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The Great War in Stereoviews

Realistic Travels

There is little accurate information available on the business side of Realistic Travels. The standard reference is The World of Stereographs by William C. Darrah (Land Yacht Press, 1977, second edition 1997). Darrah claimed the company was active between 1908 and 1916 (p.109), but the content of the sets proves conclusively  that stereoviews were published under that name well into the Twenties, and Dr. Girdwood published stereoviews under his own name several years before 1908.

No manufacturer in a combatant nation, save for minor exceptions by French and German companies, produced stereographs of actual combat or its immediate aftermath in the early years of the war. Realistic was no exception. The battlefield in images 23-25 of the Set of 600 is supposedly from the early part of the war. The trees, terrain, and sand bags mark it as the same place. There are several clues that it is actually a training ground:

23 (Set of 600). The Leicesters' fine charge baffles the Kaiser's bid to wipe out the Old Contemptables (sic) at Ypres.

24  (Set of 600). Courage unsurpassed! Crawling through wire to rescue comrades, victims of a deadly shell.

25  (Set of 600). The price of victory!—Brave lads who fell in an early morning raid on the German lines.


Night shots of raiding parties were taken with flashes, something that would have compromised the raid and drawn immediate fire from the enemy. It is likely that the two images below were taken about the same time and place, despite their attribution to two different battles.


81 (Set of 600). Off on a night raid, our troops steal into the inky darkness of No Man’s Land near Messines

157 (Set of 600). Our troops leaving by a sap on a night operation to cut off the Huns holding on to Villers-Bretonneaux

The first and definitive Realistic Travels set contained 600 cards, sold in smaller editions of 100, 200, 300, 400, and 500. For at least part of its production run, small subsets of 25 or 32 were also made available. The structure of the 600-view Realistic set has a fundamentally different character than Keystone sets. As shown in the table below, in this set Realistic followed no chronological order after the first 100 cards. Larger editions were created by adding stereographs to the smaller editions, rather than interleaving them to maintain a coherent theme. It is difficult to date Realistic sets.  Since the first volume of the first set included postwar pictures, it is probable that all of the major sets were issued after the war. Some smaller sets may have been produced during the war, and it is possible a wartime set of 100 or more has not yet been discovered.

Stereoview production was a three-step process. A blank mount was imprinted with the company logo, a command box, and for earlier types, an orientation line at center; it is likely a quantity of such mounts was prepared during this step. Next, the title, copyright information, and sequence number were added. Finally, the left and right photos were glued on. Different logos and copyright data provide clues to the relative dates of production.

Realistic is not known to have sold rights to its stereoviews to other companies. Girdwood probably bought rights to English Underwood & Underwood images or at least some of its stock. In one case a Realistic set included (probably by accident) an Underwood Boer War card numbered in an identical font. In another, an Underwood box was relabeled as a Realistic Travels box. If such an agreement was concluded, it probably occurred in 1921, when Underwood sold rights to its American images to Keystone.

Unlike most makers, Realistic did not use image numbers, only sequence numbers. While the Set of 600 sequence numbers are most common, other sets used different numbering schemes, so the same images are found with different numbers. There were often minor sequence changes, and cards that were available were substituted for the intended cards, so minor variations in numbers should be expected.

Realistic Travels Set of 600

Vol. I   (1-100)

Title List


Western Front 1914-17

Western Front 1914-15 (1-45)

Somme 1916 (46-63)

Aviation (64-71)

Arras 1917 (72-79)

3rd Ypres 1917 (80-98)

Postwar Ypres (99-100)

Vol. II  (101-200)

Title List



Other Theaters, Last Battles On The Western Front, And War’s End

U-Boats (101-102)

Gallipoli 1915 (103-118)

Ostend Raid (119)

Egypt (120)

Palestine (121-126)

Iraq (127-129)

Africa (130-136)

Cambrai 1917 (137-139)

German Offensive 1918 (140-154)

Yser 1914 (155-156)

Miscellaneous (157-158)

Battles 1918 (159-161)

Aviation (162-167)

Final Battles 1918 (168-183)

German Defeat 1918 (184-187)

German Naval Surrender (188-192)

Occupation (193-197)

Victory Parade (198-200)

Vol. III (201-300)

Title List


World War 1914-1918

1915-17 Western Front Battles (201-218)

1918 Western Front Battles (219-230)

Aviation (231-236)

Artillery (237-240)

1914 Western Front Battles (241-251)

Medical Care (252-256)

Life on the Western Front (257-267)

Aviation (268-271)

Home Front (272-273)

Italian Front (274)

Africa (275-280)

Gallipoli 1915 (281-285)

Balkans (286)

Victory (287-289)

Captured German Vessels, inc. U-Boats (290-295)

Return Home (296-300)

Vol. IV (301-400)

Title List


Postwar Scenes Of Western Front Battlefields, Memorials, And Cemeteries

Vol. V  (401-500)

Title List


World War 1914-1918

Gallipoli 1915 (401-409)

Sea Transport (410)

Life on the Western Front (411-428)

Aviation (429-431)

Life on the Western Front (432-459)

Medical Care (460-465)

Navy (466-469)

Rear Services (470-473)

HQ (474-475)

Life on the Western Front (476-479)

Return Home (480-482)

Africa (483-484)

Occupation (485-487)

Home Front (488-495)

Tributes to ANZAC & Canadian Soldiers (496-497)

Victory Celebrations (498-500)

Vol. VI (501-600)

Title List


Western Front, The Indian Army, And War’s End

Life on the Western Front (501-511)

Indian Army (Gurkhas) (512-520)

Aviation (521-525)

Indian Army (526-531)

Home Front (532)

Life on the Western Front (533-542)

Indian Army (543-550)

Life on the Western Front (551-557)

Tanks (558-559)

Indian Army (560-568)

Aviation (569-572)

Home Front (573-577)

Navy (578-581)

Captured U-Boats (582-587)

Victory (588)

Occupation (589-599)

Conclusion (Churchill and Queen Mary) (600)


The Realistic Travels Set of 600 was almost wholly Anglocentric, portraying the global nature of the conflict only insofar as it involved troops of the British Empire. For example, in the Set of 600, 53 views (9%) were devoted to the Indian Army, including Gurkhas; 1.3 million Indians served, suffering 72,000 battle deaths. In comparison, only 6 views (1%) concerned French forces, although France mobilized 8.5 million men during the war and suffered 1,385,000 battle deaths.

The majority of the set shows the sites of the great battles in the British Area of Responsibility of the Western Front. Reflecting the almost mystical regard for the sacrifices of the British Army in Flanders, the largest segment (64 views) concerns Ypres, scene of constant fighting and four designated battles from 1914 to 1918. The next largest category is the Somme (49 views), where the British carried out a costly offensive in 1916, then in 1918 suffered serious losses to Germany's last offensive before sweeping through the old Somme battlefield on the way to the Hindenburg Line.

Despite deficiencies in structure, realism, and breadth, the Realistic Set of 600 was marked by excellent technical quality and coverage of  aspects of the war not seen elsewhere.

Later Sets

Perhaps because the Set of 600 was too expensive or because its quirky organization impeded sales, Dr. Girdwood adopted a more conventional approach of selling integrated sets of 200. At least four were produced, none of which have been completely reconstructed. These sets of 200 incorporated some completely new images, many higher-numbered images (301-600) from the Set of 600, and many images that differed only slightly from their counterparts in the Set of 600, examples of which are shown below. Retitling of images that first appeared in the Set of 600 was common.

The four known sets of 200 have been arbitrarily designated 200-1 through 200-4 and are described below (images are incomplete; only high-resolution images made by the author or used by permission are included).

Set 200-1. Only Volume II (101-200) of this set has been identified; it was mistakenly included as Volume II of a Set of 600, suggesting that it was sold at the same time as the larger set or that it was the first successor set. It is possible that its Volume I was the same as that in the Set of 600. In comparison to Volume II of the Set of 600, changes were minimal: 19 views from Volumes I, III-VI were renumbered, 10 new images were incorporated, as were 3 views with minor differences. Title List   Images

Set 200-2. Of 129 known stereoviews, 22 (17%) were new. The proportions for the Western Front, other theaters, and special topics seem about the same as the Set of 600. Title List   Images

Set 200-3. Of 179 known stereoviews in this set, 60 (33%) were new images. A higher proportion of the images (24 or 13%) than in the Set of 600 were in an identifiable Indian Army section, and only 11 stereoviews (6%) showed African subjects. This set may have been intended for sale by the Realistic Travels Bombay office. Title List   Images

Set 200-4. This is the most recent of the identified sets of 200. As in 200-3, one-third of the views (58 of 176) were new images. Many of the new images were of African scenes and only about seven images (4%), not in their own section, concerned the Indian Army, suggesting this set may have been primarily intended for sale by the Realistic Travels Capetown office. Five showed mobilizing forces in South Africa, eight showed operations in German West Africa, and twelve depicted operations in German East Africa. These 25 African views (12.5% of 200) were a far higher percentage than in any other set, and over half of them were new images. These stereoviews also included all of the new Type IV mounts on light brown mounts (10 of 176 views). Title List   Images

In addition to these four largely complete sets, 34 stereoviews from another probable set of 200 have been identified. Only two (6%) are new images, and all of the others may be found in the Set of 600, suggesting this set was made before sets 200-2, -3, and -4. There are also several single views that bear sequence numbers that could belong to yet more sets, including another focused on the Indian Army.

The minor differences between several images in the Set of 600 and later sets reinforce the conclusion that Realistic Travels stereoviews were staged and not spontaneous. It is likely that taking multiple shots of each subject was the norm. The reason Girdwood used outtakes in later sets is not known.



18. F.M. Sir John French, C.-in-C. in France, with A.D.C.'s at General Head Quarters. (French’s right leg is bent)

26 (Set 200-3). F.M. Sir John French, C-in-C in France with A.D.C.'s at General Head Quarters. (French’s right leg is straight)



31. The result of a bombardment; shell craters and buildings wrecked by German shells.

(Compare the soldiers’ heads in these two close-ups)



20 (Set 200-3). A shell-riddled and deserted village daily subjected to artillery fire.


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