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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Lt. James Cooper Mason was to receive the DSO after being grievously wounded on Bloody Sunday.

His DSO bears witness to his outstanding conduct on the field of battle. Certainly the medal recognizes that he is the equal of the finest officers that one could find in Britain's vaunted professional imperial army.

And this from an amateur soldier, a Canadian volunteer, who had never shot a rifle in anger before landing in South Africa.

What is totally unknown, and not previously publicized anywhere, is his deserved right to an esteemed place in the history of men who established new standards in the evolving art of war photography.

He performed what can only be described as an astonishing act of bravery and established, for the world - in 1900 - a new and elevated level of commitment by men pursuing the dangerous art of picturing men at war.

While the battlefield was swept by a hailstorm of Boer fire, which littered the ground with hundreds of dead and dying British soldiers, James not only brought along his camera, but stopped during the assault, to risk his life, pop up his head, and take the photo celebrated at the top of the page.

This photo set a new benchmark in war photography against which future war photographers would be measured.

In future, we shall establish, and prove his claim, to be the first war photographer ever, with almost deadly consequences to himself, to take an unposed and completely legitimate "action" photo under fire during combat, in the history of world photography.

It would not be till 1936 that Robert Capa would take his famous "Death of a Loyalist" shot which many regard as the high point for action photography, all started by a Canadian in 1900.

And Capa's photo was "fake" on many levels and does not measure up to the unassailable genuine standard set first by Lt. James Cooper Mason at the Battle of Paardeberg.

Lt. James Cooper Mason, RCR, 1899

Orig. photo - Image Size - 8 x 12 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON

It is a great shame that the service records of James Mason are not available online, unlike those of thousands of his comrades.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Probably Canada's most famous image of the Boer War was this photo, taken on the day that both, the British and the Canadians, suffered the worst day of casualties of the entire Boer War, Bloody Sunday, Feb. 18, 1900, at the Battle of Paardeberg.

The photo was taken by one of Canada's most famous soldiers of the Boer War, Lt. James Cooper Mason, DSO, one of only five men in Canada's First Contingent to win the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross, for bravery in the face of the enemy.

This photo also, for the first time, clearly establishes, absolutely, a superb moment in the history of war photography.

And a Canadian was responsible for it.

Though this photo has been known to some, its landmark status in the history of war photography has been totally unknown and unpublicized - till now.

Photo, Bloody Sunday, Battle of Paardeberg, Feb. 18, 1900 - Lt. James Cooper Mason, RCR
Orig. Mason photo - Image Size - 8.5 x 8.5 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON

The World's First Combat Photograph - The Firing-Line with the Photographer Under Fire

Should James have risked his life to take this photo? He clearly did... And established a world's first benchmark for combat photography.

This was no photo op set-up, beloved by some war photographers, and simply staged for James by the men in the photo above. In a letter home above and his diary left he notes, in passing, merely that the action and the danger for the photographer too, were deadly real.

"Got my helmet punctured here while getting a photo."

Though the photo has been known, the circumstances under which it was shot have not. Now thanks to newly discovered letters and the diary of Lt. James Cooper Mason, who was the photographer, we can confirm that, unlike all previous so-called combat photographs, this was the real thing. By putting his life at risk, in the front lines with his camera, James Mason personally set a new benchmark for combat photographers, and with his picture, a new photographic standard for war photography that would not be met again for decades.

is exactly the type of helmet and badge that James and the other RCRs were wearing during the battle. This one was worn on Lord Roberts' March to Pretoria by James McKerihen of C Company. That's the large Canada badge like that shot off James' helmet.

Go to James McKerihen RCR

Using James' original photo above, we are able to establish new information about the picture that was previously not known. On the back he wrote that the photo was taken,

"In the firing line 4 PM Sunday 18 Feb - "Paardeberg" Dead man may be seen lying just beyond second man."

The dead man in the helmet - this has always looked just like a rock in the landscape - may be a Canadian, a member of B Company, RCRI, that James was leading, or a Seaforth Highlander.

James' photo has it all: genuine, unposed, deadly action, deadly danger for a photographer, fighting warriors, and a dead soldier who has paid the ultimate price.

Wrote a contemporary writer, clearly referring to stories about Lt. Mason: "Cameras even were produced and striking pictures of the firing - line taken. One of these camera fiends had his helmet, his tunic, and his instrument struck while taking a picture. Had these boys no sense of fear! It was little wonder that the regulars looked at their dare-devil dash with amazement."

This photo is the first photo in history showing a dead soldier on an active field of combat.

Since Brady and Gardner started the practice in the 1860s, during the American Civil War, many bodies have been photographed on battlefields, including the masses of dead British soldiers on Spion Kop during the Boer War. But all were taken long after the battle, many often days later, after the shooting stopped and the danger passed for the photographer. James Cooper Mason photographed his body during a firefight on the front lines, establishing a historic first.

Why this photo qualifies as the world's first certifiable combat photograph.

Of course photos of military men had been taken for some sixty years before the Boer War. So military photography is practically as old as the camera.

War photographers had previously taken pictures of men in uniform, military camps, men on horses, and when film became faster, men and horses walking. There were also numerous photos of artillery guns going off before the Boer War, always way behind the front lines.

Fighting soldiers were photographed in trenches, behind rocks, and barricades of one type or another, but this was always when no real combat was going on.

Photographers then had the "down-time" soldiers fake warring action giving rise to many fake action shots from Gardner's US Civil War "Coloureds Shooting at Dutch Gap," numerous stereoscope views during the Boer War, to Capa's celebrated 1936 "Death of an Actor;" sorry we mean Loyalist...

But there was never a photographer who dared to photograph the front line soldier in action - an art called combat photography initiated by James Mason with his Paardeberg photo above.

Nothing similar, or earlier, with back-up provenance to match, has ever surfaced before.

1 - The photographer is known - one of Canada's most famous soldiers of the Boer War, Lt. James Cooper Mason, DSO.

2 - The occasion is known - the Battle of Paardeberg, the bloodiest battle of the Boer War.

3 - The location of the event is known, and certifiable to within a couple of hundred yards, at Paardeberg, South Africa.

4 - The location of the camera and photographer, are known - the extreme front of the firing line of B Company, Royal Canadian Regiment, opposite the Boer trenches.

5 - The time is known - 4 pm, Feb. 18, 1900.

6 - The danger in taking it is known - the photographer had his helmet and badge shot.

7 - The camera that took it is known and exists - a # 2 Kodak Model A Pocket Folding camera; it matches the picture format and size.

8 - The provenance of the person, the event, the materials involved, are backed up by diary entries and letters.

9 - There is no Fenton - Gardner -Thiele - Capa fakery anywhere in the staging or taking of this photo.

Roger Fenton, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa... James Mason!!!
Honouring a Landmark Figure in the World History of War Photography

The History of War Photography - A Perspective, by Pat Hodgson "Early War Photographs"

BBC photo researcher Pat Hodgson sleuthed out the best Victorian war photographs up to 1900, and published some 90 of the very best from conflicts around the world.

She published not a single combat photograph.

The cover speaks for the book. Boer War soldiers at the battle of Colenso, watching from a safe distance, as war happens to someone else a couple of miles away. This was typical of Boer War photography. Though there were more cameras there than in any previous war, the photographers wanted to keep their cameras, ahem, safe from harm... So she published nothing that would qualify as a combat photograph from that war.

In fact Hodgson stops her book in 1900 with both British and American war photographers complaining that combat photography was just not possible and no one could do it. It was just too dangerous and the camera technology not up to the task.

She further confesses that she had to stretch her book beyond the Boer War, to 1904, to put in a picture of a dying Tibetian - by a suitably anonymous photographer - to find a photo that is closer to the real action of front line fighting, and is more akin to the photojournalist combat action photos that became more common decades later.

In fact this anonymously shot Tibetian dying photo is not a combat picture either. You could photograph a dying soldier any number of hours - even days - after the combat has passed him by.

She says this photo has much more in common with the photos of the 1930s, like Capa's famous Death of a Loyalist of the 1930s, than any of the other photos in the book. She wasn't aware that Capa's photo was not, at all, what he claimed it to be either. Her book ends, sadly, with these two examples of what are fake combat photographs. Neither can pass the smell test for genuine "soldiers in action" combat photographs.

She does not publish Lt. James Cooper Mason's "Firing Line at Paardeberg" photo. She may not have known of its existence, and so the importance it holds in the evolving art of war photography.

Pity. It would have been the only combat photograph in her book.

Go to Fake Canadian Photo


Oddly enough she does publish the photograph of the "Canadians" climbing a kopje, by Capt. Holson RFA, where the helmets sport the obviously faked Canadian cap badge.

That photo right is also credited to Reinhold Thiele who was using a large plate camera with Lord Methuen, in the area the Canadians were stationed.

They Said It Couldn't Be Done

Reinhold Thiele, used an 8” x 10” camera - some say 10" x 12" - that was fitted with a recently invented Dallmeyer telephoto lens. He figured he would get combat shots through a powerful telephoto lens, instead of going up by himself to where the action was.

The Royal Engineers also sent out a tele-photographer who was reputed to be able to take a clear picture up to two miles away. Without, need we add, exposing himself to personal danger.

Everyone wanted pictures of the combat up front, but were not dying to, preferring to shoot their images from well back...

Many of the photos that were published were still heavily touched up.

Worst of all, no amount of touching up could hide the fact there were no combat photos being taken.










The painters, like Remington, were still doing the combat pictures that war photographers complained they couldn't take because of the "long grass."

On the eve of the Boer War, says Pat Hodgson, repeating an often heard canard,

“It was still not possible to take action shots, as James Burton found out when photographing the Battle of San Juan (Cuba.)"

She quotes an American war photographer during the Spanish-American War, who "found himself" in the last place he ever wanted to be, in the firing line of a real battle. And confessed he wasn't up to what it took.

“Almost before I realized what had happened I found myself, for the first time in my life, under fire, right up in front, on the firing line of the 7th Regiment….. I found it impossible to make actual “battle scenes,” for many reasons – the distance at which the fighting is conducted, the area which is covered, but chiefly the long grass and thickly wooded country.”

Getting stranded in the firing line, sent him into an obvious panic, for he had so glued his body to the ground, for safety, that he was complaining of grass that was only six inches long. Not the best position to try to take a combat photo from...

War Action Canada - 1885

These two photographs from the Battle of Batoche, during the Riel Rebellion of 1885, show that the camera was capable of capturing guns going of, and stopping the motion sufficiently to make an exposure of "action."

The lower picture shows men ready to shoot. Trouble is the last photo, for certain, was taken a long way from the enemy and the front line. You got a picture because the photographer knew he was safe to stand up and compose his image without fear of getting shot.

It makes for a poor combat photo. And clearly it is not.

Go to Why This is Not a Combat Photo

The technology was there; just the will to use it in the firing line was not.

Until the son of a heroic officer, who was severely wounded at this fight, went off to serve his Queen and Country, fifteen years later...

During the Boer War, a year later, another photographer who used a glass plate camera excused his lack of shots of combat:

“Future photographing of war scenes will be done with cameras quite different from those I use in the campaign.”

Others found faking a lot more convincing.

Motion pictures were used for the first time by W. K-L Dickson in the Boer War. His movie colleagues had their critics. A filmed sequence of action of the Battle of Colenso was roundly panned by the British Journal of Photography. “We happen to know these were taken on Muswell Hill” on Hampstead Heath (England.) So faking combat scenes - and hiding it - was a way of life for war photographers of all kinds.

So war photographers were basically trying to avoid doing what was obvious to get combat photographs - go up front where the shooting is done on the firing line and take your chances like the foot soldiers who were putting their lives on the line for Queen and Country. Instead they sought long telephoto lenses, made fake photographs, and blamed the technology for the fact that in spite of the high pay they were getting they were not coming up with any real combat photographs.

Even Pat Hodgson, like other modern historians, states baldly, that in 1898, "it was still not possible to take action shots."

Balderdash! Kodak had sold its small Brownie Box cameras starting in 1888, ten years before the wars of which she quotes complaining photographers. There are lots of action shots of troops marching, walking, of artillery caissons rolling along, and of artillery guns going off. These were a long way behind the lines, of course. But the cameras did freeze motion. Action shots were possible.

Truth be told the technology seemed fine to get wagons and horses in action - a long way from the front of the firing line. It was just men in action, at the battle front, who were missing...

Plainly, the complaining, of long grass, too many bushes, the enemy too far away, the battle lines too spread out, the poor technology, etc., was bogus, like many of the photos war photographers made instead.

Clearly they were simply too scared to go up to where the dying was done. And who wouldn't be? Still, these were men who had a problem with honesty. Which allowed them to make so many fake photos of things that weren't what they appeared to be, just so they could make a buck...

So it's very clear that anyone with courage, and a little initiative, might actually achieve what nobody else was able or inclined to try. How about a real combat photo?

It was the elusive photo that all the famous war photographers of the past had failed to get.

Go to The Famous War Photographers

Enter Lt. James Cooper Mason of the Royal Canadian Regiment, about to join Lord Roberts' fabled March to Pretoria, and a date with destiny, as a soldier, and a photographer, at the bloody battle of Paardeberg

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The Paardeberg plate, celebrating the actions of the Canadians, like James Mason, found a welcome and honoured place on many a wall in homes across Canada.







Below Canadian historian John Goldi walks the very ground where James and the Canadians were advancing, in the shadow of Paardeberg Hill, in the background.

On Bloody Sunday the ground here was covered with hundreds of dead and dying British and Canadian soldiers.

It was while lying down here that James Mason stuck his head up into the firestorm to take his famous photo, and set a new standard in how to take good "action" war photographs.

Plate, Paardeberg Drift, Bloody Sunday, Feb. 18, 1900
Orig. plate - Size - 22 cm
Found - Burlington, ON

Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, RCR - 1875 -1923 - 1 - The Photo

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

On the Way to Paardeberg

Below a picture taken just a day or two before James was shot at the Battle of Paardeberg, as he charged on Bloody Sunday, probably waving the Pattern 1845 sword he is wearing.

For 20 men lying here, this was to be their last sleep. Next day, on Bloody Sunday, they would die at Paardeberg.

James' composition, as always, is flawless, knowing just how to present all the interesting elements in an artistic and educational way.

But there is really not enough light out to make a top exposure. The technology was just not there yet to make exposures other than on bright sunny days.


James was single but sent back photos which he tagged as Miss mca, who was Florence MacArthur, whom he would marry four years later. She kept a top notch, 100 page, Boer War scrapbook full of newspaper articles that followed the story of Canada's First Contingent until its homecoming.

perhaps the last battlefield picture James took on Bloody Sunday, the Royal Horse Artillery going into action, just before he was shot and his combat camera stilled forever.

The artillery would now replace the infantry as the tool of war to pound the Boers to surrender. But it would take them nine more days...