The so-called Bond of Sacrifice collection contains more than 16,000 biographies and portraits of men who served in the First World War.

By appealing to members of the public to send in photographs of themselves or their loved ones, the Imperial War Museum provided a crucial way for combatants to be recognised, giving comfort and a sense of pride to the bereaved.

From mid-1917 the Imperial War Museum published calls for contribution in newspapers ranging from the Manchester Guardian to the Times of India and also in the ration books issued by the Ministry of Food. The ration book read ‘The Imperial War Museum desires to receive for permanent preservation photographs and biographical material, printed or in manuscript, of all officers and men who had lost their lives or won distinctions during the War.’

Material donated ranged from memoirs to transcribed last letters, which were dispersed throughout the museum’s collection as subsets, including ‘Memorial for the Fallen’.

Bundles of memorial cards, including framed portraits of the Heroes, at the Imperial War Museum waiting for sorting and notating.

From mid-1917 the Imperial War Museum published calls for contribution in newspapers ranging from the Manchester Guardian to the Times of India and also in the ration books issued by the Ministry of Food. The ration book read ‘The Imperial War Museum desires to receive for permanent preservation photographs and biographical material, printed or in manuscript, of all officers and men who had lost their lives or won distinctions during the War.’ Material donated ranged from memoirs to transcribed last letters, which were dispersed throughout the museum’s collection as subsets, including ‘Memorial for the Fallen’.

Entries from the printed publication Bond of Sacrifice: A Biographical Record of British Officers who Fell in the Great War also formed part of the collection, amongst other private publications. The Bond of Sacrifice two volume work had ceased publication after printing portraits and biographies of officers who had died from August 1914 until June 1915.

Whilst seeking representation of men of all rank, occasionally advertisements referred solely to ‘officers who have fallen in the present war’. The perception of a rank criterion for commemoration was frequently met with public discontent.

Private H G Bodman. Unit, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

The wife of Private H G Bodman of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment wrote in August 1917:

‘I noticed in the news that you would like the photos of officers and those who have won distinctions, well don’t you think it an insult to our brave lads, who have fought, who have done more than their share in the war and not been promoted, they do quite as much as officers, no doubt more… don’t you think it more honourable to have the likes of my husband, if only [a Private].”

Receiving a sensitive response that ‘I should be very glad to see your husband’s photograph’; Mrs Bodman’s letter demonstrates the public appetite for equal commemoration, not determined by rank.

To help those who could not afford to have their photograph taken, the museum made arrangements with established photographers such as Lafayatte and Vandyke to provide photographs of veterans at no cost to the individual.  

In their efforts to democratise the Bond of Sacrifice collection, Museum staff also endeavoured to reflect contributions from the British Empire and Commonwealth. Mr Southern wrote in October 1917 to the Museum querying ‘if Australian soldiers are included I shall be pleased to forward you a photo.’ Receiving a response in the affirmative, Southern donated the first Commonwealth soldier to be remembered in the collection.

The call for portraits was featured in many international publications, ranging from the Cape Times, to the Canadian Gazette. In January 1919 Mrs Eva Linsley gifted a portrait along with the message ‘hoping you may find a place for him amongst the sons of Empire’. This sentiment was shared by the Museum, responding to Mr Robert Rawlinson of Durban, South Africa praising his son and ‘the splendid services Colonials rendered to the Mother Country during the Great War.’

As well as advertising for contributions, museum staff also approached veterans and families directly to seek representation of their service in the museum – for instance, writing to A J Arkell of 39th Squadron ‘West-Ham Gotha destroyer’ and Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

The Museum Committee also utilised personal connections to build upon the collection. Francis Sikes, the Keeper of Photographs wrote to Mrs Ballard in June 1918 requesting a photograph of her husband, emphasising ‘you know how highly I thought of him and how much I shall miss his companionship’. Such letters are an insight into the personal channels of communication that were used by the Museum, along with individual bonds and camaraderie demonstrated throughout the collection.

Many of the photographs that were sent to the museum were accompanied by letters providing details of the individual’s wartime service. It is through the poignant words of bereaved individuals such as the mother of Clarence Godwin Chessum that the devastation of the war can be so deeply felt:

 ‘A trace is from our household gone, a voice we loved is stilled; a place is vacant in our home, that never can be filled.’

Clarence was killed in action on 13 March 1917. His mother Sarah donated his portrait to the Imperial War Museum - he is shown with his wife Alice and their children Philip and Edith.

This emphasises the dual role of the Bond of Sacrifice collection: to act as a memorial for those who served in the First World War and to provide solace to the bereaved.

Through the Bond of Sacrifice, the Committee of the Imperial War Museum benefited from boosting their early collections; gaining an insight into a variety of public perceptions; and obtaining details to allow reflective commemoration. Donors to the collection often gained a sense of pride through national recognition; a channel through which to vocalise innermost thoughts about the war; and a sense of justification of loss.

The Bond of Sacrifice was an innovative method of memorialisation and the foundation of the museum’s collection, with an emphasis on recording the experience of individuals.

The awareness of public engagement demonstrated by the committee of the Imperial War Museum established a poignant ethos. This has resurfaced through endeavours including the representation of service personnel who died during the Iraq War in Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country and also through Lives of the First World War, the permanent digital memorial to over 7.7 million individuals involved in the conflict.

Explore the Bond of Sacrifice collection.

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