They peer out anxiously from behind dusty glass. Young, fresh-faced Australians, keen to do their part for King and country, knowing full well that they may never return. By Damian Madden.
Antique shops all over Australia are full of photos or portraits of our First World War Diggers. Whether they are a dog-eared postcard or a large portrait surrounded by an ornate frame, these pictures once took pride of place in the hearts and homes of families all around the country. They were a daily reminder of the son, brother, husband or father who was off on the other side of the world, “doing their bit.”
Given the special sentimental value these pictures must have once held, it seems a shame that so many of them are now just nameless photos, destined to be sold off for a few quid amongst a bunch of assorted postcards or simply for their frames. But it needn’t be that way. For armchair detectives across the country, there are sometimes clues enabling us to unlock the secrets of these mystery men and help pay tribute to the sacrifices made by them and their families.
The value of this type of photo can vary considerably; from a few dollars all the way through to a couple of hundred dollars for the larger framed examples in glass. The price is often dependent on the frame itself, or the clarity and/or appeal of the photo. Of course, knowing the identity of the man in the photo can affect the value quite significantly, especially if he was a decorated or well-known soldier, but this article is about more than just adding value to an old photo. It is about paying homage to these brave men, and ensuring that once their identity is discovered, they are not forgotten again.
Identifying the soldiers can be quite tricky (and sometimes impossible), but there are a few clues that can help.
Look for a name
It sounds obvious, but sometimes the soldier’s name or service number can be written on the back of the frame. Failing that, you may - especially in the case of postcards - be able to find a note or signature that can often provide clues as to the soldier’s identity.
If the person isn’t named, the next step is to look at the uniform. Is he wearing the plumage of a Light Horseman, or the bandolier of an artillery driver? Does he have the collar or hat badges of a militia regiment (i.e. not the rising sun)? Is he wearing medal ribbons that identify him as having served in earlier wars, or having received decorations for bravery? While often not enough to identify a soldier outright, these little clues can certainly help narrow your search.
One of the key ways to help identify a soldier using his uniform is by looking for colour patches on the sleeve. These were worn by soldiers to help identify the battalion to which they belonged. While colour patches can be tricky to make out in black and white photos, their shape and shading usually allows you to narrow it down to one or two battalions.
Once you have these clues available, you can begin looking through the Australian War Memorial website, or that of the National Archive, to try and put the pieces together and get a name. If you are able to identify the man as belonging to a particular battalion or militia unit, then unit histories can often be a great source of further information.
There are also websites such as www.wewillrememberthem.com.au that are dedicated to identifying unknown Australian soldiers. People use these sites to share the photos they are researching, so that others can help identify their mystery men.
While many of these clues may not provide you with an exact identity, they can sometimes allow you to work out details of a soldier’s life or where he came from – and for a brief moment bring the nameless young Australian back to life.
This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit www.acpp.com.au.