Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)

While we were in London recently we went to the Imperial War Museum to see Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War.  It’s billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, and there is certainly a great deal to absorb.  I’ll review what for me were the highlights in this and two succeeding posts. As its title suggests, this retrospective encourages us to think about how artists represented the war, and helped commemorate it – but also, how their work still affects our perception of it a century later. Continue reading “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)”

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

At Manchester Art Gallery: The Sensory War 1914-2014

While I was in Manchester today for a book-signing at Waterstones I made some time to visit The Sensory War 1914-2014, a major exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery marking the centenary of the First World War. Taking as its starting point the gallery’s nationally important collection of art of the First World War, the exhibition explores how artists have portrayed the impact of war on the body, mind, environment and human senses during the century that has elapsed since 1914.

At the beginning of the show are two stark paintings by CRW Nevinson. A Howitzer Gun in Elevation (1917) shows a dull-grey artillery barrel thrusting high into an empty sky, while in Explosion (1916) a fountain of earth is blasted skywards on a distant, muddy ridge. Neither painting features human beings: instead Nevinson focusses on the new technology and its capacity for mass destruction.

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

CWR Nevinson, Howitzer Gun in Elevation, 1917

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CRW Nevinson ‘Explosion’ 1916

But war is a human activity and the exhibition’s aim is to show how artists from 1914 onwards depicted the devastating impact of new military technologies on human flesh and minds. It brings together work from a dazzling array of leading artists including, alongside several more paintings by the excellent Nevinson, others by Henry Lamb,Paul Nash, Otto Dix,David Bomberg, and Laura Knight, plus more recent paintings and photography by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Sophie Ristelhueber, and Nina Berman.  A gruelling experience in parts, I was interested to discover artists whose work had been unknown to me beforehand.

The argument of the curators is that the invention of devastating military technologies that were deployed during the First World War involved a profound re-configuration of sensory experience and perception. Human lives were destroyed and the environment altered beyond recognition. The war’s legacy has continued and evolved through even more radical forms of destruction over the last hundred years. Throughout the century, artists have struggled to understand the effects of modern technological warfare. Military and press photography have brought a new capacity to coldly document the deadliness of modern warfare, while artists found a different way of seeing.

The exhibition is arranged by theme through several rooms. Here is a selection of works that particularly made an impression on me, with additional information drawn from the exhibition’s explanatory panels.

Militarising Bodies, Manufacturing War

The First World War saw an unprecedented mobilisation of combatants around the world. Some 65 million volunteers and conscripts went from all walks of civilian life to become soldiers. The war was truly global and four million colonial troops and military labourers were drafted into the European and American armed forces. It was fought not only in Europe but in the Middle East and in Africa: wherever there were European colonies.

To turn a factory worker, a farm labourer, a clerk or a student into a fighting machine meant militarising them through training. As the title of Eric Kennington’s series of prints puts it, ‘Making Soldiers’.

Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners circa 1917 by Eric Kennington

Eric Kennington, Making Soldiers: Bringing In Prisoners c 1917 

Eric Kennington was born in Liverpool.  His biographer, Julian Freeman, writes:

A vital, independent talent in early and mid-twentieth-century British art, Kennington became a formidable draughtsman-painter, printmaker, and sculptor (his working practice evolved roughly in that order), and a great portraitist: his figures were often somewhat idealized, but always boldly executed, and frequently in pastel crayon, a self-taught medium in which he came to excel.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Kennington enlisted with the 13th London Regiment. He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation. Campbell Dodgson wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’.

The series of lithographs, ‘Making Soldiers’ was commissioned by Charles Masterman who was in charge of visual art commissions at the Department of Information. ‘Making Soldiers’ was part of a morale-boosting propaganda project called ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’. The series was exhibited in London in July 1917.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

CRW Nevinson, Motor Lorries 1916

The full inventive and productive power of the modern industrialised world was turned to the war effort. New weapons could create mass casualties in a way not seen before. Flame throwers, grenades, barbed wire, mobile machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, aeroplanes and large-scale artillery, such as the Howitzer, could annihilate the environment and pulverise bodies. The development of this military technology and the mass production of shells and bombs ushered in a new era of modern war, which was an assault on bodies, minds, and landscapes, filtered through the human sensory realm. The noise of war began on the home front, in the deafening and dangerous armaments factories. Significantly, it was artists who communicated the din of the factories, the sonic pounding of high-powered artillery, the storm of marching ground-troops, and the clashing of bayonets and boots. Artists visually linked the ferocious technology of the war to the process of militarisation.

CWR Nevinson employed his Futurist depiction of the human body to great effect to show how the soldier was turned into a cog in the machine of war. He paints the soldiers in Motor Lorries with the same harsh geometry as the cold hard girders they are carrying in. In all Nevinson’s paintings of this period he used a palette of mud browns and the blues of leaden-skies and cold steel to create a harsh and inhuman world.

CWR Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War, 1915)

CRW Nevinson, La Guerre des Trous (The Underground War), 1915

The French soldiers in this giant fortified trench wait for the call to go over the top (possibly in Woesten, near Ypres, where Nevinson was stationed). The barbed wire – a major new technology used extensively in the First World War – forms a twisted, menacing skyline. The famed writer, Guillaume Apollinaire recognised that Nevinson had outgrown the bravado of Futurism’s machismo, and was instead ‘making palpable the soldiers’ suffering and communicating to others the feelings of pity and horror’

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, engraving, 1916

David Bomberg, Study for 'Sappers at Work A Canadian Tunnelling

David Bomberg, Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company’, 1918

David Bomberg was a pioneer of the English movement Vorticism, founded by Wyndham Lewis, which attempted to create a local version of Futurism. Bomberg served with the Royal Engineers and the 18th King’s Royal Rifles before being asked to commemorate the service of Canadian soldiers. This work, done in black and red chalk on paper, is an abstracted study for a more figurative official commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, now in the National Gallery of Canada.

Amongst the new sensory experiences created by the First World War was the experience of waging war by working underground. Canadian and Yorkshire miners (sappers) excavated a tunnel at St Eloi to plant a huge mine under Hill 60 at Messines Ridge, near Ypres. The tunnel took eight months to complete. It was detonated in March 1916 obliterating the landscape and leading to devastating loss of life on the German front line – two whole companies of men were killed. The event was portrayed in the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong.

CWR Nevinson, Making Aircraft Making the Engine 1917

CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Making the Engine 1917

In Nevinson’s Making the Engine, the machines and men have merged in a picture resonating with the hammering din of the wartime factory. The image seems to vibrate simulating the whirring, deafening noise of industrial spaces reverberating with the production of war machines.

George Clausen, Making Guns The Furnace 1917

 George Clausen, Making Guns: The Furnace, 1917

Several works in the exhibition derive from projects to document the wartime effort of workers in the armaments industries, including two by George Clausen. The lithograph Making Guns: The Furnace implies the future violence of a large gun forged in a blaze of fire and molten steel.

Clausen, Study for 'The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal'
George Clausen, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’, c.1919

Clausen’s, Study for ‘The Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal’ in pencil, watercolour and pen and brown ink was made in preparation for a large painting commission to document 74,000 munitions workers occupied at this vast factory site. Shades of light permeate the study streaming in and around the centrepiece of the colossal machinery used to mould gun-barrels. The press resembles a gigantic beast against the barely visible workers below.

Female Factories

The mass mobilisation of society meant that women’s bodies were just as critical as men’s in the conduct of Total War. In Britain alone, over seven million women were mobilised into wartime industries and public services, with over one million working in the munitions industry. Around 60,000 served in the armed services, and thousands volunteered for the medical corps. Though munitions work was dangerous and exhausting, and resisted by Trade Unions as ‘only for the duration’, it offered women paid employment, a degree of independence and a feeling of direct involvement in the war effort. The Society for Women Welders, for instance, was formed in 1915 and by 1918 had 630 members.

Laura knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

Laura Knight, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942

In the Second World war, female munitions workers became symbols of modernity by challenging perceptions of women’s capabilities. Wearing men’s dungarees, engaged in both skilled and physical labour, they adapted their bodies and minds to the taxing work of heavy engineering or the risk of making explosives. Artists reflected this temporary change in women’s roles depicting the militarisation and modernity of the female body.

Laura Knight’s heroic depiction of a woman factory worker in the Second World War has become an iconic image. The eponymous Ruby was a skilled machinist in the Royal Ordinance Factory in Newport, Monmouthshire. The breech ring she is lathing was for a Bofors breech gun; a notoriously difficult engineering task to complete to the required precision without making the gun a suicidal hazard to use. The painting was widely discussed on the radio and produced in poster form as a propaganda tool for distribution to other factories. In America the more fictional Rosie the Riveter became equally famous through the distribution of posters.

Nevinson, Making Aircraft Acetylene Welding 1917
CRW Nevinson, Making Aircraft: Acetylene Welding, 1917

The two women featured in this lithograph wear protective eye-goggles, aprons and scarves. Nevinson’s skilled use of the graphic technique conveys the sensory elements of flying sparks that almost singe the exposed arms, hands and clothes of the women, and draw in the viewer. Absorbed in their skilled task, the women become anonymous bodies in the war machine, a familiar device in art of the period only usually applied to soldiers’ bodies.

Women's Work: On Munitions - Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick, Women’s Work: On Munitions, Dangerous Work (Packing TNT), 1917

Hartick completed lithographs for the series, ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ on the theme of women on the Home Front. For the first time women were recruited to the war effort, working in the munitions factories making the very instruments of death which wrought terror in the trenches. The work of the munitionettes or Canary Girls as they were called due to the yellow discolouration of their skin from TNT, was indeed highly dangerous. Many were killed in munitions factory explosions such as the one at the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, Nottingham in 1918 which killed 137.

Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On the Railways, Engine and Carriage Cleaners, 1917

Women's Work: On Munitions - Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting) circa 1917 by Archibald Standish Hartrick 1864-1950

Archibald Standish Hartrick , Women’s Work: On Munitions – Heavy Work (Drilling and Casting), 1917

Pain and Succour

In the First World War over two million soldiers from Britain and the colonies of its Empire were wounded. The medical corps was charged with evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, treating them in field hospitals and at home, so that they could eventually be returned once again to the front-line: an absurdity not lost on those hoping for a ‘blighty wound’ (a light wound but needing treatment at home).

Artists depicted the chaotic flow of patients in the front-line casualty station, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness the moments of tenderness as doctors and nurses attempted to alleviate the agony of their wounds, or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Succour was often felt as a temporary bond between patient, stretcher-bearer and nurse. Women’s role in front-line surgery and hospital medical care was both professional, publicly contentious and, at times, also intimate. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded.

Artists understood the inhumanity of modern war as a collective experience of horror and indiscriminate maiming that reached across the classes and genders. They depicted the ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their burden under a gangrenous sky, the lone nurse in the darkened space of the casualty theatre, and the arduous journey of evacuation from the frontline to the hospital back home.

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France 1918

Henry Tonks, An Advanced Dressing Station in France, 1918

Here, Henry Tonks dramatises his intimate knowledge of shrapnel wounds to the head and body, and the procedures of frontline evacuation medicine under the chaos of military attack. The sensory qualities of this painting are revealed in the lurid glow of burning buildings and the choking haze of smoke-filled air; in patients’ grimaces; in their endurance of gripping pains, and in the relief that a drink of water brought to the desperately wounded.

Like Henry Lamb, Tonks was a doctor-turned artist.  Before the war he was the Director of Drawing at the Slade School of Art where he taught Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson, amongst others.  He served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

(c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Henry Lamb, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma in  1916, 1921

This painting is a scene of medical aid being given to the wounded man on a stretcher, but is also symbolic of the pain and succour of the entire war with its almost religious composition. Lamb was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent first to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece with the British Salonika Army in 1916 in late 1917 to Palestine. On his return Lamb, who had won a Military Cross for gallantry, began to turn his experiences into his most important works. A small number of drawings and watercolours were exhibited at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these, Succouring the Wounded in a Wood on the Doiran Front prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to turn it into a major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester.

The River Struma was the site of a little-known campaign to repulse the Bulgarian invasion of eastern Greece and to achieve the ultimate liberation of Serbia from Bulgaria and the Central Powers.

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

Paul Nash, Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918

The majority of Nash’s works from the front depict soldiers at a distance engulfed by the blasted landscape. Here Nash’s pathos at the plight of the soldier is more direct as the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded through a poisoned landscape filled with the colours of gangrene and mustard gas.

Harold Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

 Harold Sandys Williamson, A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918

Harold Williamson  joined the King’s Rifles as a rifleman and was promoted to Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion. In this painting the artist depicts his own wounding by a grenade during a battle near Villers-Bretonneaux. He hobbles away from the scene, gripping his bleeding hand. A comrade Iies dead in the foreground while the misty haze over the morning assault captures the confusion of battle. Williamson wrote:

In the gloom and rain the storm troops then came over and smashed through our two first lines…Two men are firing a Lewis gun. The wounded man has a poor chance of getting away; he must cross much open country swept by enemy fire, and go through a heavy barrage.

Williamson’s wound was serious enough for him to be repatriated to England. Experiencing and witnessing the extent of suffering in modern war underpinned the intense sensory feel of the work of war artists like
Williamson.

Advanced Dressing Station in France circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Tending the Wounded: Advanced Dressing station, France, 1917

Detraining in England circa 1917 by Claude Shepperson 1867-1921

Claude A Shepperson, Detraining in England, 1917

Claude Shepperson was an illustrator for various magazines. He created this sensitive series of lithographs depicting the passage of the wounded from the front line to recovery in England as part of the ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’ series of propaganda prints.

Embodied Ruins: Natural and Material Environments

The extensive destruction of rural France and Flanders in the First World War was felt as an atrocity, deeply scarring the collective psyche. The ruined Iandscape came to stand for the dead themselves. Artists like Paul Nash and William Orpen expressed their feelings for the loss of men through depicting the aftermath of the battlefields in images of putrid mud, charred and torn trees, and waterlogged shell-holes. The churned earth appeared as gangrenous wounds, ruined buildings like injured faces, and destroyed military hardware as ruptured corpses. At times, these desolate environments have a terrible beauty. Nature was violated but it was also resilient.

In contemporary works this use of landscape as metaphor is seen in Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of the disfigured territory of the West Bank and in Simon Norfolk’s carcass-like military hardware strewn across the deserts of Afghanistan.

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele 1917

Paul Nash, The Field of Passchendaele, 1917

Nash enlisted in 1914, but only arrived at the front in February 1917. In May he fell into a trench and was injured badly enough to be sent home again. When he returned in late October he witnessed the final stages of the battle of Passchendaele, which was fought over the summer months into November. His regiment, the Hampshires, had been almost completely wiped out in the battle for Hill 60 in August.  The drawings he made, such as this one, were all begun on site.  The landscape of battle debris, churned mud and rancid water-filled craters in the undraining Flanders clay after the heavy summer rains touched Nash deeply.  He was able to make these landscapes of the aftermath of war into metaphors for the human body destroyed by conflict.

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle 1917

William Orpen, The Great Mine, La Boiselle, 1917

William Orpen first visited the Somme in April 1917 as an Official War Artist under the auspices of the Department of Information after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. His principal task was to draw and paint the officers but he had time to wander the battlefields. Returning to the Somme again after the summer he was amazed to find, ‘The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure – dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles’. La Boiselle is the site of one of the giant craters created by huge mines laid under the German trenches.

William Orpen, Village, Evening 1917

William Orpen, Village: Evening, 1917

Artists were not only struck by these vast wastelands, they also felt the terrifying impact of war on the domestic front. They depicted the ruin of the material and built environment in Flanders – roads, villages and churches where shattered homes and putrefying corpses are equated with ruined bodies.

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8 2005

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #8, 2005

The apocalyptic imagination is refracted through Sophie Ristelhueber’s approach to the landscapes of recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the West Bank. The WB series depicts roadblocks with deeply ambivalent sensations. In WB #8, the viewer stands before the gritty impasse; slowly the eye travels beyond, only to be confronted with an impenetrable set of barriers, and further still, a settlement on the horizon appears impossibly faraway. The artificial topography of man-made violence in zones of conflict and disputed territory is strangely sensual and fleshy. The barricades appear as brutal, jagged scars on an ancient geological body.

Shocking the Senses

Modern war produced terrifying sights, putrid smells, and nerve-shattering sounds that shocked the human senses. In the confined spaces of tanks trenches and submarines, bodies felt compressed and minds became stressed. ‘Thousand-yard stares’ panicked expressions, nervous ticks, and hysterical gaits were physical responses to emotional and sensory trauma.

In 1915 British neurologist C.S. Myers invented the term ‘shell shock’. The term aptly conveyed the sensory assault of artillery bombardments and the repercussions on the individual of industrialised modern warfare. Military medicine lost control of the term as it entered the public vernacular and its psychological and emotional complexities were distilled into the myth that shellfire was the sole cause of shell shock. Unlike the stigma attached to psychiatric disorder, shell shock enabled families to preserve the dignity and heroic sacrifice of loved ones.

Artists and writers, many of whom were afflicted with shell shock, were crucial figures in translating its symptoms to audiences and rendering visible this disturbing yet invisible wound. Siegfried Sassoon described the unceasing ‘thud’ of bombardments: ‘I want to go out and screech at them to stop…I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.’

Repatriated home, CRW Nevinson recalled his ‘delayed shock’ as ‘uncontrollable tremblings’ and vomiting, a sense of foreboding and rage. Terrified faces and distressed bodies became the subject of artistic empathy during the First World War.

Over the century, artists have been combatants, captive prisoners and anti-war activists, engaging with other people’s suffering and visualising the repetitive nightmare of trauma. Some have confronted torture, executions, and genocide as the abyss reached when human lives are seen as barely human. Artists have also been compelled to show that trauma is not the preserve of soldiers. The shocking sights of agonised women and children, of rape, disease and starvation, and the powerlessness of grief, have entered the darkest artistic imaginings.

Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28, Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 28: Seen on the Escarpment at Clery-sur- Somme, 1924

The hellish,visceral and hallucinatory quality of Der Krieg is undeniable and the artist created perhaps the most powerful, and sensory, anti-war works of art of the twentieth century. Dix consciously took inspiration from Francesco Goya’s series of prints, The Disasters of War which recorded the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish War of independence from 1808-1814.

Pietro Morando, One of the Brave struck down. San Marco, 1917

Pietro Morando, One of the brave struck down, San Marco, 1917

In Britain, we know little about the Italian Front in the First World War, fought in the mountainous borderlands between Austro-Hungary and Italy. In freezing conditions, this front was soon bogged down in trench stalemate. In 1916-17 Pietro Morando fought as a volunteer in the Arditi (Italian elite troops) on the front-line in the limestone Karst country bordering Italy and Slovenia. He made drawings on any pieces of paper he could find. His works have an immediacy of perception and a sense of the artist’s urgent need to note down the painful and deadly events at the front and in the prison camps of Austro-Hungary.

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918 Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Pietro Morando, At the prison camp of Komarom, Hungary, 1918

Morando was captured during the retreat from the Piave River in 1918. His charcoal sketches (from an album dated 1915-1918) describe the torture, executions, cholera and starvation he witnessed while imprisoned in the Hungarian camp of Nagymegyer and in the city of Komarom. In addition to the privations of military prisoners, during the conflict thousands of Italian civilians were interned and died of malnutrition.

Abu Ghraib by Richard Serra

Richard Serra, Abu Ghraib, 2004 

Serra transformed the horrific, mass-circulated image of torture into a lithograph of the faceless, nameless Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib. Another, larger, version of this print is more directly a protest work and bears the words ‘Stop Bush’.

Eric Kennington, Bewitched

Eric Kennington, Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered 1917

This depiction of an exhausted, sleep-deprived and disoriented soldier was also titled Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross). The censors tried to prevent it from being exhibited in Kennington’s exhibition of war art at the Leicester Galleries in July 1918. The title Bewitched, Bemused and Bewildered comes from lines to a popular song of the day. Kennington wrote: ‘Must the soldiers endure the most hideous agony and the civilian not be permitted to think of it second-hand?’

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Pietro Morando, Thoughtful, On the Carso, 1917

Otto Dix, The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py

 Otto Dix, Der Krieg 35: The Madwoman of St.-Marie-a-Py, 1924

The shocking impact of bombardments on civilians is powerfully conveyed in The Mad Woman of St-Marie-a-Py. Her baby lies dead among her ruined home while she beats her bare breast in the agony and powerlessness of grief. This is a rare but stark moment of Dix’s sorrow for the innocent casualties of men’s wars as we are forced to share in her state of absolute distress.

Conrad Felixmoller , Soldier in the Madhouse 1918

Conrad Felixmoller, Soldier in the Madhouse, 1918

Gripping the asylum cell window, and perhaps even chained to the bed, Conrad Felixmoller’s Soldier in the Madhouse has jagged furrows in his forehead; the work portrays the desperate isolation of the shell-shocked patient.

Rupture and Rehabilitation: Disability and the Wounds of War

Away from the battlefield artists depicted the impact of wounding on the body. Modern medicine saved soldiers lives, though they often survived with terrible, disfiguring wounds. The artists who served as medical illustrators in the First World War were closely involved with the new field of plastic surgery as it attempted facial and bodily reconstructions. In delicate pastels and watercolours intended as medical studies they also saw the fragile humanity of those with such horrific wounds. They found amputees and blinded men recovering in hospital, undergoing physical and vocational rehabilitation. In many of these works we see a compassionate rapport between the wounded sitter and the artist, sensitive to the intimate depths of suffering as pained eyes meet our gaze. The courage, pride and silent dignity of the wounded are deeply moving.

In the 1920s wounded soldiers were fitted with artificial prosthetic limbs. Artists were sceptical of this revolution in prosthetics which held out a fantasy of the cyborg – half man and half machine. It promised that the body destroyed by modern technology could be reconstructed into a hyper-masculine, superhuman being. However artists like the German Heinrich Hoerle saw the reality of living with disability and approached the notion of the superhuman man-machine with bitter irony. More recently, as women have entered the war zone as combatants, artists have highlighted both the frailty and resilience of disabled veterans of both genders.

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion An incident in the British Red Cross

Henry Tonks, Saline Infusion: An incident in the British Red Cross hospital, Arc-en-Barrois, 1915

Tonks’ medical training, his understanding of wounds and their treatment and his sensitive use of pastel come together ‘in this study made in northern France. Tonks turns the secular scene into a work with religious overtones, arranging the composition as a Descent from the Cross. Tonks is most well known for his medical studies of facial wounds in pastel – a subject which has featured in the novels of Pat Barker such as Toby’s Room.

Kruppel 1920 Heinrich HoerleKruppel 1920 Heinrich Hoerle, The Married Couple

Heinrich Hoerle, Help the Cripple, 1920 

The Cripple Portfolio was published in 1920 by Cologne Dada artist, Heinrich Hoerle, in the context of the 2.7 million disabled German veterans who had returned home from the Front. 67,000 of these veterans were also amputees. The Weimar Republic instituted a system of rehabilitation and employment, which caused resentment amongst the able-bodied as the Great Depression of the 1930s took hold. Some 90 per cent of disabled soldiers were employed. The subject of Hoerle’s portfolio of prints is the intimate suffering of the lives of the disabled in the aftermath of war. It is divided into six scenes of the everyday life of the wounded veteran and six of his dreams and nightmares.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Michael Jernigan, Marine Corporal, 2006

Michael Jernigan lost his sight in an attack with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) while serving in Iraq. Like so many marriages, Jernigan’s failed when he returned home so badly injured. In Greenfield-Sanders’ photograph, attention is drawn directly to the  diamonds from his wife’s wedding ring which Jernigan had set into one of his eight prosthetic eyes.

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman, Marine wedding, 2006

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, author and educator. Much of her photographic work focuses upon the American political and social landscape, including the militarization of American life and the dialogue around war, patriotism and sacrifice.

Her 2006 photo Marine Wedding, probably one of her most recognizable works, is a haunting picture. The bride, in a red-trimmed wedding gown with beading on the bodice and skirt, holds a crimson bouquet, and the groom wears his navy-colored military dress uniform. But neither smiles – they look past the camera in opposite directions. And the groom, an Iraq War veteran, has no ears, nose, or chin. His face looks like it is covered with a plastic mask. Severely burned in 2004 after a suicide bomber attacked his truck, his skin melted when he was trapped inside. Marine Wedding won a 2006 World Press Award.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (2 January 1918), 1918

I had never encountered the work of Rosine Cahen before, but I found her delicate portrayals, in charcoal, pastel and white chalk, of wounded and disabled soldiers among the most memorable of the exhibition.

Born in Alsace and trained at the Academy Julian in Paris, Rosine Cahen (who was mostly known as a print-maker) turned to delicate pastel, chalk and charcoal to draw the wounded and disabled soldiers she visited in French hospitals during the war. In her sketches, the observer is so discrete we are never allowed to gawk at the men’s wounds, but rather it is their faces in a state of almost serene despair that she portrays. These works exude great calmness both in the men’s expression and in the way the artist alludes to the intimate relationship of these captured moments.

Cahen gives these wounded men their dignity – they are never just medical objects. She was 59 years old in 191 6 when she began visiting the war hospitals of Paris and Monte Carlo. She continued her visits on numerous occasions over the following three years. The age difference enabled her to build a personal rapport with the soldiers while they ‘sat’ for her, quietly recovering.

In Hospital Villemin, 2 January 1918, the facially wounded patient is disguised under bandages, contrasting with his luminous purple shirt. A solitary eye peers out, as he tries to eat some thing from his tray.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Rollin (October 1918), 1918

This is a portrait of an amputee from the 17th InfantryRegiment, wounded on 21 August 1918, near Soissons in Picardy. Preoccupied with reading his gazette, a little blue slipper juts out of his trouser leg. The space next to it is empty and crutches reveal his early stage of recovery.

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919)

Rosine Cahen, Hospital Villemin (8 April 1919), 1919

A blind soldier practices Braille while sitting in bed recovering from his injuries. Wounded soldiers were
expected to begin the rehabilitation before they were fully recovered. In the background are little sketches of the same patient, perhaps completed on other occasions.

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees' Workshop 1918

Rosine Cahen, The Amputees’ Workshop, 1918

This study reveals the temporary wooden leg of an amputee which juts out awkwardly, uncomfortably, under the table. His left hand is also amputated. Cahen captures him absorbed in his writing task.

See also

Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

Bugling for the Missing of WW1: cutting back to what’s left on the bone

Near Thiepval 1

Storm approaching over the Somme

I’m driving south from Lille towards Arras, tailwinds from hurricane Bertha sending clouds skittering across the sky above the plains of Picardy – beginning a journey that will take me through the physical landscapes of the First World War – the Somme valley and the old Ypres salient.  At the same time, though, this is very much an inner journey as I attempt to find some meaning in the terrible events that began to unfold here one hundred years ago.

My plan is to follow stories from the war that have a special meaning for me: that shape a narrative which will, no doubt, differ from those traced by others who pass this way. For this summer the road is full of those seeking meaning or consolation in the places where battles were fought, and in the hundreds of wayside cemeteries spread across Flanders and northern France in which are buried the young men who fell in those battles.

Unlike many of those making this pilgrimage, I am not seeking out places where family members were laid to rest. My paternal grandfather survived the war, having served in Macedonia .  Unlike most, it seems possible that he might have had a good war. He was stationed near a village, then known by its Austrian name of Kalinova.  In the 1930s he managed to buy a suburban semi in Hazel Grove and named the house ‘Kalinova’.  No one left alive knows why, but it suggests that he did not have traumatic memories of the place. On my mother’s side, one family member was killed in the war, and is buried in northern Italy.

No. If there is one single reason why I am here, pursuing ghosts in graveyards, it is because of who I am and when I came of age.  I am a child of the sixties and the son of a conscientious objector.  In my teens, Peace News was always in the house – bought by my father who had been a conchie in the Second World War, having been swept up in the Peace Pledge Union in the thirties.

There had been conscientious objectors in the First World War.  They weren’t the first: in 1575 Dutch Mennonites were allowed to refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment, whilst British Quakers were exempted from military service in the mid-18th century.  But objectors to war had a higher profile in WW1, beginning with the suffragettes who, in 1914, delivered a petition to Downing Street, urging British political leaders to use diplomacy to avoid war.

There were 16,000 conscientious objectors in the first world war – men whose decision not to fight, or to stop fighting, for religious or political or ethical reasons often led to opprobrium and disgrace in their communities. Since 1995, they have had their solitary memorial in Tavistock Square in London

Tavistock Square memorial

The  memorial stone for conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square

Most 1WW conchies were not affiliated to any organisation, taking their stand as a matter of individual conscience and morality, usually founded on their religious affiliation. However, one of the earliest anti-war organisations was founded at The Hague in 1915 when 1,200 women from many different backgrounds and nationalities gathered, committed to study and eliminate the causes of war. They sent out delegations to most countries engaged in the First World War and founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

This reminds of a letter written by the philosopher Mary Midgley and published in the Guardian on 19 June:

Simon Jenkins remarked (about recent proposals to bomb Iraq) that “politics remains stuck in Homer’s day, in human vanity and tribal loyalty”. Indeed. And if warfare were not already a respected national institution – if it were not already accepted as the correct ultimate way of resolving disputes – would anybody now think of proposing it? Would someone then solemnly get up and say, “since we are not getting on very well with solving these problems, we had better just go out and start killing each other”? If they did, how would that proposal be accepted?

The Peace Pledge Union, which influenced my father’s stance in World War 2, emerged from an initiative by Dick Sheppard, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1934.  He also had published a letter in the Guardian, inviting men (but not women!) to send him postcards pledging never to support war. 135,000 men responded and became members. The initial male-only aspect of the pledge was aimed at countering the idea that only women were involved in the peace movement. However, in 1936 membership was opened to women, and the newly founded Peace News was founded as the PPU’s weekly newspaper. The movement gathered a number of noted public figures as sponsors, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Siegfried Sassoon.

So there’s that. And perhaps most important in shaping my view of the war is that I am a child of the sixties, when I read the verses of  1WW poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, seeing in their invocation of the horrors of a futile war obvious parallels with the war then raging in Vietnam.  The poetry of the First World War seemed to echo the ant-war sentiments of songs being sung at the time by the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs:

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

– Bob Dylan, ‘With God on Our Side

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

– Phil Ochs, ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

The poetry, Oh! What a Lovely War, and much else that I read at the time, left me with sense – that has never left me – that war in 1914 was avoidable: the feeling of what a waste it all was, of futility:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

– Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’ (written in May 1918)

The poets gave imaginative shape to the war, while from the histories I have read has come the realisation that the war was undoubtedly the most significant event of the 20th century: the event that made the modern world, contributed crucially to the rise of Nazism, and led inevitably to the second global war.

Then there’s the scale of the disaster: with close on 18 million military and civilian deaths, and 20 million wounded, the war ranks as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history (I remember how Blackadder described the Great War as: ‘a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week’).  More than double the number of British citizens died in the 1WW than in the second.  For some countries, the percentage of those mobilised who were killed was devastating: 37% for Serbia, more than 30% for Romania, more than 20% for Turkey and Bulgaria. (For France the figure was 17%, Germany 15%, and the UK 12.5%).  Vernon Scannell, in his poem ‘The Great War‘ (written after the Second World War) wrote:

Whenever war is spoken of
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind:

Scannell’s poem summons up the familiar images of trench warfare with its references to ‘fractured tree-trunks’, ‘wire’, ‘zero-hour’, ‘duckboards, mud and rats’, and he concludes that the Great War had more influence on him than the 1939–45 war in which he served:

And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.

The First World War still runs through the British psyche like no other conflict.  The horrors of the war touched everyone, irrespective of class. It closely parallels Vietnam in having left an overwhelming sense of futility, with so many lives lost for such little gain. In this respect it differs from the Second World War, which more convincingly falls into the ‘just war’ definition.   The trauma of the war, and the way in which it continues to haunt the modern memory has been explored by novelists such as Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, who said in accepting the Booker prize in 1995 for the final volume of her 1WW trilogy, The Ghost Road: ‘The Somme is like the Holocaust: it revealed things we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It never becomes the past.’

In Regeneration (1992), Pat Barker has one character reflect on the war’s terrible reversal of expectations:

The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure (the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys) consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.  The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known.

Although I know that the Western Front is not, by any means, the whole story of the war, this was the place I had to come in this centennial year. I want to pay my respects to the poets by visiting the graves of  Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. I’m going to visit the grave of a Liverpool hero – Noel Chavasse, the only to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the war – and the graves of those who were shot at dawn for desertion. And I want to return to the German cemetery at Vladslo near Ypres, where, twenty years ago, I first encountered Kathe Kollwitz’s deeply moving sculpture The Grieving Parents, a tribute to her youngest son, Peter, who was killed in October 1914 and is buried nearby.

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North of the Somme: through fields of gold 

On the road from Bapaume, I drive across the Arras plain under huge skies, through a landscape of hedge-less, golden fields of grain, already harvested, the rolls of wheat awaiting transportation to winter stores.  Today the scene is peaceful and bountiful, but this landscape still – and will always – hold the memory of carnage. For every mile or so there is a sign for a war cemetery or a small roadside burial ground.

The place names – Fricourt, Mametz, Pozieres – recall the offensive launched here on 1 July 1916 that lasted 141 days – the largest and deadliest of the war, in which more than a million men lost their lives.  On the first day alone, as 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines and the machine guns opened up, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead.

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme

Nevinson painted the road I am following  in 1917.  No fields of golden grain then.  In his portrayal of the British supply route between Arras and Bapaume, the road stretches beyond the horizon through a bleak and featureless terrain.

CRW Nevinson,The Road from Arras to Bapaume

CRW Nevinson,’The Road from Arras to Bapaume’, 1917

This is farming country, a prairie landscape in which tractors are busy and flocks of crows sweep and settle. Snuggled down in the folds of the plain, the villages through which I pass are places that, but for the disasters of a century ago, might have slept anonymously through history.

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Approaching Thiepval

Where to start on this journey?  It’s 9:00 am and I’m approaching a place I have wanted to see ever since reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  From many miles away I can see it, a mountain of red brick and white stone that rises above a copse of trees on the ridge to the west: Thiepval.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields bears the names of 72,194 officers and men of the British and South African forces. These men died in the Somme battle sector and have no known grave. Over 90 percent of those commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial died just in the 141 days of the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. They are the Missing.

The Memorial stands on the ridge above the neat little village of Thiepval.  At the crossroads in the village a multitude of signs point the way to other memorials with famous names.  The village consisted of a few houses, a château and some outlying farms when the Germans first arrived here at the end of September 1914.  Even to a non-military person, the significance of their position atop the ridge is obvious.  The aim of the Franco-British offensive that began in the early morning of 1 July 1916, was to remove the Germans from strong-points such as this.

The ruins of Thiepval village, 1917

The ruins of Thiepval village in 1917

William Orpen Thiepval

William Orpen, Thiepval, 1917

However, in places such as Gommecourt, Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval, the Germans were well entrenched, in numerous large bunkers dug deep underneath the chalk downs.  German troops were able to survive the preliminary bombardment with few casualties, and with their machine gun posts intact. The losses to the British on the first day of the attack were unprecedented for the British Army, with approximately 58,000 casualties for that day alone including 19,000 of them being killed.  The battles of the Somme 1916 carried on over a period of several months from the first day of July to the middle of November. Every village, hamlet, farmhouse, wood and copse were fought over until the winter weather closed in. Only a few miles of ground had been gained by the end. The village of Thiepval was finally captured by the British at the end of September 1916.

A few months later, the war artist William Orpen returned to the scene of the battle to find the ruins of the village littered with skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. In his painting, Orpen observes the human remains and broken objects with an unflinching eye. Beneath a fine summer sky,tufts of grass and poppies are pushing through around scattered skeletons.

Thiepval 2

The Thiepval Memorial

I was lucky; in this centenary year, places of remembrance such as Thiepval are attracting large numbers.  But, arriving at around 9:30, I had the place to myself for nearly half an hour.  It overwhelmed me.

The Thiepval memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was built in red brick and limestone between 1928 and 1932, and is the largest British battle memorial in the world.  It takes the form of a gigantic memorial arch, a sort of Rubik’s cube of interlocking arches in four different sizes: each side of the main arch containing a smaller arch at right angles to the main arch. Each of these smaller arches is then pierced by a still smaller arch, and so on.

Thiepval 6b

The main arch of the Thiepval Memorial

The main arch is colossal, dwarfing those who stand beneath it.  At its centre is the Stone of Remembrance bearing the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, a phrase taken from Ecclesiasticus and suggested by Rudyard Kipling who lost his son, John, killed in his first hour in action at the Battle of Loos. Kipling died before his son’s body was found in 1919, and he felt especially deeply for those families who had lost sons, fathers, brothers and who were ‘missing in action’.

Thiepval 4

The Stone of Remembrance at Thiepval

For this great memorial stands in remembrance of the Missing: the 72,194 names that are inscribed on the huge stone panels which line the piers of the building being only those of the men missing in action on the battlefield of the Somme.  In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer’s account of his own pilgrimage to the Somme,he describes the Memorial as ‘palpably here, unmissable’:

The monument has none of the vulnerability of the human body, none of its terrible propensity for harm.  Its predominant relation is to the earth – not, as in the case with a cathedral, to the sky.  A cathedral reaches up, defies gravity effortlessly, its effect entirely vertiginous. […] The Thiepval Memorial … is stubborn, stoical.  Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground.

The contrast with a cathedral is telling in another, broader sense.  In keeping with Luytens’ general preference, the Memorial is stripped of Christian symbolism; there was, he felt, no need for it.  For many men who survived, the Battle of the Somme (which, in memory, represents the core experience and expression of the Great War) put an end to the consoling power of religion.  ‘From that moment’, a soldier has said of the first day’s fighting, ‘all my religion died’.

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The Missing

The names of quiet villages and woods on the gently rolling chalk downs hereabouts became associated for ever with the famous battles of 1916. Each pier of the Thiepval Memorial carries the names of these battles: Albert, Gommecourt, Serre, Bazentin Ridge, Delville Wood, Pozières, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights.

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Behind the Memorial is an Anglo-French cemetery that contains 300 Commonwealth burials and 300 French burials, mostly those of bodies recovered from the 1916 battlefields on the Somme.  The French gravestones take the form of a simple concrete cross emblazoned with the single word ‘Inconnu’, whilst most of the British and Commonwealth headstones are inscribed with the phrase ‘A soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’.

Alone here for a while, I try to absorb the meaning of this place, try to contain my emotions.  There is only the sound of the soughing of the wind in the trees which surround the Memorial, trees planted when the Memorial was erected that have now seen as many summers as the men remembered here might have hoped to know.  Swallows swoop above the graves, and for a moment I imagine them to be the souls of the lost.

It was Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong that first awoke my desire to visit this place – reading this passage in which Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, seeking to learn more about her grandfather’s experiences in World War I, arrives at Thiepval:

The next day she drove to Bapaume and followed the signs for Albert, a town, Bob had told her, that was close to a number of historic sites and which, according to the book, had a small museum.  The road from Bapaume was dead straight. Elizabeth sat back in her seat and allowed the car to steer itself, with only her left hand resting on the bottom of the wheel. […]

After ten minutes she began to see small brown signs by the side of the   road; then came a cemetery, like any municipal burial ground, behind a  wall, belched on by the fumes of the rumbling container lorries. The signs began to come faster,   even though Albert was still some ten kilometres away.  Through the fields to her right Elizabeth saw a peculiar, ugly arch that sat among the crops and woods. She took it for a beet refinery at first, but then saw it was too big: it was made of brick or stone  on a monumental scale. It was as though the Pantheon or the Arc de Triomphe had been dumped in a meadow.

Intrigued, she turned off the road to Albert on to a smaller road that led through the gently rising fields. The curious arch stayed in view, visible from any angle, as its designers had presumably intended. She came to a cluster of buildings, too few and too scattered to be called a village or even a hamlet. She left the car and walked towards the arch.

In front of it was a lawn, lush, cropped and formal in the English style, with a path between its trimmed edges.  From near to, the scale of the arch became apparent: it was supported on four vast columns; it  overpowered the open landscape. The size of it was compounded by its brutal modern design; although clearly a memorial, it reminded her of Albert Speer’s buildings for the Third Reich.

Elizabeth walked up the stone steps that led to it.  A man in a blue jacket was sweeping in the large space enclosed by the pillars. As she came up to the arch Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it.

Every grain of the surface had been carved with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as far as her eyes could see   there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of   yards, over furlongs of stone.

She moved through the space beneath the arch where the man was sweeping.  She found the other pillars identically   marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.

‘Who are these, these .  .  . ?’ She gestured with her hand.

‘These?’ The man with the brush sounded surprised. ‘The lost.’

‘Men who died in this battle?’

‘No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the  cemeteries.’

‘These are just the . . . the unfound?’

She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in   footnotes.

When she could speak again, she said, ‘From the whole war?’

The man shook his head.  ‘Just these fields.’ He gestured with his arm.

Elizabeth went through and sat on the steps on the other side of the   monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned   and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.

‘Nobody told me.’ She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back   through her thick dark hair.  ‘My God,  nobody  told  me. ‘

Thiepval 14

The Missing of the Somme: display in Thiepval Visitor Centre

Discretely situated some distance away, amidst the trees, is the Thiepval Visitor Centre where displays explain the course of the battles that took place here.  One display panel features photographs of some of the men who are commemorated on the Memorial. The panel consists of 600 head and shoulders pictures which were selected to provide a representative cross-section of the 72,000 on the Memorial.  The display represents an ongoing project which attempts to gather photographs and biographical information on each of the individuals named on the Memorial and add them to a computer database.

One of those named on the Memorial is George Butterworth, an English composer with a promising future, a contemporary of  Vaughan Williams, now best known for the romantic pastoral, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. In August 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was entering its most intense phase, at Pozieres (just below the ridge on which the Thiepval monument stands), Butterworth was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench, but his body was lost in the fierce bombardments of the next two years. I was interested to discover a local connection: the première of ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ took place in February 1914, when Adrian Boult conducted a combined orchestra of forty members of the Hallé and Liverpool orchestras in West Kirby.

Butterworth Thiepval

George Butterworth’s name on the Memorial at Thiepval

A small aside: a few months after the premiere of Butterworth’s work, Vaughan Williams was composing ‘The Lark Ascending’ whilst holidaying on the coast at Margate in Kent.  It was the day Britain entered the war, and offshore ships were engaging in fleet exercises. The tune came into the composer’s head as he walked the cliff, and he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen’s arrest, assuming he was scribbling details of the coastline for the enemy.

Thiepval 5

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
                                                                   I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

                                                                            What place is this?
                                                                            Where are we now? 
                                                                            I am the grass.
                                                                            Let me work.

 – ‘Grass’, Carl Sandburg

As Geoff Dyer observes in The Missing of the Somme, there had been military disasters before the Somme, but calamities such as the Charge of the Light Brigade served ‘only as indictments of individual strategy, not of the larger purpose of which they were a part’.  With the Great War, for the first time in history, comes a sense of the utter waste and futility of war.  So much of the meaning of the 20th century is, Dyer argues, concentrated in the once-devastated landscape of the Somme:

Thiepval is not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future, to what the century had in store for those who were left, whom age would weary.

Later on my journey I would stand at the grave of Isaac Rosenberg who produced some of the most uncompromising poetry of the war.  At Thiepval I thought of his poem ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the plainest and most brutal explanation there is of how the bodies of the Missing came to be lost:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

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The Menin Gate, Ypres

After Thiepval, I wasn’t done with the Missing.  Many of the cemeteries I visited during the next few days contained, alongside the graves of those whose bodies were identified, monuments to those who had been killed in some local offensive, but whose remains were never found. Finally, I ended my brief trip in Ypres, standing at 8:00 in the evening with several hundred other people at the Menin Gate to hear the Last Post.

The Menin Gate is another Memorial to the Missing, one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the area of the Ypres. The memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. The names are engraved on stone panels on the inner walls of the central Hall of Memory which spans a main road into the town, and also on the sides of staircases leading from the lower level to the upper exterior level, and on walls inside the loggias on the north and south sides of the building.

Menin Gate 2 Menin Gate 3  Menin Gate 5 Menin Gate 6 Menin Gate 7 Menin Gate 8

The names of the Missing

In 1914 this was simply a crossing point over the moat that surrounds Ypres, a place most soldiers would have passed when leaving the city along the Menin road that lead eastwards into the battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The first sounding of the Last Post took place on 1 July 1928. and has been sounded at the Menin Gate every night since, the only exception being during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from May 1940 to September 1944. The Last Postis played by buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade.

Menin Gate Last Post  Menin Gate Last Post 2

Crowds gather for the Last Post in August 2014

During the 1990s I would accompany my European Studies students to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.  It was usually February, and a few hundred of us would stand in the central archway with a clear view of the buglers. Last week, on the evening I visited, there must have been several thousand people gathered under and around the Gate, so I could only hear, but not see, the buglers.  Not surprisingly, visitor numbers have increased significantly in this centenary year. The problem is that the Gate is a major access point to the centre of Ypres, and the road under the Gate is now closed for an hour or more while ceremony takes place.

You might think that an event that has become a major tourist attraction, drawing a gathering of so many people would lose any sense of solemnity or meaning.  But that is not the case.  Silence is observed throughout the ceremony, and who could fail to reflect on the meaning of this act of remembrance when surrounded by all those names?

Menin Gate Last Post 3

An Ypres newspaper image of the Last Post ceremony

On the city ramparts adjoining the Gate is a garden of remembrance where I found a plaque with the words of  ‘Last Post’ by Flemish poet Herman de Coninck, in an English translation by Tanis Guest.  The poet imagines driving like the clappers from his home town of Antwerp to reach Ypres in time for the Last Post.  The poem references Edmund Blunden who saw action, not just at Ypres and in the Salient, but on the Somme as well:

This evening I was going to Ypres. Getting on for six.
I drove into the setting sun, and three storeys high
Dali-esque clouds which were being seen off by a force –

nine gale, the heavens blew away from the earth,
no way I could stop them, I drove and drove, 95 mph,
and every minute fell ten minutes behind. There went my horizon.

When I get into Ypres it’s 1917. Germans have blasted the sun
to smithereens. What light there still is, is explosions.
I’m in a poem by Edmund Blunden.

From the trenches he’s writing an ode to the poppy.
Earth has a great super-ego of flowers over it;
Blunden has them literally in his sights.

Here for all of a couple of years
it’s the second before you die.
Little things are all there is.

Later I listen to the Last Post at the Menin Gate:
three bugles you can hear cut back through eighty years
right to whatever’s left now on the bone.

 The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

The ruins of Ypres and the Menin road, 1918

And here’s a photo that explains why the citizens of Ypres maintain this daily act of remembrance.  During the war, the town was under constant  bombardment, and was reduced to ruins. Its most beautiful building, the Cloth Hall, completed in 1304, lay in ruins, devastated by artillery fire. Between 1933 and 1967, however, the hall was meticulously reconstructed. It now houses the brilliant, award-winning In Flanders Fields museum.

Ypres Cloth Hall

The Cloth Hall today

Passing the news-stands, although I can’t read the headlines, I can see they all concern war: Gaza, Iraq, and on the fringes of Europe, Ukraine. All sites where the Great War was fought and where today’s borders were defined at the close of the war. Unfinished business. Past and present touch.

The mood at the war’s inception was very different to that of its end.  ‘The Send-off’ by Wilfred Owen captures those contrasting moods:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Menin Gate 4

 

The 1WW trip

The Great War in Portraits: patriotism is not enough

The Great War in Portraits: patriotism is not enough

William Tickle

William Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme

The recognition that something terrible, something overwhelming, something irreversible had happened in the Great War explains its enduring significance for those born after the Armistice.  For this war was not only the most important and far-reaching political and military event of the century, it was also the most important imaginative event.
– Jay Winter, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century

The Great War mobilised 70 million people, killed over 9 million on active service, and left behind 3 million widows and 10 million orphans.  It was also, as Jay Winter observes, an event that seared itself into the European imagination, as The Great War in Portraits, the excellent exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, clearly demonstrates.  I saw it when in London recently.

Epstein, Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill', 1916

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’, 1916

The Great War represented a fracture in the narrative of progress: a leap into modernity that was also a fire-storm of barbarity. It accelerated the momentum towards a world dominated by machines of unparalleled power whilst at the same time precipitating a descent into barbarity on an industrial scale.   Perhaps no work of art represents this paradox more clearly than Jacob Epstein’s altered 1916 version of The Rock Drill, exhibited here as a prelude to the exhibition.

In its original form it was the product of the experimental pre-war days of 1913, when Epstein was associated with the short-lived Vorticism movement, enraptured by visions of technological power and transformation. Then the figure exuded power and virility, but in 1916, in response to his growing horror of the conflict, Epstein discarded the drill, dismembered the figure and cut it in half, leaving a one-armed torso. The truncated version appears defenceless and melancholic, evocative of the wounded soldiers who were returning home from the trenches in startling numbers; as the gallery caption puts it:

Thus transformed it evokes the way the experience of war shattered initial expectations – aggression giving way to a sense of loss.

Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian in 2011 summed up the meaning of the The Rock Drill with these words:

During the first world war, as the reality of trench warfare as industrialised slaughter became clear to a world that at first welcomed the conflict, Epstein cast the torso of his eerie creation in metal. Robbed of its legs and towering tripod-drill, with damaged bronze limbs, The Rock Drill becomes a nightmare image of the future as remorseless, unending war. It is more moving than the original, because it is a wounded machine, a human machine.

In its dismembered 1916 form Torso in Metal echoes Self-portrait as a Soldier by Ludwig Kirchner, encountered  later in the show.

The Great War in Portraits brings together images of individuals involved in the conflict from the National Portrait Gallery and other collections, including material from the Imperial War Museum.  The exhibition presents a wide range of visual responses to the war: alongside paintings and drawings, there are photographs, posters, memorabilia and examples of how the war was represented in the newest art form of the time – film.

At the culmination of the exhibition we come face to face with the shocking violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner, drawings of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds, and an entire wall upon which is displayed a grid of forty photographs, representing the wide diversity of individuals from across the world who were sucked into the vortex of war.  The exhibition is crammed into a small space, and when I was there people were packed shoulder to shoulder.  But no-one spoke. There was complete silence: the shocked and sorrowful silence of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

All of the survivors are gone now – yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the war approaches, the cultural memory of the Great War remains potent, and is indeed reinforced by this exhibition.  The concept of ‘cultural memory’ has become central to much of the historical writing about the war in the last 50 years.  Jay Winter’s book, quoted earlier, is one example – and itself owed a debt to the classic work of Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory. Central to the idea of cultural memory is the argument that personal memories are not the product of solitary reflection alone, but are shaped by ideas and actions within the groups to which we belong – family, workplace and nation, for instance – and conveyed through writings, monuments and cultural artefacts.  This exhibition demonstrates how this process of shaping our memory of the war began even before the war had ended.

Bosnian Gavrilo Princip after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Gavrilo Princip in a police photograph taken after he had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand

‘Royalty and the Assassin’, the first room in the exhibition, focuses on the leaders of the main countries involved in the war. Here are conventional portraits of royalty in which the prevailing tone is of grandeur and pride.  Alongside is a photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie taken in Sarajevo on 28 June 2014 an hour or so before their deaths at the hand of their assassin, the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip whose police mug shot, taken after his arrest, is also displayed.

William Orpen, Portrait of Haig at General Headquarters, France, 1917

William Orpen, Portrait of Haig at General Headquarters, France, 1917

In the next section, ‘Leaders and Followers’, formal and traditional portraits of the military leaders face anonymous portraits of ordinary soldiers on the other side of the room.  Here, for instance is France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Comamnder, the German Chief of General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, ‘the colossal blunderer, the self-deceived optimist, of the Somme massacre of 1916’ (Vera Brittain’s words).  Despite the vast number of casualties in that disaster of a few months earlier, no trace of trauma can be found in William Orpen’s 1917 portrait. Upright and garlanded with medals, he stares out with bland assurance.

William Orpen was a financially successful pre-war society portraitist, appointed an official war artist in 1917, who made drawings and paintings of privates and German prisoners of war as well as official portraits of generals and politicians like this one. The official ‘power portraits’ of military leaders were widely reproduced, notably as collectable postcards, and a selection are displayed here.

Orpen, A Grenadier Guardsman, 1917

William Orpen, A Grenadier Guardsman, 1917

On the opposite walls are portraits of ordinary soldiers – in battle, at rest and waiting to be laid to rest. The contrast is between the authority figures who are celebrated and the ordinary soldier who is invariably depersonalised and anonymous.  As a curator’s caption notes:

A hierarchical order of seniority, influence and role was clear in the various images of the participants that were created. Irrespective of nationality, formal portraits of commanding officers are essentially traditional images that emphasise the personal profile of the depicted individual. This is manifest in their attitude of authority and, often, an impressive array of medals signifying power and gallantry.  The depiction of ordinary servicemen was markedly different – a more down to earth view, depicted either as anonymous or as generic ‘types’.  The impression conveyed is one of a depersonalised, shared experience in which duty is a central assumption.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, La Mitrailleuse, 1915

The presence, in this section, of Nevinson’s La Mitrailleuse is evidence that for this show the curators are drawing on a wide definition of ‘portrait’.  Completed while he was on home on leave from the Royal Army Medical Corps, Nevinson’s painting depicts a French machine gun team bent over their weapon.  The painting invites comparison with Epstein’s Torso in Metal for, as a pre-war Futurist, Nevinson had also initially celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed his view. In his painting the soldiers appear almost like machines themselves, losing their individuality, even their humanity, as they seem to fuse with the machine gun which gives the painting its title.

Sickert, The Integrity of Belgium, 1914

Walter Sickert, The Integrity of Belgium, 1914

Sickert painted The Integrity of Belgium as a tribute to the courage of the Belgians in the defence of Liège, and sold it to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Sickert never visited the front, and painted the work in his studio in London. He had been appalled by reports of German atrocities against Belgian citizens and relied on press reports and newspaper images. He was convinced that Germany had to be overpowered and that ‘the wearing effect of [the war] is worse for us non-combatants than for a soldier’.  He was too old to enlist.

Orpen, Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917'

William Orpen, Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917′

There’s quite a lot of Orpen in this exhibition, with his sensitive drawings and paintings of other ranks being the main interest for me.  Royal Irish Fusiliers ‘Just come from the Chemical Works, Roeux, 21st May 1917 is a study of an exhausted soldier slumped in a sitting position, his steel helmet balanced on his knee and his arms hanging loosely by his sides. He’s unnamed (like the Grenadier Guardsman in his oil painting on the opposite wall), but was later identified as a Sergeant Slater who was killed later in the war.

Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir William Orpen, 1916

William Orpen, Sir Winston Churchill, 1916

A very different work by Orpen – though no less sensitive – is his portrait of Churchill looking weary and despondent, done in 1916 after Churchill had been blamed for the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles (or Gallipoli) campaign.  Forced to resign his ministerial post in the wartime coalition government, Orpen described his painting as ‘a portrait of dejection’. (Churchill was later exonerated by a Commission of Enquiry).

Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait,1915

Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915

Familiar as I was with Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry, I must admit I wasn’t aware that he also painted.  So I was brought to a halt by his arresting self portrait, made in 1915.  Before the war Rosenberg had been undecided whether art or poetry was his real vocation but had attend the Slade School of Fine Art, a member of that astonishing pre-war cohort that included his good friend David Bomberg, along with future luminaries such as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Dora Carrington, William Roberts, and Christopher Nevinson.

When war was declared, Rosenberg was actually in South Africa, living there with his sister in the hope that the warmer climate would cure his chronic bronchitis. The poem he wrote there – ‘On Receiving News of the War’ – is very unusual amongst early poetic responses in being decidedly anti-war:

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

Critical of the war from the outset, Rosenberg had no patriotic desire to enlist, but needing work to support his mother, he returned to Britain where, in the autumn of 1915, he enlisted in the Army.  This was the moment when he painted this self portrait.

Assigned to the King’s Own Royal Lancasters, in June 1916 he was sent with his Battalion to serve on the Western Front in France. The miseries of war began when his boots rubbed all the skin off his feet. As a soldier, he suffered more privations than the officer-poets of the First World War, enduring appalling food, atrocious hygiene and tyrannical discipline. He continued to write poetry while serving in the trenches, including ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, ‘Returning we Hear the Larks’, and ‘Dead Man’s Dump’.  He was killed by sniper fire, aged 28, on 1 April 1918.

Dead Man’s Dump

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul’s sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called `An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

The Dead Stretcher-Bearer by Gilbert Rogers, 1919

Gilbert Rogers, The Dead Stretcher-Bearer, 1919

Gilbert Rogers’ The Dead Stretcher-Bearer is a shocking image, comparable Nevinson’s Paths of Glory, and is a reminder of the controversy surrounding the depiction of dead British soldiers while the war was on. When Nevinson portrayed dead infantrymen sprawled near a trench in 1917, his painting was banned. It was only after the war that the official line softened, allowing Gilbert Rogers to paint this large and harrowing picture with its blunt title. Lying in the mud, his body across the shattered remains of the stretcher on which he ferried other victims of the conflict, the man cannot be identified. His face is covered in a rain-drenched sheet, and one hand hangs above a first aid box that can now render no assistance.

4 T

Lovis Corinth, Portrait of Hermann Struck, 1915

In the next section of the exhibition, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’, are grouped paintings which reflect the growing disillusionment that replaced patriotic euphoria as the war dragged on. War was now perceived as a lottery, a vortex of violence, with common humanity at the mercy of circumstance.  Some achieved distinction as heroes and medal-winners.  Others, shattered by their experience, returned home mutilated by wounds, or were annihilated on the field of battle.

In 1915, Lovis Corinth painted a portrait of his friend and fellow-artist, Hermann Struck.  Nothing could be further removed from the image  of gung-ho patriotic certainty.  Corinth was co-founderr of Die Brucke, the group which had been the focus for the development of German experssionism.   Struck posed for Corinth wearing the uniform of the officer he had become. Neither the subject nor the painter give in to the exalted belligerency of the moment.  Instead, the painting depicts the worry, melancholy and unease of the artist in his soldier’s garb. After the war, Struck, a fervent Zionist left Europe and settled in Palestine.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

There is another portrait here by a member of Die Brucke – also painted in 1915 and reflecting the same sense of deep anxiety and psychological disturbance as that of Hermann Struck. It’s a self-portrait by Ernst Kirchner, a key figure of the Expressionist movement whose members sought new and more direct forms of pictorial self-expression. ‘I paint,’ Kirchner said, ‘with my nerves and my blood.’

As in Corinth’s portrait of Struck, Kirchner has portrayed himself in his soldier’s uniform, in his studio before an unfinished painting and a nude model.  But as if with a fearful premonition, Kirchner depicts himself as a mutilated artist, his right arm a bloody and useless stump.  Kirchner was an unwilling soldier. In the spring of 1915, to avoid being conscripted into the regular infantry, he signed on as an artillery driver. Soon afterwards, he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and he was declared unfit for military service that autumn. At some point during those months of mental turmoil he paintedthis self portrait.  Andrew Graham-Dixon offers a revealing analysis of the painting on his website:

The setting is the artist’s studio. An unfinished painting,  raw as a wound, is leaned up against one of the walls, while at the room’s centre a model poses against a black screen. Kirchner believed that study of the nude figure “in a free, natural state” was “the foundation of all visual art”. But the painter’s green-tinged, neurasthenic face is averted both from his work and its sources of inspiration. He turns instead to confront the spectator. He wears the uniform of Field Artillery Regiment No. 75, depicted with historical accuracy: dark blue uniform, trimmed with red, with red epaulets; matching cap embossed with two cockades representing Prussia and the German Reich. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth and he has black unseeing eyes. According to the conventions of self-portraiture, he might have been expected to show himself holding his palette and brush. But his claw-like left hand is empty and in place of his right hand he brandishes a bloody, gangrenous stump.

Of course, the very existence of the image contradicts the situation which it apparently describes. This strikes me as an important, if generally overlooked, part of its meaning. The apparently disabled painter has painted a picture: this picture. He has evidently not been totally paralysed as an artist by his experiences in war (Kirchner was never injured and seems never to have seen active service). In my interpretation, the painting is a celebration of that fact, rather than the gloomy commemoration of a psychic wounding. I don’t even think it is, strictly speaking, a self-portrait. I think it is a portrait of the self Kirchner has escaped becoming, the self he has deliberately disabled. It is the image of the soldier whose role he refused to play. The severed hand, in my view, stands not for his inability to paint, but for his inability to fight – an inability which he welcomed and perhaps even engineered. He cannot swing a sword or fire a gun; but he can wield a brush, as the picture testifies. Through military incapacity he has preserved his potency as an artist. The picture proclaims that he could have become this hollow man, this empty warlike idol, but did not.The painting is the defiant, triumphant manifesto of a conscientious objector.

Max Beckman, The Way Home, from Hell

Max Beckmann, The Way Home, from the series Hell, 1919

Like Kirchner, Max Beckmann volunteered, but suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged.  The Way Home belongs to Hell, a series of lithographs in which Beckmann chronicled the lawlessness and turmoil that engulfed Germany after the November revolution of 1918.  He depicts himself confronting a soldier, a disfigured amputee, returning to a vanquished nation.  Beckmann reaches out to touch the amputee’s artificial arm, and gazes at the victim with profound compassion. Dedicated to portraying his pitifully damaged countrymen, he wrote in 1920: ‘We must surrender our heart and our nerves to the dreadful screams of pain of the poor disillusioned people.’

William Orpen, The Receiving Room the 42nd Stationary Hospital, 1917

William Orpen, The Receiving Room the 42nd Stationary Hospital, 1917

As the exhibition draws to a close the images become ever more disturbing.  Here is William Orpen again with a drawing done in the same year as his portrait of Churchill.  It’s a study of the Receiving Room at the 42nd Stationary Hospital where he himself had been admitted, suffering from scabies. His sketch focuses on three haggard soldiers slumped on a bench waiting for treatment.  ‘How more people did not die in that hospital beats me,’ remembered Orpen. ‘I personally never got any sleep, and left in a fortnight nearly dead.’

Henry Tonks, pastel portraits

Henry Tonks, pastel portraits of soldiers with facial wounds

Still more harrowing are the images of young soldiers with grotesque facial wounds made by Henry Tonks. After the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a young surgeon named Harold Gillies became responsible for the treatment of ever-increasing numbers of soldiers who had suffered very severe damage to their faces.  He established a pioneering  unit at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup where he began to develop the techniques of plastic surgery.  Gillies invited Henry Tonks to draw pastel portraits of patients before and after surgery. Tonks, formerly a professor at the Slade School of Fine Art, produced pastel drawings which are being shown for the first time here, alongside photographs taken of the soldiers at the unit run by Gillies.

Eric Kennington, Gassed and Wounded, 1918

Eric Kennington, Gassed and Wounded, 1918

Eric Kennington (who was born in Liverpool) was 26 at the outbreak of war, a highly skilled painter widely recognised for his technical virtuosity and exceptional draughtsmanship, and a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy.  He enlisted with the 13th London Regiment and, lodged in poorly-maintained trenches near the village of Laventie on the Lys Valley, experienced at first-hand the privations of front-line infantry work.

He fought on the Western Front but was badly wounded and and sent home in June 1915. During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, a portrait of a group of infantrymen. When exhibited in the spring of 1916 its portrayal of exhausted soldiers created a sensation.Kennington went back to France in 1917 as an Official War Artist and concentrated on depicting the common soldier; one critic wrote that Kennington was ‘a born painter of the nameless heroes of the rank and file’. After the war he designed many war memorials.

The work displayed here – Gassed and Wounded – is a scene at a field hospital where gassed and wounded soldiers are lying on stretchers. In the foreground there is a soldier with his eyes bandaged and his mouth open in pain. The painting is based on drawings Kennington made at a Casualty Clearing Station near Peronne during 1918, just as the Germans were bombarding the English lines in a prelude to their last big offensive. The painting powerfully conveys the cramped conditions and darkness of the station.

Great War portraits

Alongside paintings and drawings, the exhibition presents examples of contemporary film and photography. The centrepiece of the show is an installation of 40 photos, arranged in grid formation, of a wide range of war participants. All of them are details cropped from vintage photographs. They depict the enormous diversity of those involved. The installation is presented as a ‘homogenised visual spectacle without identification or hierarchy … the anonymity intended to evoke a common humanity’.  However, an accompanying booklet provides information about each person depicted – men and women of all nations, renowned and unknown, anonymous and famous.

Some are familiar (Robert Graves,  Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen; Baron von Richthofen; Mata Hari), others less so.  Here is Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British army. There is Billie Nevill, a captain who kicked a football across No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme; Maria Botchkareva, leader of Russia’s Women’s Battalion who ended up being shot by a Bolshevik firing squad; and Harry Farr, the shell-shocked private executed for desertion in 1916 (and officially pardoned in 2006).

There are images of unidentified individuals: an unknown Gurkha; a member of the Maori Contingent; and an unidentified German prisoner, captured during the battle of Menin Road Bridge in September 1917. I noticed Paul Cadbury, a Quaker conscientious objector and volunteer with the Friends Ambulance Unit; Elsie Knocker, ambulance driver and first-aider; Edith Cavell, shot by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915;  and Captain Noel Chavasse from Liverpool, one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice.  The grouping of these images underscores the indiscriminate way in which  the Great War sucked people from all backgrounds into its vortex.

In an acerbic review for the Evening Standard, Brian Sewell wrote:

These images and others of their generation – of nurses, a Quaker conscientious objector, and of Harry Farr, at 25, one of the shell-shocked, witless and terrified soldiers shot for cowardice – confront us in ways beyond the reach of formal portraiture. Compare these snapshots with the life-size presence in oil on canvas of the King, the Kaiser and the aged Emperor of Austria, stern in their various panoplies of office, compare them with the slick, shallow and ill-considered portraits of the great, the good and the ordinary bloke by William Orpen (of which there are far too many in this exhibition), and ask which are the speaking likenesses, which tell the truer tale.

Frame from sequence 34 British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire

Frame from The Battle of the Somme, sequence 34: ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’

In the final room footage from the documentary film The Battle of the Somme, released in cinemas in 1916, is screened. Made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDonell, the government did not produce the film, but they did approve it. It was highly controversial because the battle scenes were so shocking, and unlike anything screened before. Many observers felt it was too graphic. Nevertheless, 20 million people flocked to see the silent film – nearly half the population of Britain at the time.

The frame shown above is from the most memorable sequence – ‘British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire’ – used in documentaries about the war ever since. The wounded soldier died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.

Newspaper advert for a screening of The Battle of the Somme

Newspaper advert for a screening of The Battle of the Somme

The curators allow us to compare this British documentary with a German propagandist film, With Our Heroes on the Somme, made in 1917.  It differs by not being filmed on location and the inclusion of faked shots and footage that predated the battle of the Somme.  (Though the academic consensus is that one of the most famous scenes from The Battle of the Somme – of soldiers climbing out of their trench and advancing towards the enemy  with some cut down by enemy fire – was not filmed during the Battle of the Somme. Rather it seems likely that Geoffrey Malins captured this scene at a training facility later.

Nearby are photographs of young men who died in the conflict. John Travers Cornwell was 15 when he joined the Navy, and 16 when, on HMS Chester, he was mortally wounded in the Battle of Jutland (he earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery). Ivor Evans also enlisted at 15, fought at Gallipoli was killed in France, aged just 18. William Cecil Tickle volunteered aged 16 and died 22 months later on the third day of the Battle of the Somme.  His photo (top) poignantly bears a hand-written tribute from a member of his family.

The final exhibit is also a photograph – not the portrait of a person, but an image captured by Jules Gervais Courtellemont depicting a deserted, battle-scarred landscape. The gallery’s caption states that this is ‘the only work in the exhibition not to depict people; this poignant image is, in effect, a portrait of absence.’

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Devastated landscape at the French lines, c 1915

The Great War in Portraits is a poignant and challenging exhibition, though it has been forced into far too cramped a space, inexplicably pushed to the sidelines by a display of  images by photographer David Bailey. Yet on the afternoon I visited the Great War in Portraits was packed, while there was hardly a soul at the David Bailey show.

In the exhibition catalogue Sebastian Faulks has written an introduction that discusses the way in which this war has come to be defined in the British memory.  He notes, for instance, how the war’s last survivor Harry Patch, who believed that war was simply ‘organised murder’, was feted at his death.  He quotes Wittgenstein (who fought for Austro-Hungarian Empire on the Russian front), who wrote,  ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.  Yet there are images here that would shatter any silence, recalling words of the 19th century German dramatist and poet George Buchner:  ‘Do you not hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?’

Outside in the sunshine, I paused to look at the national memorial to Edith Cavell which stands ust opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery.  Cavell grew up in Norfolk, before moving to London to train as a nurse in 1896. In 1907, she moved to Brussels to become the director of a training school for nurses but was caught behind enemy lines after the German invasion in 1914. The school became part of a network of safe houses created to shelter Allied soldiers before smuggling them into the Netherlands. Less than a year after the invasion, Cavell was captured by the Germans and on 12 October 1915, was executed by firing squad. Her final words were, ‘I am glad to die for my country.’ There is a story that one of the Germans in the firing squad refused to take part in the execution, throwing down his rifle when ordered to fire.  He was shot by a German officer for refusing to obey orders. Inscribed on the memorial are the words she spoke to the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion on the night before her execution:

Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
Cavell 1

Cavell 2

The memorial to Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place, London

See also

A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War

A Terrible Beauty: British artists in the First World War

CRW Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1914

CRW Nevinson, ‘Returning to the Trenches’, 1914

The art and poetry that emerged from the First World War had no precedent, and both exercise a persistent hold over the public imagination and consciousness in a way unparalleled by any other body of wartime artistic expression. I’ve been reading A Terrible Beauty, Paul Gough’s excellent survey of British artists in the Great War,  which makes plain just how unprecedented was the war artists’ work: both in terms of official patronage and as the individual expression of the horror and waste of war.

Gough has drawn the title of his book from WB Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916, which proclaimed ‘A terrible beauty is born’. Though Yeats was addressing an entirely different subject, Gough’s choice is apt, encapsulating the central problem of art in the war: how can artistic beauty emerge from something so terrible?

Following the wartime careers of artists such as William Orpen, Paul and John Nash, Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer and discussing the work they produced, Gough confronts us with the question: What is the point of a war artist?  Is it to produce patriotic  propaganda or, like a journalist, to record the routines of war? Many (though by no means all) of the artists who enlisted in the armed services – including those recruited into Britain’s first-ever official war artists scheme – produced works which rejected both these options.  Instead, they created art which questioned the war’s purpose and in which the horror of war is palpable.

This generously illustrated volume is based on Gough’s research in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, drawing on letters, diaries and sketches to  tell the stories of the British artists who produced extraordinary paintings and drawings of the war. Gough places the artists in their social, artistic and military context, explores their motivations, and reveals how every one of them was changed forever by the war.

In the heady first months of the war, many painters and sculptors enlisted in the armed forces. Around thirty joined the Royal Army Medical Corps en bloc, while many joined the Artists’ Rifles, an officer-training unit, which attracted painters, poets, architects, writers, and many others with artistic aspirations.  In the years before the war, many younger artists, such as Wyndham Lewis and CWR Nevinson,  had been inspired by the ideas of the Futurist Movement that glorified machinery, noise, and destruction, welcoming the prospect of war as an ‘essential hygiene’ that would cleanse a decadent society.  For the right-wing press, however, war offered an opportunity to rid the country of the avant-garde, with its distinctly un-English and unpatriotic ideas.

But there were others for whom military service offered no attractions: sculptor Jacob Epstein declared ‘Really I am too important to waste my days thinking of matters military’; Paul Nash and William Roberts were cautious, and Richard Nevinson actively tried to avoid active service.

Gough tells how, from the early days of the war, one of the largest and most comprehensive official arts patronage schemes ever devised was initiated by the British government. He traces the origins of the official British war art scheme to a decision made by the Foreign Office in late August 1914 to establish a secret agency to manage and disseminate British propaganda. Headed by the Liberal politician Charles F.G.Masterman, it published and distributed clandestine literature aimed at neutral countries across the globe. In April 1916 a section was established to produce visual propaganda, including war films, picture cards, calendars, bookmarks, lantern-slides as well as photographs and line drawings.

Muirhead Bone, cover of The Western Front, Part 1

Muirhead Bone, cover of ‘The Western Front’, Part 1

Gough describes how, by early 1916, the illustrated newspapers were also seeking authentic front-line images, leading Masterman to contract Muirhead Bone, a well-known Scottish etcher, as the first Official War Artist. Two hundred of his drawings were subsequently published for sale in ten monthly parts, starting in late 1916. The first part featured an effusive foreword by Douglas Haig, Commanding General of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

Heavy Artillery Officers' Mess, Vlamertinghe Chateau, August 1916 1916 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘Heavy Artillery Officers’ Mess, Vlamertinghe Chateau’, August 1916

Bone set out on his first sketching trip in the late summer of 1916, ‘equipped with little more than twigs of charcoal and a sketchbook of fine-quality drawing paper’.  It was the height of the offensive on the Somme.  At first, as Gough notes, Bone toured the front line in a chauffeur-driven car, but soon set out on foot to see for himself some of the infamous sites of the Somme battlefield – Delville Wood, Montauban, High Wood.  Between mid-August and early October, in his billet after a day’s sketching, he completed around 150 drawings in charcoal or pencil, with additional touches of brown or grey watercolour.

Waiting for the Wounded at a Collecting Station in the Field on the Somme at Montauban 1916 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘Waiting for the Wounded at a Collecting Station in the Field on the Somme at Montauban’, 1916

A Soldiers' Cemetery at Lihons, May 1917 1917 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

Muirhead Bone, ‘A Soldiers’ Cemetery at Lihons’, May 1917

Muirhead Bone, Watching our Artillery Fire on Trônes Wood from Montauban

Muirhead Bone, ‘Watching our Artillery Fire on Trônes Wood from Montauban’, 1918

Gough writes that ‘Bone’s mastery of detail is extraordinary’.  While many of his most poignant images of the Western Front ‘depict little more than gaps and absences’, he also captured the individual character of fighting men, drawn resting behind the lines. Ironically, however, his most acclaimed drawing, Gough notes, is not one of these but is the charcoal drawing of a tank made immediately after the war machine’s first combat on 15 September 1916.

Muirhead Bone, Tanks, 1918

Muirhead Bone, ‘Tanks’, 1918

In September 1916, an exhibition opened in London of ‘Paintings and Drawings of War by C.W.R.Nevinson’.  Gough writes that ‘it is not too great a claim to make that Nevinson’s work marked the beginning of a new form of war art’. The exhibition aroused an extraordinary burst of critical and popular approval. Outwardly, Nevinson’s paintings could not have seemed more different than the work of Muirhead Bone, but Nevinson, writes Gough, ‘established a balance between literal representation and the near-abstract visual language of modernist art’ that appealed to the public.

With the flair of a journalist, Nevinson was quick to grasp the greatness of the opportunity offered by the war. He was one of the first British artists to go on active service in the autumn of 1914, volunteering with a Red Cross unit, based at Dunkirk. The unit served in the rear of the French forces in the early months of the war when the worst slaughter occurred (almost half of French war losses came in the first 18 months of the war).  Nevinson’s health broke down under the stress, but back in Britain he painted a series of pictures reflecting his experiences.

CRW Nevinson, The Doctor, 1916

CRW Nevinson, ‘The Doctor’, 1916

The Doctor is, in Gough’s words, ‘a brutally frank canvas, unstinting in its depiction of terrible pain’.  Doctors and medical orderlies are treating injured soldiers in an open building with straw on the floor.  The setting is the ‘Shambles’ (old English for a slaughter-house), a covered goods yard outside Dunkirk where wounded soldiers were treated. Nevinson’s first job as a volunteer with the Red Cross was to tend to the dying men. In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson describes his work at the ‘Shambles’:

Our doctors took charge, and in five minutes I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher-bearer, driver, and interpreter. Gradually the shed was cleansed, disinfected and made habitable, and by working all night we managed to dress most of the patients’ wounds.

Nevinson fully intended the painting to be a grim statement of the horrors he had seen at casualty stations:

I regard this picture, quite apart from how it is painted, as expressing an absolutely NEW outlook on the so-called ‘sacrifice’ of war.  It is the last word on the ‘horror of war’ for the generations to come.

Richard Nevinson La Patrie

CWR Nevinson, ‘La Patrie’, 1916

In La Patrie, Nevinson used his memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres, depicting the awful conditions in an improvised field hospital housed in railway sheds. It’s a  picture that still has elements of Futurism, but though no doubt strange to most exhibition-goers in 1916, the scene was intelligible.

In 1915, Nevinson had told the Daily Express: ‘Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence, and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe. His style gradually evolved as the war went on, with the paintings and drawing he made early on reflecting most clearly the elements of Futurism, as seen in reflected in Returning to the Trenches (top) painted on the Western Front in the first year of war.  It demonstrates Nevinson’s extraordinary power and success in suggesting movement, and implies, like many of his pictures, that modern war is not about men as individuals but as merely parts of a complicated and inexorable machine.

C. R. W. Nevinson, Column on the March, 1915

CRW Nevinson, ‘Column on the March’, 1915

C.R.W. Nevinson, A Dawn, 1914, drypoint

CRW Nevinson, ‘A Dawn’, 1914

A Dawn shows French infantrymen marching with a relentless machine-like rhythm to the battle front. The use of repetitive stylized wedge-shaped forms to convey both movement and mass was a recognisable Futurist device. With the fervour of Futurism, before the war Nevinson had celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed him, and in the paintings and drawings he made while serving at Dunkirk and later when a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the General Hospital at Wandsworth, the soldiers are reduced to a series of angular planes and grey colouring, losing their individuality and appearing almost like machines.

C. R. W. Nevinson, A Flooded Trench on the Yser, 1916

CRW Nevinson, ‘A Flooded Trench on the Yser’, 1916

CWR Nevinson, After a Push, 1917

CWR Nevinson, ‘After a Push’, 1917

Gough is reluctant to divide Nevinson’s war work into two distinct and successive styles – early radical, later more overtly realistic and less modernist. Certainly A Flooded Trench on the Yser, painted in 1915, is a bolder, simpler depiction of the battered Flanders landscape than After a Push from 1917. The earlier work is powerful and effective, with design emphasised more strongly than realism.  As in a Japanese print, the falling rain and the bleakness of the devastated landscape is expressed with an economy that is also poignant.

But who would argue that the scarred battlefield covered with water-filled shell craters and barbed wire depicted in After a Push is any less powerful as a critical response to the meaningless destruction of war?  The desolate shattered landscape, speaks powerfully of the bleakness of a war empty of meaning.

CWR Nevinson, A Taube, 1916

CWR Nevinson, ‘A Taube’, 1915

As Gough observes, the overtly realist and non-modernist A Taube was painted in 1915, during the first phase of Nevinson’s war work. The body of a French schoolboy lies on the pavement outside a house. The corpse is surrounded by broken cobblestones from a hole blown in the street during an air raid. The child is the casualty of an attack made from a Taube, a German reconnaissance plane which also carried bombs that were thrown from the cockpit. (Ironically, taube translates as ‘dove’, taub as ‘death’). The casual violence of the scene is symbolic of the deliberate targeting of civilian populations in this war: as the technology of the First World War developed, almost any target could be hit and its legitimacy justified.

In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson described the scene that had inspired this painting:

Dunkirk was one of the first towns to suffer aerial bombardment, and I was one of the first men to see a child who had been killed by it. There the small boy lay before me, a symbol of all that was to come.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson

CWR Nevinson, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ 1915

For Paul Gough, of all Nevinson’s war paintings La Mitrailleuse represents ‘the single most successful synthesis’ of Nevinson’s talents.  It depicts a French machine gun team ‘bent over their fearsome weapon’:

Everything is locked into place, the three living figures hemmed in by a stockade of wooden beams, the jagged sky barred by an interlocking web of barbed wire. A fourth figure lies sprawled in the shallow foreground, pale and wasted, sinking into the deep mire of the trench while the remorseless noise of the gun fills the composition.

Quoting Laurence Binyon, writing in the New Statesman in May 1917, Gough asserts that Nevinson grasped the appalling truth of war – ‘a world of men enslaved to a terrific machine of their own making’. His genius, Gough argues, lay ‘not merely in articulating the dehumanization of the modern condition, but also in making palpable the soldier’s sufferings, and being able to communicate the ‘feelings of pity and horror that had driven him to paint’.

C. R. W. Nevinson,  Night Arrival of Wounded

CRW Nevinson, ‘Night Arrival of Wounded’, 1915

After he returned from the front, Nevinson served as a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the 3rd London General Hospital at Wandsworth (an experience that must have been very similar to that of Stanley Spencer, who was a hospital orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol at about the same time). While there, Nevinson contributed drawings to The Gazette, a monthly magazine for staff and patients. The standard of prose and drawing was high since many of the staff and patients were artists and journalists. In one of the best drawings, Night Arrival of Wounded, a faceless ambulance crew is lifting stretchers from their vehicles. There is both a sense of activity and of mounting casualties.

Nevinson’s exhibition in 1916 was a great success and brought him to the attention of Charles Masterman, head of the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, leading to his appointment as an official War Artist in July 1917. He was sent to the Western Front where he painted another sixty pictures, works that were to feature in a second, hugely successful, exhibition in London in 1918.

Nevinson shared the same mixed feelings about being an official War Artist as Paul Nash who wrote at the time:

I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.

Nash and Nevinson were right to be sceptical: being an official artist meant that Nevinson’s second exhibition in 1918 was subject to the intervention of the military censor. Though contemporary critics complained that the second exhibition lacked the visual fervour of his earlier pictures, the military censor prevented the display of Paths of Glory.  Nevinson had the painting displayed, but covered by paper with the word ‘censored’ scrawled on it.  The painting of two corpses face down in the mud and barbed wire makes a polemical statement, but artistically inferior to the earlier work.

Paths of Glory

CWR Nevinson, ‘Paths of Glory’, 1918

Meanwhile, Gough recounts how a new Department of Information was created in February 1917 under the direction of John Buchan (replaced in 1918 by the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken – Lord Beaverbrook).  It was Beaverbrook who created the British War Memorial Committee, modelled on the ambitious Canadian War Memorials scheme, which he personally directed.  Beaverbrook altered the direction and tone of official war art, moving it from the representation of the present (with a short-term emphasis on propaganda and documentary record) to the creation of ‘a permanent legacy for future generations, an emblem of remembrance, a lasting memorial expressed in art’.  Gough describes the rivalry between Beaverbrook’s department and the newly-formed rival National War Museum, which also saw itself as taking the lead in gathering existing war art and settings its own agenda for commissioning new art.

Under the energetic leadership of Arnold Bennett, and with the support of Beaverbrook, the British War Memorials Committee set itself on a very different trajectory from the War Museum. Gough writes:

Independent and original in its thinking, the committee did its utmost to frustrate establishment efforts to promote the old guard of British art. Instead, Bennett and his fellow members offered work to the cadre of younger soldier-artists with the ulterior motive of assembling a significant contemporary collection that would be representative of ‘the greatest artistic expression of the day’.

Remarkably, this meant the Committee giving its support to the sort of modernist work that right wing and conservative factions in the press and society at large despised, since it reminded them of alien and undesirable movements (Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism!)  which they regarded as antithetical to British values.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

However, the work which came to be the best known of all the commissioned war paintings was a very conventional painting by an artist whose work had come to be regarded as old-fashioned, out of touch and superficial – John Singer Sargent, a man, Gough writes, ‘so removed from the realities of warfare that on his only visit to the battle zone he asked whether there was any fighting on Sundays’.

Yet Gassed is, writes Gough, ‘a vast frieze of pain; a work of compassionate engagement’. The image is of a scene encountered by Sargent on the road south west of Arras – several hundred gassed men, blindfolded and being led away from the battlefield.  Though Gough regards the painting as ‘one of the great monuments of the conflict, a testament to the pity of war’, it is also strangely sanitised – there is an air of discomfort, but no sense of the intense pain that came with the effects of mustard gas.  The bandages are clean, the wounds discreet, the soldiers fit and statuesque.  A single figure appears to vomit, though not in the direction of the viewer.

Beaverbook planned to house the commissioned works in an imposing Hall of Remembrance – similar to an equally grand planned hall in Ottawa.  Artists were paid to produce a single picture for the planned Hall. Younger, less established artists were offered a rather more modest deal – a salary of £300 per annum in return for their total artistic output during that period. This proposal was accepted by artists such as Paul Nash and John Nash
Seventeen large history paintings by artists such as Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent, and Stanley Spencer; large sculpture reliefs by Charles Jagger and Gilbert Ledward, and twelve smaller canvases were produced by thirty-one artists. These formed the backbone of major exhibitions of the Nation’s War Pictures that toured Britain immediately after the war.

By contrast the National War Museum (renamed the Imperial War Museum in December 1917) set a very different course. To achieve a comprehensive visual record of the war, the Museum commissioned artists in a systematic and prescriptive way to produce work that recorded wartime activity in eight subject groupings (Army, Navy, Air Force, Merchant Marine, Land, Munitions, Clerical and other work by Women, Public Manifestations).

Beaverbrook’s Hall of Remembrance was not built, probably because, suggests Gough, the War Museum began to openly plot against him, seeking to discredit him, his Ministry and the War Memorial Committee. In July 1918  Beaverbrook ceded the entire operation to the Imperial War Museum, and later resigned as Minister of Information.

However, the paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture that Beaverbrook commissioned survive and are still housed (many of them in storage) in the Imperial War Museum in London. It is, reckons Gough, ‘probably the finest collection of British art in the country outside Tate Britain’.

William Roberts, A Shell Dump, France, 1918

William Roberts, ‘A Shell Dump, France’, 1918

Another example of a work commissioned by Beaverbrook’s department is A Shell Dump, France by William Roberts, one of the pre-war avant-garde Vorticist group. Like his fellow Vorticist and rival, Wyndham Lewis, Roberts enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a gunner, serving on the Western Front.

Having been told that artists were being chosen to do war paintings for the Canadian War Records Office, he applied, and in 1918 was ‘loaned’ to the Canadians for six months as an official war artist. He was subsequently also commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, for whom he painted A Shell Dump, France. His experiences at the front shifted the direction of his work, and significant pieces from his wartime output, such as the powerful Canadian commission The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918), dramatically depict the horror of war and are possibly the most acerbic produced by any of the British artists employed under the government’s schemes, compared by some to the social realism of the German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz.

One interesting story recounted by Gough concerns William Orpen, ‘brilliant draughtsman, consummate water-colourist and virtuoso painter’ who before the war could command four-figure fees for his portraits of the wealthy and the powerful of Edwardian society.  Employed as a war artist, and ‘equipped with his own transport, chauffeur, batman and indispensable personal manager’ Orpen toured the Somme producing ‘swagger portraits’ of officers (a ‘swagger portrait’, was, according to Gough, one in which the sitter is shown ‘full length in ostentatious and self-concious display.’

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1921

William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1921

Days after the Armistice, the Imperial War Museum assigned Orpen to make two large official paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles – ‘unsatisfactory pieces’, according to Gough.  Having completed those, Orpen embarked on a third panorama of the statesmen gathered in the gilded surroundings of the Hall of Peace at Versailles.  Then, without warning the museum, he painted them all out.  Methodically, he obliterated thirty-six figures, painting in their place a coffin covered by the Union Jack, two semi-nude soldiers guarding it and two cherubs in the air above.

Orpen told the Evening Standard:

It all seemed so unimportant somehow.  I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture of the year by public ballot. However, the posture of the soldiers, the nudity, and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to contrasting reactions in the press, with right-wing papers attacking it as a ‘a bad joke’ that lacked dignity and good taste. The left-wing press hailed the painting: the Daily Herald calling it ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who really won the war’. The Imperial War Museum rejected the painting and witheld the final instalment of Orpen’s fee.

William Orpen, To the Unknown British Soldier in France, 1929

William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1929

Five years later, in 1928, Orpen approached the IWM and offered to make changes to the painting.  He painted out the ghostly, insane-looking soldiers, the cherubs and the wreaths. All that remained was the draped coffin and the marble hall. ‘Nothing is left,’ wrote one observer, ‘but a nameless dead soldier in a cold emptiness.  It is a disturbing picture’.

Gough concludes his survey of First World War artists by considering whether any generalisations can be made about  the motivations that drove artists to serve and record what they saw.  He finds it a difficult task, since their attitudes and experiences, both during and after the war, were so varied:

Many wanted merely to escape the petty tedium of service life, to be relatively free from danger and to be modestly rewarded for their talents. [As a result of] wartime experiences a number of them, those who were naturally bellicose, soon found their enthusiasms dampened; those who wanted to be officially recognized and supported were often frustrated in their aims, and nearly all of those who produced memorable art often had to do so in the face of hardship, privations, and an implacable administration which censored their work and taxed their often meagre incomes.

Gough concludes:

The war stimulated some of the best British art of the twentieth century, giving shape to a scheme of arts patronage on a scale never seen before, and nourishing the work of dozens of artists who would populate the creative milieu for decades to come.

I have illustrated this post with work by only a few of the artists discussed in Paul Gough’s generously-illustrated book.  I have written elsewhere about the murals produced by Stanley Spencer for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, perhaps the greatest artwork to emerge from the conflict.  I need to devote another post to the work of the Nash brothers. In July, a transformed Imperial War Museum London reopens with Truth and Memory, the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years.  I hope to be there.

See also

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

Angelus Ovus, Paul Klee and photo of Walter Benjamin

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Ovus’, and photograph of Walter Benjamin

With the centenary of the onset of World War One approaching (as we are reminded daily), I’m thinking a great deal and reading about the war. Michael Gove knows what he is doing when he sets his sights on ‘left-wing academics … happy to feed myths’ about the war. I’m from the generation that came to maturity half a century after the war had ended –  a generation for whom the Great War seemed as relevant as the war then raging in Vietnam. What Gove is attempting to do is refashion the collective memory of the war and its interpretation so that it can be read as being simply about (in his words) ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.

But for a great many of those who experienced the war – whether painters, poets or the common foot-soldiers who met their end, Blackadder-style, in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets going over the top – the war was endured, with a courage and bravery we can only imagine, as the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time: as pointless and horrible carnage.  In those four years a great many people ceased to believe in the idea of progress – or in the verities of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country.

Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and philosopher writing in 1940, gave expression to this sense of historical progress being a cruel illusion in a much-quoted passage. Benjamin, then aged 48, had lived through World War I and its aftermath – economic collapse, failed revolution and the rise of fascism – and saw it as a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin’.

In 1921, Benjamin had purchased a Paul Klee drawing, The Angel of History. It was his most prized possession and continued to obsess him as the Nazi regime closed in.  In 1940, a few months before his death, Benjamin penned a very personal interpretation of the drawing, not obvious to most viewers I would guess, but a powerful statement nonetheless of how the events of the 20th century – world war and Holocaust – shattered the 19th century certainty that history represented human progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Benjamin was destined, only months after he had written these words, to become one more lifeless body among the  millions of those lost in the catastrophe of the 20th century.  In 1940, seized by the fascist authorities in Spain as he attempted to escape across the Pyrenees from France, he committed suicide.

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

For this post, I thought I would offer a sequence of poems in which the authors give voice to their premonition of impending conflagration, or of the onset of war marking a turning point, a catastrophe that would transform everything.  Beginning with an extract from TS Eliot’s Preludes, written in 1910-11:

I

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


II

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914

‘Prophecy’ was written by the German Expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein in 1913:

Soon there’ll come — the signs are fair —
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn. 

—translated from German by Christopher Middleton

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

No doubt ‘MCMXIV’, written in 1964 by Phillip Larkin will be anthologised endlessly during this centennial year.  It’s a great poem that, filtering impressions from old photographs and newsreels, has almost single-handedly come to define our image of those August days in 1914:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Alfred Lichtenstein

Alfred Lichtenstein

The mood of enthusiastic patriotism swept across Europe, and it was during those days that Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Leaving for the Front’ with its deep sense of foreboding:

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

The poem was penned on 7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

Tom Paulin has suggested that Ted Hughes, born in 1930, belonged to ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.’

Hughes’s father had come through the First World War, psychologically scarred by his ordeal and the trauma of witnessing the slaughter of nearly all his friends and fellow soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. He was one of just two per cent of his regiment to survive. Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men’ articulates a sense of the futility of war, but also of mortality in general: one day all that will be left of us will be a face in a photograph.

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed; From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s-land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

Yvan Goll was a German citizen with Jewish antecedents, born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine – the borderland disputed between France and Germany. His wandering life as an exile was to reflect the turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century. Goll identified himself with the new wave of German expressionism that flourished in Berlin before the First World War.  Like Kathe Kollwitz, he was a socialist pacifist and in 1914, to escape conscription into the German army, he took refuge in Switzerland. There he published poems and articles critical of the war – including, in 1915, ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’. In 1939, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write.  In 1947, dying from leukaemia, he returned to Paris. Despite sixteen poets from countries across the world giving him their blood, he died there in February 1950.

Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city of every land you can hear the passing-bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, Ruined Country. Old battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie wood, 1917

American poet Carl Sandburg, the son of migrants from Sweden, was born in the Mid West, drove a milk wagon and later worked as a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the wheat plains of Kansas.  He became an active socialist, involved in working class struggles and the civil rights movement.  In 1898, he had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. ‘Grass’ was published in a 1918 collection of Sandburg’s poetry, and is a timeless meditation on war in the ageless voice of nature:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

I

CWR Nevinson, The Harvest of Battle, 1921

‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats was written after the war was over, in 1919. It gives powerful expression to Benjamin’s later vision of a storm blowing from Paradise, rousing a ‘rough beast’ from slumber – an apocalyptic vision of 20th century horrors yet to come:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?