Friday, 16 January 2015

Another newly-digitized source for the French Army

Amongst the newly digitized archival material in the Great War is a collection of some thousands of photographs in the collection of the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine at the University of Paris X at Nanterre.

Their blog that contains the announcement of the first release is here

The basis of the collection are the Albums Valois, the photographs taken by the the French Army's photographic service (Section photographique de l'Armée), which was set up in 1915. Those familiar with the photographic archives at the Imperial War Museum will recognise the style - the albums in which each photo is mounted contain a photo per page with a brief hand-written caption. The albums currently available are arranged by département: Aisne, Ardennes, Marne, Meurthe et Moselle, Meuse, Moselle, Nord, Oise, Paris, Pas-de-Calais, Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, Seine et Marne, Territoire de Belfort and Vosges. There is a taster of what is available on Flickr here.

Access is via BDIC's Argonnaute catalogue. The results of a search under 'Valois' is here. But then you are on your own. From my initial attempts, it would appear that the contents of each album are not indexed, so if you are looking for something in particular - some event, some personality - then by all means search under your preferred term, but the suspicion remains that much remains undiscovered by this route, and you are left with the prospect of leafing through each album.

Faced with a page of results, to see the contents of an album click on the thumbnail (not the album title). You are then presented with the first photograph in larger format, and a vertical row of thumbnails of each page down the left-hand side. Click on the plus sign (at the bottom of the screen) to enlarge. To move through the album, use the slider with the thumbnails on the left, or the left and right arrows on the main part of the screen. To save a picture, click on the 'Exporter' button at the top right corner. The picture opens in a new window, and you can right-click to Save Picture in the normal way.

Best of all, the pictures are issued under an open license, so those of us used to being asked by certain repositories to take out a second mortgage simply to reproduce a single photograph, will be particularly grateful.

By way of illustration, the photo at the head of this blog, as it appears in the album, is a familiar one. It depicts Captain Alfred Heurtaux and Adjudant René Fonck at a medals ceremony at Saint-Pol-sur-Mer (Nord, near Dunkirk) on 30 November 1917. Heurtaux was made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur, and Fonck a chevalier. Heurtaux is leaning on two sticks, and looks rather distracted. Unsurprisingly, considering he was wounded in combat in September, by tracer bullets that passed through both thighs. 'I was rather lucky,' he later commented, 'I was hit by two tracer bullets whose phosphorous caused me indescribable pain, but which cauterised the wound. My femoral artery had been cut, and without that cauterisation, I would have hemmoraged to death before landing.' The album at BDIC (VAL246, entitled Saint-Pol-sur-Mer (Nord) cérémonies) contains thirty-five photos from the ceremony, some of which are shown here, trimmed and tarted up slightly on Photoshop.

The medals are being presented by General Anthoine, the Army commander. Anthoine may be a tall man, but the photos show the lack of inches of the two fighter pilots (no bad thing, given the size of the aircraft).

I wish I'd seen these photos when doing the picture research for Kings of the Air - there are some that I would have included at the drop of a hat. Did I mention that Kings of the Air is now available for pre-order on the Pen & Sword website?

Be warned that the BDIC catalogue will be unavailable between the 23rd and the 26th January for computer maintenance.

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