The First World War was one of the most brutal struggle for power in the pages of history. But beyond the images of carnage and broken down cities are the lives of soldiers who fought in the war.
The present generation may not get to know the men and women who stayed, defended and offered their lives in the trenches most utilized during this war. The post war generations may also not comprehend the life the soldiers have to live in those trenches.
In a rare opportunity, the world now gets to glimpse the life on the trenches of the Western Front during World War I as revealed by valuable photographs from Devon.
The photographs were captured by then Lieutenant Robert Monypenny who was 25 when the images were taken in 1915.
No one knows the names of the men whose faces appear on the pictures. But it is likely, that like the young Lt Monypenny, they are soldiers of the Essex Regiment who were about to experience the life where gunshots, bombs, fighting and death were a daily fare.
They were also the soldiers who, during the Second Battle of Ypres, fell victims to the gas warfare employed by the Germans the first time during the war.
The Express and Echo reports that Lt Monypenny was able to send the six-frame film back to London. The miniature prints were then handed down to his daughter, Shiela Ford, who is now 87. The inheritance from Chagford, Devon show the priceless WWI images.
The prints came with letters to home and a personal memoir written by Lt Monypenny in exercise books a few decades later. All these gave Shiela an insight of the life of his father and the soldiers during the war even before she was born.
“He didn’t talk about his experiences in the war to his family,” Shiela explained. “Soldiers at that time didn’t. It was only after he died when I read carefully what he’d written that I realized what he went through.”
The camera also known as “the soldiers’ camera” used by Lt Monypenny to capture the World War I images was a Kodak Autographical. The camera was first made in 1914. The camera was also mostly used by servicemen who used it to document events into like a diary.
The miniature prints were said to have been delivered by a platoon sergeant who was on leave to Lt Monypenny’s home in London in the spring of 1915.
A letter to his aunt shows that the lieutenant himself sent the prints from the trenches. It read,”Here is a roll of six exposures which I have taken under fire…If you get them developed at some insignificant place & take precautions they don’t go to the press, they might be done straight away.”
However, the use of cameras was soon banned. And Lt Monypenny has no choice but to send his camera back home “as a strict order has just been issued that no officers are to have them.”
“Any we’ve got we must send home,” he told his aunt of this restriction on March 26, 1915.
The decision of sending the camera home was one his greatest regrets. He called the order a “ridiculous order” since he no longer had means of documenting the battle that exploded around him.
The camera can rarely be able to capture action and moving shots. But they can give a picture of the conditions that the servicemen face during the war.
During the battle of Ypres, around 70,000 Allied servicemen were recorded to have been killed or wounded in the carnage.
Lt Monypenny did not die in battle. He died at the age of 99 in the year 1991. His younger brother and also a fellow officer, Phillips, however, died before turning 21 in the year 1918. Phillips was awarded a Military Cross.
A WWI Officer’s Life Story
Lt Monypenny was born on a tea plantation in India and the eldest of five brothers. He grew up to be known as Robin. His Aunt Ethel took care of him since he was 12.
He joined the army in August 1914 when the war broke out. Even when he was in the battle field, he did not forget to write home regularly. Most of his letters contained requests for items like canned milk, preserved fruit, plain chocolate, currant cake, packet soup, carbolic soap, razors, newspapers, notepaper and envelopes. These items, he said, he shared to the other soldiers in the regiment.
His stories of the war contained in his letters were made subtle by censorship which is part of the security measures during the war. The story he told years later was a more detailed and compelling version.
In one of his stories, he related that on May 2, the Germans first experimented on the use of chlorine gas against the British soldiers who were camped in the trenches. But it was not until July of the same year when the British soldiers were issued the first rudimentary gas masks.
Before the gas masks arrived, the soldiers have to endure the gas that suffocated them to their death.
Lt Monypenny shares his recollection of the life they endured during the gas attack, “The only protection we had was a small square flannel issued to each man, dipped in some ammonia solution, but it was ineffectual. Everyone was coughing and wheezing and fighting for breath. Men began to roll down into the bottom of the trench in their agony, the worst place to be as the heavy gas tended to collect there. . .
“I could not shout or even speak I was fighting hard for breath, which became shorter and shorter. I noticed the nearest machine gunner doing his best to work his gun. I happened to look over the parapet to see what he was trying to shoot at and, to my horror, across the mist I could see forms approaching. I stumbled to the gunner’s aid but by this time we were both far too gone to use the gun. I felt as if my lungs were bursting or being torn out of my mouth. Everything swam in front of my eyes. I reeled and there was merciful oblivion.”
He lost his consciousness. Luckily, British forces came to the trenches to their aid. They were able to deflect the enemy attack in a hand-to-hand combat.
Lt Monypenny was sent to the hospital. A few days later, he re-joined his unit.
A letter to his aunt reads,”I am pretty fair again, my lungs being still a little queer. Wasn’t bad enough to go away from duty, however. I know a little more about chemistry now.”
Before the Germans unleashed the deadly gas, Lt Monypenny received orders from his Battalion headquarters to assemble 70 men and attack the Germans in the middle of the afternoon.
Two battalions of Gurkhas were crushed in a failed offensive so he knew that any attempt to attack the Germans that time was a suicide mission. He got the confirmation that he sought for by telephone and he had no choice to follow the orders.
“I hardly dared face my men with such a proposition. However, I got them together and explained the matter the best I could. I might as well have told them they were all going to be put against a blank wall, including myself, and be shot out of hand by a firing party. However, I made certain orders for formation attack, the whole thing seeming so utterly futile with such a minute force,” he related.
In a twist of fate, the order was cancelled just as he was about to lead his two platoons into the battlefield.
Lt Monypenny also described in detail the daily life in the front line of the battlefield. “Every now and then there would be a tremendous boom ending up in a sort of metallic twang and miles overhead would rush what sounded like half a dozen express trains and at the end of it a terrific roar and away in Ypres somewhere a great hole would be torn.
“This was a new 17 inch gun [the Germans] had produced and it used to be fired regularly every afternoon.
“‘There goes the ‘Wipers Express,’ the men would say. ‘It must be somewhere near four o’clock.’
“Later on, down in the outskirts of Ypres, I came across one of these shell holes and it must have been 50 ft across and 30 ft deep. You could drop a fair sized house in it.”
The young lieutenant was soon promoted to captain. He was transferred to another unit but the experience was the same.
He recollected his experience later. “The ceaseless shelling began to tell badly on us and we had to grind our teeth to try and bear it. Our nerves were strung to an excessive pitch. Quite a number of men went mad.”
One of the soldiers who was with him took the bayonet from his rifle and attacked Lt Monypenny while they recoiled into the trenches.
“I managed to seize his wrist but he had the strength that madness gives. My sergeant tackled him from behind and we pinned him to the ground then tied his arms and legs with his puttees [a strip of cloth wound between ankle and knee].
“He was stark, raving mad. His brain had snapped. A shell landed on him later and his worries were over.”
Another letter to his aunt dated May 20 describes his desires.
“I wish I was home however for tennis and sea bathing etc. This is no gentleman’s war, simply scientific cunning and bestiality. However I pity the German that comes anywhere near an Essex bayonet.”
In one of the encounters with the Germans in enemy trenches Captain Monypenny got injuries in the head and shoulder from enemy shells. He expressed his relief when he was ordered back to “Blighty” in July.
“Those months at Ypres had been a terrible strain, mentally rather than physically though the physical conditions had been far from any picnic,” he related.
When Captain Monypenny was ordered back to the Western Front, he, again, got injured in 1917. He was moved to the Indian Army. Later still, he was assigned to various tasks.
He lived to see the Second World War. He devoted almost all his life to the military by training officers. Never did he return to photography, an early interest of his.
“His Aunt Ethel kept his letters. After her death, the letters, both opened and unopened ones, were returned to him. Most were unread until they were inherited by Shiela and her children.
Shiela’s son, Simon said, “As a boy I would sit for hours listening to his stories.”
Shiela had another son, Tim. He is a university professor in the USA. He transcribed the letters and the memoirs.
“I think my father wanted his story to be told,” said Sheila finally.
(Photographs courtesy of Express and Echo)