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Unique photos from the Great War

By Tim Dale
BBC York & North Yorkshire

Entrance to a tunnel under 'no man's land'. The Somme, 1916. Photograph by Lieutenant J S Purvis
Thousands of men on all sides died during the Battle of the Somme

A unique collection of photographs dating from the First World War will join hundreds of others as a North Yorkshire museum puts its collection online.

Four of the photographs were taken by a young lieutenant on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The pictures show the battlefield on July 1 1916, just before the British and French were due to advance across 'no man's land' towards the German lines.

These photographs form part of the collection of the Green Howards Regimental Museum in Richmond.

Lieutenant John Purvis

John Stanley Purvis, who took the pictures, was born in Bridlington in 1890 and educated at Cambridge. He served with the 5th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) during the Great War.

A shell bursting 10 to 20 yards in front of the photographer. Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. Photograph by Lieutenant J S Purvis.
Lieutenant Purvis risked his life to capture these images of the battle

After the war he taught classics and was ordained. He served as vicar of Old Malton in the 1940s before moving to St Sampson with Holy Trinity in York in 1947.

He later became a Canon at York Minster and helped inspire and became the first director of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York from 1953 to 1963. He died in 1968.

The pictures he took in 1916 were entirely unofficial and he might have faced a court martial had he been discovered. Purvis and his men were in the second line of trenches.

One of the four pictures shows the advance of men in the forward trenches, another a general view of the battlefield and a third the moment a shell explodes nearby.

There is also an image of two men in the trench with their rifles, at the entrance to a tunnel that ran under 'no man's land.'

Lynda Powell, Director of the Green Howards Museum, says:

"It is amazing that a young lieutenant on the Front in 1916 had both the desire and the camera to take pictures at a time when his life must have been in imminent danger.

Soldiers advancing on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Photography by Lieutenant J S Purvis
The Green Howards museum is working to place its entire collection online

Online collection

Currently the Green Howards Regimental Museum are scanning and uploading their collection of photographs. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Lynda Powell, Director of the Green Howards Museum, says:

"Purvis's pictures are just some of the remarkable collection held in the museum which we are now very pleased to be able to share online with everyone."

At present there are pictures from the Boer War and World War I online with more being added all the time.

The photographs can be viewed online at the Green Howards website.

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