Barking veteran’s First World War photos reveal life behind the frontline

PUBLISHED: 14:28 28 February 2018 | UPDATED: 14:28 28 February 2018

Troops' library, 1917. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army Museum

Troops' library, 1917. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army Museum

Samuel Pye/National Army Museum

A rare collection of photos from a Barking veteran reveal what life was like when all fell quiet on the Western Front.

Sergeant Samuel Pye, 1900. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army MuseumSergeant Samuel Pye, 1900. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army Museum

Troops line up for library books and stage plays amid the horrors of the First World War in pictures by Battery Quartermaster Sgt Samuel Pye.

Pye, who began his military career with the 1st Essex Royal Garrison Artillery Volunteers in Barking, captured troops relaxing behind the lines.

A typical infantry soldier only served in the trenches for about a third of his time overseas.

Concerts, canteens, social clubs and many other facilities were set up to help soldiers relax when off duty; some run by the Army, others by volunteers.

'Arabian Nights', featuring Lieutenant E. Knight as Mrs Hummingtop, 1918. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army Museum'Arabian Nights', featuring Lieutenant E. Knight as Mrs Hummingtop, 1918. Picture: Samuel Pye/National Army Museum

Units also organised their own entertainment – as was the case with Pye’s corps.

He and his fellow gunners on the 59th Divisional Ammunition Column Royal Field Artillery fought in the Third Battle of Ypres and at Cambrai, suffering heavy losses during the German Spring Offensive of 1918.

Pye survived the bloodshed and stayed with the division until his discharge after the war.

His photos, on display a century after the brutal conflict that left millions dead, show troops trying to break the monotony of army life, keep busy off duty and distract themselves from the surrounding carnage.

Here, daily life was not “all work and no play”, said Dr Matthew Thomas of the National Army Museum, who have archived the photos online.

“They capture a common aspect of a soldier’s life that is largely unknown or forgotten.”

Military theatre provided a popular pastime for enlisted men, allowing them to air grievances about food, conditions and senior officers.

But assembling a cast was a constant problem because of the movements of units or cast members being killed or wounded in action.

The list of actors and staff photographed in Pye’s album continuously change over the three-month period it covers.

Some soldier-made shows became so successful that they left the front to entertain audiences at home. The Dumbells of the Canadian Army even managed a West End run.

While few were lucky enough to be released from their units and work full time in theatre, performers helped bring together officers and men who often had little else in common.

This, they hoped, would make soldiers ready to serve the same cause.

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