It is never easy to identify someone from a photograph taken nearly 100 years ago, but it’s even more difficult solely based on obscure details from his/her clothing. In today’s blog post I will focus on a photograph purchased on eBay from a fantastic seller named Colleen ( eBay name: cacdivi) who recently sold me a superb French real photo postcard of an American chaplain posed in a studio during World World I (WWI). Here’s the shot:
The scene is fairly typical of what was common of the time period: WWI soldiers/sailors/marine/nurses posed in photo studios in far off places in order to document their experiences to send to relatives and friends. In this case, a currently-unidentified US chaplain (see the crucifix on his shoulder and cap?) strikes a chin-up pose for a French photographer. How do we know that the photo was taken in France?
French postcard paper during WWI almost always contains a central vertical dividing mark with CARTE POSTALE emblazoned across the top. I’ve noted a fair number of varieties likely due to differences in production, but the main bulk of French postcard paper of the period look very similar to the above scan.
Dissection of Photographic Context
What are we looking at? I’ve already mentioned that the man posed in the photo is a US chaplain in a French studio during the war. But what details have I been pondering while waiting for the photo to arrive in my mailbox? (Thanks to Colleen – you rock!)
- The chaplain has served at least six months in Europe
- He was wounded or gassed at least once during his service
- The photo was likely taken during wartime (before the armistice)
- He is oddly sporting a mustache and goatee
- He is wearing an identification bracelet made in France
Why is a photograph of a wounded chaplain posed in a wartime studio worthy of devoting hours of research to? According to a website devoted to military chaplains, the number of wartime chaplains during WWI was incredibly low:
In 1918, Congress passed an act that called for one chaplain for every 1200 officers and enlisted men. Bishop Hayes, in a letter to Cardinal Farley, informs Farley of the current number of chaplains overseas. As of June 1918 there were 301 chaplains in the Army, 30 in the Navy, 7 with the Red Cross, 2 interpreters, and 95 volunteer or Knights of Columbus chaplains.
This photo most likely represents an Army chaplain included in the above June 1918 census: any US chaplain who served at least six months service would’ve been present in France in June of 1918. And to have been wounded or gassed, our unidentified chaplain was likely present during the earlier battles of the US involvement of the war.
Okay, so we know our chaplain was wounded, was photographed at some point in the spring or summer of 1918 and likely served in an Army division that arrived early (for the Americans). His identity, based on date, is narrowed down to 1 in 301 – a pretty good number when it comes to identifying a photo taken 100 years ago. Also, based on rules, he has to be less than 45 years of age.
But what was required to be a US chaplain in WWI? Before researching this photo I had no idea of the low number of volunteers or the actual requirements for acceptance. My personal photo collection contains a half dozen photos of chaplains, which is a surprisingly high number based on the scarcity of the subject matter. I was lucky to track down a copy of the rules and regs of chaplainhood here: http://archnyarchives.org/2015/11/10/military-chaplains-in-world-war-i/
Official Chaplain Requirements
Requirements for Commissioned Army Chaplaincies
- The law provides that no person shall be appointed chaplain in the Army who on the date of appointment is more than forty-five years of age.
- Applicants must be a citizen of the United States either by birth or naturalization. Must produce at examination proof of naturalization and must not have been born in enemy alien territory.
- Health and eyesight must be in excellent condition; if glasses are worn sight must be at least 12:20 in each eye without glass.
- Weight must be proportionate.
- Must produce an examination certificate of graduation from an approved College or Seminary which includes collegiate course. If not a graduate candidate must be prepared to stand mental test in general subjects: history, geography, arithmetic. etc.
- It is most desirable that each applicant write a letter addressed to the Secretary of War setting forth fully his qualifications such as experience with societies, clubs, dramatic circles, and knowledge of foreign languages. This letter must be be enclosed with application and sent to the Chaplain Bishop.
- Formal application must be made on regular blanks made by the War Department. These Blanks should be applied for to the Ordinariate, 142 East 29th Street, New York City.
- Must enclose to the Chaplain Bishop a formal letter of permission from his Ordinary.
- Must send a small photographic print of himself.
For now I have a good bit of information to extend my research with. Until then, stay tuned!
2 thoughts on “Wounded WWI AEF Chaplain Poses in French Studio – Can We Identify Him?”
What a great photo, rare piece of history, and overall mystery you’ve got on your hands. I think you’re absolutely correct in your evaluation of the image, and agree with further research. It’s such a clear, unique, and distinguished photograph, that this gentleman certainly needs to be identified. Quite the shame that there is no divisional patch, unit identification, or even an address to search. But that wound chevron makes all the difference.
Unfortunately, I also concur that the only substantial lead you have is his unusually goatee (kind of a Buffalo Bill thing going on). I would imagine it to be a rather strange choice of facial hair for a priest at that time, but I could be wrong. He wears it so casually that I envision it perhaps being his normal appearance as a civilian. Maybe you’ll find a group shot of priests someday, and this officer will standout from the rest. My other shot in the dark, is that he might have served prior to US involvement in the war, perhaps with the French/Red Cross. I say this simply because he has the Poilu-appearance of an old soldier.
So my evaluation is: 25-35 year old priest, wearing an officers uniform, in France, wearing 1 overseas service chevron, 1 wound chevron, and sporting a very unusual piece of facial hair. Everything you already know, but thanks for sharing.
Probably of little use to you, but here’s a website article that mentions the chaplaincy in WW1:
“The 146 chaplains in the Regular Army and National Guard on April 6, 1917 — when America declared war against Germany — expanded to a chaplaincy force of more than 2,300 by the war’s end in 1918. That expansion cemented the “‘ministry of presence’ chaplains provide in today’s Armed Services,” said Carver, NAMB’s executive director of chaplaincy.
Eleven American chaplains were killed in action while 12 died of disease.”
Thanks for confirming my observations! It’s great to have another set of eyes on these types of rough identifications. This is the type of photo, as you mention, that will likely pop into my head while reviewing WWI photos in the future.
“Hey! I recognize that guy!”