Sheltering from Bursting Shells 1915

Sheltering from Bursting Shells 1915
Peter Stanley takes a closer look at photographs from the library's Pictures Collection that reflect life during the First World War
31 August 2015

This post was originally written for the regular feature In the Frame in The National Library of Australia Magazine.

Sheltering from Shells

James Pinkerton Campbell (1865–1935), Sheltering from Bursting Shells  1915, b&w photograph; 5.9 x 8.4 cm, nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn1504935

Turks opened a fairly heavy fire with artillery’, the war diary of the 8th Light Horse Regiment records laconically on 29 June 1915. The Light Horsemen—minus their horses—were holding the front line on Walker’s Ridge, Gallipoli, high above the Anzac battlefield.

In this extraordinary image, men huddle together in a rifle pit, or ‘funk hole’ as the soldiers called them, under shellfire. Dusty, and covered in dirt from shells exploding around them, they shelter from flying shards of shrapnel.

Probably snapped on Walker’s Ridge in June 1915, this is one of the most remarkable photographs among the thousands taken by Australia’s volunteer soldiers at Gallipoli. They were all taken unofficially—Admiralty photographers took the only official pictures there, including the notorious fakes that crop up again and again. This one is different: it is no fake. Although many Australian soldiers took photographs, very few of them were taken in action or under fire. To get this candid image, the photographer had to expose himself to shellfire.

Virtually every front-line soldier endured shellfire at some time, but hardly anyone had the presence of mind, the equipment, the skill, or the courage, to record an experience that was universal but rarely captured.

Who was the man who took the picture? He was James Pinkerton Campbell, a professional photographer of Malvern, Victoria, who volunteered for the 8th Light Horse in September 1914. He admitted to being 45 but was actually 50, married with grown-up children. A signaller, he clearly kept a camera with him throughout his service, as the album in the National Library’s collection testifies.

Soon after James took this possibly unique photograph, he was twice wounded by bombs and in August went to hospital in Egypt. There he remained for the rest of the war, working as a pay clerk and, in 1918, becoming the ‘Official Photographer to the AIF’. Though obscure compared to well-known names such as Frank Hurley or Hubert Wilkins, James Campbell achieved something that the giants of Great War photography did not. This photograph, memorably capturing dirt-spattered men cowering under fire, should be among the most celebrated images of Australians at war.