Re­mark­able scrap­book im­ages re­veal re­al­ity of life on front line

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - News - CLAIRE HAYHURST news@west­erndai­ly­

AREMARKABLE set of pho­to­graphs taken by a First World War hero have been re­vealed for the first time – 104 years af­ter he brought his cam­era to the bat­tle­fields of Ypres.

Cap­tain Robert Ben­nett, known as Bob, used his Vest Pocket Ko­dak to doc­u­ment life on the front line from Oc­to­ber 1914 to Jan­uary 1915.

He em­barked for France at the very be­gin­ning of the con­flict aged 25, serv­ing as a ma­chine gun­ner in 1st Bat­tal­ion, the Som­er­set Light In­fantry.

Capt Ben­nett pho­tographed the muddy, snowy and flooded fields en­dured by sol­diers, as well as his fel­low men build­ing for­ti­fi­ca­tions and us­ing anti-air­craft guns.

His cam­era, nick­named the Sol­dier’s Ko­dak, cap­tured im­ages of Capt Ben­nett with com­rades as well as at his bat­tal­ion’s makeshift head- quar­ters in Ploeg­steert Wood.

One poignant im­age de­picts the grave of Capt Charles Carus Maud, a friend of Capt Ben­nett who was killed while fight­ing on De­cem­ber 19 1914. Capt Maud’s body lay be­tween the trenches un­til Christ­mas Day when Ger­man and British of­fi­cers agreed they could re­trieve their dead.

Pho­to­graphs of his fi­nal rest­ing place – now part of a Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery – are cap­tioned “Maud’s Grave” in Capt Ben­nett’s scrap­book.

The scrap­book, along with Capt Ben­nett’s cam­era, were found by his fam­ily in the at­tic of his home in Ot­ter­ton, Devon, decades af­ter the war. His son, Tony Ben­nett, 82, who him­self served as a lieu­tenant colo- nel in the Som­er­set Light In­fantry, said: “He went right at the be­gin­ning of war and he brought his cam­era with him.

“It was a Vest Pocket Ko­dak, quite a few of them were taken out by peo­ple in the Army. There are about 30 pic­tures or so in the scrap­book.

“He never talked about the war. I have so many ques­tions I would like to have asked him.

“I don’t think I knew about the pho­to­graphs be­fore he died.”

Capt Ben­nett was com­mis­sioned into the Army in 1908 and joined the Som­er­set Light In­fantry at Crown­hill, Ply­mouth.

By 1914, he was serv­ing as a ma­chine gun­ner in the 1st Bat­tal­ion and left for France on Au­gust 22.

He fought in the Bat­tle of Mons and took up po­si­tion in Ploeg­steert Wood – known as Plugstreet Wood – in Oc­to­ber, where he was ap­pointed ad­ju­tant.

It was there that his friend Capt Maud, 39, was killed. Capt Maud’s body - along with 20 oth­ers – was re­cov­ered and buried on Christ­mas Day.

Ger­man sol­diers handed Capt Maud’s body to his com­rades, telling them he was a “very brave man”, war di­aries show.

The bat­tal­ion’s war di­ary de­tailed the Christ­mas truce.

“A truce was mu­tu­ally ar­ranged by the men in the trenches,” it read.

“Dur­ing the morn­ing Of­fi­cers met the Ger­man Of­fi­cers half way be­tween the trenches and it was ar­ranged that we should bring in our dead who were ly­ing be­tween the trenches.”

It con­tin­ued: “Not a shot or a shell was fired by ei­ther side in our neigh­bour­hood; and both sides walked about out­side their trenches quite un­con­cernedly.”

Capt Ben­nett re­mained in Ploeg­steert Wood un­til Jan­uary 1915 and fought in the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres

He never talked about the war. I have so many ques­tions I would like to have asked him


in April that year.

“He was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross in June 1915 and was given four days to get back to Buck­ing­ham Palace,” Mr Ben­nett said.

“He was later in­valided back. We don’t know ex­actly why – it may have been shell shock, I know he was gassed.”

Capt Ben­nett was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and twice men­tioned in Des­patches.

In 1917, he re­turned to the front line and be­came the brigade ma­jor of 57 Brigade the fol­low­ing year.

Af­ter the war, he con­tin­ued to serve with the Som­er­set Light In­fantry, re­tir­ing in 1937.

Two years later, he joined the Royal Air Force and was men­tioned in Des­patches in 1942 for his work in Bomber Com­mand, where he was pro­moted to squadron leader.

He fi­nally re­tired in 1947 and lived in the Devon vil­lage of Ot­ter­ton un­til his death in 1970 at the age of 81. His wife, Mar­ion Ben­nett – known as Mol­lie - died in 1982.

Af­ter their deaths, Mr Ben­nett and his wife Jane in­her­ited their house. Their seven grand­chil­dren have all been shown their great-grand­fa­ther’s scrap­book and told of his ser­vice.

Ear­lier this year, Mr Ben­nett was one of thou­sands who took part in the Royal British Le­gion’s Great Pil­grim­age.

This recre­ated a march 10 years af­ter the First World War, in which 11,000 veter­ans and war wid­ows vis­ited the bat­tle­fields of the Somme and Ypres be­fore march­ing to the Menin Gate.

“We should con­tinue to re­mem­ber be­cause so many peo­ple gave their lives,” Mr Ben­nett said.

“When you go around the bat­tle­fields, one’s mind baf­fles to see what the sol­diers had to en­dure. They did that for our coun­try.”

Ca­r­ole Arnold, the Le­gion’s com- mu­nity fundraiser for Devon, said: “The pho­to­graphs pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into what life in the trenches was like and the con­di­tions the sol­diers en­dured in the early days of the war. We all have a con­nec­tion to the First World War and it’s amaz­ing that links be­tween the past and present such as this are still be­ing dis­cov­ered.”

The char­ity is ask­ing the na­tion to say thank you to the First World War gen­er­a­tion.

Cap­tain Robert Ben­nett, who pho­tographed life on the front line; above right, sol­diers with an an­ti­air­craft gun; below right, Cap­tain Ben­nett with friends in Ploeg­steert Wood; far right, head­quar­ters mess staff

Above, an al­bum con­tain­ing pho­to­graphs taken by Cap­tain Robert Ben­nett; right, Tony Ben­nett holds his fa­ther’s com­pact Vest Pocket Ko­dak cam­era, also known as the VPK or ‘Sol­dier’s Ko­dak’

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