. New sources also highlight material less at the forefront of the popular mind, e.g. propaganda photographs featuring First Nations leaders, and, in turn, draw our attention to the silences and absences of what is an extensive visual record. This chapter will draw together these threads, illustrating how the photographic record developed, the purposes for which it was used, the meaningfulness of its preservation, and what its silences tell us about how the past is remembered. In doing so, the chapter illustrates how the Empire illustrated itself in the First World War and opens up possibilities for how this process can be rearticulated and re-illustrated in the twenty-first century.

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