Lost Photographs of the Great War

In a Moroccan flea market, a photojournalist happens on an inexplicable treasure.

FEBRUARY 13, 1917: Pilots of the Escadrille C28 de la Aéronautique Militaire stand in front of a Caudron G.4, right. When this photograph was taken, the unit—the 14e Corps d’Armée—had just started night bombing missions. This aircraft, tail number 2639, joined the squadron on January 27.
FEBRUARY 13, 1917: In early 1917, Givord was posted between Amiens and Soissons when he photographed a Farman F40 on the air-field of Montididier. Probably the most important mission undertaken by the aviation squadrons was photo reconnaissance. In the last year of the war, some French units produced up to 10,000 photo- graphic plates each night.
JULY 1, 1917: An Airco DH.5 of the Royal Flying Corps after a forced landing. While the wing configuration gave the pilot an excellent field of vision, the DH.5 was slow and unreliable; it was removed from service after just eight months. The war continually demanded new airplanes, which led to combat designs that were not thoroughly tested.
JULY 20, 1917: Captive balloons, or “sausages” directed artillery fire. An observer, raised from 160 to 4,000 feet in the air, corrected the aim via telephone. The balloons’ immobility, flammability, and tactical importance made them targets of enemy aircraft equipped with rockets.
MARCH 28, 1918: American and French officers gather near a French two-seat Voisin X biplane, right, painted black for night bombing, close to Estrées-Saint-Denis.
APRIL 4, 1918: The Airco DH.9’s poor combat performance was due to its deficient engine. The airplane above was assigned to the Royal Air Force 218 Bombing Squadron at Dunkirk. A week earlier, it experienced engine failure.

In 1999, Spanish photojournalist Pablo San Juan was combing through a Moroccan flea market, looking for cameras and old photographs, when a vendor suggested he visit an antiques dealer who had a selection of glass plate negatives. The plates, packed in small, worm-damaged boxes, showed tanks and biplanes dating from World War I. Who shot the photographs, and how they ended up in Morocco, the dealer didn’t know.

San Juan bought the collection on behalf of Jesús Rocandio, director of Casa de la Imagen (House of the Image), in Logroño, Spain. When he delivered the images to Rocandio’s archivists, they started searching for clues to the photographer’s identity. Their search is the subject of The Tangier Archive, edited by Carlos Traspaderne (Uniform Press, 2016) and illustrated with some of the captivating photographs found in Morocco.

The photographer had dated all of the plates, but didn’t always include a description. But the archivists realized that in two similar group photos of French army officers dated 1917, one man (a captain) stood in two different spots: Perhaps he’d run to the camera, set the timer, and dashed back into the frame?

Using this slim clue, they examined the other plates. The man appeared in several, one of which was marked “Group Givord.” In the French army, units took their names from the officer in command. Using military records, the archivists learned that the Givord Group­ was a transport unit, made up of 45 men and 20 vehicles, led by Second Lieutenant Pierre Antoine Henri Givord.

The researchers found that Givord had received a field commission as captain in July 1916, which qualified him to command such a unit. Further, the collection’s subject matter—the battles and activities—corresponds to Givord’s time of service, the periods when he was on leave from his unit and his eventual demobilization.

The photographs, which number nearly 500, cover every facet of war on the Western Front and the postwar period, up to 1935.

But how did the glass plates get to Morocco? Givord, who died in Lyon, France, in 1960 at age 87, had traveled to Tangier twice, in 1921 and in 1934. What could have induced him to bring his entire fragile glass plate collection from France? And why was it left behind? The archivists still hope to solve the mystery.

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This story is a selection from the February/March issue of Air & Space magazine

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