If the sustained upturn in Allied fortunes occurring during the ‘100 Days’ of offensive operations on the Western Front after the Battle of Amiens could be expressed visually, no better image might perhaps be found than 2nd Lieutenant David McClellan’s study of 137th Infantry Brigade at Riqueval Bridge, near Bellenglise, north of St Quentin.The photograph is as familiar as it is impressive. Taken on the wet morning of Wednesday 2 October 1918, it shows serried ranks of mud-stained infantry, misaligned precariously upon the steep (and no doubt slippy) embankment of the St Quentin Canal as they are addressed by their Commander, Brigadier-General John Vaughan Campbell VC. The victors are recorded at the precise location of their spectacular triumph, three days previously, when on the early morning of Sunday 29 September, leading the 46th(North Midland) Division’s attack, they captured, intact, the Riqueval Bridge, crossed the St Quentin Canal and pierced the supposedly impregnable German defensive system known as the Hindenburg Line . The faces of hundreds of temporary warriors, citizen soldiers, gaze at the camera; some figures are still bearing specialist equipment associated with deep, wet-ditch assault crossings – life-belts, draw lines, Lewis guns; inevitably, soldiers being soldiers (however temporary), enemy ‘souvenirs’ are displayed enthusiastically.
McClellanin his role as on Official British photographer took at least nine separate studies at the bridge or in nearby Bellenglise that morning. These included shots of the canal area (showing surviving footbridges) and the infantrymen assembling (or dispersing) for the photo shoot. Other photographs show 137th Brigade Staff and Band in Bellenglise and British forces symbolically passing across the bridge, and advancing eastwards in the direction of a now retreating enemy.
But, having captured these images McClellan’s working day, it would appear, was just beginning. If the IWM records are correct, that same Wednesday he somehow contrived a difficult trip to Abbeville, over 80 miles (c. 138 kilometres) distant from Riqueval Bridge, over roads choked with advancing Allied forces and vehicles – there to record other, contrasting, images of the consequences of victorious Allied progress: German prisoners assembled in a vast Clearance Depot, in the town. He took at least seven photographs here – three of which were awe-inspiring studies of the prisoners ‘en masse’; impossibly large and densely packed crowds of a now powerless enemy, taken from a high angle above his subjects. He also took at least four separate ‘portrait’ photos of individual German prisoners reminiscent in their searching detail of the type of photographic propaganda records produced by the Germans in relation to their equally large bag of Allied prisoners in the wake of the dramatic initial successes of the March 1918 (‘Spring’) Offensive.
The photographer and his pictures
The impressive power of the Riqeuval and Abbeville images owes much to the creative genius and technical skill of McClellan as a photographer. His achievements are made all the more remarkable when we consider the equipment available to him: 5 x 4 glass plates, by modern standards not overly sensitive to light, which would have needed a ‘longish’ exposure, depending on the brightness of the day; anything from half to one or two seconds requiring his subjects to be very still to avoid movement or blurring (particularly of the face). The heavy wooden camera, glass plates and metal and wood tripod had then all to be wrestled to the photographer’s chosen viewpoint.And in this regard McClellan displayed a particular knack, clearly evident during the Allied advance during autumn 1918, of selecting locations and suitable vantage points from which he could convey the epic scale of military operations and colossal numbers of troops involved. In the process he created visual records hugely supportive of propaganda activities of the Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Information. At the same time, his vast group studies (and individual portraits) were essentially humane and their production, to a degree, acknowledged the public’s appetite for viewing ‘crowd scenes’ – the popularity of which had been rapidly appreciated by moving film makers well before 1914. McClellan’s studies of 137th Brigade in particular replicated, in stills photography, a by now well established component of the popular local ‘cinema picture’, which quite deliberately included portraits of individuals whose likenesses could or might be recognised.
The photograph of the Stafford Brigade at Riqueval Bridge, chock full of detail (Campbell’s hunting horn, tucked into his tunic, may be discerned by careful use of a magnifying glass) celebrates a vitally important military success and directly acknowledges the work of the ordinary soldiers who took part in the action. The view from the bridge is, from the Allied perspective wholly positive, and the fog and smoke (which so valuably aided the attackers on the morning of the 29 September) have now cleared to reveal a vision of a war that may well indeed be nearing its end. The Staffords at Riqueval and the German prisoners at Abbeville, as depicted on 2 October 1918, shared, for that day at least, the same status as ‘survivors’. A temporary status that would be fatally compromised, for some, through their involvement in the final actions of the October and November fighting, and the unavoidable and indiscriminate fatalities associated with active service – accidents and illness, the latter represented in its most virulent form by the resurgence of the deadly ‘Spanish influenza’ pandemic.
- The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume VI (‘The AIF in France: May 1918 – The Armistice’), C E W Bean, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1942
- Military Operation, France and Belgium, 1918 (Volume V), compiled by Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds and Lieutenant-Colonel R Maxwell-Hyslop, London, HMSO, 1947
- First World War Photographers, Jane Carmichael, Routledge, 1989
- Mud, Blood and Determination. The History of the 46th(North Midland) Division in the Great War, Simon Peaple, Helion & Company Limited, 2015
—- NOTES ———-
Weather conditions confirmed by War Diary of 6/North Staffordshire Regiment, WO95/2685/2
For a A G Shennan’s very personal account of this action see IWM ref Documents.10376: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030010218
McClellan, formerly a photographer for the Daily Mirror, took up his duties as an official photographer on the Western Front in December 1917. See Carmichael, pp. 65-66
See IWM Photo Archive refs: Q 9509-Q 9512, Q 9522, Q 9534-Q 9535, Q 9537-Q 9538
IWM Photo Archive refs Q 9353-Q 9359
My thanks to Gordon McLeod, IWM Senior Photographer, for his insights here.
For an in-depth study of the ‘recognition factor’, see ‘Watch the picture carefully and see if you can identify anyone’: recognition in factual film of the First World War period’, Roger Smither, Film History: An International Journal, 14: 3/4 (2002)