After years of collecting WWI and WWII photography, I’ve finally decided to share some of my favorite images with the world. I’ve searched through flea markets, antique stores, and eBay auctions to obtain photos depicting American soldiers in various world conflicts.
Where to start?
Lets jump into the dissection and interpretation of one of my favorite WWI images and see how history was recorded through the lens of a photographers camera.
The first thing I always look for when buying a good WWI photo is the general “eye appeal” of the image. Is the subject well lit? Did the photographer take time to seat and position the subject? How good is the contrast and detail? All these things are sometimes unable to be determined when making internet based purchases, but it never hurts to ask the seller for a better scan. Condition is also a big factor when I make a “higher end” purchase in eBay. I consider $50+ the threshold between medium range and higher end purchases.
In terms of aesthetics, this photo has it all going on. The contrast and detail are perfect, the condition of the image is superb, and the price was right at $26.50. Because the purchase was an eBay auction win, I wasn’t able to ascertain the historical details until I had the photo in-hand.
The first and easiest way to identify the unit designation of a WWI soldier portrait is to inspect the shoulder sleeve insignia also known as an SSI, or in layman’s terms, a shoulder patch. In this case, we see a YD on a diamond on the subjects arm.
My favorite WWI division has to be the 26th “Yankee Division” – made up of primarily New England soldiers who took the call to the National Guard units early on in America’s involvement in WWI. These New England National Guard units were eventually combined together to form the 26th Division and were later bolstered by fresh recruits from replacement units while stationed in France.
How can we tell when this fellow joined the war? Although the date of the photo is unknown, we can ascertain that he served at least 12 months overseas. The two chevrons on his left arm mark him as having served for two 6 month periods. The photo was likely taken right after his return to the states, which is denoted by the dark colored chevron below his SSI (patch – remember?).
This guy was wounded twice during the war. The double chevrons on his right arm were earned for being wounded. He has no obvious battle scars on his face or hands, and he appears to have both his legs, so I am assuming that his wounds didn’t force his discharge.
Most 26th Division doughboys (an endearing term used for WWI American soldiers) served at least 18 months – so this veteran likely came in as a replacement to help fill the slowly depleting ranks of the division.
The 104th Infantry Regiment
With my super-duper high resolution scanner I was able to grab a high quality crop of the collar disc insignia this veteran is wearing. See that round button below his left cheek? Under high magnification the button/disc reads – 104 with a US monogram above it. This means that the wearer is a member of the 104th Infantry Regiment – one of the regiments that made up the 26th Division. The regiment originally started in Springfield Mass in the mid 1700s to help ward off attacks from the bands of King Phillip’s Native American warriors. This regiment fought with valor in a number of key offensives during WWI. I wish I had a copy of the unit history to use as a reference😦