The photo at the top of this page has often been used to illustrate accounts of the First World War, and, in particular, the offensives conducted by Australian, British, and Canadian forces in France or Flanders in the middle years of that conflict. Indeed, the authors of captions appended to this picture (or portions of it) often describe the gesture made by the man in the upper right-hand corner as an expression of the spirit (whether playful, defiant, idealistic, or fatalistic) of the young men rushing forward into battle.

Recently, while looking for something else, I discovered a copy of this iconic image on the website of the US National Archives. However, rather than telling a tale of impending combat, the description of the photo read ‘Canadian troops going “over the top” during training near St. Pol, France, October 1916’.

In the hope of resolving this discrepancy, I took a closer look at the picture. However, nothing that I turned up, whether the seated soldier wearing a soft cap or the shells bursting in the air settled the matter. The man in the soft cap, after all, might either have been an instructor or a man who had lost his helmet. Likewise, I had no way of knowing whether or not the shells bursting in the air had been fired in anger.

A reverse image search uncovered additional clues, both of which support the ‘training exercise’ hypothesis. One of these was the claim, made on the official blog of the Library and Archives of Canada, that the image so often seen in magazines, books, and blogs had been manipulated. Another was a version of the picture, posted to the Wikimedia Commons, in which the sky is free of bursting shells and the breech of the rifle carried by the soldier thumbing his nose is covered with cloth.

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