View of the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall. In the foreground a Lewis gun section is moving up to the forward area.
Image: James Francis (Frank) Hurley
Source: Australian Official Photograph, Australian War Memorial
Question: I have what seems to be an original photo probably from WWI. It’s a fantastic shot of a completely bombed out city, probably in Europe, with soldiers passing through shot. The photo is approximately 14x11 inches, in a frame and has a stamp on the back ‘Melbourne War Museum, Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne’. I would like to find out more information about this photo. Could you help me?
Answer: This image was taken during World War I by famous Australian photographer Frank Hurley on 23 October 1917 in Ypres (Ieper), Belgium. It shows the ruins of the 13th-century Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) and St Martin’s Cathedral. Ypres was one of the first cities to be invaded by Germany and remained on the frontline for the duration of the war and the city was almost completely destroyed during this period. Soon after the war, reconstruction began on Ypres and, today, the historic buildings seen in the image have been completely rebuilt.
Hurley, who had already documented Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Antarctic expedition, was an official photographer working for the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). This section was set up in 1916 to document the war and collect trophies, including arms, flags, uniforms and other relics, which could be brought back to Australia for display in a proposed Australian War Museum. By the end of the war, the ARWS had collected some 25,000 objects and over 20,000 images.
The stamp on the reverse of this print makes this an interesting photo from Museum Victoria’s perspective as the first Australian War Museum was located in the Exhibition Buildings in Carlton Gardens. On 20 August 1921 the museum’s first exhibition opened. Exhibition of Enlargements, Official War Photographs displayed a selection of the 20,000 images in the AWRS collection, many of which were taken by Frank Hurley: ‘Graphic images of total war would become a common sight later in the twentieth century, but in 1921 they were a revelation.’ (Victorian Icon, p.331) Over 80,000 Melburnians visited the exhibition during its five week run.
Visitors could buy a descriptive catalogue of the images, which ‘represent[ed] every phase of life with the A.I.F. in France and Palestine’. They could also purchase mounted 14x11" enlargements of the photographs for 12s 6d and have them framed for an additional charge. The stamp on the back of this image indicates that it was one of these exhibition images available for sale and bought during this period.
The Australian War Museum moved to Sydney in 1925, where it remained for ten years before being relocated to Canberra. Its collection is now housed in the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra, which opened to the public in 1941. The AWM still holds an extensive collection of AWRS images, including the original glass plate negative of this photograph.