L’Historial beside the lake of the Somme at Peronne
The Historial de la Grande Guerre is an excellent museum of the First World War in Peronne, the small town straddling the upper reaches of the Somme which was my base during the time I spent exploring the memorials and cemeteries there. The museum was opened in 1992 and houses presentations in three languages – French, English and German – to show how each nation experienced the war in this sector. It is not a military but a cultural museum which seeks to show how the lives of combatants and civilians were affected by the war. For me, the main attraction was a display of a complete set of Otto Dix’s series of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), his harrowing cycle of prints in which he documented the horrors of his own wartime experience.
The entrance to the Historial, through the gateway of the Chateau
The Historial is housed in the partly-ruined medieval Château de Péronne, in a modernist building of white concrete on the banks of one of the placid lakes (etangs) of the Somme which make a stroll around Peronne such a pleasant experience.
Peaceful scenes on the Somme and the etangs around Peronne
Inside the museum there are displays of posters, lithographs, press clippings, objects, uniforms, postcards, photographs, and many other documents which provide an international panorama of the conflict. Among the most interesting of the exhibits are the tables on which is displayed the detritus of war – coils of barbed wire, helmets, some pierced by bullets, lead shot, water bottles, trenching tools, and so on – still being found in the fields of the region, as today’s farmers dig and work their fields with tractors.
Displays at the Historial, Peronne
For almost the whole of the war, Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2 September 1918 by Australian troops. Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war.
Arthur Streeton, ‘Ruins in Peronne: Hôtel de Ville’, watercolour with pencil
The ruined church in Péronne, 5 September 1918
Within days of Peronne being captured, the Australian troops had made their mark on the streets with signs painted on bits of old timber that reflected the Australian sense of humour: Wallaby Lane, Ding Bat Alley, Digger Road, Dinkum Alley – but best of all, Roo De Kanga. The sign was photographed on 3 October 1918 and collected for Australian War Records shortly after.
Rue de Kanga, Peronne, in 1918
Few towns in France have retained the street names given to them by the Australian forces. However, in 1997 the commune of Peronne restored the name Roo De Kanga to a stretch of the rue de St Savour, by the Hotel de Ville, where the sign had hung briefly some seventy nine years before.
The street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’ in Péronne today
In the Historial, I was keen to see the complete set of Otto Dix’s etchings, Der Krieg. Displayed in a dedicated gallery, this disturbing 20th century equivalent of Goya’s Disasters of War makes troubling viewing.
In 1914 Otto Dix, a 24 year-old student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, enlisted in the German army and was sent in 1915 to serve on the Western Front. It was not until after the war, from 1920 onwards, that his work became overtly anti-militarist under the influence of Grosz, portraying his hatred for war in a style close to expressionism, full of pathos and violence.
The series of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg, completed in 1924, sprang from the artist’s need to confront the horrors of his wartime experiences:
The fact is, being young at the time, you just don’t realize how profoundly scarred you are. For at least ten years after the war I kept getting dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through. The ruins were always there in my dreams. . .
In these etchings, destruction, deformation and appalling human mutilation emerge from encircling gloom to form a vision that is apocalyptic. Most of the scenes depicted recall memories of things seen by Dix in Somme or in Picardy, where he fought (he was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916).
In Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, GH Hamilton describes Dix’s series as:
Perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz …
Like the equally devastating Disasters of War, Goya’s account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching methods and exploits the potential of a long sequence of images. Der Krieg mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism and, like Goya’s cycle, reveals the artist both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. The portfolio was circulated throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War (for which Kathe Kollwitz created her memorable image of the same name). Dix, however, doubted that his prints would have any bearing on future wars.
Before I left for France I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson, whose own work is similarly direct and uncompromising to that of Dix, give a talk on Dix and Der Krieg on Radio 3’s The Essay, in a week of excellent talks entitled ‘Minds at War’ that also included Ruth Padel talking about Kathe Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents sculpture, and Heather Jones on Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.
Rowson began his talk by placing Dix in the context of the New Objectivity artistic movement that flourished in Germany in the 1920s – challenging Expressionism by its unsentimental focus on reality and the objective world, as opposed to the more abstract, romantic, or idealistic tendencies of Expressionism. Otto Dix was one of its main practitioners, along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Their mercilessly naturalistic depictions portrayed Weimar society in a caustically satirical manner.
Otto Dix, ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’
Speaking specifically of the engravings that form the sequence Der Krieg, Rowson described the effect of viewing them as claustrophobic, ‘just like being stuck in a trench eating lunch among your comrades’ rotting corpses’ (here referring to ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’, the thirteenth print in the series).
These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
– ‘Grotesque’ by Frederic Manning
Rowson explained the elements of the engravings which define them as modernist – in particular, Dix’s use of over-drawing, ‘one of the defining tricks of modernism: that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across all other lines’. For Rowson, ‘breaking the rules of realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth’.
In a key passage of his talk, Rowson compared John Singer Sargent’s Gassed with the third plate from Dix’s Der Krieg, ‘Gas Victims’, in which, ‘faces blackened by lack of oxygen and unrecognisable as being even human’, the victims of a gas attack lie apparently unnoticed while two medical orderlies stand nonchalantly by them. Sargent’s painting, Rowson argued, could only have emerged from the victorious nation – exhibited in the new Imperial War Museum, whose name would have provoked a gunfight between armed militias in Germany, the nation defeated and therefore deeply divided about the meaning of the war. Even the act of remembering – as Otto Dix did in his etchings and paintings – could be conceived as being in the worst possible taste.
Otto Dix, ‘Gas victims (Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916)’
Rowson concluded by asserting that Der Kreig is ‘less about the Great War than its aftermath: while Dix claimed to be remembering the war and its horrors, the Nazi’s whole point was to re-enact them’. In 1933 Dix was dismissed from his post as an art tutor at the Dresden Academy by the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards his work appeared in the Nazi government’s exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (to be burned afterwards). In 1935 Otto Dix left Germany for exile in Switzerland.
In 1963, explaining why he had volunteered in 1914, Dix had this to say:
I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…
Otto Dix, ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’
The first plate from Der Krieg is ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’, a chaotic image of a churned up battlefield which is also a cemetery, constantly ploughed by continued shelling.
Next to the black, waxen heads like Egyptian mummies, lumpy with insect larvae and debris, where white teeth appeared the hollows; next to poor darkened stumps which were numerous here, like a field of bare roots, we discovered yellow skulls, stripped clean, still wearing a red fez with a grey cover as brittle as papyrus. There were thigh-bones protruding from mounds of rags stuck together in the red mud, or a fragment of spine emerged from a hole filled with frayed material coated with a kind of tar. There were ribs scattered all over the ground like broken old cages, and nearby blackened pieces of leather, pierced and flattened beakers and mess tins had risen to the surface. Here and there, a longish bulge – for all these unburied dead finish up going into the ground – only a scrap of material sticks out, indicating that a human being was annihilated on this particular point of the globe.
– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu
Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’
While the series began with a soldier’s grave between the lines, the second plate provides a graphic depiction of how such graves are produced. Soldiers react in horror as the earth collapse around them. In the instant before they are swallowed, Dix depicts them not as they are but as they will become, their faces reduced to depictions of skulls.
Otto Dix, ‘Carcass of a horse’
The First World War produced many artistic renderings of dead horses – a reflection of the fact that there was nearly one for every man, and that the connection between horse and man was very close. This three-legged corpse, with its side ripped wide open is terribly realistic.
Otto Dix, ‘Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares’
Already by plate number four you sense that this is no ordinary series of etchings. Here, a night time flare illuminates a lunar landscape, illustrating the command of various print techniques which Dix demonstrates throughout the series.
A constellation like day; the horizon behind it by lights
and flares fingered and shrouded,
That went and came, fell or stood, restless, phantom-
like; and if it went, deep night fell,
And if it came, then somewhere a town lay, white,
shifting furtive a forest was made and a vale
Full of sleep, with torrents and indeterminate things,
with graves and churchtowers, smashed, with
climbing mists, moist, big-clouded,
With huts, where sleepers lay, where a dream walked,
full of fever, full of strangeness, full of animal
splendour,where abruptly a screen
Of cloud split open; and behind it swelled and ocean of
stars. a dominion of rockets, a light sprang from the
Terrible, roaring, rumble of wheels on roads, and a
man stepped darkly into the dark,by a dreadful
Saw the flight of fires migrating, heard butchery below,
saw behind the darkness the city that ceaselessly
Heard in earth’s belly a rolling,ponderous, gigantic,
primeval, heard traffic travelling the roads, into the
void, into the widening night, into a storm, grim in
the west. Frantic, the ear
With the front’s countless hammers, with the riders
who came, stamping, hurrying, with the riders who
rode away, to turn into shadows, melt into the night,
there to rot,
Death slaughters them, and they lie under weeds,
heavy, fossil, with hands full of spiders, mouths
scabbed red and brown,
Eyes full of uttermost sleep, the circlet of shadow
around their brows, blue, waxen,decaying in the
smoke of the night
Which sank down, threw shadows far which spread its
vault from hill to hill, over forest and rottenness,
over brains full of dreams, over the hundred
none carried away,
Over the mass of fire, over laughter and madness, over
crosses in fields, over pain and despair, over rublle
and ash, over the river and the ruined town…
– ‘Nocturnal Landscape’ byAnton Schnack, 1920, translated from the German by Christopher Middleton
Otto Dix, ‘A Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)’
Dix was a machine gunner during the battle of the Somme, an experience that left him with obsessive memories of death. Here he depicts unblinkingly the agony of a comrade wounded in the abdomen, expressed in his bulging eyes, clenched right hand and twisted left arm. This image is an unmitigated symbol of human suffering.
Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’
Dix fought in Champagne, on the Somme, near Verdun, in Russia, and in Flanders – the latter experience leading him to paint Flanders in 1924: with its echoes of Breugel’s apocalyptic visions, it was subtitled ‘Adapted from Barbusse’s Under Fire‘.
Now, in the sinister light of the storm beneath black dishevelled clouds, dragged and spread across the earth like wicked angels, they seem to see a great livid white plain extend before them. In their vision, figures rise up out of the plain, which is composed of mud and water, and clutch at the surface of the ground, blinded and crushed with mire, like survivors from some monstrous shipwreck. These men seem to them to be soldiers. The plain is vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes, and the shipwrecked men trying to extract themselves from it are a great multitude . . . But the thirty million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering is without end.
– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, chapter 1
Otto Dix, ‘Flanders’, 1934
When Dix began painting Flanders, he had already been dismissed from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix’s dismissal letter said that his work ‘threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves’. In addition, two of Dix’s paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, had appeared in the exhibition in Dresden Town Hall of ‘degenerate art’ intended by the Nazis to discredit modern art. Dix’s response was to begin painting Flanders – another powerful anti-war painting.
Otto Dix, ‘Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack’
‘Storm-troopers advancing under a gas attack’ is probably the print from the series that is most often reproduced. Dix portrays five soldiers in close-up, as seen through the eyes of French defenders, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land during a gas attack. When soldiers wore their gas masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix presents them as symbols of terror.
Otto Dix, ‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)
What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in.
– Otto Dix
Otto Dix, ‘The Ruins of Langemark’
Langemark was where gas used by the Germans for the first time in April 1915. During the Third Battle of Ypres, British troops captured Langemarck (which is close to Passchendaele). A German counter-offensive then re-captured most of the ground around Langemarck. This print probably depicts Dix’s memory of what was left of the town after he and the Germans returned.
Otto Dix, ‘A Dying Soldier’
The Historial’s caption to this print gets it exactly, terrifyingly right, pointing out that the title is ‘dying’, not ‘dead’ despite the unprecedented wounds inflicted by artillery and gunfire.
Otto Dix, ‘Lens is bombarded’
Lens was located in German occupied territory, still inhabited by elderly French civilians, women and children. Dix focusses on one street. A British or French plane flies low over homes in order to bomb enemy targets, but killing civilians in the process. Dix portrays the terror of women in the foreground, while bodies lie strewn across the street behind them. Here is where it all started – the concept of ‘total war’ in which civilians are deliberate targets (in order to demoralize) or are simply ‘collateral damage’. Think Gaza, Syria, Ukraine right now.
Otto Dix, ‘Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches’
Dix represents what no war photos could show – the act of a German soldier stabbing with force a knife into the heart of his enemy. The tension of the arm, the direction of the body, the blade piercing the body – force us to look at the killer’s grinning action
We are unfeeling dead who, through some dangerous trick of magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman falls behind; they catch up with him and he puts his hands up; in one of them he is still holding his revolver; we cannot tell whether he wants to shoot or to surrender. A stroke with a shovel splits his face in two. Another seeing this tries to escape, but a bayonet whistles into his back. He jumps in the air and, arms outstretched, stumbles screaming as the bayonet moves up and down in his spine.
– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Otto Dix, ‘Shelter in the Trenches’
By a lamp, German soldiers sleep, play cards, smoke. On the left, a naked soldier kills fleas on his shirt with his finger nails. Looking at this brought to mind ‘Vigil’, a poem dated 23 December 1915, by the Italian, Giuseppe Ungaretti which I first read in Jon Silkin’s 1979 Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – still, I think, the best collection.
A whole night long
to one of our men
with his clenched
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
into my silence
letters filled with love
I have never held
Otto Dix, ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt’, 1914
- Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool
- The Chinese labourers who served on the Western Front
- Deserters, mutineers and the German soldier who warned of the first gas attack
- On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets
- Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone