Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lest We Forget - The Final Pictures of Lt. Ralph E. Estep (1918)

Ralph E. Estep, 29 October 1918, Driccourt, French Ardennes, eight days before his death

Exactly 97 years ago and just four days before the Armistice, on November 7, 1918, while on a photographic assignment with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division near Sedan, Lieutenant Ralph Edwin Estep was killed in action by a German high explosive shell. He was the only military photographer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I who was mortally wounded. The pictures in his camera recorded his final moments in life.

Not much is known about Estep's background, except for the fact that in civilian life he was a press photographer for Leslie's Weekly. In 1916, before America entered the Great War, he was sent to Europe by his magazine editor to cover the war with the Serbian army. Sometime in 1918, he joined the U.S. Signal Corps which had been assigned to photograph and film the war. In the Signal Corps collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC., there is a picture taken by Estep, showing the 78th Division Photo Unit making pictures of a bridge that had been destroyed by the retreating German army over the Aire River near Grandpre in the French Ardennes. Estep covered the American advance in this area which was under heavy German fire until the very last day of World War I.

Last War Pictures

On November 7, 1918, Estep was near Sedan capturing still photographs with his plate camera of a patrol by a unit of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division into the German lines. The weather was cloudy, it was around 5 PM, dusk was already falling. This was the moment the Germans started shelling the American soldiers in front of him and Estep's camera recorded the men running for cover. There were casualties among the American soldiers and Estep's final picture shows a huge column of flying earth as a result of a shell exploding in front of him. A few minutes later he was dead.

Lieutenant Estep's death was described by Stars and Strips in more detail on November 28, 1918:

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