Charles Bean, Frank Hurley, Hubert Wilkins and the Anzac Photograph Enigma

The Australian War Memorial Anzac Photograph Collection.

In the basement of the Australian War Memorial is the largest, and most detailed collection of photographs from the Western Front in World War I. Over 4,000 photographic negatives, mostly on large format full or half-plate glass negatives, are housed in a specially controlled archive. The glass negatives are ‘official photographs,’ meaning they were taken by ‘official Australian photographers’ and belong to the people of Australia. They are considered a national treasure and among these photographs is the iconic photograph of dazed soldiers walking across the duckboards in the devastated Chateau Wood.


Chateau Wood - Australian Official Photograph
Chateau Wood. Australian Official Photograph Number E01220. It is listed as being taken by Frank Hurley at Chateau Wood on 29 October 1917, but Hurley was not there that day.


The Chateau Wood photograph is one of the most famous photographs of the Western Front in Australia. It has been used in many books, on posters, and even on jigsaw puzzles and biscuit tins. It has always been credited to James Francis (Frank) Hurley. But there is evidence he may not have taken the photograph. In fact, a century after Australia’s official collection of World War I photographs were taken, a mystery still surrounds who actually took them, and even today there are photographs credited as taken by Frank Hurley—even if Frank Hurley was not at the Western Front when they were taken.

To understand why this has happened, it is necessary to look at Australia’s official collection of World War I photographs and have an appreciation of how this remarkable collection came about.

Firstly, by the time the Anzacs arrived at the Western Front, after being evacuated from Gallipoli, cameras were banned by the British High Command. The Anzacs had been permitted to carry cameras when they landed at Gallipoli, because it was expected the war would be over in a short time, and soldiers were encouraged to take photographs to get pictures of the ‘great adventure’ they were embarking on. After the disaster of Gallipoli, and being evacuated during December 1915, the Anzacs arrived at the Western Front in 1916. By this time the war was bogged down in the trenches, and soldiers were dying in their thousands. The British High Command did not want people seeing the slaughter. Cameras were banned, and letters that soldiers wrote home were censored. A number of British official photographers were appointed to take propaganda photographs that could be published in the newspapers, and these always showed the war going well.

Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean, was desperate to get photographs of the Australians in action. He constantly asked to be assigned a dedicated photographer, but his requests were denied. He also complained the British photographers were not getting anywhere near the fighting, but instead were staying well back from the Front, and only taking propaganda photographs of the officers, or smiling soldiers.

Eventually Charles Bean was assigned a British photographer, Herbert Baldwin. Throughout the winter of 1916-17, when the mud made advances almost impossible and both sides settled down to wait for spring, Baldwin photographed the battlefields where the Australian had fought in 1916. But by spring 1917, when the fighting was about to resume, Baldwin was hospitalised with illness and died shortly after. Bean again began complaining that Australia was missing out on a photographic record of the war.

Meanwhile, during the winter of 1916-17, two Australian photographers had just returned from polar expeditions and were in London. Frank Hurley had returned from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, following an incredible journey of survival after the expedition ship, Endurance, had sunk in the Weddell Sea.

George Hubert Wilkins had returned after three years stranded in the Arctic on the Canadian Arctic Expedition, after the expedition ship, Karluk, had also been trapped in the ice and crushed. Hurley and Wilkins, as two Australian photographers recently back from polar expeditions, immediately became friends and spent time together in London, even visiting Katherine Scott, the widow of explorer Captain Robert Scott.

Hurley wanted to show his films and photographs from the Endurance expedition, but realised people didn’t want stories of tragedies, especially with the war going on. Instead, they wanted to see pictures of penguins. Hurley decided to return to South Georgia Island to film and photograph penguins and add them to his show. Meanwhile, Wilkins’ father had died while he was on the ice in the Arctic, so he decided to return to Australia and visit his mother and family. Both men left London at the end of January 1917, Hurley going to South Georgia, and Wilkins returning to Australia.

While he was in Australia, Wilkins enlisted in the Australia Flying Corps, so he could fight in the war as a pilot. He arrived back in London in August 1917, ready to travel to France and join the war.


George Hubert Wilkins and Frank Hurley
George Hubert Wilkins (left) and Frank Hurley. The pair took these photographs of each other, shortly after arriving at the Western Front.

Hurley also arrived back in London in August 1917, but his plan was to stage a show of his film and photographs of Shackleton’s expedition. Henry Smart, an Australian working at Australia House in London, knew of Charles Bean’s urgent need for a photographer, and met with Hurley. Smart recommended that Hurley could go to the Western Front and photograph the war. Hurley agreed on the condition he did not have to enlist, and that he would have ownership of the photographs he took. He hoped to photograph the fighting, then return to London and put on a show that would include both the war and the Antarctic. Smart agreed, and informed Charles Bean that he was sending a photographer to France.

Realising that Hurley would take photographs that were meant to be used in shows, and were more of the propaganda images taken by the British photographers, Bean said he wanted a photographer that was only interested in taking an actual physical record of the war. Bean did not want any embellishments or staged photographs. Keen to get across to France to get his pictures, Hurley pointed out that his friend, George Hubert Wilkins was also in London, about to go to France as a pilot. Henry Smart agreed that sending two photographers to Charles Bean would be a good idea, and Wilkins was informed that rather than being a pilot in the Australian Flying Corps, he was now attached to the Australian War Records Office as a photographer.

Hurley and Wilkins sailed to France together on 17 August 1917, and were met at Calais by Charles Bean.

For the next nine weeks, Hurley and Wilkins worked together. Very little has been known about this period and the relationship between the two photographers, except that they got along very well, and remained friends, corresponding for the rest of their lives.

In 2014, while researching George Hubert Wilkins in America, I found a collection of his material, stored in boxes in a barn in Michigan. (Wilkins moved permanently to America in 1939, purchasing a farm in Pennsylvania. He died in America in 1958.)


Jeff Maynard with some of the boxes of George Hubert Wilkins material that he found in a barn in Michigan in September 2014.
Jeff Maynard with some of the boxes of George Hubert Wilkins material that he found in a barn in Michigan in September 2014.

In the boxes were a number of items and documents relating to Wilkins’ time as an official photographer in World War I. Among some papers I found a letter the Wilkins had written to his mother on 30 August 1917. In the letter, Wilkins explains that he and Frank Hurley travel about together, taking the photographs required by Charles Bean.

Wilkins wrote: “With regard to our work Captain Hurley and I work together as much as possible, but occasionally we go on different jobs. My particular work for the time being is to take pictures of every place where the Australian soldiers have been fighting and this means a lot of travelling of course, particularly along the whole of the Western Front line.”

An important fact to remember here is that Charles Bean insisted on a complete and detailed photographic record of the war. As he wrote in his diary, he wanted a detailed record of every place where the Australians had fought. For this he insisted that both Wilkins and Hurley use large format, glass plate cameras. The majority of the approximately 4,000 glass plate negatives at the Australia War Memorial are either full plate or glass plate negatives. In one of the photographs of Wilkins is using a Thornton Pickard full plate camera.


George Hubert Wilkins (behind the camera) at the Western Front in 1918, using a Thornton Pickard ‘field camera.’
George Hubert Wilkins (behind the camera) at the Western Front in 1918, using a Thornton Pickard ‘field camera.’ He is assisted by Sergeant William Joyce.


It is important to realise that taking a photograph with one of these cameras is a two-person job. Not only is it necessary to carry the large camera, but it is also necessary to carry a heavy box of loaded ‘negative carriers.’ That is, each glass negative is individually loaded in a dark room into a large wooden negative carrier, then carried to the battlefield. If the photographer wanted to take twenty photographs that day, he needed to carry twenty loaded carriers. Additionally, because of slow exposure times, the camera needed to be mounted on a tripod.

It is also important to remember that at this time, Frank Hurley considered George Hubert Wilkins his assistant, because Hurley wanted to get photographs for a ‘show’ and after he had been appointed by Henry Smart, Hurley recommended Wilkins to assist him.

Hurley also believed that it was impossible to get good photographs for his show without combining negatives. Hurley wanted to make what he called ‘composites.’ He would photograph different scenes then, in the darkroom, make photographic prints from different negatives. In that way he could add explosions, or planes in the sky. Or he could put more trenches and artillery onto a battlefield, to make the scene more exciting.

Frank Hurley argued with Charles Bean continually about this. Bean claimed it was not showing a true representation of the war, and that it was deceiving and disrespectful to the people back in Australia, who would not see what the war was really like—especially because their sons were dying. Following their argument (because he had not enlisted) Hurley simply resigned. He would, he said, not take any more photographs and would return to England. In fact, Hurley complained to the head of the AIF, General Birdwood, who helped reach a compromise. Birdwood told Hurley he could take five composite photographs, as long as they were clearly marked as such, and that he continued to photograph the Anzacs. Hurley agreed to stay, at least until the fighting stopped for the winter.

There is a myth that Charles Bean and Hurley had their falling out, and remained bitter towards one another for the rest of their lives, because of their disagreement over Hurley making composite photographs—what Bean described as ‘fakes.’ That is not the reason they were hostile to one another. Bean disagreed with Hurley because Hurley believed the photographs that he took were his personal property. Hurley wanted to retain copyright over the photographs so he could stage his shows. Bean believed the photographs belonged to the people of Australia.


An often-published photograph from this period. Australian Official Photograph E00985. It is one of many often attributed to Hurley, but Wilkins initialled it as being taken by him.


Once the rain came to the Western Front in November, fighting was impossible. Both sides settled down for the winter and to wait for the spring. Knowing he could not get exciting photographs, Hurley left for Palestine, to photograph the Australians fighting in the desert. He never returned to the Western Front.

George Hubert Wilkins, on the other hand, stayed at the Western Front until the Armistice, and faithfully photographed the fighting as Charles Bean wanted.

In June 1918, Hurley returned to London, after photographing the fighting in the Middle East. He staged an enormous photographic display at Grafton Galleries in Mayfair. Hurley, by this stage was planning to exhibit the show in London for a few months, then take it to Australia. He was also aware that Bean was arguing that the photographs did not belong to Hurley, and that he should not be allowed to take them to Australia.

On 4 June 1918, Charles Bean and George Hubert Wilkins travelled from France to view the exhibition and Bean was furious, writing in his diary: “Our exhibition is easily the best, although there is too much Hurley in it. His name is on every picture, with few exceptions—even some that Wilkins took.”

Hurley was also furious, writing in his diary, “I am having a great fight to secure the pictures for Australia…I am so sick and fed up with the whole affair that I don’t care what happens.”

Following this argument, Hurley later destroyed pages from his diary, not wanting anyone to see the comments he had made about Bean. During this time, Hurley was ordered not to take the photographs to Australia. He wrote in his diary: “A deadlock has been arrived at, which excludes me from taking the exhibition of my own pictures [Hurley’s underline] to Australia. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no say whatsoever in what is to be done with my own negatives and results. The injustice done me has embittered me greatly against the AIF.”

Hurley returned to Australia, and continued to complain in the press that all the photographs were his property. Even the ones that had been taken by his assistant, George Hubert Wilkins.

At the same time, for the remainder of the war, Bean insisted that no official Australian photographer—whether it be Wilkins or the photographers he began to train in 1918—should ever receive credit, or have their name added to a photograph. The enormous collection of official photographs at the Australian War Memorial are usually credited as ‘Official Australian Photographer’.

Hurley continued to complain, and his name was added to some of the photographs, the problem being there is no way of telling whether or not he took them. But because Hurley continued to promote his work, years after the war had ended, often photographs are credited to him, even if he was not at the Western Front when a particular photograph was taken. Hurley simply became the default Anzac photographer at the Western Front.


A photograph that hung in the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, showing German prisoners surrendering during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.
A photograph that hung in the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, showing German prisoners surrendering during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. The caption attributes the photograph to Frank Hurley, even though he was back in Australia by August 1918.


I found further evidence that George Hubert Wilkins took many of the photographs still attributed to Frank Hurley among boxes of Wilkins’ material in America in 2014. Volume XII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 was published in 1923. That is the photographic volume, and when it was published Charles Bean sent George Hubert Wilkins a copy. Immediately he received it, Wilkins went through the volume writing his initials (GHW) under the photographs he took. (Wilkins was knighted for his flight across the Arctic Ocean in 1928 and chose to be known as Sir Hubert Wilkins. From then on he initialled things as SHW—Sir Hubert Wilkins. Therefore, GHW shows he recorded the photographs he took before 1928.)

George Hubert Wilkins’ personal copy of Volume XII of the Official History published in 1923.
George Hubert Wilkins’ personal copy of Volume XII of the Official History published in 1923. He initialled ‘GHW’ under the photographs he took.

Wilkins has initialled 178 photographs in his copy of the Official History, including photographs he took at Gallipoli with Charles Bean immediately after the Armistice. Many of the photographs that Wilkins recorded that he took are still attributed to Frank Hurley, both by the Australian War Memorial, and the many authors who write about the Anzacs at the Western Front.

Which brings us to the iconic photograph of the soldiers walking across the duckboards in Chateau Wood. That particular photograph does not appear in Volume XII, so there was no opportunity for Wilkins to either initial it or leave it blank. In the Australian War Memorial records, the photograph (E01220) is listed as having been taken on 29 October 1917, while Frank Hurley’s diary reveals he was not at Chateau Wood that day. Two days earlier, however, Hurley’s diary explains that he and Wilkins went together, along with Sergeant William Joyce, to take photographs of Chateau Wood. Either Wilkins or Hurley could have taken the famous photograph and Hurley simply put his name on it for the exhibition at Grafton Galleries.

That photograph, like many that were taken during the nine weeks that Hurley was at the Western Front, should be attributed to both men, or neither of them.


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