Captain Byrde: Photographs from the Front Line

A fascinating collection of Word War One photographs held by the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh in Brecon is to be uploaded to the archive. Captain E H Byrde, of the 2nd Battalion Monmouthshire Regiment, flouted strict army guidelines and risked serious punishment when he took his camera to the front line, but the resulting photos provide a unique and important glimpse of life in the trenches.

Byrde took the photos at Le Bizet, a hamlet on the France-Belgium border, in April 1915, shortly before the second Battle of Ypres. Despite the constant danger and hardship experienced by the soldiers, the photographs capture a fairly relaxed atmosphere of men talking, joking, and eating while surrounded by the desolation of the trenches and bombed out buildings. One of Byrde’s most daring photographs is of No Man’s Land, which he shot blind by lifting his camera above the parapet of the trench. Another photograph shows a dummy face held by soldiers above the parapet in order to draw the fire of German snipers.

The story behind the development of the photographs is equally fascinating. In May of 1915, Byrde was injured and invalided out of the army, losing most of his belongings, including his camera, in the process. Fortunately, he had already sent the roll of film home to his wife, where it then sat forgotten in a drawer in the family home for over 60 years. In 1977, the negatives were discovered by one of Byrde’s grandsons and sent to The Sunday Times to be developed. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Byrde recalled his experiences of trench warfare, including the use of poison gas by the Germans. He remembered that 800 flannel body belts were sent to his battalion by ladies from Pontypool and that each man was ordered to carry one of these belts at all times to cover their mouth and nose in the event of a gas attack.

The photographs are also deeply poignant. The battalion lost almost half of its men in the second battle of Ypres, and Byrde noted that "it is likely that a number of the men in these pictures had not long to live". These photographs will make a valuable contribution to the archive and provide a first-hand visual record of the conditions experienced by Welsh soldiers on the Western Front.