Rule-breaking photos offer a candid look at the First World War

Article / August 9, 2017 / Project number: 17-0052

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Note: to view additional photos, click the photo under Image Gallery.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island — Discipline is fundamental to every military force, but one soldier who broke the rules did historians a great favour when he smuggled a camera to the front and captured an unfiltered, soldier’s-eye view of the conflict.

Brenton Harold ‘Jack’ Turner was already an avid photography enthusiast when he enlisted with the Prince Edward Island Regiment’s 2nd Siege Battery in 1915. That enthusiasm did not waver when Private Turner shipped off to the frontlines of the First World War. It was so strong, in fact, that he risked disciplinary action by surreptitiously bringing a camera with him.

Mr. Turner survived the war and came home with a trove of remarkable images that he would later donate to Prince Edward Island’s provincial archives and The PEI Regimental Museum in Charlottetown. The PEI Regimental Museum, along with fellow members of the PEI Museums Association, recently produced an exhibition introducing Islanders and visitors to Mr. Turner’s work, entitled Snapshots of Armageddon: Jack Turner and the Great War.

The photos have appeared at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum in Charlottetown and the Eptek Art and Culture Centre in Summerside. The PEI Regimental Museum provided additional artifacts, including a First World War artillery tunic, to round out the display.

Captain Greg Gallant, curator of the PEI Regimental Museum, said there is a candidness to the images that offers a more realistic look at life in the trenches than officially sanctioned photos would have.

“One of them, there’s a group of guys from PEI and they’re sitting around a trench picking lice off of their uniforms,” he said. “He took pictures of them moving the guns through the mud, emphasis on the mud and how hard it would have been to reposition these siege batteries. I mean, these guns were big and they not only had to move the guns but everything that went with them. You look at some of the photos and think, my God, it must’ve been really difficult to get them into position, especially with all that mud.”

Smuggling a camera across the Atlantic was one thing (a feat Mr. Turner achieved by adding a secret extra pocket to his uniform sleeve) but ensuring a steady supply of film required a lot of help from home.

“Any time he would get care packages from home, his mother would send him rolls of film in a tube of toothpaste,” Capt Gallant explained. “I did meet him in person before he died and I remember from an interview we did with his daughter that a senior officer had said, ‘My God, Turner, your mother sends you a lot of toothpaste.’”

One of Capt Gallant’s personal favourites in the collection poignantly depicts Mr. Turner himself, sitting with a comrade reading news from home.

“You can actually see that it’s the Island Patriot, a newspaper that existed here up until about 12 years ago. They’re both guys from PEI and they must have got mail call that day and got some newspapers and took the time out to read them.”

Mr. Turner was also a restless experimenter, Capt Gallant explained, who colourized many of the images – no small feat in the pre-digital 1920s – and created three-dimensional composites.

“He would take two or three photos of one thing and then basically cut out the images and then he would glue them on top of another photo,” he said of the latter works. “And they’re really neat.”

The PEI Regimental Museum has also assembled a more general exhibit entitled PEI in the Great War. It was designed to travel and Capt Gallant has been going with it to schools, cadet meetings, and community events on the Island. It will be making a stop at PEI’s Provincial Heritage Fair in May.

The artifacts on display include a disarmed First World War grenade and another artifact that Capt Gallant said is particularly fascinating to younger audiences he has presented them to.

“We’ve got a Thomas Edison World War One record player, dated 1913, U.S. Army/Navy model with the instruction sheet,” he said. “Local service organizations raised the money and presented it to the regiment. They used it to play patriotic songs and church music when they’d have their big church service.”

“Kids today have no idea,” he added with a laugh. “They look at it and say, ‘What is that?’ I say, ‘It’s a CD player.’ It’s so huge.”

The exhibit also shines a light on individual Islanders of note. Among them are Georgina Fane Pope, the first permanent nurse in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and Rena McLean, another nurse who was among the casualties when a German submarine torpedoed the Llandovery Castle, a British hospital ship, in 1918.

Capt Gallant said telling stories of their fellow Islanders puts the First World War into sharper focus for his younger audiences.

“When the kids come in to see the exhibit and when I do the heritage fair and the high school tours and the cadet tours, I show them that these are people from here. That’s why I think this exhibit is so important.”

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