Since the First World War, every conflict has been well-documented. There are millions of photos showing soldiers, aircraft, tanks and battlefields, and behind them are the humans tasked with fighting. Every combatant and civilian alike is someone who has friends, a family and a story. The following photos show those behind conflict – their pain, their joy, their humanity – and provide a look into the human side of war.
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was the female branch of the British Army during the Second World War. They took on a number of different roles, including serving on the frontlines in various capacities. This photo, captured in January 1942, shows two members taking a quick break from their work to enjoy tobogganing in the snow at one of the London’s gun sites.
Comforting a comrade
This photo was taken on August 28, 1950, during the Korean War. In the Haktong-ni area, an American soldier is comforted by another while grieving the death of his friend, who was killed in action (KIA). The man holding him has since been identified as Tolbert Raymond Winchester.
The scene is made all the more heartbreaking by the corpsman in the background, who’s filling out casualty tags. This is a human side of war most don’t picture (or see) when they think of armed conflict.
She said ‘yes’
This photo of Marine Pfc. Patrick J. Carr was taken just four days before the end of the Battle of Okinawa, one of the largest altercations in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. Carr was stationed there when he received a letter from his sweetheart, Stella Norek, who agreed to marry him.
Her portrait was placed inside his helmet while he jubilantly read over her words.
A father saying goodbye to his son
Pfc. Mike Fenton was also stationed on Okinawa during the Second World War. However, the conflict didn’t end happily for him. This photo was taken at his burial in May 1945, after he was killed in a Japanese counterattack on the road to Shuri. Alongside the officers and friends who stand vigil is his father, Marine Col. Francis I. Fenton, who prays at the foot of his son’s grave.
It’s one thing to know death occurs during war, but it’s another to see the raw, human emotion that comes from the other side – those who were lucky enough to survive.
You wouldn’t know just how bad things were by looking at this photo, taken in 1916. This soldier smiles broadly as he collects the recently-arrived postal delivery for his battery, located near Aveluy. Letters from home played a major role in troop morale during the war.
Somehow, this small kitten managed to survive a heavy mortar barrage near Bunker Hill, once the site of a major Korean War engagement in 1952. Marine Sgt. Frank Praytor found the two-week-old animal in 1953, after her mother had been killed.
This photo was taken while Praytor fed her canned milk out of a medicine dropper. He ultimately decided to adopt the kitten. He named her Miss. Hap because “she was born at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Away from the frontlines and the horrors of war, a group of very happy soldiers chat with female war workers in August 1943. Both groups are on vacation at the War Workers Holiday Camp at Cookham, Berkshire, United Kingdom.
This photo of Hans-Georg Henke is arguably one of the most famous photos of the Second World War and shows the human side of being captured by the enemy.
When it was taken in April 3, 1945, he was only 15 years old and had just been captured in Germany. His own account states he’d been captured by the Red Army and was crying because the life he knew was falling apart. The photographer insists, however, that he was actually a prisoner of the US Ninth Army and his emotions were the result of combat shock.
Here comes Santa Claus
Taken on December 13, 1944, this photo captures Leading Aircraftman Fred Fazan dressed as Santa Claus, delivering presents to Dutch children at Volkel Air Base. The Royal Air Force (RAF) No. 122 Wing, who operated their Hawker Typhoons and Tempests out of this location in 1944, saved their candy rations and money to put on a Christmas party for the children.
According to photographer N.S. Clark, Santa was afraid of Messerschmitts, so chose to arrive via Tempest.
Christmas in Egypt
British troops were sent to Egypt during the Suez Crisis. After the United States and UK decided not to help pay for the Aswan High Dam, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared martial law in the area around the Suez Canal, prompting the UK, Israel and France to intervene.
This group – Peter Gallagher, John Dean, Jim Read, Jack Allen, Jim Highton, Manuel Armario and Reg Bomson – can be seen here decorating their Christmas tree while stationed in the country.
At the beginning of the First World War, Germany invaded Antwerp. Within a few weeks, the Belgian forces withdrew from the city. This photo shows a woman sitting along the side of the road, beside a small table, some kitchen pots and a statue – all her worldly treasures. The image is dated 1914, meaning it’s likely she lost her home during the invasion.
Boys will be boys
Even war can’t stop boys from getting up to shenanigans.
This photo was taken of South African soldiers stationed in Bexhill-on-Sea, United Kingdom in October 1915. While their fellow troops watch on, a group of them can be seen playing what one can only assume is “get on your friend’s back and whack another team with a broom” – or, better yet, “whack them until they fall off.”
Taken by renowned World War II photographer Tony Vaccaro, this image captures the return of a German soldier to Frankfurt in March 1947. He was taken as a prisoner of war (POW) by the US during the war and released after it came to an end.
When the man arrived home, excited to see his family, he discovered his house had been reduced to rubble, and that his wife and children were all dead. In Vaccaro’s own words, “He gave up […] That’s why I call this the defeated soldier.”
For those who think team building exercises are an invention of the modern workplace, think again. This photo of soldiers with the Italian Army was taken in 1917, as they engaged in some form of team building game. The original caption indicates they’re men of the “Emilia Brigade,” the 119th and 120th Infantry Regiment.
The identities of those in this photo, their nationalities and their location remain a complete mystery. What is known, however, is that the image was taken in 1940. However, these questions add to the humanity of the moment – completely spontaneous on the part of the woman, soldier and photographer.
With the help of his unit holding him in the truckbed, this soldier gets a goodbye kiss before leaving for… Somewhere.
Taken on January 8, 1966, this photo shows an American soldier following Operation Marauder, a join engagement of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and the 161 Bty of the Royal New Zealand Artillery during the Vietnam War.
Exhausted from the intense fighting, the serviceman simply sits with his head in his hands and stares into space, contemplating what just happened.
Men with the British Army undergoing overseas training in Hertfordshire, UK on August 6, 1939.
It’s unclear just how effective this activity was, although it certainly brought smiles and laughter to the men. Their sergeant took to carrying a large plank, which he used to smack them – in good spirit – to help them jump and stay warm.