And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 18 March 2012


An Australian soldier’s snapshots from Palestine, 1941

“They crawled their way across the blazing sands of Africa... to turn disaster into victory!”
Tagline for The Desert Rats, 1953

You’ve probably seen the film. It’s World War 2 and a British officer is given command of a platoon of Australians. He is old school empire from his acutely placed peaked cap down to his polished boots. The Australians are not. He could probably deal with the drinking and brawling but their casual attitude to authority amounts to disrespect. The worst of it is that he has to take these unsophisticated larrikins on a dangerous mission, Naturally he thinks someone in brass has it in for him; why else would he be given such an odious responsibility? From the beginning the detestation is mutual. Over ninety minutes however he discovers that beneath that rough exterior they are tough and capable. The Australians also learn that he is no fool and under that starched uniform beats a human heart. In the end they pull off the impossible. The bridge is destroyed, the Germans retreat and the tide of war has changed. In the last scene he shows his humanity by saluting the survivors and uttering some inanity along the lines of; “Well chaps, shall we have a beer?” 

It’s rubbish of course. First hand accounts from the war usually describe the Australians as disciplined and no more willing to take risks than the British but the stereotype survives mostly because Australians don’t want to shake it. It’s good to think we stand up for ourselves against authority even if these days the evidence is a little thin on the ground. The sensitive, curious outsider doesn’t make for good copy. That’s one reason why these photos are interesting. At first glance they may not look that remarkable but something about them suggests the person who took them wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his comrades.

In the middle of 1941 Australian soldiers from the 9th Division (among others) were sent to Tobruk on the Libyan coast. Their job was to hold the port, effectively placing themselves under siege in order to stop the advance of Italians under Rommel’s command. By November they had achieved the objective and for the first time Rommel’s Middle East campaign was thwarted. Six months later they were on the Egyptian coast, preparing for El Alamein, the battle historians regard as decisive in securing the subsequent defeat of the Axis forces. In between the 9th Division was stationed in Palestine, on extended R&R away from the fighting. While there, one of the soldiers took these photos. We know that because one is dated December 12, 1941 and others are marked ‘Aleppo’, ‘Allenby Square’ and ‘Capernaum’. 

The first thing to point out is their subject matter. They are mostly landscapes. It wasn’t that common for soldiers to take cameras with them to war but when they did, most of the images they returned with were of their brothers in arms. This soldier appears to have wandered off by himself, taking photos of the local scenery much as any tourist would. His images are simply composed suggesting he wasn’t out to interpret places but record them for his own posterity. Some of them, like the one of the boat on the water, are almost meditative, indicating he might have sat on the beach staring at the water before he raised his camera. It leads us to think he was something of an outsider. Maybe the other Australians were a bunch of reckless hooligans and he preferred his own company to theirs.

Most of the photos measure 40x60cm, which corresponds closely with the Kodak 121 and 128 roll films. The photograph of the soldier outside his tent measures 30x40mm, about the same as the 828 film. All three of these were used in amateur cameras like the Kodak Bantam. A professional wouldn’t have touched them. Among the collection are several miniature snapshots such as he would have bought in a paper wallet from a local store. The feeling is that he could have already been interested in Jerusalem and the surrounding lands, either as the land of the Bible or of classical history.

Without a name or any other context there isn’t a lot more that can be said about them except that I think they don’t quite fit with the stereotype of the Australian soldier. Whatever else he did, he wasn’t supposed to go off by himself and quietly observe the world around him. That would have been too sensitive and enquiring for the popular image back home.


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