Capturing battles on camera

Peter Coppack will give a talk about Portugal's contribution to the war.
Peter Coppack will give a talk about Portugal's contribution to the war.

He took some of the most iconic and controversial photographs of the First World War.

He was a photographer in the Second World War and a cameraman on the expedition across the Antarctic in 1915 led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

He was, of course, the Australian photographer Frank Hurley.

The photograph he took of the army officer walking across the duckboards over a flooded crater with the stumps of heavily shelled trees in the background is one of the most recognisable images of the murderous and muddy push across the Ypres Salient in October and November 1917 that led to the capture of Passchendaele.

Two years before Hurley had joined Shackleton’s expedition to cross the South Pole, arguably the most inhospitable terrain in the world. It was to end in failure after their ship, Endurance, was trapped, crushed and sunk by the frozen ice flow.

Hurley captured the ship’s final moments as it slid to its cold, watery grave and gave the world an incredible insight into the hardships and danger experienced by the men.

Before the Endurance foundered Hurley went on board to rescue his rolls of precious film of their journey. Typical of the man, he went inside when the ship could have gone under at any moment.

He was a hard, often uncompromising man, who didn’t make friends easily, but who became a vital member of the team. He had a tempestuous relationship with Shackleton, but the latter made allowances for his behaviour because of Hurley’s importance to the expedition.

Amazingly, no members of the small band of adventurers succumbed to the conditions and they all arrived home safely, a tribute to Shackleton’s leadership. Interestingly, all those who had been on the expedition joined the services, and all bar one survived – surely a measure of their toughness and will to live.

Hurley jumped on board a ship bound for Europe to take photographs of the struggle for survival on the Western Front for the Australian War Department.

He arrived in time to document the Third Battle of Ypres in the most appalling of conditions in the rat-infested, slimy swamp that was the Ypres Salient. Looking at the images today, it is not hard to see that his sympathies clearly lay with the men who had to endure those wretched conditions.

Controversially, he spliced together separate images from different areas of battle to produce a composite depicting, for example, men going over the top at Ypres accompanied by the flimsy aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps.

Clearly this did happen, but unable to obtain an actual photograph, he cut a few corners in the dark room, for which he was heavily criticised. A look at his images show it was well worth the effort.

The Northumbria World War One Project is presenting another talk at the Low Lights on the Fish Quay on Tuesday, at 7.30pm, when Peter Coppack will talk about Portugal’s often forgotten contribution to the Allies’ war effort. All welcome.

If you have any information about casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside please contact or call into our office in the Linskill Centre, North Shields, open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm. You can also email