Commons:British Library/Girdwood

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Girdwood's early propaganda images; wounded Indian soldiers listening to a piper outside a hospital in Brighton (Photo 24-21)

This page outlines some information about the "Girdwood Collection" - a series of photographs depicting the Indian Army in the First World War, held by the British Library as Photo(24) and digitised as part of the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 program. They were uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in May 2013.

The collection is now available here.

For more details about the British Library's work with Wikimedia, see Commons:British Library.



Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood (usually signing as H.D. Girdwood) was born in 1878, the son of a Baptist minister in Ontario. He later moved to the United States, where he studied at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He appears to have begun selling photographs on commission whilst an undergraduate; after graduation, he studied at the University of London and intended to return to America to teach political science, but abandoned this plan in favour of continuing with his photographic business.[1]

When interviewed by W.T. Stead about his photographic business in 1902, he reported that he was making around £40-50 a month through selling Underwood stereographs. His early clients included royalty, and he focused heavily on professional and society clients as sales targets, to great success. He himself travelled to Delhi to take photographs of the Delhi Durbar of 1903, returning to India for the royal tour of 1905-06 as well as the Delhi Durbar of 1911. He specialised in stereoscopic photography, and in 1908 founded his own agency - Realistic Travels - to distribute the photographs; at its peak, Girdwood claimed to be earning over £2,000 a year.[2]

On the outbreak of war in 1914, Girdwood was in India, and attached himself to the expeditionary force the Indian Army was forming for service in France. He was barred from following them into the front lines in France, and travelled to the United Kingdom. In early 1915 he photographed the aftermath of air-raids, and in April was given permission by the India Office to film and photograph at the Indian military hospitals in Bournemouth and Brighton, which he made available for propaganda purposes.[3]

Girdwood in France

Probably an authentic image; Territorials of the Seaforth Highlanders in a trench, 5 August (Photo_24-248)

The India Office was initially keen to support Girdwood's desire to work near the front lines, but this was blocked by the War Office; Girdwood himself approached both Sir James Willcocks, commander of the Indian Corps, and Lt.Col. Stuart, the senior press officer of the British Expeditionary Force, to try to gain permission. Eventually, in late May, the War Office allowed a trip expected to last "ten days to a fortnight";[4] Girdwood responded by purchasing a substantial amount of equipment and supplies, and a schedule was prepared by the Indian Corps. He was allowed a uniform and titled as an "official photographer"; the title would persist for several years, despite the India Office's later efforts to disassociate itself from him.

Girdwood arrived in France on 22 July, and over the next four days photographed various units in the rear areas. A flat ban from Haig, commander of First Army, meant that they were not allowed to go near the front lines or photograph any British troops, which Girdwood resented. On 29 July, he was allowed to film his first "fake" event, a staged trench attack by the 1st Gurkha Rifles (see, e.g., Photo(24)/164). On 31 July, he was finally allowed to visit the front lines, alongside a visit by General Willcocks, and continued working in the area for several days.[5]

In early August it was announced that a new War Office sponsored scheme (the "Topical Sub-Committee of the Kinematograph Manufacturers Association") would be taking over filming in France, with access to the front lines, from early September. Girdwood moved to get what film he could while he still had a monopoly, and after some pressure was allowed a session on 6 September with the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment, who were resting after a tour in the trenches. Here, the battalion was placed at his disposal, constructing elaborate trench positions which they could be filmed attacking. To add authenticity, several men were given German uniforms and others portrayed corpses. This was Girdwood's last major project, and he left for London a few days later.[6] His departure closely coincides with that of Willcocks, who was removed from command on 3 September; it is unclear if this played any part in the timing. (Girdwood was seen at the time to be strongly supported by Willcocks, who argued for his access to the front lines and allowed his use of resting units for propaganda; given this, it is interesting to note that he is not mentioned anywhere in With the Indians in France.)

After France

A later commercially-sold stereograph produced by Girdwood; held by the Library of Congress as LC-USZ62-104154 and attributed as [American?] troops attacking a bunker. Almost certainly posed.

Girdwood's focus in 1915-16 was getting the film material to cinemas as quickly as possible, with less attention paid to the still images. On his return from France in September, and after clearance by the military censors, Girdwood began hastily editing his film footage, aware that the commercial value was likely to be limited once the Topical Committee material was released. Less than half of it was usable, but even this would have provided eight films worth made about £4,000 on the domestic market. However, getting it to cinemas was blocked by a complicated legal dispute with the War Office and India Office over copyright - whether it rested with Girdwood or the Government, whether it had been produced under license, and whether Girdwood should be compensated for its value.[7]

Alongside these problems, in late October the Topical Committee arrangement was announced; they would be given a monopoly on selling war footage to cinemas within the UK, but prohibited from marketing in the secondary markets of India and Egypt, which would be left to Girdwood. To worsen the blow, by late November it became apparent that the Topical Committee crew had effectively re-shot many of Girdwood's scenes in higher quality, ruining any residual commercial value even if he had been allowed to distribute them. The Topical footage was released in the UK in early 1916, while Girdwood's film was still tangled in arguments about ownership; eventually he gained permission to use his films in a lecture tour, under strict restrictions, and was unable to sell prints of the footage anywhere outside India.[8]

The resulting film - With the Empire's Fighters - finally was shown to the public for the first time on 11 September 1916. It was, however, competing with Topical's feature-length The Battle of the Somme, released on 21 August and containing a substantial amount of authentic and graphic front-line footage. Meanwhile, an American producer had been given the rights to distribute propaganda films in India, pre-empting Girdwood's market there. Girdwood took his single print of With the Empire's Fighters on a lecture tour of the provinces, where audiences may have been less cynical than those in London. The tour stretched on for some time; he claimed to have shown it over a thousand times by mid-1918, destroying his health and running deeply into debt in the process. In June 1918 he took the print and his lecture to the United States, where he toured for a further year.[9] While there, he registered for a US draft board; his occupation was given as "Propaganda Work [for the] India Office".[10] After the United States he moved to India, where the film was still being shown as late as mid-1920.[11]

It was not the only film he produced in this period; the BBFC records a rejected cut of a film called The Wrecked Zeppelin, turned down by the censors in October 1916. It is not clear where this footage was obtained from.[12] Girdwood mostly disappears from the historical record after 1921, though Realistic Pictures continued to produce and sell stereographs of the war for some years. In 1939, living in London, he reappeared to offer his service as a propagandist to the India Office, who looked through the files and politely turned him down.[13] He died aged 86 in 1964, in Michigan.[14]

Faked and posed images

"Rushing a position"; a posed photograph of 2nd Leicesters on 6 September

A substantial number of Girdwood's photographs and films were deliberately staged to represent combat, and were distributed as though they had been taken in the front lines. At the time, this was relatively uncontentious; it was not until later in the war that the use of staged photographs was considered unacceptable by audiences.[15] The material was distributed without any reference to its origins, and was still being presented as authentic footage in Girdwood's later lectures and the post-war Realistic Travels sets.

However, the collection does include some front-line photography (it is unclear if he made cine film in the trenches). Using his itinerary, reconstructed from Hiley, it is possible to identify some general groups of photographs in this collection which can be classified one way or another:

  • 22-28 July - Girdwood was restricted to rear areas
  • 29 July - photographed a staged "attack" by 1/1st Gurkhas in rear areas
  • 31 July (and possibly up to 9 August) - tour of the front lines; probably authentic
  • 6 September - elaborately staged "attack" with 2nd Leicesters

It may be possible to obtain more detailed results by comparing the dates and units with battalion war diaries. However, the dates recorded may be not be accurate on a day-by-day basis; some images appear to have dates a few days later than those given in Hiley, but it is very hard to be precise.

The collection

An oddity; a New Army battalion, not attached to the Indian Corps, photographed by Girdwood in August (Photo 24-253)

The digitised collection is made from the images in Photo(24) at the British Library, obtained from the India Office Library when it was dissolved in the 1980s. The collection is of around 350 images, all taken in 1915; the two main groups are of wounded Indian soldiers in Brighton and Bournemouth (all with typed captions), undated but probably taken in April-May 1915, and then a series from France showing Indian and British troops, mostly dated 23 July - 8 September, with a short break in mid-August. The collection was donated by J.W. Hose, a senior official at the India Office, in 1922.

There are also a small number of post-air-raid photographs from England, presumably taken in early 1915, and two of Kitchener's recruiting speech at the Guildhall in early July. The main collection contains a large number of duplicates (often three or four prints of the same negative, with slightly different colours) or near-duplicates, of frames taken a short time apart. All are conventional photographs; there are no stereo images, and none appear to have been obviously altered - as opposed to posed or misleadingly described, which is discussed above. A series of contact prints were not digitised.

Most show units of the Indian Corps - infantry of the Lahore and Meerut Divisions, and cavalry of the 1st and 2nd Indian Cavalry Divisions. This included a number of regular British units, which were mixed with Indian forces, as well as some Territorial Army reinforcements assigned to join them. A number of unnamed artillery, medical, and support units are shown, and there are four photographs of New Army units of 19th and 20th Divisions, apparently in transit through the Indian Corps area.

A smaller collection is held in Photo(21), an album captioned as the "India Office Official Record of the Great War"; its provenance is unclear, but it may have been given by Girdwood. The photographer is given as Girdwood in all cases, but in some cases (e.g. Photo 21/(31), of Gallipoli) they are likely to have been taken by another photographer. Many of these are duplicated in Photo(24), but the volume also contains some other images from later in the war. A number of the images are available from British Library Images Online. A handful can be found on Commons here.

The Library does not hold any of Girdwood's cine film or, apparently, any sets of the "Realistic Travels" stereographs; however, several of the commercial stereographs appear to have been photographed during his time in France, and in some cases may be almost identical to these images.[16] Trent University in Canada holds a series of Realistic Travels stereographs; the titles strongly suggst they match Girdwood's "official" images.[17]


  1. Mazzarella; Plunkett
  2. Plunkett
  3. Hiley; Mazzarella
  4. Hiley, p. 132
  5. Hiley
  6. Hiley
  7. Hilton; Mazzarella
  8. Hilton; Mazzarella
  9. Hilton; Mazzarella
  10. Ancestry record
  11. Mazzarella
  12. BBFC
  13. Mazzarella; Girdwood
  14. Social Security Death Index; SSN 124-28-4519
  15. Mazzarella
  16. See, eg, Hiley p. 136 for an example
  17. Trent University Archives: 80-008: Realistic Travels fonds - 1914-1918 - 100 stereographs.