John Warwick Brooke was born in London, England on May 30, 1886. Little is known about his early life except that, at the age of five, he moved to Bristol, where he lived with his grandparents throughout his childhood. Upon completion of his education, he joined the Royal Navy, where military records reveal a rather sketchy early naval career that includes reports of desertion, periods of incarceration, and 70 days of hard labor. Upon his release, he joined the staff of the Topical Press Agency in London as a press photographer. It is unclear whether he had received any prior photographic instruction. At the same time, Mr. Brooke joined the 2nd Regiment of King Edward’s Horse as a sergeant in the Special Reserve, headquartered in Chelsea. In 1915, his unit was stationed in France, where upon entry into World War I, was attached to the 4th Cavalry Brigade. The mature Sgt. Brooke proved himself a highly capable soldier and leader, receiving a special citation for “conspicuous bravery and resource” during combat. The following year, he was dispatched as a trooper, and was awarded both the Military Cross and Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Brooke’s experience as a wartime photographer flourished. He was one of approximately 12 photographers commissioned to cover the Western Front, which resulted in a promotion to lieutenant. In this capacity, he was free to focus on his own subject preference; however, published photographs were often heavily censored or even reconstructed by wartime propagandists. Limited resources prevented Lt. Brooke and his contemporaries from documenting the grim realities of trench warfare. If they wanted their works published, they concentrated instead upon soldiers with minor injuries, recreational activities, and relief efforts. Nevertheless, he captured some of the most enduring images of the war, armed with his Goerze-Anschultz folding-plate camera, a durable compact device that was ideal for combat photography.
After receiving a medical discharge from the Army on July 2, 1916, Lt. Brooke became a full-time war photographer, and the following year photographed a group of soldiers on the Western Front struggling to carry a stretcher through the mud, which came to symbolize the unwavering determination of the unsung war heroes. As described by one war correspondent, “The floating swamp is the name for a quaking morass… those who were badly hit sank into the dreadful ooze… the rest went on… Then when it was over, they turned to help their comrades who were still caught in the slime and in bodies of three or four together they pulled them out and got them safely to solid ground.”
Upon returning to civilian life, Mr. Brooke resumed to his position as a staff photographer with the Topical Press Agency. His later photographs never achieved the acclaim of his wartime images, and declining health significantly limited his postwar output. Forty-two-year-old John Warwick Brooke died in March 1929 in Uxbridge, England. The photographer may have passed into obscurity, but his iconic photographs of World War I live on in the twenty-first century. Many of his Western Front photographs can be found in the World War I collection at Edinburgh’s National Library of Scotland.
2018 Captain John Warwick Brooke (URL: https://www.cairogang.com/other-people/castle-propaganda/military/brooke/brooke.html).
1989 First World War Photographers by Jane Carmichael (London, UK: Routledge), pp. 61-64.
2005 Glass Warriors: The Camera at War by Duncan Anderson (London, UK: HarperCollins), p. 118.
2014 Reporting from the Front by Brian Best (South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword Books Ltd.), pp. 78-80.
2013 The War No Image Could Capture (URL: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/12/the-war-no-image-could-capture/354670).
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