WW1 Photos Centenary Website: 2014-2018 By Paul Reed


Forgotten Fronts: Mesopotamia 1916

Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the start of the Great War. With oil interests in the region, British troops were first despatched to the region in 1914 to prevent the Turks from interrupting the supply of oil, much of which was used by the Royal Navy. Gradually Mesopotamia, or Mespot, turned into a full-scale war with large numbers of British and Indian Army troops involved. In 1916 there was a major defeat at Kut, but gradually the war turned in Britain’s favour leading to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the region in 1918.

There were trenches and battles in Mespot that saw some of the earliest forms of British desert warfare. Here two soldiers of an Army Service Corps unit have constructed a field stove in a trench system. The goggles they wear were required kit in Mespot where sandy desert winds could reduce visibility very quickly and sand particles blind soldiers very quickly. One author called Mespot ‘The Bastard War‘ and it is clear that conditions were tough here for British troops, up against an often underestimated but formidable enemy like the Ottoman Turks.

Great war Portraits: An Indian Sapper

Portraits of Indian soldiers are seemingly rare; in decades of collecting WW1 images I have only ever found a few. It could be that having a portrait taken was not part of the culture of soldiers from India or that more likely it was a matter of pay; that they had better things to spend their money on. There could of course be thousands in junk shops across India!

This photograph shows Lance Corporal Venkatasami of the 2nd Queen’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners. This Indian unit fought in France, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine during the Great War and provided Engineer support to Indian formations in these campaigns. Venkatasami survived the war and this photograph was taken in Egypt in February 1919.

He is wearing the typical uniform of Indian troops in these theatres of war; Khaki Drill tunic and shorts, and on his left sleeve are Long Service and Good Conduct stripes indicating twelve years in the Indian Army; not untypical for Indian servicemen of that period.

Fed Up in Mespot 1916

This image comes from an album owned by an officer of the Army Service Corps who was attached to one of the Indian Divisions in France 1914/15 and then in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for the remainder of the war. Although private cameras were prohibited by the British Army this was a generation for which personal photography was in its infancy and the number of private albums I have come across indicates that many flouted the ruling. This particular officer took about 150 images while on active service showing some unique insights into service in two theatres of war and had them printed onto high quality paper and placed in an album. Sadly he forgot to caption them, but over the years I have been able to identify many of the locations; and images from the album will feature in future posts.

This particular image shows an Indian soldier fatigued by active service sat catching a short sleep near his charges, two mules who are pulling a British water cart. Water was a vital commodity in Mesopotamia – ‘Mespot’ to the troops – where the heat and lack of safe water supply meant that any clean water was in some respects as valuable as the munitions needed to feed the guns. Temperatures could rise above 120 degrees in the desert and to give an indication of the problem of sickness caused by issues like bad water  more than 12,000 died of disease in Mespot during the war. The water cart in the picture could hold 120 gallons of water, which although sounds like a lot, the two mules would need 6-8 gallons each per day. It had its own filtration system and in terms of the technology of the day was quite an advanced piece of kit.

Like the best of images it is an informal shot and captures a moment in time giving us an insight into life in a sometimes forgotten Theatre of War