Earlier this week Curator Alistair Murphy and I made our second visit to IWM London as part of the project, this time to see some correspondence in their collection relating to Edis’ photographic tour of France and Belgium in 1919. The tour was commissioned and funded by the IWM’s Women’s Work Subcommittee, formed in 1917 to record the work of women in wartime, so many of the administrative records relating to Edis’ war photos are still held in the archive at IWM. They are all available to view by appointment, along with thousands of other documents in the archive, at the museum’s fantastic Research Room.
Between 1917 and 1920, the Subcommittee gathered a unique collection of art, documents, uniforms, badges, books, photographs and other memorabilia relating to women’s contribution to the First World War. In 1918, it was proposed that an official photographer be commissioned to photograph women working on the front lines in Europe, and in autumn that year Miss Agnes Conway and Lady Priscilla Norman, Secretary and Chair of the Women’s War Work Subcommittee respectively, set about organising the tour. They would both eventually accompany Edis to Europe in March 1919. (If you have read any of my posts from March this year you will already be familiar with the indefatigable Lady Norman and Miss Conway from Olive’s diary.)
The letters we saw at IWM range in date from October 1918 to April 1920, and cover the initial proposal of the idea right through to the nitty gritty of final payments. They are a fascinating record of the difficulties the three women faced in getting the permissions and permits required to send a photographer into an active war zone, and the preparations Edis had to make before embarking on the tour.
The first letter to Edis from the Women’s War Work Subcommittee is dated 19th October 1918, but presumably the idea had been suggested to her at an earlier date. Olive replied almost by return post –
“Your letter asking me to go our to France with Lady Norman and yourself to photograph the British Women’s Services arrived this morning. The idea attracts me so much. It would be a most interesting trip… I would be very pleased to give my services [unpaid] as it is for a national collection, not as an operator pure and simple.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)
It was agreed that IWM would pay Edis’ expenses – hospitality and photographic – but that there would be no salary attached. Olive, ever the businesswoman, managed to negotiate not just the cost of photographic plates and developing materials, but also a flash light (costing “about a sovereign”) and insurance for her three cameras.
Postcard of self-portrait with camera, 1918-19
These pre-tour letters also clear up a bit of a mystery for me. In one of the photographs we have of Olive dating from around 1918 she is wearing a cap with a badge reading “NWM”. Alistair had told me that this stood for “National War Museum” (the original name for IWM), but I wondered why she would be wearing it for the tour, as that name was changed in 1917. It appears that Olive was keen to have something to signify her status as an official war photographer, and requested a badge –
“I do not suppose that as the trip is so short there would be any question of a uniform allowance, but…I would like the right to wear at any rate a badge. If I am to photograph the British Women’s Forces in France there would surely be no difficulty about this.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)
Miss Conway responds – “you could wear the initials ‘N.W.M’ – National War Museum – on your coat if you like…there is no other badge in existence” (21st Oct 1918). I’m now wondering if Edis took the photograph above especially for her passport, as she asks “can I please have the badge IWM, as I should be photographed for my passport” (24th Oct 1918). Miss Conway replies, “it belongs to the old days when we were the National War Museum, but no other has been made” (26th Oct 1918).
After this first flurry of activity though, things ground to a halt. Although the units they planned to photograph were very supportive of the idea, there were a number of obstacles in their path which led to the tour being deferred from early November 1918 to March 1919. These ranged from the question of getting a car to take them around – “I am afraid there may be a difficulty about getting a car from GHQ. They are very sticky about cars” (2nd Nov 1918, General Donald to Agnes Conway) – to a clash with the General Election, and Lady Norman catching influenza, despite her best efforts to defeat it through sheer willpower (in a hand-written letter to Miss Conway just before becoming very ill she directs a series of letters from her bed, and signs off with: “I am cossetting myself up today with a day in bed, but I have nothing the matter with me.”) Then of course the military situation changed completely with the Armistice of 11th November which ended the fighting on the Western Front, and the question of the tour was put off until early 1919. Lady Norman eventually wrote to Edis in February with the news she had been waiting for –
“Miss Conway and I have at last I believe obtained the necessary permission to go to France and take you with us. You will think we have been very long in doing so, but I assure you these things are not very easy to arrange… The tour should be an interesting one, if somewhat arduous, but I think you would enjoy it.” (Lady Norman to Olive Edis, 19th Feb 1919)
As we know, the group finally set off less than two weeks later, on 2nd March.
The post-tour letters are equally fascinating, and I will come back to those another day. For now if you want to relive the tour itself, you can go back to my posts from March this year.