Finding a photo of your soldier ancestor may sound like an impossible task but you can certainly improve your chances of success. One thing is sure: our soldier ancestors were not shy of the camera. I can almost guarantee that at whatever point in time you may have happened upon this article, you will find on eBay, right at this moment, thousands of photographs of soldiers; cartes des visites, cabinet cards, postcards, Kodacolor prints, mounted photos, framed photos, the list goes on. Some of these photos may contain details of the subject matter: a name or a regiment, a regimental or army number, a location. More often than not though, there will be nothing; a photographer’s stamp or his address printed on the reverse, but no details about the subject matter. Occasionally there may be a hand-scrawled greeting: “Yours sincerely, Jack”, “To Flo, with best love from Bob”. If you’re sharp-eyed and knowledgeable you may be able to ascertain further detail from the man’s uniform.
Neither did our soldier ancestors have their photos taken for the benefit of the generations to come. That would have been the furthest thought from their minds. The vast majority of the photos were almost certainly taken as a souvenir for the soldier sitting before the camera, and particularly for those First World War and Second World War men who would never have dreamed of donning khaki had not their King and Country asked them to do so. For these men, sending home their likenesses to loved ones, there was no need then to write a name on the reverse. He knew who he was, so too did the recipient. Some men might write the date and location of the photo and then shove it in a jacket pocket or send it home to a loved one. In time, it might find its way into an old chocolate or biscuit tin, or perhaps be organised into a family album. Further years down the line, the owner now dead, it might find its way to a distant relative or perhaps be disposed of in a house clearance. That face, and that story, once known to many, suddenly becomes just another face; another anonymous soldier staring our from a sepia portrait, a suitably patriotic backdrop curtain or an aspidistra on a long-legged plant stand thrown in as studio props.
It will always be a nigh-on impossible task to identify men in such photos.
The good news is that there are also hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, of photos that are named and either languishing in private collections or in museums and archives. Thousands have already been published online – look at this British Army Ancestors website, for instance, with over 100,000 published photos – and more new photos are being published every day. How on earth do you find the photo that you want in all of those millions of photos?
Well one way is to check British Army Ancestors to see if a photo has already been published. That’s the reason I launched the website in the first place. But the other way is to get the photo to come to you. I learned long ago, when I published my research on the village of Chailey during the First World War that publishing text that search engines recognise can bring people to you.
This is why, last year, I launched the Find-a-Photo service on British Army Ancestors. The idea is simple. Place your wants on this page and let the search engines do the rest. To take that a step further I’ll even write a blog piece for you which will also draw people in. A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo-want for Harold Monkley Bygott and I followed this up with a blog post on my Army Ancestry Research blog. Type Harold Monkley Bygott or H M Bygott or Bygott Machine Gun Corps into Google today and immediately you are drawn to the Army Ancestry research blog post and the listing on the Find-a-Photo page.
So my advice would be, if you are serious about finding a photo of your British Army Ancestor, improve your chances by letting the search engines bring people to you. I have established a successful vehicle for this through this website – drop me a line if you’d like me to help: email@example.com