|‘War memorial, Katea, near Owaka Southland by Laurence Aberhart|
Representations of family sacrifice
On 16 May 1917 the Illustrated Otago Witness published the first in an intermittent series of photographs which had as their subject matter families with sons overseas. Two images are juxtaposed. On the left we see three people in front of a large two-storied house; on our right we see two people in front of a small cottage. The captions tell us that both homes were located at Momona on the Taieri Plains, Otago.
The house on the left is Taurima Farm, the ‘Residence’ of Mr. and Mrs. Nichol and the ‘home’ on the right belonged to Mr. and Mrs. K. Sprott. We assume that the figures we see are the Nicholls accompanied by a daughter and the Sprott parents but for many of the readers these people would be identifiable figures. If the features of the humans remain indistinct what we see in sharp focus is the difference in socio-economic status of the two families as reflected in the contrasting homes. The title uniting both images tells us that these are: ‘Typical Otago homes which some of our boys have left for King and Empire.’ What we are being directed to see is that in spite of the perceived differences, there is ‘equality of sacrifice.’ On 10 October 1917 the Witness published a photograph of the home of Mr. and Mrs. J. Black, Ngapara, North Otago. This time we see a couple and two young sons and a daughter. Viewers are informed that the family has four sons on active service ‘fighting for the Empire’s Liberty.’ On 5 June 1918, the caption accompanying the photograph of the Graham family’s home in Clinton states that this family ‘have a splendid record with seven brothers having gone to the front.’ The historian Jamie Belich’s observation that ‘there appears to have been a conception of family sacrifice, a tax in sons that should be evenly shared’ seems manifestly true when we read the captions accompanying these touching tableaux staged for the camera.
Photographers and publishers understood that the images they published mediated the daily experience of the war for the home front population. These ‘Homes of our Boys’ images published from time to time by the Witness spoke to the anxieties of a domestic audience, many of whom like the families depicted, also waited in tense expectancy for news of their sons. Many readers would have known members of the Nichol, Sprott, Black and Graham families. In this sense these images unite an audience in a shared imagining of absent sons. Ostensibly straightforward representations of waiting families, the photographs may well have conveyed a melancholy mood and an oppressive unease. The odds were against all of the sons returning unscathed. Not even the most optimistic reporting could hide the fact that the New Zealand casualty lists grew at an appalling rate on the Western Front from late 1916. It is the spectre of death which haunts these images and lends them their near palpable sense of foreboding. Thus in re-reading these representations we need to be mindful of the underlying cultural values which are being re-affirmed in the face of death. Bronfen and Goodwin state that: ‘The representation of death may be peculiarly apt to figure the gaps in a culture’s articulate meanings.’ The Sprott and Graham families each sent seven soldier sons, the Black family four. Those who knew the Sprott family would have already known the true extent of this family’s multiple losses at this point during the war.
A follow-up photograph of the Sprott sons was published in the same paper on 9 January 1918. It shows the portraits of five sons all framed in overlapping ovals stressing their familial bonds. The portrait grouping of soldier sons, which in its original situation, would have sat on a mantelpiece, or a shelf or side table within the Sprott home, was now reproduced for public consumption. In this case it is the text below that conveys the real cost of family sacrifice for this family. We learn that one son was killed and another died from his wounds in the Gallipoli campaign; two sons were severely wounded on October 12 [the Passchendaele offensive] and the fourth son was now fighting with the 33rd Reinforcements. It is a terrible testimony to the destructive power of this war on specific families. This memorial object reunited soldier sons and declared they would always be together in the family; reproduced within a public context they are memorialised by the wider community.
This photo series run by the Illustrated Otago Witness reframes our understanding of sacrifice. We are asked to think of death and what it meant to individual families. Not just the tragedy of losing one son, but the very real possibility of multiple bereavements. These boys, for the most part, would have signed up with the Otago Regiment. This practice had the effect of unevenly concentrating the fatalities within a geographic home community, a practice that was changed for World War Two. Let’s turn to two other examples of understanding this loss at a community level.
The Dunedin lantern slide project
On August 29, 1917 the Otago Witness reproduced two lantern slides images for its readers. Both images had been taken on a cold winter’s day in Dunedin outside the First Church of Otago. The two groups of women, young children and babies were suitably clad to ward off the chill, but more important, they had dressed with a certain audience in mind. The array of stylish hats, many of them plumed, the brooches at their necks, the fur trim on their collars and cuffs, the occasional muff and flower corsage all suggest that each of these women had given some thought to how she might present herself to the camera. Everyone wanted to make a good impression. Still, regardless of intentions, there is a certain raggedness in the overall composition of both images. Inevitably, someone looked away just as the shutter clicked, heads were tilted at various angles and one or two looked apprehensive. There were few smiles. Individuals appeared unsure about how to pose for the camera. Perhaps the photographer was intent on processing as many group shots as possible or perhaps his instructions were unclear. It is even possible that an event such as this was sufficiently unusual to provoke nervousness on the part of the participants as to how, exactly, they wished to be seen.
The caption published below the images reads:
Groups of Mothers and Relatives of Otago Boys on Active Service - Reproduced from photographs taken by the Dunedin Photographic Society, with the object of providing Mr. Hughes, of the Y.M.C.A. with lantern slides for exhibition in the Y.M.C.A. hutments behind the firing line on the Western Front.
These photographs were published in the Otago Witness on 29 August 1917. They were the last of a series of 26 group photographs of women and children appearing in the paper in May and June of that year. They have a common subject matter - women and children - although one also notes prams, dogs and the occassional male presence, presumably a father. These photographs belong to an even larger body of images, some 200 lantern slides of approximately 300 soldiers’ mothers and other near relatives, destined to be viewed by a very different audience: Otago soldiers serving on the Western Front. Different, yes; but certainly not unknown to the women who gaze out from the photographs. For these photographs framed three interrelated communities: ‘Mothers and Relatives’, ‘Boys on Active Service’ and the readers of the Otago Witness. No doubt the readers of the Witness could have named individual women and made further connections. They could have distinguished between the women who were married to soldiers and those who had mothered soldiers; pointed out which amongst them had been long separated from their husbands, recently parted, or had more than one soldier son; perhaps even noted mothers who had lost sons already. Perhaps too, there were other bonds which linked these women.
A great deal of effort went into the project. The selection of mothers, wives and young children, largely to the exclusion of adult males, suggests that these photographs were intended for three distinct audiences. The women assembled for the photographs would have contemplated the circumstances in which their sons and loved ones might see the images; in turn the representations of these women must have evoked a complex set of responses for the soldier audience; and, finally, the caption of the photograph reproduced in the Witness asked readers to reflect on links between the soldiers and the women, thus extending out still further the community remembrance. The Dunedin Photographic Society’s lantern slides have not been transmitted to the future; in this sense, these slides have left less of a footprint in our history than some of the humblest photographs. The slides belong, along with the amputee and the facially wounded medical archive photographs, to a body of images that has been omitted from the iconography of this war. The project’s scale, its rarity and subject matter, mark its importance and challenge our conventional, battle-centred iconography of the Great War.
Some nine decades later, the lantern slide project which had attempted to give both concrete form and centrality of place to ‘Groups of Mothers and Relatives of Otago Boys on Active Service’, has disappeared from view. For a contemporary audience, lantern slides as a photographic practice represent an unknown archive, one rarely exposed to view, whose emotional resonance is extraordinarily difficult to recapture. Partly this is because they are ‘intractable objects’, neither easy to view nor display. The historical dilemma is almost insuperable: the poignant example of the Dunedin lantern slides reminds us that as one technology of seeing is supplanted by another, an entire field of vision and the world it attempted to frame invariably disappears from view. We have only the reproduced newspaper images as the trace.
The majority of these groups were posed outside churches. In these two images the background details indicate these women were parishioners of First Church and that these images were taken after the Sunday morning services. The wider First Church community consisted of some 500 families, from which 222 men and three nurses took part in the war. At the moment in time when the First Church women posed for their photographs they could not know that six of ‘their boys’ would be killed at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917, and another would die soon after of the wounds sustained in the same battle. At the war’s end, five wives and 41 mothers would have lost their ‘Otago Boys’.
Three years later, just metres away from where these women stood, the names of the dead would appear on the honour boards which still adorn the east wall of the church. None of these people knew what we now know, that Passchendaele would claim the all-time record for the most New Zealanders killed on a single day, and that the war would not be over until the end of 1918. On 29 August 1917, the photographs were published as part of an ambitious attempt to serve the living, not the soon-to-mourn.