We rarely intervene to curate photographs of common topics from the family photo archive that has evolved over several generations as families join in marriage. This selection of twelve photographs spans fifty-seven years representing six separate families who only became connected when Exel married Tomlins, Marsh married Owen, Tomlins married Middlehurst and Middlehurst married Owen. The sixth is a German family whose son left his camera in a disabled panzer somewhere in the Western Desert in 1942; my father found the camera and developed the film.
Military group photographs are interesting for a number of reasons; like wedding or school photographs they are a genre that is found in many family’s archive but after a single generation we can usually only identify a single member of each group; they are anchored to the family by just one face amongst strangers. However, these men and women were once comrades in arms, friends, people that were linked by the traditions of their unit and, quite often, much more personal and deeper bonds.
The formal and informal military photograph records these bonds, brothers-in-arms, comrades, bands-of-brothers or, as written under one of these groups, simply “Our Lot”. This collection represents two world wars and a cold war showing professional soldiers, conscripts, volunteers, doctors, nurses, cadets and scouts. It includes Britains, Canadians, Poles and Germans but they all look much the same, young men and women preparing for, engaged in or recovering from war. It includes men who survived and no doubt many that didn’t.
Beyond these details it represents something far larger; three generations of Europeans; two who went to war and one, my generation, who prepared for a war that thankfully never came. My children, now in their thirties, are members of the first generation of Western Europeans to have grown up with an expectation of peace.
My grandfather, Alfred Tomlins, was a professional soldier, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards. This photograph was taken during his training in 1906.
These men, and 80,000 other regulars would become the British Expeditionary Force who were sent to France to hold the line while a conscript army was raised and trained. Kaiser Wilhelm II famously called them a “contemptible little army”, an insult the regular British Army adopted with pride, referring to themselves as the “Old Contemptibles”. They held the line.
In 1916 Alfred Tomlins was wounded in action and returned to England to convalesce. He never recovered sufficiently to resume his duties and was invalided out of the Royal Horse Guards after the war.
He is posed here with his brother-in-law, my great uncle, Harry Exel who served with the Bucks and Berks Yeomanry.
This is one of countless thousands of formal studio portraits of young soldiers taken before they shipped out to war.
In an age of few family snapshots many mothers, wives and chidden only had these stern faced portraits to remind them of their fallen loved ones.
Harry Exel survived the war and is shown here with his troop in Belgium in 1919.
One of the aspects of the family archive that I find interesting is the word-of-mouth nature of the background.
Other photographs of Harry say that he served with the Bucks and Berks Yeomanry but I can’t find any records that suggest that they were artillery or in Belgium so this photograph has some mystery associated with it. Harry is on the far right of the back row.
My father, Norman, was always immensely proud to have volunteered for the RAF as soon as war was declared.
Here he is shown, second from the right in the back row, with a small group of, what I assume, were fellow volunteers whilst being trained.
There is a striking similarity between this group photograph and the 1906 photograph at the Royal Horse Guards training depot. Both portraits show a group of young men before war had become a reality. They were optimistic and happy with no possible way of imagining what was to come.
After the Battle of Britain my father was shipped to North Africa where he served for the remainder of the war.
He stands on the right of this group. The wide variety of uniforms contrasts with the conformity of the men at the training depot, there was no spit and polish in he desert.
A young arab boy stands with the group, in other photographs he is described as an “honorary electrician”.
My father again, this time seated second from the left in the middle row, and still in the desert.
He was attached to a mobile unit that followed the advances and retreats across the desert establishing temporary airfields to service the combat aircraft.
In some ways the most interesting aspect of this photograph is that he has carefully recorded the names of everyone included on the back. At one point in his life these men were important to him, a surrogate family for a young man far from home.
My father’s photo album from his time in the desert contains several pictures of abandoned tanks, armoured vehicles and crashed aircraft. The desert was littered with the detritus of war.
He told the story that he had found a camera in a German tank and had the film processed when he was next on leave in Cairo. The dozen or so pictures show a German unit trooping by sea and setting up camp in the desert. The similarities between these cheerful young Germans and the Allies they were fighting are of course obvious but still striking and remind me of David Hurn’s revelation, on seeing photographs of young Russian soldiers, that they were just like him (here). During the war my father refused a commission and after the war turned down a career in the RAF; he returned from war a pacifist.
All we know about this group photograph that has the same training depot formality of 1906 and 1939 is that my wife’s grandfather, Alfred Marsh, is seated on the far right of the front row.
He died the year we got married and with his wife and daughter now deceased we know nothing of his military service. We believe that he was about thirty-three at the start of the war so was probably called up around 1941 unless he had volunteered.
This picture is an example of the unanswered questions in every family’s photo archive.
Between the wars my grandfather had worked as a manager for the Bertram Mills circus and after the war was asked by the Red Cross to organise various exhibitions that were staged as part of the celebrations of peace.
This photograph is from a Prisoner of War exhibition and as such is easily misinterpreted. The group stands in front of a building displaying a sign informing us that it houses the “Dienftstelle des Lager Kommandants” which I understand is the Commanding Officers’ Office, it is written is gothic script just in case the visiting English public missed the point that it was in German. Just below it there is another sign to tell them that it also is acting as the offices of the “Exhibition Management”. Amongst the nurses and uniformed man medical staff there is the incongruous figure of a volunteer dressed as a German soldier.
Another group photograph from another of Grandfather’s Red Cross Exhibitions.
This photograph is in the formal genre of school and military photographs. It records how a large group of individuals came together as a temporary organisation to undertake a specific assignment. It is hard to imagine a formal portrait of this kind outside of the private school or military in the 21st century.
The scouts always had a paramilitary culture and the nationalistic and military nature of the organisation is very much to the fore only ten years after the war.
The annual parade includes troop flags that reference their military origins, identical to the British Army’s regimental colours.
I have included this photograph simply because it bears such a striking resemblance to a military parade; many of the boys are stern faced “at attention” or “at ease”. My bother is the first boy on the left in the front row. Do we still dress our children in paramilitary uniforms and ask them to march to church once a year to have their regimental colours blessed?
The Combined Cadet Force or CCF was established in Private and Grammar Schools to train the officer class of the next generation.
This picture is from one of my brother’s camps but I was to go through the same process a few years later.
At Grammar School it was compulsory to either join the CCF or the Scouts and we paraded every Wednesday afternoon as well as going to camp each holiday.
We were drilled and put through our paces at an annual parade in front of visiting regular Army officers who took the salute in a very regal fashion. We learned other useful life skills including weaponry, map reading and the use of radios. When the Russians, or as Sir Humphrey Appleby suggested, the French invaded we were ready with our ill-fitting, itchy 1940 battle dress, field radios that we could hardly lift and our obsolete rifles.
I love this photograph because it so completely describes the Cadet Force. The young men in the front row are rigidly at attention taking it all very seriously while the short chap in row two is not only horribly out of line but busily adjusting his trousers. The Russians must have be quaking in their boots.