Finding photographs of your British Army Ancestor

Posted on: 1, January, 2019
Radley College prefects photographs 1906

What are the chances of finding photographs of your British Army Ancestors? 

One thing is certain, our military ancestors weren’t shy of the camera. Since photography was invented in 1839 soldiers have posed in front of a camera in their millions. At the time of writing, a casual trawl on the UK version of eBay reveals over 39,000 postcards for sale from the First World War, the majority of these posed in studios or taken whilst on active service. However, filter that search to include the word “named” or “name” and the results reduce to less than a hundred.

And therein lies the historic problem with photographs: the vast majority of them are unnamed; taken at the time either for reasons of personal vanity on the part of the sitter/s or to send to a family member or loved one who knew exactly who the sender was. Why then bother to scrawl a name on that photo unless to say, “Best love, Bert” or some similar untraceable sentiment?

Nevertheless, the odds of locating a photo for your British Army Ancestors are certainly improved for some categories of men – and it’s mostly men we’re talking about here – and after giving this subject some thought, here’s my take on the matter.

Dead officer photographs

Many officers will have attended public schools or universities prior to enlistment; they may also have served in a branch of the OTC and so photos might have been taken of them during these stages of their life. Their death in action might have occasioned an obituary and photograph in a local newspaper, or later in a published roll of honour such as Bond of Sacrifice, De Ruvigny’s or a school or university roll. For these reasons, you probably stand a greater chance of finding a photograph of a deceased officer than any other category of British Army Ancestor.

Officer photographs generally

For the same reasons as stated above, officers are more likely to have had their photographs taken and to have appeared in named rolls than other categories of soldier. For examples of this, see the photographic archives maintained by Radley College (see photo on this post) and Harrow School, amongst others. Many of those pupils photographed as prefects or in cricketing elevens or rowing eights would have gone on to serve as commissioned officers in one or more of the services.

Photographs of deceased other ranks

Certain newspapers published during the First World War routinely published photos of soldiers who had lost their lives for King and Country. Portraits of deceased soldiers also feature in many published rolls such as De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, the British Jewry Book of Honour and numerous trade and city or county rolls of Honour.

Regimental photographs

I am thinking here of books like The Manchester City Battalions Book of Honour and the hard-to-find roll of honour of the Salford battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers by Sir Montague Barlow. These books published named photos of original battalion members although it is not usually possible to identify who’s who. I own medals to a Manchester Pal who was killed in action on the 1st July 1916. I know the photo he appears in is in my copy of the Manchester City Battalions book, but I don’t know which of the men he is.

Photographs and portraits in newspapers

Some newspapers also published photos of men who had been wounded or taken prisoner, or who had sent photos back of themselves in France. If you know where your ancestor lived during the time he was in the army, it is certainly worth checking local newspapers.

Photographs on eBay, Delcampe and online auctioneers

It costs nothing to register search terms on online auctioneers’ websites and doing so will alert you to potential successes. Patience is all that is required.

And remember, with so much new material being published online every day, your chances of success, although remote for the most part, are only going to improve over time. Console yourself with this. Your chances of success today are better than they were yesterday – and tomorrow they’ll be even better still.

Happy New Year!

Paul Nixon, 1st January 2019


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