Photography of the First World War – Part I: The Canadian War Records Office

The year 2014 marks the centenary of the First World War. In preparation for this date, archivists at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) have been cleaning up the Official Canadian War Photographs Records. They have been made more accessible to Canadians by enhancing their descriptions through thematic organization in the online database. This has been part of a much larger project to organize and describe the entire Department of National Defence’s photograph collection at LAC to ensure that the records are accurate, complete and accessible to the public. When the war began in 1914, most photographers and journalists were ordered away from the front. The First Canadian Division entered the European war theatre the following year. Finally, in 1916, millionaire press baron Max Aitken was granted permission to start the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) and it became Canada’s “eyewitness to war” sending reports home from the front. Soon, these reports were also accompanied by photographs and paintings.

In addition to acquiring photographs from various sources, over the course of the war the CWRO hired three photographers—Captain Henry Edward Knobel, William Ivor Castle and William Rider-Rider—to travel to France and photograph battles, life at the front, and other activities. These photographs can be accessed under the Canadian War Records Office and were organized and given prefixes by the CWRO such as:

The largest of these CWRO-created prefixes is the “O” prefix. It includes about 4705 images, which were taken between May 1916 and May 1919. We find some of the most famous Canadian images of the war in this series. It includes William Ivor Castle’s shots of “Going over the Top” and the “29th Battalion advancing over No Man’s Land during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.”

Black and white photograph showing soldiers climbing over a ridge.

Canadian troops ‟going over the top” during training course at a trench-mortar school. (MIKAN 3206096)

Both of these photographs were later found to be manipulations: the first being a photograph of a drill, and the latter being a composite of two images to add dead bodies and puffs of smoke.

Black and white composite photograph of soldiers advancing through a field of mud. There's puffs of smoke in the air and bodies in the foreground.

The 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “No Man’s Land” through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge (MIKAN 3192389)

The next part of this series will explain how to search for First World War photographs in the Canadian War Records Office collection.

Other related materials:

3 thoughts on “Photography of the First World War – Part I: The Canadian War Records Office

  1. Pingback: Photography of the First World War – Part II: Finding First World War Photos | Library and Archives Canada Blog

  2. Pingback: Artifact #1: Usage of Official War Photography (OWP) in WWI – Humanities 10 Blog

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