BEHIND THE IMAGE: Charge of the Royal Naval Division, 1915

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This photograph shows infantry from the British Royal Naval Division climbing out of the trenches as if for a charge at the Battle of Gallipoli during 1915. Every man grasps their rifle with bayonet fitted, ready for the kind of close-quarters encounter with the enemy that it was expected – wrongly – would decide the war. The hills in the background are typical of the Gallipoli peninsula, making the terrain that had to be covered by the Allied forces uneven and difficult to negotiate.

This photograph was taken by Ernest Brooks (1878-1941), a British photographer who worked for the Daily Mirror and the Royal Family before signing up to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the outbreak of the First World War. As a professional photographer already in uniform, he was one of the few combat photographers sent to cover Gallipoli, and in March 1916 was given the honorary rank of Second Lieutenant. Brooks became the first official British war photographer when he was assigned to the Western Front. He risked his own safety to capture images of life on the front lines and during key battles such as the Somme.

As a photographer Brooks was very aware of light and composition – his famous silhouettes of soldiers walking across the skyline are often used to convey the idea of the anonymous heroes of the war. He took thousands of photographs between 1915 and 1918; however, because of limited resources and other constraints, many of his photos were staged – a common approach before the war, but often criticised as inappropriate for a war photographer. Critics accused Brooks of purposely taking pictures editors would print to fuel propaganda back home. Charles Bean, the official Australian correspondent in Gallipoli, said of Brooks, ‘he faked a second picture of a “charge of the Royal Naval Division at the Dardanelles” which is the most famous picture taken there.’

This feature appeared in issue 55 of Military History Monthly.

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