Researching FWW through personal objects: photographs

A way in to researching many individuals who saw service between 1914 and 1920, is through a photograph. Many hundreds thousands of photographs were taken during the war years and immediately after, and in many cases these still exist.

There are a multitude of reasons where, when and why a particular photograph was taken. Many individuals had their photo taken before they went overseas, others when they had time off from the frontline, others when they were convalescing in hospital. Some photographs were taken after an investiture, where an individual had been decorated by the King.

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ may mean that an image can be used to convey a complex idea. In the context of First World War images, if you can unlock the information relating to the unit that an individual served in and the date, further research may result in thousand words of narrative relating to what that individual did.

In the absence of being able to ask the sitter to turn to face the camera or lean in so that you can read a particular part of a uniform or headwear, interpreting First World War photographs do present some challenges. There are however, some points which if you can unlock them, may lead to ‘a thousand words’. There are a number of points relating to the style of the uniform and what colour it appears to be (even in black and white image!) Are there badges anywhere on the uniform, are there any medal ribbons, belts or bandoliers? Or are there other indications such as a board with a notice or information written in chalk?

The types of badges you may see could be cap badges, shoulder titles, collar badges (sometimes called collar dogs). Most of these badges will be made of metal. Some badges seen on either forearm or just below the shoulder (including ranks badges) were usually made of fabric.

The photograph in this blog post is quite useful inasmuch as there is a visible cap badge and the individual has shoulder titles.

A photo of a man who served in the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

Image courtesy of William Spencer.

The cap badge is for the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The regiment as a whole included the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Garrison Artillery. So the addition of the shoulder titles in the photograph helps you to identify the sitter as a member of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

What is not visible unless you inspect the original photograph very carefully is the photographer’s stamp in the bottom right hand corner. Always inspect the whole photograph for clues, not just the image of the sitter.

There are numerous books to help you decipher First World War period photographs. I use Identifying your World War 1 soldier from badges and photographs by Iain Swinnerton (FFHS 2006) and Military photographs and how to date them by Neil Storey (Countryside Books 2009).

If you visit The National Archives to research someone from the First World War and you have a photograph of them, you may wish to bring a copy with you, as it may help you to get your ‘thousand words’.


  1. Dt Tony Wakeford says:

    Yes indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words. There must be hundreds of thousands of photographs tucked away in what I call A2 archives (or attic archives) in storage boxes, cardboard boxes, albums, suitcases, stored haphazardly and no acid free packing to be found anywhere – just a thick layer of protective dust! There is a rich treasure trove waiting to emerge from the domestic setting of cupboards and attics and some of it already has.
    I nearly fell off my chair when I recently discovered a military group photograph on ebay that included my grandfather – an end of course photograph of a School of Musketry training course with instructors and a group of soldiers from the Civil Service Rifles (London Regiment, 15th Bttn I think). My grandfather was a Company-Sergeant Major Instructor in the School of Musketry.
    Of course few pictures have any clues written on the back; a failing for most who took pictures and never recorded the ‘who, what or where’ – very frustrating for later generations! For obvious reasons some photos have rather oblique annotations – ‘somewhere in France’ was a caption on one photograph I saw recently.
    Fortunately, even without dates, names or places recorded, the uniform and insignia can help to reveal a lot of precious information. Photographs can certainly help to unlock the past and reveal some surprises too.

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