Author Topic: Inventories of war: British soldiers’ kit from 1066 through to 2014  (Read 1448 times)

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On a winter’s day in 1915 the family of one Captain Charles Sorley – athlete, soldier and poet – received a package. It was his kit bag, sent home by his regiment from the Western Front, where Sorley had been killed, aged 20, at the Battle of Loos. Out of this bag came a life abridged: personal effects, items of uniform and a bundle of papers, from which emerged his now famous sonnet When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead. A new photographic survey of military kit throughout the ages now illustrates that curious combination. Photographer Thom Atkinson has recorded 13 military kit issues for his ‘Soldiers Inventories’ series.

1066 huscarl, Battle of Hastings
At the Battle of Hastings, soldiers' choice of weaponary was extensive.

1244 mounted knight, Siege of Jerusalem
Re-enactment groups, collectors, historians and serving soldiers helped photographer Thom Atkinson assemble the components for each shot. ‘It was hard to track down knowledgeable people with the correct equipment,’ he says. ‘The pictures are really the product of their knowledge and experience.’

1415 fighting archer, Battle of Agincourt
Having worked on projects with the Wellcome Trust and the Natural History Museum, photographer Thom Atkinson has turned his focus to what he describes as ‘the mythology surrounding Britain’s relationship with war’.

1485 Yorkist man-at-arms, Battle of Bosworth
‘There’s a spoon in every picture,’ Atkinson says. ‘I think that’s wonderful. The requirement of food, and the experience of eating, hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. It’s the same with warmth, water, protection, entertainment.’

1588 trainband caliverman, Tilbury
The similarities between the kits are as startling as the differences. Notepads become iPads, 18th-century bowls mirror modern mess tins; games such as chess or cards appear regularly.

1645 New Model Army musketeer, Battle of Naseby
Each kit represents the personal equipment carried by a notional common British soldier at a landmark battle over the past millennium. It is a sequence punctuated by Bosworth, Naseby, Waterloo, the Somme, Arnhem and the Falklands – bookended by the Battle of Hastings and Helmand Province.

1709 private sentinel, Battle of Malplaquet
Atkinson says the project, which took him nine months, was an education. ‘I’ve never been a soldier. It’s difficult to look in on a subject like this and completely understand it. I wanted it to be about people. Watching everything unfold, I begin to feel that we really are the same creatures with the same fundamental needs.’

1815 private soldier, Battle of Waterloo
Kit issued to soldiers fighting in the Battle of Waterloo included a pewter tankard and a draughts set.

1854 private soldier, Rifle Brigade, Battle of Alma
Each picture depicts the bandages, bayonets and bullets of survival, and the hooks on which humanity hangs: letter paper, prayer books and Bibles.

1916 private soldier, Battle of the Somme
While the First World War was the first modern war, as the Somme kit illustrates, it was also primitive. Along with his gas mask a private would be issued with a spiked ‘trench club’ – almost identical to medieval weapons.

1944 lance corporal, Parachute Brigade, Battle of Arnhem
Each photograph shows a soldier’s world condensed into a pared-down manifest of defences, provisions and distractions. There is the formal (as issued by the quartermaster and armourer) and the personal (timepieces, crucifixes, combs and shaving brushes).

1982 Royal Marine Commando, Falklands conflict
From the cumbersome armour worn by a Yorkist man-at-arms in 1485 to the packs yomped into Port Stanley on the backs of Royal Marines five centuries later, the literal burden of a soldier’s endeavour is on view.

2014 close-support sapper, Royal Engineers, Helmland Province
The evolution of technology that emerges from the series is a process that has accelerated over the past century. The pocket watch of 1916 is today a waterproof digital wristwatch; the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle has been replaced by laser-sighted light assault carbines; and lightweight camouflage Kevlar vests take the place of khaki woollen Pattern service tunics.