Photographing the Fallen

A War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915-1919

By Jeremy Gordon-Smith

Pen & Sword, 2017

Nearly a century on from the end of the First World War fresh perspectives are still coming to light. However few can claim to be as unique as this account of the war service of Ivan Bawtree. He did not serve with the fighting arms of the services, but rather worked as a photographer with the Graves Registration Units on the western front due to his pre-war profession as a photographer. His work essentially involved travelling across the battlefields taking photographs of soldiers’ graves to send back to the families.

Bawtree left a number of records of his service including diaries, letters, and a photographic archive now stored with the Imperial War Museum. Photographing the Fallen sees Bawtree’s great nephew Jeremy Gordon-Smith bring together these records, and he intertwines his narrative around the photos, telling Ivan’s story as well as exploring the work of the Graves Registration Units and the birth and infant days of the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The diary entries are factual and to the point, mainly recording Ivan’s movements and activities, such as the cemeteries he visited and the number of graves he photographed, with some references to the events of the war such as the Battle of Messines. The diaries provide an insight into the work of the Graves Registration Units as well as the trials and tribulations that Ivan faced in carrying out his work; being often close to the front line he was never far from danger.

Ivan continued to serve after the end of the war and his work also provides a fascinating photographic record of the post-war reconstruction particularly of Ypres. Naturally Ivan’s photographs feature heavily in the book, with many ‘then and now’ photos from Gordon-Smith’s efforts to pinpoint the locations featured. The pictures of the individual graves, coupled with Gordon-Smith’s research into the soldiers, are particularly poignant.

The ‘Bawtree collection’ is available to view online via the Imperial War Museum’s website and is well worth taking a look at; Photographing the Fallen provides an excellent context to these pictures and provides a valuable insight into the little-explored work of the Graves Registration Units.

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Photographing the Fallen: A War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915 1919