Ivan Bawtree was my great-great-uncle. He was born in 1894 and grew up in Sutton, living most of his life at Clapham Lodge off the Banstead Road South. When war broke out in 1914 Ivan was working at Kodak and helping to run a company of the Boys’ Life Brigade. In March 1915 the Graves Registration Commission had come into being under the leadership of Fabian Ware, with the mission to record the positions of graves of fallen soldiers and to ensure that they were, as far as the military situation permitted, adequately marked and cared for. By May it was decided that the Commission should seek the services of three professional photographers to meet growing demand from bereaved relatives for photos of graves. Ivan volunteered for the task and within a week was in France.
‘In France at first we travelled in an officer’s car to various cemeteries: Bailleul, Bethune, Ypres, Kemmel etc. but as more and more work came in we went for several weeks and stayed at a Graves Registration Section. There we had a number of these: Bailleul, Poperinghe, Estaires, Amiens, Arras, Dunkirk, Dickebusch etc. From those sections we got a lift in a car when possible but otherwise carried our equipment on our backs and rode a push bike. The more formal cemeteries were reached first by car and then on foot through communication trenches etc. Quite an adventure and a certain amount of shelling as we worked close by some of our batteries. It was not always funny.’
The cemeteries tended to spring up either in close proximity to the front line or next to field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. Ivan was therefore often moving around near the front line and was prone to shellfire. On numerous occasions he had to run for cover or change routes: ‘If shelling got too heavy the officer would withdraw us. One day he very nearly got hit and was bowled over while we hid behind a tree to dodge the shell splinters.’ He was mentioned in despatches in December 1917 for his willingness to obtain requested photos under circumstances considered ‘too lively for photography’.
By the time he was discharged from service in October 1919, Ivan had taken more than 28,000 photographs of war graves. More than 600 photographs survive, the majority of which were donated to the Imperial War Museum in 1975. While many of the photos depict war graves, Ivan photographed a great many other things too – many which starkly show the loss and devastation of war. His photos also show some of the early operations of the Imperial War Graves Commission that was established in May 1917 (the successor to the Graves Registration Unit). The collection can be viewed on the IWM website.
As well as numerous photographs, several of Ivan’s diaries, letters, memoirs and other documents have survived, allowing me to put together a book about his unusual war service. His writings and photographs have given me a personal window to engage with the enormous scale of loss, sacrifice and devastation of the Great War, as well as the opportunity to follow in his footsteps around the Western Front.
All quotations in this piece are from Ivan Bawtree’s memoirs, the handwritten pages of which are in the author’s private collection but which are reproduced in full in his book about Ivan Photographing the Fallen (see hyperlink in preceding paragraph).