14 June 2023
We know about the troops going off to the Front. It’s a familiar image isn’t it. A litany of war movies has provided us with a visual of hankies waving, arms reaching, kisses blown, as the engine gradually gathers steam and heaves out of the railway station taking the soldiers off to war. And with each iteration it never gets any less poignant. Helen Tovey shares her thoughts on some other WW1 era photos she has recently come across depicting her great-grandfather in 1918.
We may have our own imagery too, in our family photo collections – perhaps of young men in uniform in studio settings captured on sepia cabinet cards and postcards – likenesses and mementoes to be treasured by family and friends, over the weeks, months and years to come.
For years I knew only of one wartime photo of my great-grandfather (George Spencer Hallas who served in the Royal Engineers and Royal Flying Corps in WW1).
It was of him on his wedding day, 1918, his beautiful wife (Hilda Mary Jones) on his arm. The photo told nothing of his actual experiences. As a couple they look idyllic, smart, comfortable. Research into his time at the Front revealed he’d been awarded the Military Cross & bar (for showing great coolness under fire whilst mending the wiring – the London Gazette records that his clothing was hit, and my uncle has his pocket book imprinted with the bullet that missed his flesh by a matter of millimetres). So clearly he’d had his fair share of ‘war-time experiences’.
It was only recently that I gained a glimpse of a whole new side to my ancestors’ lives through these war years. The time they spent on leave! And it’s enchanting … and thought-provoking.
There are photos of my great-grandfather at the beach – lolling on a deck chair reading a book, bathing (yes, in one of those classic one-piece knitted costumes) … drinking sloe gin after bathing, sitting in the garden on the grass with my great-grandmother – his new wife, spending time with friends Jack Eve and Pantie – Jack with an arm in a sling. Jack recovered, now mowing the grass – in his uniform – ready to go back to the Front.
I love these snapshots for the jolly vibe, for the tangible sense, even more than a century later, of young people having fun, treasuring every moment. It’s only by the summer skies captured in these photos, and the inky captions recording the year – 1918 – that we have any idea that that summer was anything other than wonderful for George, Hilda, Jack Eve and Pantie and that the war was not yet over.
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