068 Transport to Flanders or France, 21 February 1915, lantern slide

old photo of a ship in a dock

This is an image that at first sight seems quite innocuous; an early 20th century quayside scene with a docked ship alongside a landing stage. 

Closer inspection reveals a large group of men in military uniform on the promenade deck of the docked ship. This detail has been enlarged below the main image.  The number '068' is attached to the fore of the upper deck.

Transporting troops

This is a type of photograph known as a lantern slide and carries a label on which some of the handwriting is difficult to decipher; it reads ‘068 Transport to Flande[rs], [or possibly France] Feb.21st 15’. The ship is obviously transporting troops during the First World War, presumably somewhere along the Western Front.   

This lantern slide is one of a collection of 66 lantern slides in the Maritime Archives and Library, of varied subject matter, principally of views in and around Liverpool.  

We have a limited amount of information about this image from its content, date and ambiguous title. The context of the collection indicates that the port is likely to be Liverpool. The destination of the ship was either Flanders or France. Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, was in a country that was largely occupied by the German forces; some areas to the west, such as Ypres remained in conflict. There were three battles at Ypres, the second of which was fought 22 April to 25 May 1915 and involved an early use of poison gas. Equally, the ship may have been ferrying the troops to one of the armies in France.

The number on the ship could be a pendant number (later known as a pennant number), a uniform system of identification marked on the structure of Royal Naval vessels from around 1910. As this ship is a trooping ship it would have been requisitioned and presumably assigned the number '068' displayed on the fore of the upper deck.

We know that this photograph was taken on Sunday 21 February 1915. What seemed a mundane image transforms into something poignant when the destination of the ship is considered and the potential fate of the soldiers being transported; whether to Flanders and possibly Ypres where there was such heavy loss of life, or elsewhere along the Western Front in France.  

Archive reference DX/1739

There is more information about the First World War in the Maritime Archives and Library's information sheets about naval and military history.

Lantern slides

Lantern slides are positive images and represent the correct tonal values of the scene that is photographed (as opposed to negative images whose tonal values are reversed, so that what appears as a light tone in a scene is recorded as a dark tone). The image is produced on glass and in order to protect the fragile image layer, it was covered by a further piece of plain glass of the same dimensions and held together by tape around the edges.  

A lantern slide is typically square in shape and is usually about 8.2 x 8.2cm. Lantern slides are transparencies and were projected using light onto a screen with a projector that was popularly known in the mid 19th century as a 'magic lantern' and often used to illustrate public lectures. Early lantern slides consisted of painted scenes but in the 1850s photographic lantern slides began to be produced.