British Columbia

'They are important': celebrating Canada's official WW I photographers

B.C. historian says censored photos captured the daily realities faced by Canadian soldiers

Jaimie Kehler - CBC News

November 09, 2017

The Taking of Vimy Ridge, April 1917, by official Canadian war photographer William Ivor Castle. (Library and Archives Canada)

Ahead of Remembrance Day, a Vernon, B.C. historian is celebrating the contribution of Canada's official First World War photographers.

In 1916, Canada followed the lead of other countries and hired its own official photographers to document life on the front lines for soldiers. 

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Between 1916 and 1918, three different Canadian photographers produced nearly 8,000 images, about 4,500 of them taken on the Western Front.

"They are important to us because they tell the Canadian story of war. Although it's censored and although they were created for wartime propaganda, it still is part of our heritage," said historian Carla-Jean Stokes.

Canadian soldiers on the march during a snowstorm, taken by William Rider-Rider in Dec. 1917. (Library and Archives Canada)

Stokes said while many of the images have become iconic symbols of Canadian war history, many people know little about the photographers who captured them.

Iconic photo 'faked'

Canada's official photographers — Henry E. Knobel, William Ivor Castle and William Rider-Rider — showed soldiers in a wide range of situations, both in the trenches and in towns and villages away from the fighting.

"My passion is finding more about these people and what they created."

Sometimes they had to create something out of nothing. One particular photo by Castle called Over the Top appears to depict soldiers going into battle, but Stokes says there's more to the story. 

Over the Top, taken October 1916, by official photographer William Ivor Castle appears to depict soldiers going into battle but is actually an image of a training exercise. (Library and Archives Canada)

"It became very famous in Dec. 1916 because it was put in an exhibition in London. It was celebrated all over the world ... these men about to go into battle," said Stokes.

"But, in fact, it was taken during training and it was doctored. Not a lot of people at the time knew that it had been faked except the soldiers."

Most photos not public

Stokes said Library and Archives Canada has an extensive collection of photos by all three photographers, but most of the material is not widely publicized.

She hopes more Canadians will take an interest in the period photography and the men behind the images.

"What I want to tell people is this is a photograph by William Rider-Rider and it's important because he took it and he stood here and he wanted you to see that," she said.

Soldiers broke rules, took pictures

Because the photographers were not hired until 1916, Stokes said there is a lack of official images during the early years of the war.

While soldiers were discouraged from taking photos themselves out of a fear that military information could be shared, Stokes said many broke the rules and some of their private photos still exist in museum collections.

"It's actually so good that those soldiers took photographs, otherwise ... we wouldn't have a photographic record."

Stokes will take part in a speaker series about the First World War photos Thursday at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives. 

Men Resting, 22nd Battalion, July 1916, taken by Henry E. Knobel. (Library and Archives Canada)

With files from CBC's Radio West

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