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A recommended book: The Unseen Anzac

January 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I've just finished the book, The Unseen Anzac by Jeff Maynard, and whether you're interested in photography, military history or war photography, this is a fascinating read. The book tells the story of George Hubert Wilkins, explorer, aviator and photographer.  Captain George Hubert Wilkins, MC,  with Staff Sergeant William Joyce, standing with tripod and camera on a British Mark V tank , as the pair record the advance of Australian troops through the Hindenburg Line.Australian Official Photographer, Captain George Hubert Wilkins, MC, (right) with Staff Sergeant William Joyce (left), standing with tripod and camera on a British Mark V tank , as the pair record theAustralian Official Photographer, Captain George Hubert Wilkins, MC, (right) with Staff Sergeant William Joyce (left), standing with tripod and camera on a British Mark V tank , as the pair record the advance of Australian troops through the Hindenburg Line.

If I may be forgiven this rather lengthy summary from the book's blurb:

Cameras were banned at the Western Front when the Anzacs arrived in 1916. Only official photographers were permitted to take propaganda pictures. Fearing the Anzacs would be ignored, correspondent Charles Bean continually argued for Australia to have a dedicated photographer. He was eventually assigned an enigmatic polar explorer — George Hubert Wilkins. 

Within weeks of arriving at the front, Wilkins’ exploits were 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 twice awarded the Military Cross — all while he refused to carry a gun and only armed himself with a bulky glass-plate camera. 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. 

After the war Wilkins returned to exploring and, during the next forty years, his life became shrouded in secrecy. His work at the Western Front was forgotten and others claimed credit for his photographs.

Throughout his life Wilkins wrote detailed diaries and letters, but when he died in 1958 these documents were locked away. Jeff Maynard follows a trail of myth and misinformation to locate Wilkins’ lost records and reveal the remarkable true story of Australia’s greatest war photographer. 

I admit that I knew nothing of Wilkins until I heard  about Maynard's book, and I'm grateful to him for raising this extraordinary man's profile, as well as the vast amount of research which must have undertaken to produce the book. Even with this biography, it's frustrating how much we don't know about Wilkins. In fact, it's a classic "we don't know what we don't know" situation. Hopefully this book will flush out more material and maybe at some time, there will be a second edition.

There is one area in which I'd possibly disagree with Maynard: whether Wilkins was, as asserted by the author Australia's greatest war photographer. While what he produced was exceptional and beyond price as a record of World War I and Australians in that conflict in particular, I personally place Damien Parer at the very pinnacle of war photographers. (At the end of the day, this is just my opinion and many may disagree with me.)

Interestingly, Parer seems to have shared with Wilkins extreme modesty, the best manifestation of high moral standards and exceptional physical courage.

Not for the first time, I'm inclined to think that if Wilkins wasn't an Aussie, he would be world-famous. Maybe Jeff Maynard's book will remedy this.

Shane Baker


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