17 Powerful Images That Show the Human Side of War

Photo Credit: 1. Museo Centrale del Risorgimento / Mondadori / Getty Images (Tint Added) 2. Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. Museo Centrale del Risorgimento / Mondadori / Getty Images (Tint Added) 2. Bettmann / Getty Images

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.

Toboggan time

Two women with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) riding a toboggan down a snowy hill
Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images

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

Tolbert Raymond Winchester comforting another soldier
Photo Credit: Sergeant First Class Al Chang / US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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’

Pfc. Patrick J. Carr reading a letter
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

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

Marines paying their respect to Pfc. Mike Fenton, whose body is draped in the American flag
Photo Credit: USMC Archives / US Marine Corps / Flickr CC BY 2.0

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.

Mail delivery

Soldier carrying packages and letters
Photo Credit: Historica Graphica Collection / Heritage Images / Getty Images

The Battle of the Somme during the First World War was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The British lost 420,000 men, while Germany lost 450,000.

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.

Miss. Hap

Sgt. Frank Praytor feeding Miss. Hap with an eyedropper
Photo Credit: Sergeant Martin Riley / Getty Images

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.”

Wise cracks

American soldiers walking past a group of women in bathing suits
Photo Credit: Mirrorpix / Getty Images

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.

Child soldier

Hans-Georg crying
15-year-old Hans-Georg Henke cries tears of defeat after being captured by the US Ninth Army in Germany, April 1945. (Photo Credit: John Florea / Keystone / Getty Images)

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

Leading Aircraftman Fred Fazan dressed as Santa Claus, handing out presents to children
Photo Credit: Royal Air Force Official Photographer N.S. Clark / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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

Peter Gallagher, John Dean, Jim Read, Jack Allen, Jim Highton, Manuel Armario and Reg Bomson decorating a Christmas tree
Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Getty Images

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.

Worldly possessions

Woman crying while sitting on the side of a road
Photo Credit: Mirrorpix / Getty Images

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

South African soldiers running around with their comrades on their backs
Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

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.”

Nothing remains

German soldier sitting on a brick wall, crying
Photo: Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images

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.”

Team building

Italian soldiers kneeling together in the grass
Photo Credit: Museo Centrale del Risorgimento / Mondadori / Getty Images

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.

Helping hand(s)

Soldier leaning out of the bed of a truck to kiss his girlfriend while his comrades watch
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

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.


Soldier sitting with his hands over his face
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

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.

Proper motivation

Soldiers with their arms out, while their commander hits one with a plank
Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images

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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.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.