New Soldiers solve Old Problems
Last Thursday the Photograph Section was given the opportunity to host two recently returned veterans of the war in Afghanistan, as part of an ongoing Soldiers in Residence program. The program is designed to familiarize soldiers with the work of the Memorial, at the same time exposing Memorial staff to aspects of ADF culture and practices that might enhance staff’s understanding of the modern Defence members’ experiences in war and other operations.
I showed one of the soldiers, Lance Corporal James Baker, a First World War photograph for which I was currently writing a caption; one which had some interesting uniform details, not often encountered. After I had finished explaining the uniform research I’d been doing, he remarked that he had a suggestion regarding uniform details in another photograph, the one used as the hero image to the Anzac Voices exhibition he had visited earlier in the day. This particular image (E00030) is one which has caused a lot of discussion (and the odd public enquiry) over the last year since the exhibition opened, because the soldier appears to be wearing his hat with the brim turned up on the wrong side. A common assumption is that the image has been printed back-to-front, however a check on the original glass plate negative has confirmed the correct orientation and therefore given rise to speculation as to why he might have his hat on this way around. This was the question that LCpl Baker had a suggestion regarding; one that was based from his personal experience.
Of all the uniform items that were used by Australian troops in the First World War, the slouch hat has become an icon and continues to be used to this day. Its one drawback is that the brim, when turned up on the side, doesn’t keep the sun off the face and out of one’s eyes when the sun is low in the sky. The solution found by serving soldiers today, as LCpl Baker told me, is to turn the hat around, far quicker than fiddling with the clip that holds the upturned brim in place. A simple solution, when you think of it…
A quick check back at the photograph to look at the shadows confirmed that the late-autumn sun was indeed low, very low in the sky. So low in fact that even reversed the hat was not properly shading the soldier’s eye.
The next day I did some more research into slouch hats. The army website was full of information, including reference to a famous First World War general who was wearing his hat reversed when he was killed. Importantly, the information confirmed the behaviour LCpl Baker had described to me.
We will never know what was in that soldier’s mind as he sat there in the last light of day 98 years ago- we don’t even know his name- but through the experiences of men like Baker, serving in the front-line today, we have an inkling of some of what makes him tick. He remains a stranger, but thanks to Baker’s contribution, we can find a connection to him though his predictable behaviour, an insight which somehow brings him just a little bit closer…