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Soldier Photographs

John Simkin

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In 1952 the Daily Worker published the photograph below. It showed a Royal Marine commando fighting in the Malayan Emergency holding up two severed heads. A woman, whose front teeth had been bashed out, was in his right hand. A man’s head was in the left hand.

The government denounced the photograph as a fake and part of a communist propaganda campaign against colonialism. The rest of the media, under pressure from the government, agreed not to publish details of the photograph. They also did not publish details of the colonial secretary, two weeks later, admitting to the House of Commons that the picture was indeed genuine.

I thought this story was worth retelling considering the recent controversy about British soldiers taking photographs of Iraqi civilians being tortured.

A study carried out by Joanna Bourke, a history professor at Birkbeck College, resulted in a claim (published in the book Fear: A Cultural History) that photographs like this were commonplace. Bourke argues that soldiers take souvenir pictures to validate their wartime experiences.

As Jeff Needle said in his book Please Read This (1970):

A very sad thing happened while we were there - to everyone. It happened slowly and gradually so no one noticed when it happened. We began slowly with each death and every casualty until there were so many deaths and so many wounded, we started to treat death and loss of limbs with callousness, and it happens because the human mind can't hold that much suffering and survive.

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