The Unseen Anzac
How an enigmatic polar explorer created Australia’s World War I photographs
By Jeff Maynard
Published by Scribe Publications
RRP $39.99 in hardback, 296 pages
Frank Hurley is a name that will be familiar to many readers of this blog but what about George Hubert Wilkins?
Historian Jeff Maynard has pieced together the fascinating and little known story of Wilkins, who, along with Frank Hurley, was assigned as a photographer to Charles Bean on the Western Front in 1917. It was Hurley who complained that he could not get close enough to the fighting and produced, instead, staged pictures, before repeated arguments with Bean, saw him return to Palestine to photograph the fighting there, leaving Wilkins as the sole photographer to record Australia’s Western Front participation.
Like Hurley, he was also a polar explorer but perhaps that’s where the similarity between the two men ended.
Within weeks of arriving at the front, Wilkins’ exploits became legendary. He did what no photographer had previously dared to do. He went ‘over the top’ with the troops and ran forward to photograph the actual fighting. He led soldiers into battle, captured German prisoners, was wounded repeatedly, and was twice awarded the Military Cross — all while he refused to carry a gun and armed himself only with a bulky glass-plate camera.
It’s hard to imagine now, but this how Wilkins himself summarised the situation:
The fighting thereabouts was pretty hot. During a burst of enemy machine-gun fire a man on one side of me was riddled with bullets. The man on the other side received one bullet. It killed him outright. Six bullets scored my chest, two went through my right arm and one clipped the tip of my chin. Still I was able to carry on. I had to abandon my camera and help stop a bomb attack. Later it seemed necessary to get a picture of the enemy trench. I recovered my camera – one that needed a tripod, especially as the light was bad, but before I could get the picture the tripod legs were shot away. I set the camera on my knee and the enemy, I believe, seeing me make the second attempt did not then try to shoot me. In fact they shouted and waved to me as I slithered back to my own trench.
Wilkins ultimately produced the most detailed and accurate collection of World War I photographs in the world, which is now held at the Australian War Memorial.
Interestingly the author contends that a number of the photographs routinely attributed to Hurley were actually taken by Wilkins, after examining Wilkins’ personal copy of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Volume XII, Photographic Record of the War, which he had annotated.
After the war, Wilkins returned to exploring, his work at the Western Front largely forgotten. Throughout his life, Wilkins wrote detailed diaries and letters, but when he died in 1958 these documents were locked away. In the end his estate, inherited by his estranged wife, passed to her former lover, and thence to his family, who had little appreciation of the value of the Wilkins archive stored haphazardly in a barn. This too is an intriguing story.
Jeff Maynard managed to locate what remained of the previously lost records allowing him to reveal the remarkable, true story of arguably Australia’s greatest war photographer.
In this video, author Jeff Maynard introduces the book, link here:
You can also check out the author at this link:
This is an interesting book with a good collection of photographs in the centre pages, some from World War I, including the iconic Chateau Wood photograph, which Maynard contends was taken by Wilkins, not Hurley as has always been assumed.