A new exhibition at Bristol Cathedral charts the First World War from the rare viewpoint of women who experienced the conflict first hand
In the final year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War, Bristol Cathedral has opened its largest ever exhibition as part of its remembrance events. No Man’s Land offers a rarely-seen female perspective on what took place, featuring images taken by women who worked as nurses, ambulance drivers and official photographers, as well as modern-day artists and soldiers directly inspired by the historic conflict.
Despite being unable to fight in the armed forces, many women volunteered to help the war effort by travelling overseas between 1914 and 1918, some working directly in war zones while coming under regular fire. Many would assume that the majority of the photographic evidence we have from the First World War was captured by male soldiers or photojournalists, however this exhibition demonstrates how women also recorded their wartime experiences – much of the time harrowing, but also capturing moments of hilarity in a time of sheer desperation and terror.
No Man’s Land’s highlights include some never-before-exhibited frontline images by nurses Mairi Chisholm and Florence Farmborough; photographs by Olive Edis, the UK’s first female official photographer sent to a war zone; and new work by contemporary photographer and former soldier Alison Baskerville.
Having been initially exhibited at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, Bristol Cathedral will be the only host in the South West for this travelling exhibition, open until 1 July 2018, before it moves to The Turnpike in Leigh and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. To coincide with this, the cathedral is offering people the chance to create their own picture postcards to send to their loved ones, inspired by those sent by people during the First World War. ‘From Bristol, With Love’ photo booths will be on College Green on 19 May, 10am – 2pm, and 31 May, 10am – noon, for people to make these personal postcards.
Here we take a closer look at some of the women behind the cameras and the photographs featured in the exhibition…
Main image Photograph by Alison Baskerville
Contemporary photographer Alison Baskerville is a former soldier and military photographer who served for 12 years with the RAF in various conflict zones such as Iraq. Her collection of imagery demonstrates an insider’s perspective on women’s experiences in the armed forces. In a new commission made specially for No Man’s Land, Baskerville has been directly inspired by war photographer Olive Edis to make a series of portraits of present-day women in the British Army. The roles of the subjects range from logistics to frontline combat medics to artillery gunners. Many of the images were made while Baskerville was based with the army in Afghanistan, sponsored by the Royal British Legion. She has produced a series of illuminated digital autochromes – a contemporary version of the early 20th-century colour process pioneered by Olive Edis – which make a striking counterpoint in the exhibition to Bristol Cathedral’s stained glass windows featuring war workers.Mairi Chisholm, Irene ‘Winkie’ Gartside-Spaight in No Man’s Land, c1916. Courtesy of National Library of Scotland
Above: Photograph by Mairi Chisholm
Unconventional motorcyclist-turned-ambulance driver Mairi Chisholm (1896–1981) was just 18 when she volunteered as a driver for The Flying Ambulance Corps with her friend Elsie Knocker. The two women set up their own independent first-aid post in the cellar of a bombed-out house in Pervyse, a village in West Flanders. Over the course of the war they ran several first-aid posts in abandoned buildings in the area. Using a snapshot camera, they recorded their intense life under fire, just yards from the trenches until 1918, when they returned home after being poisoned in a gas attack. Chisholm and Knocker became known as ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’ for their work, and were photographed by official photographers for national newspapers in Britain, France and Belgium. The images on display in the exhibition, drawn from Chisholm’s personal photo albums, record her exuberance and humour in the midst of great suffering. The image above shows Irene ‘Winkie’ Gartside-Spaight, who was a volunteer in The Flying Ambulance Corps, standing on top of a tank in no man’s land in 1916. The corps was established in August 1914 by Dr Hector Munro who advertised for ‘adventurous young women to equip an ambulance unit for service in Belgium’.
Miss Minns, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, matron of a hospital on the quay at Le Havre, France, 1919. Copyright: IWM (Q8051), by Olive Edis
Above: Photograph by Olive Edis
A pioneer of her day, Olive Edis (1876-1955) is thought to be one of the first female photographers to be sent into an area of conflict in the world. A successful businesswoman, inventor, and high-profile portraitist, Edis photographed all types of people from prime ministers to suffragettes. In 1918 she was commissioned by the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum to photograph the British Army’s auxiliary services in France and Flanders. Edis took her large studio camera on the road, often developing her photographic plates in makeshift darkrooms in hospital x-ray units. Her skilfully-composed images show the invaluable contributions of female engineers, telegraphists, commanders and surgeons at the time. Reflecting on her war photography, Edis said: “I felt very pleased that a woman should get that chance [to photograph] – it was hardly to be expected that they would allow a woman on the fighting line, but I had come in as soon as possible.”
Below: Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews
Shot at Dawn is a photography collection by contemporary artist Chloe Dewe Mathews focusing on the British, French and Belgian troops who were executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918, many of whom were suffering from mental illnesses caused by the horrors of trench warfare. Her large-scale colour photographs depict the sites where soldiers were shot or held in the period leading up to their execution. All are seasonally accurate and were taken as close as possible to the precise time of day at which the executions occurred, showing places forever altered by traumatic events. The image featured below shows the spot where Private Henry Hughes was shot dead in Belgiumin April 1918.Private Henry Hughes 05.50 / 10.4.1918, Klijtebeek stream, Dikkebus, leper, West-Vlaanderen
Below: Photograph by Florence Farmborough
Nurse and amateur photographer Florence Farmborough (1887-1978) documented her incredible experiences with the Russian Red Cross on the border of Galicia (present-day Ukraine and Poland). Florence was a governess to a Russian family before the conflict, but when war was declared she became a surgical nurse, working very close to the fighting on the Eastern Front. At a time when the British press avoided publishing explicit images, Farmborough photographed the horrific consequences of war, including corpses lying in battlefields. Her images of Cossack soldiers, makeshift field tents, and Christmas in an old dug-out, offer rarely-seen views of the Eastern Front before she fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and returned to the UK.Russian Cossack troops in winter uniforms outside their accommodation huts. Copyright IWM (Q98429), by Florence Farmborough
No Man’s Land is curated by Dr Pippa Oldfield and is a co-production by Impressions Gallery, The Turnpike, Bristol Cathedral and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. Supported using public money from National Lottery Arts Council England Strategic Touring. Admission is free, all welcome.