Found Photos

Found Photos: Rex’s War – A Hundred Years of Photography – By Graeme Tregay

January 10, 2021

I retired in 2012 and decided to turn up the wick on my lifelong interest in film photography.  I wanted something to do in the indoor winter months and started to scan my archive of slides. My first efforts were simply to safeguard slides that were starting to deteriorate but then I started to process some prints and negatives as well.

Echoes from 1917

During my scanning efforts I found an envelope of creased contact prints of photos taken by my Grandfather, Rex Cox, in the First World War. Although scanning them served the purpose of preservation it wasn’t possible to extract much detail. The back of some of the prints had notes showing names and descriptions and I mentioned this to my brother. He said he had a folder of the negatives with additional notes.

Scans of the negatives brought up a lot of extra detail and the notes gave the names of villages in Italy and Slovenia. I didn’t know much about the war in Italy and there wasn’t much information available about British involvement. However we did find out that in 1917 Britain sent a small number of heavy Howitzers to support Italy in the fight against the Austrians. Grandfather Rex had been a Sergeant in charge of one of these guns.

Rex’s War

Sgt Rex Cox and his Howitzer

The caption on this photo says it was taken by ‘an Italian soldier‘. I think this was the picture that hooked me on the quest to do some research. I had so many questions. Where was the photo taken? Why is he wearing two wristwatches? What kind of hat is that?

Front line photos are uncommon because soldiers were generally forbidden to possess cameras. The thinking seemed to be that photos of the awful carnage would not be good for morale back home. The small number of British troops in Italy were under Italian command where different rules applied and the happy result was that my brother and I inherited a folder of negatives and some prints.

Filling in the knowledge gap

Rex died when I was young and he had rarely spoken of the war.  His two younger brothers had been killed on the Western Front so maybe I thought it was a sensitive subject, I don’t recall.  Thanks to my incurious younger self I had very little information but the photos started something and I needed to know more. My brother and I decided to drive to Italy in 2017 to find out.

The Karst

We now know that Rex’s active service was in two distinct phases. The first was in the limestone Karst area in north east Italy and into modern day Slovenia. The photos show an open, almost barren, landscape but now trees and scrub cover the ground. The scenes Rex could see and photograph have changed a lot.

Through sheer blind luck we made contact with a local historical group who supplied us with some maps of the gun positions. It helped a lot to have exact locations and we found trenches, gun pits and command posts.  We could say with a high degree of confidence that we walking – within a yard or two – in Grandfather’s footsteps.

Italian map

 

Rex’s section was the 390th RGA (Royal Garrison Artillery). The maps supplied to us showed that the 390th were at one time close to the village of Doberdo where there was heavy fighting. The Italians held a hill to the east of Doberdo, Hill 144, which was  a particular hot spot and is now the site of memorials to those who fought and died.

Monument on Hill 141

Doberdo

The photo above shows the cemetery at Doberdo in 1917. Soldiers graves were moved to larger cemeteries at the end of the war and the chapel seen here is now a ruin.  The cross on top has fallen to the ground as shown in the photo below. The buildings on the hillside behind the graveyard are Italian barracks. No trace of these buildings now remains.

The Chapel at Doberdo

The image below shows three British Sergeants of 390th Royal Garrison Artillery and their Italian interpreter. Grandfather is the one in the steel helmet. Thick vegetation now covers the countryside so this patch of stony ground in some sense no longer exists. For me this is not just a picture, it’s a unique moment with a family link. A vest pocket camera tripped its shutter a century ago and in that instant captured a scene that is both mundane and magical.

The Piave front

In the Autumn of 1917 Rex’s section was, luckily for him, withdrawn for training in Egypt.  A few weeks later the Austrians, supported by German elite troops, broke through and pushed the Italians back to the Piave river. Rex returned to Italy in early 1918 but it was to new positions along the Piave.

A view from Walter OP

The photo above was taken from ‘Walter OP‘ and shows a faint but distinctive outline of a bell tower on the horizon.  We knew the location was on the bank of the Piave river and were able to identify the bell tower as the Castello San Salvatore.

A visit showed that the skyline remains unchanged although other aspects of the countryside are very different.  This area is now a housing estate. Sadly it was impossible to pick out an exact location of ‘Walter OP‘ or the gun pits.

6-inch Howitzers

People

The label on this photo is ‘Major Turnbull (?) with two Italian officers‘ and is one of many that show people. A name is just a name but a photo brings a person back to life. I think Major Turnbull looks a kindly fellow.

The image below shows Rex with his best friend Don in Egypt. There are a number of photos of Don and I now see him in full three dimensions with a personality, not just a name.

Resting and training in Egypt.

Here’s another one of Don larking about wearing a German helmet. He looks fun.

Isn’t photography brilliant?

These photographs are witnesses to people and events that would otherwise have evaporated into the ether, gone forever. Photographs can take us back in time and these simple snaps have a value to me that Rex could never have foreseen.

Isn’t photography brilliant?

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Gil Aegerter
    January 10, 2021 at 10:49 am

    What a wonderful historical record and remembrance! You inspire to look through my grandfather’s archives.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 10, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks Gil. I can only speak from my own experience and say the search for my Grandfather’s story was one of the most worthwhile efforts of my life.

  • Reply
    Axel
    January 10, 2021 at 10:53 am

    Thanks so much, Graeme! Photography is an amazing technique or tool to let history speak. And if there is a personal connection, photography can provide new, even unknown aspects to this connection. I have only one photo of my grandfather as a very young man, almost a boy, wearing a uniform. He was 18 maybe even younger at that time (about 1917 or 18). But I know nothing about his experiences in this war and the next. He died in the early 1960’s, a few years before I was born. I wish there would be some more photos.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 10, 2021 at 12:23 pm

      Axel, I was lucky enough to be accompanied in my research by my brother who is tenacious. I learned that you can uncover a great deal of information from the smallest clue. Many records from the Great War were destroyed in WWII but even a single photo can be enough to start unravelling your Grandfather’s story.

  • Reply
    Joris
    January 10, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    How wonderful, and how nice that you traveled after him! What size are the negatives, and do you know what camera he used?

  • Reply
    Bob janes
    January 10, 2021 at 3:40 pm

    My father’s suggestion regarding the ‘two watches’ question was that the right wrist might be showing his rank (ie not a watch at all), as the hot weather gear did not allow for it to be shown on the sleve.

    But there is a chance that it was as a ‘just in case’, if one watch malfunctioned. – you don’t want to start (or stop) you garage too soon or too late.

    Dad suggested he might possibly have been a battery stg major.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 10, 2021 at 6:05 pm

      Thank you for these thoughts. I don’t think he was a Battery Sgt Major although he had a commission in 1918. The ‘back-up’ watch idea was also my thought as the timing of barrages was vital.

  • Reply
    Michael Sebastian
    January 10, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    Graeme, thanks for sharing your story, and your grandfather’s photographs.

    I’m amazed at how well-preserved are the images. Do you have any idea what kind of film or paper they were made with? Especially since, if I recall correctly, films of that era were coated on nitrocellulose base material, which usually deteriorated pretty rapidly if not stored in ideal condition.

    Also I’d guess the images were some medium-format size?

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 10, 2021 at 6:01 pm

      As you might expect there was only space to share a broad outline of a three-year piece of research involving two trips to Italy and Slovenia but it was one of the most rewarding pieces of work in my life. The negatives appeared to be 127 size and I’m guessing they were taken with a Vest-pocket camera. The prints had the benefit of handwritten information on the reverse but it was the negatives, stored in a small folder, that gave the detail that enabled us to identify locations. The photo of my Grandfather on the transom of his gun was the odd one out in the collection because I only had a print and on the reverse it said it was taken by an Italian soldier. I’m guessing this was taken on a much larger format camera because there is so much more detail.

  • Reply
    Michael Sebastian
    January 10, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    Graeme, thanks for sharing your story, and your grandfather’s photographs.

    I’m amazed at how well-preserved are the images. Do you have any idea what kind of film or paper they were made with? Especially since, if I recall correctly, films of that era were coated on nitrocellulose base material, which usually deteriorated pretty rapidly if not stored in ideal condition.

    Also I’d guess the images were some medium-format size?
    sharing.
    Thanks again for

  • Reply
    Bill
    January 10, 2021 at 6:26 pm

    Graeme, what a wonderful gift you have in those photos and thanks for sharing your story. I am an image restoration specialist and seeing the joy that is brought back to individuals and families through old photos only reinforces my belief in the “FORCE” of a photograph. Being able to see loved ones long since gone is truly powerful. As my own and extended family archivist I have been honored to scan, print and restore prized photographic possessions. These artifacts are not to be taken lightly in todays throw away and transient mentality. One of my clients has a saying for their photo and restoration business ” Someday it will be good to remember”. Find a qualified restoration specialist and have several images brought back to a new life. Seeing an image in an undamaged condition can be a profound experience. My best to you as you continue your search for links to your past.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 10, 2021 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks Bill. Film negatives have a very special quality for me as they were ‘at the scene’ and, in my case, were handled a century ago by my Grandfather. Digital photos just don’t have that magic.

      • Reply
        Bill
        January 10, 2021 at 8:16 pm

        That hard copy part of film is one of the main reasons I’m still shooting film after 50+ years. Any partial fingerprints of your grandfather on the film edges? I don’t want my daughter to have to face perpetual migration of files to the newest readable(if possible) format. Scan the negative in whatever means available in the future and go from there. I’m also working hard to give her a collection of archival pigment and silver gelatin prints. Like you my daughter will know that her dad personally handled the film and the prints. I also write all pertinent info on the back of the print as that will give one more form of connection from me to her or someone else in the future. I even write a short story on the back of special prints.

  • Reply
    Kevin
    January 10, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    These found photo articles are the best articles. Especially when they are from a family archive and names, relationships and stories are at least partially understood.

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    January 11, 2021 at 3:29 am

    Thank you for sharing your family’s story. I’ve read an article in the Smithsonian Magazine describing the fighting that took place in the area your granddad served. The conditions were bordering on the inhumane.
    On a different note, why are the men wearing the distinctive Australian hats? Was your grandfather serving in an Australian unit attached to the British Army? Just curious.

    • Reply
      Graeme Tregay
      January 11, 2021 at 6:09 am

      Hugh Dalton, who was later to become a government minister, wrote a short book about his experience in Italy which strongly mirrored my Grandfather’s. Dalton was a lieutenant in charge of one of the other 3-gun batteries and his book was very helpful to us in understanding what life was life for a British gunner. Although fighting in the mountains was tough I think artillery men had it easier. The hat seems to have been regular dress in the early stages of British presence with no link, that I can ascertain, to Australian uniform.

  • Reply
    Simon
    January 12, 2021 at 1:11 am

    Great read Graeme, thanks. The hat you refer to is a slouch hat – it’s primarily associated with Australian forces but others also. Here’s a few notes – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slouch_hat. Best, SimonC

  • Reply
    Matt
    January 15, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    Love these shots and the background story! I live there, and I can confirm that the landscape have changed a lot in a century, even the morphology of the territory is not the same (roads that no more exists, rivers that have changed path, even the mountains have not the same shape after two wars) so it’s very difficult if not impossible to find the exact shot locations, but seems that you have done an amazing work!

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