In 1917 George Elliott Dodds, a writer and editor at the Department of Information, suggested publishing a series of photographically illustrated booklets showing various war activities on the Home Front. After three years of war, the potential propaganda value of such publications for combating war weariness and maintaining domestic morale was recognised. However, the Department of Information lacked the resources required to deliver such an ambitious project, relying at the time on commercial picture agencies to supply all the photographs it required.
Consequently, in June 1917 Ivor Nicholson, in charge of Pictorial Propaganda, wrote to the Treasury for permission to employ a full time photographer, arguing that in order to deliver Dodds’ scheme there had to be a photographer permanently attached to his department. Nicholson already had someone in mind for the post. He added: ‘For some time since I have been here, I have been in touch with Mr. Horace W. Nicholls, an expert photographer…I am confident that this gentleman is fully qualified to act as our own photographer.’ The Treasury agreed to Nicholson’s request and in early August Horace Nicholls took up his appointment.
Nicholls was soon put to work. On 8 September 1917 Nicholson wrote that Nicholls had recently taken ‘a series of photographs showing the stages a recruit goes through. These…will be used in one of the pictorial booklets entitled “From Desk to Trench”. The location chosen for these photographs was Hounslow in West London. Hounslow was a typical recruiting office but it was selected for purely pragmatic reasons. Nicholls already knew the location and the staff intimately. Before taking up his appointment as an official photographer, he had worked at Hounslow recruiting office as a Substitution Officer, implementing the government policy whereby women or men of non military age or fitness could replace those in industry, freeing them up to serve in the armed forces. Hounslow was also relatively close to Nicholls’ wartime home in Hayes. A private photograph album compiled by Nicholls in 1917 includes several photographs taken at Hounslow, including a self-portrait of Nicholls working at his desk and portraits of the recruiting officers who were based there. The recruiting office was in Treaty Lodge, the Drill Hall in Hanworth Road, Hounslow. Built in 1911 this was home to the 8th (Territorial) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own).
Recently, I paid a visit to Hounslow. The Drill Hall is still there. There have been minor external changes – the railings and windows have been replaced – but it is still a building that Nicholls would immediately recognise. Over the main entrance the stonework still carries the Prince of Wales’ feathers and the words ‘South Africa 1900-1902’. Inside, everything has changed. In 1992 the building was sold for development and for the last 20 years it has been a private hostel , the interior partitioned up to provide emergency accommodation for the local homeless. However, there is still a military presence nearby. Immediately behind the building is the home of the 194 (Hounslow) detachment of the Army Cadet Force. As they make their way to the Cadet Centre on a Monday or Wednesday evening, I wonder if any of today’s cadets realise that they are treading in the footsteps of men, perhaps even younger than themselves, who began their military service at the very same spot one hundred years ago.