This week Sepia Saturday had a posed picture of three men drinking and playing cards in an alcove. One of the players is practising deception and possibly planning to cheat by hiding a card. This prompted a search amongst my own old photos for something in a similar vein. I was able to find pictures of three men, most definitely posed, but not a card game in sight and no evidence of sleight of hand!
The above picture comes from the National Library of Scotland archive and dates from the First World War. The description tells us that the men are using a wooden crate as a table and are seated beside a sandbag dugout or hideout. There is a bottle on the ground, a jug on the table, and they each have a metal beaker, but there the similarity with the original picture ends. There seems to be no hint of cheating going on this picture. The men are having a well-earned break from battle duty and the description reads; “Taken on the British Western Front, Battle of Menin Road. In the few spare moments when not pounding the Boche, our gunners settle down to a game of cards.” The official war photographer was John Warwick Brooke, who was tasked with taking as many photos, and covering as wide a variety, as possible. The Government was keen to convey to the civilian population back home that ‘life went on’. As we now know, much of the true horror of the war was covered up under a blanket of propaganda.
The second picture, from the same source, is by Tom Aitken, a newspaper reporter from Glasgow and is titled: “The Fight of the Woods Near Rheims. Two British Tommies have an impromptu game of Nap among the ruins of a shattered town.” I wasn’t as convinced that this picture wasn’t staged. The strange juxtapostion of the two battle-weary men playing cards, whilst surrounded by broken furniture and shells of buildings, doesn’t ring quite as true as the subjects of the first picture, who seemed oblivious to the cameraman. We know that a life of sorts did go on and perhaps these men were relieving the tedium of war and trying to bring some sort of normality into a situation of unbelievable horror.
At approximately the same time as the above photographs were taken, my own grandfather, he of ‘Wedding Day Delay’, was also serving in the war, and no doubt engaging in the odd card game with his comrades when duties allowed. At the age of sixteen he had enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) 2/7th Robin Hoods Battalion, which in 1917 took part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, and later was in Cambrai, in France. So my own ‘Three Men’ picture has my grandfather Sydney, his father William Joseph, and standing behind them, my great-uncle Albert. There will be more stories to tell about these three in later posts, but as far as I know they were honest and upright citizens; there is no hint that any of them ever cheated, at cards or anything else, and not a whiff of scandal. A bit disappointing really!