Through a Soldier’s Lens, Part 4: Images from the Front

Through a Soldier's Lens: Jack Speed's WWI Photography is currently on exhibit in the Filson’s Nash gallery. The exhibit is open through July 27, 2018 and showcases the photographs of Jack Speed, a young soldier from Louisville, Kentucky who served in World War I. In this final installment of a four-part series, we look at photographs Jack took near the front lines of the war.

In 1917 when the U.S. entered the war, Jack was finishing his course of studies at Purdue University.  His prior service with the Indiana National Guard gave him valuable military experience; he was among the first soldiers sent abroad to fight in the war.  Jack was an officer in the 150th Field Artillery Regiment, also known as the “Rainbow Division.” Since the United States entered the war when it was nearing its end, many Americans who served never experienced combat.  Jack’s regiment, however, saw action in France at some of the most lethal battles in which American soldiers fought: Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Jack used a camera (most likely a Vest Pocket Kodak: https://filsonhistorical.org/through-a-soldiers-lens-part-3-vest-pocket-kodak/) to capture several hundred images during his time in France.  However, he did not take many photographs on the battlefield.  The reason why is unclear, but I think that Jack probably viewed photography as a leisure pursuit only – not something that he should do while on duty in the trenches.  The following images are among the few that show Jack’s experiences near the front lines.

Destruction at Fère-en-Tardenois, France, ca. 1918. [Speed family photograph collection, 007PC28.0123]

The tranquility of this rural field of flowers is disturbed by the artillery guns and equipment of Jack Speed’s regiment during the Château Thierry drive, France, July 1918. [Speed family photograph collection, 007PC28.0126]

A soldier stands by a trench near the Champagne Front before a German attack. France, July 1918. [Speed family photograph collection, 007PC28.0118]

One hundred years later, the battlefields of World War I are no longer photographed by soldiers, but instead by legions of tourists.  My husband and I joined their number during a recent trip to Belgium.  Like France, where Jack took his photographs, Belgium also had areas of intense fighting during the war.  After staying in Bruges for several days (sampling delectable chocolates and local beer, and soaking in the ambiance!), we scheduled our tour of Flanders Fields.  This area near Ypres, Belgium saw some of the most intense fighting during the war.  The town of Ypres itself was completely leveled by the war's end and later rebuilt by resilient locals.  A bustling town today, every building dates from 1918 or later.

Our tour took us through the fields of Flanders to a number of cemeteries and monuments that dot the landscape.  The scale of death and destruction was mind-boggling.  We visited cemeteries with row upon row of headstones, many of which marked the grave of a soldier whose name was no longer known.  Many other soldiers disappeared in Flanders’ battlefields, their bodies never found.  The names of these men adorned the walls of cemetery memorials, and the massive Menin Gate in the town of Ypres.

My husband was the photographer for our trip.  He shot over 1,000 images during our travels, including many of our Flanders Fields tour.  I’m going to share a few of our best here:

A British bunker on Hill 60, Belgium. [Image courtesy of Jeff Meyer]

Only a few of the many names that adorn the walls of the Menin Gate, a monument honoring Allied soldiers who died in Flanders Fields and whose bodies were never found. [Image courtesy of Jeff Meyer]

The Iron Harvest. Farmers who plow fields in Flanders routinely turn up World War I ordnance to this day. [Image courtesy of Jeff Meyer]

In comparing these images, I find that Jack’s photographs only give us a very small glimpse of his wartime experiences, and one lacking in scale and magnitude.  In contrast, many of the places we visited during our trip to Belgium were difficult to comprehend because we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of names, each representing a person affected by the war.  Both sets of images are important: Jack’s because they provide a personal look at one soldier’s experiences, and ours because they remind us of the way war forever alters lives.

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

Leave Comment