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. He probably was born in Winona Lake, Indiana, where at his local high school a memorial tablet was placed to commemorate his untimely death. In 1915, before America entered the Great War, Estep was sent to Europe by Leslie's Weekly to cover the war with the Serbian army. He also was sent to France and appears to have reported on the war at the Italian front. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 Estep enlisted with the 36th Division and he later was made a Signal Corps photographer. In the Signal Corps collection at the National Archives in Washington, DC., there is a picture taken by Estep in the fall of 1918, 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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