How ordinary soldiers broke the rules to photograph life and death in WW1

Remarkable photographs taken by front-line soldiers have revealed a completely new picture of life and death in the First World War, an author will demonstrate at Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend.

Historian Richard Van Emden will share hundreds of photos taken without permission from the military authorities when he talks about his new book in the spa town’s Pavilion Arts Centre on November 23.

In 1918: The Decisive Year in Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs, Richard tells the story of how close the last stages of the conflict was.

At his Book Weekend talk he will project on to the big screen some of the startling images he has discovered via soldiers’ families, diaries and memoirs to tell the human side of the conflict.

Private cameras were banned for security and morale reasons, but hundreds of soldiers still took them to the Front, capturing poignant, humorous and terrifying aspects of war.

“The Christmas Truce (of 1914, unofficially declared by the men in the trenches) showed photographs of British and German troops exchanging cigarettes taken by private cameras, otherwise there would have been no pictures of it at all,” said Richard, who has written many best-sellers on the conflict.

Many show the dead: “There is one picture which is pretty nasty of a German jumping into a British trench literally just after it had been taken. The solider would have had to have just put his rifle down to take this photo.”

Other photos show the lighter side of soldiers cheerfully making the most of the camaraderie of the trenches despite their dreadful conditions.

“There is something very earthy about these photos. It’s just a different atmosphere,” said Richard. “This is a whole new source of evidence about the Great War.”

l 1918: The Decisive Year in Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs: 2.30pm, Pavilion Arts Centre, Friday, November 23.

Buxton Book Weekend events are on November 23 and 24. Authors taking part include former Home Secretary Alan Johnson on the pop music which became the soundtrack to his life; Richard Van Emden on the final year of the First World War; Peter Moore discusses how Captain Cook’s ship The Endeavour changed the world; Kate Hubbard shows how Bess of Hardwick used four marriages to become one of the most powerful women in English history; Adrian Tinniswood on the domestic history of the royal household; and the host of Countdown, Nick Hewer,  on a life which took him from the boardroom to TV stardom.

Pictures: Richard Van Emden; an anti-aircraft battery crew relaxing; a soldier personalises an artillery shell.

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