My 1964 edition of The American Heritage History of World War I includes this photograph from the collections of the Imperial War Museum. It depicts Canadian troops under fire in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, but something about the caption strikes me odd.
"The only bright spot for the Allies that spring was the capture of Vimy Ridge on April 9th by the Canadians, one of whom is seen at left, going over the top with a gesture expressing his contempt for the Germans." (pg. 239)
I wonder if this is an accurate description of what the camera actually captured. Is that soldier thumbing his nose or grimacing at the point of impact? Is anyone holding that rifle, or did he just drop it? And was "cocking a snoot" a standard gesture of contempt utilized by Canadians in 1917 as the American Heritage editors suggest? I don't know the answers at the moment. Let's see if we can figure this out and test the hypothesis of the caption with an alternative explanation.
Nose thumbing, it turns out, dates to at least the 18th century so they are on safe ground there. But at least one source claims that as far as derisive gestures go it is a fairly mild one "used in (gentle) mockery." Furthermore, in a discussion on nose thumbing at this site, one participant reveals that in the 1930s and 1940s in London when he was growing up, thumbing one's nose was very popular among children but "was almost never used by adults and was regarded as childlike." Biting one's thumb, on the other hand, is definitely a rude British gesture of long standing - it makes an appearance in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet - but this soldier's hand seems too far from the teeth for that to be what he is supposed to be doing. Who can say what primal impulses will be jarred loose from the subconscious mind in combat, but I remain unconvinced that a veteran of trench warfare in 1917 would deliberately thumb his nose at the enemy lines when going over the top. Kick a football, yes, but nose thumbing seems a stretch.
We do not yet have a case for an alternative hypothesis that something else is going on in this photograph. Let's take a closer look.
The Canadians left their trench with their rifles held "at trail", grasping the stock in the right hand about midway along the barrel. There is the merest suggestion of a hand in that position on this soldier's rifle, all but obscured by the head and helmet of his comrade climbing over the top beside him. I would be more comfortable saying that the soldier has not dropped his rifle if I could determine which hand is outstretched near his face. For the caption to be correct, it ought to be his left. Is it?
The photographer's viewpoint is angled up at the soldiers leaving the trench with the sun behind him and a bit to the left. The outstretched hand is in deep shadow, but there are lighter spots that could be knuckles, or part of a palm. It is very hard to say which way the silhouettes of fingers are curving. That little finger in particular just doesn't look right for a hand with the palm facing forward. But what about that black wedge between the other soldier's helmet and the right elbow of our alleged nose thumber? Is it a gas mask on his chest? If so, the weight of evidence suggests that the right arm is holding the rifle, and the left hand is raised near the face, but it is hard to tell for certain.
On the presumption that this is his left hand, the wrist appears to be bent well back. Try an experiment for me. Take your left hand and thumb your nose at the computer screen - the shades of these veterans will forgive you, this is for posterity. How is your hand aligned with your wrist? Mine too.
I don't think this soldier's hand is at a natural angle for nose thumbing. I think instead he may be flinching, as if to ward off a blow, or perhaps having just received one.
All this is conjecture, my case as precarious as a house of cards. Maybe the American Heritage editors got it just right. Then again, maybe there is more here than a shadow of a doubt. What the Canadians did that day at Vimy Ridge is beyond question. Whether this one soldier went into battle thumbing his nose at death or straight into its arms remains to be seen.