Haunting images of soldiers who went into hell

Vicky Siviter with one of the old photographs. Picture by Simon Hulme
Vicky Siviter with one of the old photographs. Picture by Simon Hulme
Have your say

They had their photographs taken before they trooped off to war. They did not know that soon, only the pictures would be left.

The hope in the faces of those of Doncaster’s finest, who signed up to do their bit for king and country a century ago, tells a story of innocence lost, of an age before hope gave way to horror.

Restored from glass plates and mounted in a museum, they are as alive as when Luke Bagshaw’s exploding flash powder committed them to celluloid.

He was the professional photographer whose town centre studio in St Sepulchre Gate was where those who could afford to, went to create keepsakes for their families.

The shop closed in the 1960s, but, perhaps sensing their significance, he had indexed his pictures for future historians. Some 14,000 of them – 1,000 from the First World War – have now been catalogued, and this weekend, as the world prepares to mark the centenary of the armistice, some of them will go on display.

They are a window on a lost world, in which being seen in uniform was a badge of honour, no matter how young or old you were.

But they also betray the changing mood of the town as the fighting dragged on and families began to mourn those they had lost.

“Many of the photos were taken in 1914 and 1915 and the soldiers who posed for them wouldn’t have known what conditions they were going into,” said Vicky Siviter, digital project officer for the Doncaster 1914-18 project, which is behind the exhibition at Cusworth House, a restored Georgian country residence on the edge of Doncaster.

“We had only just emerged from the era when soldiers charged into battle on horseback and when war was still seen as glamorous. Trench warfare was still new.

“But the pictures from later in the war show a different side. There’s a couple of families posing with soldiers, where someone is holding a portrait of a soldier who’s been killed.

“Another shows a lady with a necklace on a locket that she’s left open as if she wants to get her husband or whoever it is into the photo.”

It had been a heartbreaking process sifting through the old pictures and attempting to piece together some of the stories that lay behind them, Ms Siviter said.

“They would have been valuable heirlooms and priceless memories for the families left behind.

“A lot of the time, this would have been their only opportunity to have had that kind of photo taken and they would have been really treasured by the family members, especially when a soldier didn’t return.

“Many of Bagshaw’s pictures are still in circulation in Doncaster. People have kept copies of them and they’re quite common in homes.”

Those who posed for pictures were not only the soldiers themselves but also their parents, children and, in some cases, even pets.

One picture shows an old man, indexed only as Mr D Haley, pulling a “gurning” expression of the sort popular at the time. Another shows a little boy in an officer’s uniform and a third, two women hired to drive Doncaster’s trams while the men were at war.

Among the stories of those who did not return is that of Private John Glasbey, seen with his wife, Mabel, and their daughter. They had married in 1911 and he died at Passchendaele, six years later.

Carol Hall, a volunteer with the archive project, said: “It’s not just the quantity, but the quality of the photographs that’s so extraordinary.

“In these pictures are local people, and you can almost see their faces out and about around Doncaster today. I don’t want them to be forgotten.

“These are people who could have lived in your house, or walked down your street. Look what they did – what a difference they made to our lives today.”