Gunner Officer's Dugout

Gunner Officer's Dugout

Peter Stanley takes a closer look at photographs reflecting life during the First World War

Guy Parker’s photograph album-cum-scrapbook is one of the treasures of the Library’s Great War collections. It includes this photograph, taken by the official photographer Frank Hurley, of the officers of the 105th Howitzer Battery in August 1917. The battery had just begun to fire in support of the great Ypres offensive, and would remain in action for weeks more. Before the offensive petered out in the mud of Passchendaele in November, Parker would be evacuated, gassed. Leslie Blake (left) would die of his wounds in one of the last Australian actions of the war.

Major H. Morrris and Lieutenant Blake in 105th Battery Headquarters Dugout

Frank Hurley, Lieutenant Blake, Lieutenant David Ikin and Major H. Morrris in 105th Battery Headquarters Dugout, Ypres, Belgium, August 1917nla.obj-140985649

Hurley’s photograph opens a window into an often overlooked dimension of the Great War. His comrades were not the grizzled diggers of the Anzac legend—privates, with few responsibilities but to their mates. They were officers, in charge of the battery’s 100-odd gunners and drivers, six 4.5-inch howitzers, several dozen vehicles and several hundred horses. Above all, they were responsible for firing in support of the hard-pressed infantry, their howitzers designed to drop shells vertically into German trenches.

These officers were older than most of their men. Two (Blake and Herbert Morris, at right) had been commissioned from the ranks, both gaining gallantry decorations. Morris lived long enough to apply for his fiftieth-anniversary Anzac medallion, in 1965. Their candle-lit dugout, made of curved sheets of ‘elephant iron’, festooned with the paraphernalia of their trade—steel helmets and gas masks—was their home and office. Are Blake and David Ikin (centre) reading letters from home?

Frank Hurley, a veteran of polar exploration, already knew Leslie Blake, a cartographer and geologist; both had been members of Douglas Mawson’s 1911 Antarctic expedition.

Perhaps the most intriguing man is Parker. An industrial chemist from Sydney, he joined the AIF in 1914. His album documents his service with the artillery on Gallipoli, in Egypt and on the Western Front. He was proud of being a gunner; the Library also holds the red-and-blue divisional artillery colour patches he cut from his uniform. Parker often had money troubles. Creditors pursued him into the AIF and he was court-martialled in 1918 over irregularities in his pay book—deliberate or mistaken? In the 1930s, he was charged with fraud. But what is true is the record he made and preserved of a gunner’s life in the Great War.

Professor Peter Stanley is a research professor at UNSW Canberra and a historian who has written more than 30 books on Australian military and social history.