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How to analyse a wartime photograph


Maritime historian Simon Wills sheds light on the history, records and uniform clues about our Royal Marine ancestors in World War One (full article published in the November 2016 issue of Family Tree magazine).

A picture speaks a thousand words…

The interesting wedding photo (shown on the right) has a very poignant quality to it.

The bridegroom looks so drained and haunted – look at the dark rings under his eyes – and the bride herself manages only the smallest of Mona Lisa-style smiles.

You would be correct in assuming that this is a photo from the Great War, and the weight of sorrow of the conflict seems to hang over all the people assembled.

Who knows how many friends and family they had already lost?

You can deduce quite a lot from this picture. If this was a photo in your family’s collection then the analysis below would give you a great head start in researching the lives of the bride, and especially the groom.

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The groom is in fact a Royal Marine.

You can tell this from his cap badge, which is also reproduced on both his collars: it’s a globe surrounded by a wreath.

Marines started to wear British Army style khaki when they fought in the trenches of the Western Front from about 1916 onwards. 

He also has a large cross on his right upper arm, indicating that he served with a medical unit.

Lower down on the same sleeve, notice the three inverted chevrons. These are often known as ‘war chevrons’ and were introduced in April 1918. One chevron was awarded for each year of service in the theatre of war.

Since a Royal Marine would be unlikely to still wear khaki after 1918 then this is probably the year of the photo. The three chevrons that our groom wears indicates that he joined the theatre of war in 1916, which gives us the earliest year for his enlistment.

We can tell that he had a traumatic time, because on his left sleeve near the cuff he bears a long narrow shiny metal bar that catches the light. This is a wound stripe indicating a significant injury during battle, and they were first worn in 1916.

Finally notice, on the same arm, just above the wound stripe, a large, single chevron.

This is a good conduct badge that indicates the number of years the wearer served in a manner rated satisfactory by his superiors. A single chevron indicated two years’ of such service, the second is for six years, three chevrons were for twelve years and so on. So this man served between two and six years with good service.

So from this one image we can conclude with some confidence that:

  • The wedding took place in 1918.
  • The groom served in a Royal Marines medical unit.
  • He entered the theatre of war in 1916 and probably enlisted no earlier than 1915.
  • He served in the trenches and was seriously wounded once, but maintained a good record of continuous service.

One last point.

Do you notice that the groom is tightly clutching on to something with both hands?

It’s a quite large piece of misshapen metal.
Was this part of a shell that caused his war wound?
Perhaps more likely it was a metal case or drinking bottle that deflected a bullet to save his life.
…we will probably never know for certain.

Read 'Trace your Royal Marine in the Great War' by Simon Wills in Family Tree November 2016 for an introduction to researching the careers of Royal Marine ancestors who served in the First World War.

Plus, find new clues in your old family photographs taken before, during and after the two world wars in Jayne Shrimpton's expert guide to dating pictures, 'Interpreting 20th century family photos'. Buy now or subscribe and save!

Simon Wills is author of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors: A Guide to Maritime Photographs for Family Historians (Pen & Sword, 2016). This heavily-illustrated book helps you interpret photos of marines, Royal Navy and merchant navy personnel, fishermen, lifeboatmen and many others.

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