Frank Hurley's World War I photography

Alison Wishart
Frank Hurley's photographs of the western front in 1917 and the Middle East in 1918 are arresting and iconic.

From Antarctica to Flanders

Frank Hurley arrived in Flanders (in Belgium) on 23rd August 1917. By then the Allies were into the third year of a war that Hurley had feared he would miss, as he was in Antarctica taking photographs on Ernest Shackleton’s expedition when the war commenced.

He took up his post as an official photographer with the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on the eve of the Third Battle of Ypres (unofficially known as the Battle of Passchendaele). This would be one of the bloodiest campaigns on the western front.

As the war dragged on, and Australians voted again on compulsory conscription in December 1917, the army’s relationship with the media and photography shifted. Earlier in the war, particularly at Gallipoli in 1915, no official photographer was appointed to the AIF, as military commanders did not think it was necessary. When the AIF’s first Official Photographer, British officer Lieutenant Henry Baldwin, became ill in July 1917, he was replaced by Hurley and an assistant – Hubert Wilkins, of the Australian Flying Corps – such was the army’s need to provide some images of heroism in the face of adversity. The need for secrecy around military strategy and bases was still paramount, but this was coupled with the desperate need for some photographs that would boost morale at home. The role of AIF official photographers was to take photographs for the press and propaganda purposes, but also to provide an official record of the war. Charles Bean, the AIF’s official war correspondent believed photographs were ‘sacred records’ that would allow ‘future generations to see forever the plain, simple truth’. His view of what constituted ‘truth’ in photography differed from Frank Hurley’s and would soon lead to conflict. 

A windy outpost on Westhoeck Ridge, 1917. Photograph by Frank Hurley.
A windy outpost on Westhoek Ridge, 1917. Photographer: Frank Hurley.