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The Australians at Messines (1917)


In the lead-up to the Battle of Messines in June 1917, Australian troops study a topographical model of the battle area, constructed on the ground. Small towers allow the men to peruse the ground from above. On 5 June, the camera captures long shots of the artillery bombardment on German positions at Messines Ridge, in Belgium. Troops and supplies march up crowded roads in preparation for an assault. After the main assault has begun, men with recently dressed wounds pose for the camera. The battle began with the detonation of 19 underground mines, the biggest explosion ever to that point. We see shots of one of the craters, from inside and on the rim. After their initial gains, the new Allied positions are heavily shelled by German artillery.

Curator’s notes

There were many new weapons deployed in the First World War and one of them was photography. By 1916, initial reluctance to allow cameras near the Western Front battlefields had been reversed, because the British government needed propaganda to maintain domestic morale and bolster support in neutral countries, especially the USA. Audiences in Britain and Australia clamoured for moving images, especially once the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. British cinematographers were at work in the lead-up to, and during the first weeks of, that terrible battle. Their feature-length documentary, The Battle of the Somme, premiered to stunned audiences in Britain on 10 August 1916, while the battle still raged. It was an unprecedented hit – the beginning of a new era in war photography – although debate persists about how much of it was authentic footage of battle and how much was re-creation filmed behind the lines. It was shown in Australia toward the end of 1916.

By late 1916, the official Australian war correspondent CEW (Charles) Bean had decided Australia needed to have its own official photographer, rather than relying on the loan of British photographers working for General Headquarters. The successful applicant for the job was Herbert Baldwin, a diminutive English press photographer who had extensive experience filming the Balkan wars of 1912–13, and in Mesopotamia in 1916. Baldwin arrived in France on 22 November 1916 and was up to his thighs in mud the next day on the Somme battlefield, with Bean. Bean wrote in his diary that night: ‘He is not perfectly educated but a good little chap with an opinion I have already learned to respect’ (AWM38-3DRL606-66-1, 23 November 1916, p 73). Bean noted that he was ‘a modest little chap, like many of them are not, in his line’.

Baldwin and Bean worked together for most of the next eight months, documenting Australian battle sites and units. It was to be part of what Bean would call the ‘sacred record’ of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. In Bean’s mind, Baldwin’s role was not to be a press photographer. Bean didn’t care if the picture was dramatic, as long as it was accurate, and added to the sum of information he was gathering for what would become the official histories of the Australians in the First World War. Bean was already planning for the institution that would become the Australian War Memorial.

Baldwin took about 540 glass-plate negatives on the Western Front, before succumbing to illness and nervous exhaustion. They are among the most beautiful images taken in that war, according to curatorial staff at the Australian War Memorial. He also took cine film, which is why we have this valuable record of the Battle of Messines – or part of it.

This battle was recently the subject of an Australian feature film, Beneath Hill 60 (2010), about the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company’s efforts at Messines. That film re-creates the detonation of 19 mines at 3.10 am on 7 June 1917 – the beginning of the battle. Baldwin’s film from soon after shows us what one of the craters looked like. More dramatically, it also shows us what an artillery attack could look like – rare footage indeed. Baldwin and Bean observed the Allies’ barrage leading up to the detonation, and the German retaliation a few days later. What it doesn’t show is the detonation itself, or any scenes filmed on the day of advance, 7 June. Bean’s diary suggests that Baldwin was absent on that day.

According to Dr Shaune Lakin, former senior curator of photographs at the AWM, Baldwin’s health, both physically and emotionally, was ‘irreparably damaged’ by the Messines barrage. He was unable to continue to work and returned to London a week later. He was discharged as unfit on 21 June. In Volume IV of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Bean writes (Chapter XI, p 420) that Baldwin went into No-Man’s-Land on 24 April 1917 to photograph the Canal du Nord for General Sir William Birdwood, commander of the Australian forces in France. ‘The day was hot and Baldwin, an English press photographer, ready for any adventure, but physically small and delicate, drank some of the canal water, which is believed to have been polluted by the Germans. A few days later he became seriously ill, and though he returned to the front for the Battle of Messines, he was soon forced to give up his work. He died a few years later.’

Lakin, writing in Contact (2006), a book of photographs from the AWM’s collection (ISBN 978 0 9751904 63), suggests that Baldwin was already sick from his experiences in Mesopotamia, but his condition worsened on the Western Front. ‘Baldwin’s eight months as an Australian official photographer were plagued by symptoms of chronic, often debilitating, anxiety. He suffered from almost continuous diarrhoea, dramatic weight loss and high blood pressure’. Baldwin is now barely remembered in Australian history, but he was the first official photographer of the AIF, and indirectly, its first photographic casualty.