World War I: Helen Johns Kirtland, Frontline Photojournalist        

(The following is a guest post by Beverly Brannan, curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division.

Helen Johns Kirtland. ca. 1919. Prints and Photographs Division.

Helen Johns Kirtland. ca. 1919. Prints and Photographs Division.

Helen Johns Kirtland must have been a very persuasive person because only a few U.S. women obtained credentials to report in countries actively fighting in World War I. Both she and her husband Lucien Swift Kirtland secured permission to work as war correspondents in Europe in 1917. By policy, husband and wife could not work together; so once in Europe, they went their separate ways and met up only occasionally. As a photojournalist Helen provided photographs for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and other American periodicals in Europe. She also photographed and did publicity work for the Red Cross, and the United States Army and Navy provided her opportunities for reportage and photography, as well.

While Kirtland reported on the war elsewhere, the Italian army suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Austrian and German forces between October 24 and November 19, 1917. The Austrians broke through the Italian line at Caporetto on the Piave River, leaving the defending Italians with 10,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, 265,000 captured and 350,000 missing. The Italian military then declared that no women could visit the active front.

During the autumn months of 1918, when the two armies again confronted each other, Kirtland was the only woman correspondent allowed to photograph the encounter. She had persuaded Italian finance minister Francesco Saverio Nitti and Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando to grant her special access to the field.

Italian soldiers lighting cigarettes, one holding illustrated newspaper, Piave River, Italy, October 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.

Italian soldiers lighting cigarettes, one holding illustrated newspaper, Piave River, Italy, October 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.

Despite concerted Austrian attacks, the Italian line held at the river this time and decisively defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto at the end of October. Kirtland was on the actual front during the last drive at the battle for Monte Grappa and went with the Army as far as the mouth of the Piave River.

By 1918, Kirtland had a year’s experience reporting on the war and obviously felt comfortable chatting with foot soldiers on battlefields. Her uncaptioned photographs indicate that she continued to cover various fronts, including Belgium and Poland. At war’s end, the Kirtlands worked together to provide extensive coverage of the peace negotiations at Versailles.

 

Winning the war from the clouds. Photographs by Helen Johns Kirtland, staff photographer for Leslie's. Prints and Photographs Division.

Winning the war from the clouds. Photographs by Helen Johns Kirtland, staff photographer for Leslie’s. Prints and Photographs Division.

Helen Johns Kirtland became a member of the Society of Woman Geographers, which was established in 1925 for women who had “done distinctive work whereby they have added to the world’s store of knowledge concerning the countries on which they have specialized, and have published in magazines or in book form a record of their work.” At the time, women were excluded from membership in most professional organizations.

Among the more than 4,000 photographs in the Kirtland Collection in the Prints & Photographs Division, some 200 images show World War I and its aftermath, adding a valuable perspective to coverage found in other collections.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

Source: Ware, Susan. (1988) “Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century,” by Susan Ware.

 

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