Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Otto Dix’s War: unflinching and disturbing, but dedicated to truth

Peronne Historial 1

L’Historial beside the lake of the Somme at Peronne

The Historial de la Grande Guerre is an excellent museum of the First World War in Peronne, the small town straddling the upper reaches of the Somme which was my base during the time I spent exploring the memorials and cemeteries there. The museum was opened in 1992 and houses presentations in three languages – French, English and German – to show how each nation experienced the war in this sector. It is not a military but a cultural museum which seeks to show how the lives of combatants and civilians were affected by the war. For me, the main attraction was a display of a complete set of Otto Dix’s series of etchings, Der Krieg (The War), his harrowing cycle of prints in which he documented the horrors of his own wartime experience.

Peronne Historial 2

The entrance to the Historial, through the gateway of the Chateau

The Historial is housed in the partly-ruined medieval Château de Péronne, in a modernist building of white concrete  on the banks of one of the placid lakes (etangs) of the Somme which make a stroll around Peronne such a pleasant experience.

Peronne Somme 2 Peronne Somme 3 Peronne Somme

Peaceful scenes on the Somme and the etangs around Peronne

Inside the museum there are displays of posters, lithographs, press clippings, objects, uniforms, postcards, photographs, and many other documents which provide an international panorama of the conflict. Among the most interesting of the exhibits are the tables on which is displayed the detritus of war – coils of barbed wire, helmets, some pierced by bullets, lead shot, water bottles, trenching tools, and so on – still being found in the fields of the region, as today’s farmers dig and work their fields with tractors.

Historial display 2 Historial display 3 Historial display

Displays at the Historial, Peronne

For almost the whole of the war, Péronne was occupied by German troops. It was finally liberated on the 2 September 1918 by Australian troops.  Life under German rule deeply affected the inhabitants of Péronne and the town suffered heavily with bombardments, fire and destruction. Between 1914 and 1918, almost 30% of the town’s inhabitants became civilian victims of the war.

Ruins in Peronne, Hôtel de Ville, Arthur Streeton watercolour with pencil

Arthur Streeton, ‘Ruins in Peronne: Hôtel de Ville’, watercolour with pencil

The ruined church, Péronne, France, 5 September 1918

The ruined church in Péronne, 5 September 1918

Within days of Peronne being captured, the Australian troops had made their mark on the streets with signs painted on bits of old timber that reflected the Australian sense of humour:  Wallaby Lane, Ding Bat Alley, Digger Road, Dinkum Alley – but best of all, Roo De Kanga. The sign was photographed on  3 October 1918 and collected for Australian War Records shortly after.

‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne 2 ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

Rue de Kanga, Peronne, in 1918

Few towns in France have retained the street names given to them by the Australian forces.  However, in 1997 the commune of Peronne restored the name Roo De Kanga to a stretch of the rue de St Savour, by the Hotel de Ville, where the sign had hung briefly some seventy nine years before.

Street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’, Péronne

The street sign ‘Roo de Kanga’ in Péronne today

In the Historial, I was keen to see the complete set of Otto Dix’s etchings, Der Krieg.  Displayed in a dedicated gallery, this disturbing 20th century equivalent of Goya’s Disasters of War makes troubling viewing.

In 1914 Otto Dix, a 24 year-old student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts, enlisted in the German army and was sent in 1915 to serve on the Western Front. It was not until after the war, from 1920 onwards, that his work became overtly anti-militarist under the influence of Grosz, portraying his hatred for war in a style close to expressionism, full of pathos and violence.

The series of fifty etchings entitled Der Krieg, completed in 1924, sprang from the artist’s need to confront the horrors of his wartime experiences:

The fact is, being young at the time, you just don’t realize how profoundly scarred you are. For at least ten years after the war I kept getting dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through. The ruins were always there in my dreams. . .

In these etchings, destruction, deformation and appalling human mutilation emerge from encircling gloom to form a vision that is apocalyptic. Most of the scenes depicted recall memories of things seen by Dix in Somme or in Picardy, where he fought (he was at the Somme during the major allied offensive of 1916).

In Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940, GH Hamilton describes Dix’s series as:

Perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art… It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist, not even by [George] Grosz  …

Like the equally devastating Disasters of  War, Goya’s account of the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of Independence from 1808 to 1814, Der Krieg uses a variety of etching methods and exploits the potential of a long sequence of images. Der Krieg mirrors Goya’s unflinching, stark realism and, like Goya’s cycle, reveals the artist both horrified and fascinated by the experience of war. For Dix, these prints were like an exorcism. The portfolio was circulated throughout Germany with a pacifist organization, Never Again War (for which Kathe Kollwitz created her memorable image of the same name). Dix, however, doubted that his prints would have any bearing on future wars.

Before I left for France I heard cartoonist Martin Rowson, whose own work is similarly direct and uncompromising to that of Dix, give a talk on Dix and Der Krieg on Radio 3’s The Essay, in a week of excellent talks entitled ‘Minds at War’ that also included Ruth Padel talking about Kathe Kollwitz’s Grieving Parents sculpture, and Heather Jones on Henri Barbusse’s novel Le Feu.

Rowson began his talk by placing Dix in the context of the New Objectivity artistic movement that flourished in Germany in the 1920s – challenging Expressionism by its unsentimental focus on reality and the objective world, as opposed to the more abstract, romantic, or idealistic tendencies of Expressionism. Otto Dix was one of its main practitioners, along with Max Beckmann and George Grosz. Their mercilessly naturalistic depictions portrayed Weimar society in a caustically satirical manner.

Otto Dix, 'Mealtime in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’

Speaking specifically of the engravings that form the sequence Der Krieg, Rowson described the effect of viewing them as claustrophobic, ‘just like being stuck in a trench eating lunch among your comrades’ rotting corpses’ (here referring to ‘Mealtime in the Trenches’, the thirteenth print in the series).

These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we,
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
– ‘Grotesque’ by Frederic Manning

Rowson explained the elements of the engravings which define them as modernist – in particular, Dix’s use of over-drawing, ‘one of the defining tricks of modernism: that transgressive line that breaks all the rules by breaking across all other lines’. For Rowson, ‘breaking the rules of realism, of reality, is the only real way of getting to the truth’.

In a key passage of his talk, Rowson compared John Singer Sargent’s Gassed with the third plate from Dix’s Der Krieg, ‘Gas Victims’, in which, ‘faces blackened by lack of oxygen and unrecognisable as being even human’, the victims of a gas attack lie apparently unnoticed while two medical orderlies stand nonchalantly by them. Sargent’s painting, Rowson argued, could only have emerged from the victorious nation –  exhibited in the new Imperial War Museum, whose name would have provoked a gunfight between armed militias in Germany, the nation defeated and therefore deeply divided about the meaning of the war. Even the act of remembering – as Otto Dix did in his etchings and paintings  – could be conceived as being in the worst possible taste.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Gas victims – Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916

Otto Dix, ‘Gas victims  (Templeux-la-Fosse, August 1916)’

Rowson concluded by asserting that Der Kreig is ‘less about the Great War than its aftermath: while Dix claimed to be remembering the war and its horrors, the Nazi’s whole point was to re-enact them’.  In 1933 Dix was dismissed from his post as an art tutor at the Dresden Academy by the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards his work appeared in the Nazi government’s exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ (to be burned afterwards).  In 1935 Otto Dix left Germany for exile in Switzerland.

In 1963, explaining why he had volunteered in 1914, Dix had this to say:

I had to experience how someone beside me suddenly falls over and is dead and the bullet has hit him squarely. I had to experience that quite directly. I wanted it. I’m therefore not a pacifist at all – or am I? Perhaps I was an inquisitive person. I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Soldier's grave between the lines

 Otto Dix, ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’

The first plate from Der Krieg is ‘Soldier’s Grave in No Man’s Land’, a chaotic image of a churned up battlefield which is also a cemetery, constantly ploughed by continued shelling.

Next to the black, waxen heads like Egyptian mummies, lumpy with insect larvae and debris, where white teeth appeared the hollows; next to poor darkened stumps which were numerous here, like a field of bare roots, we discovered yellow skulls, stripped clean, still wearing a red fez with a grey cover as brittle as papyrus. There were thigh-bones protruding from mounds of rags stuck together in the red mud, or a fragment of spine emerged from a hole filled with frayed material coated with a kind of tar. There were ribs scattered all over the ground like broken old cages, and nearby blackened pieces of leather, pierced and flattened beakers and mess tins had risen to the surface. Here and there, a longish bulge – for all these unburied dead finish up going into the ground – only a scrap of material sticks out, indicating that a human being was annihilated on this particular point of the globe.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

While the series began with a soldier’s grave between the lines, the second plate provides a graphic depiction of how such graves are produced. Soldiers react in horror as the earth collapse around them. In the instant before they are swallowed, Dix depicts them not as they are but as they will become, their faces reduced to depictions of skulls.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Corpse of a horse

Otto Dix, ‘Carcass of a horse’

The First World War produced many artistic renderings of dead horses – a reflection of the fact that there was nearly one for every man, and that the connection between horse and man was very close. This three-legged corpse, with its side ripped wide open is terribly realistic.

Otto Dix, Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares

 Otto Dix, ‘Crater field near Dontrien lit up by flares’

Already by plate number four you sense that this is no ordinary series of etchings. Here, a night time flare illuminates a lunar landscape, illustrating the command of various print techniques which Dix demonstrates throughout the series.

A constellation like day; the horizon behind it by lights
and flares fingered and shrouded,

That went and came, fell or stood, restless, phantom-
like; and if it went, deep night fell,
And if it came, then somewhere a town lay, white,
shifting furtive a forest was made and a vale
Full of sleep, with torrents and indeterminate things,
with graves and churchtowers, smashed, with
climbing mists, moist, big-clouded,
With huts, where sleepers lay, where a dream walked,
full of fever, full of strangeness, full of animal
splendour,where abruptly a screen
Of cloud split open; and behind it swelled and ocean of
stars. a dominion of rockets, a light sprang from the
ravine,
Terrible, roaring, rumble of wheels on roads, and a
man stepped darkly into the dark,by a dreadful
nightmare amazed,
Saw the flight of fires migrating, heard butchery below,
saw behind the darkness the city that ceaselessly
blazed,
Heard in earth’s belly a rolling,ponderous, gigantic,
primeval, heard traffic travelling the roads, into the
void, into the widening night, into a storm, grim in
the west. Frantic, the ear
With the front’s countless hammers, with the riders
who came, stamping, hurrying, with the riders who
rode away, to turn into shadows, melt into the night,
there to rot,
Death slaughters them, and they lie under weeds,
heavy, fossil, with hands full of spiders, mouths
scabbed red and brown,
Eyes full of uttermost sleep, the circlet of shadow
around their brows, blue, waxen,decaying in the
smoke of the night
Which sank down, threw shadows far which spread its
vault from hill to hill, over forest and rottenness,
over brains full of dreams, over the hundred
none carried away,
Over the mass of fire, over laughter and madness, over
crosses in fields, over pain and despair, over rublle
and ash, over the river and the ruined town…

– ‘Nocturnal Landscape’ byAnton Schnack, 1920, translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Wounded soldier – Autumn 1916, Bapaume

Otto Dix, ‘A Wounded Soldier (Autumn 1916, Bapaume)’

Dix was a machine gunner during the battle of the Somme, an experience that left him with obsessive memories of death. Here he depicts unblinkingly the agony of a comrade wounded in the abdomen, expressed in his bulging eyes, clenched right hand and twisted left arm. This image is an unmitigated symbol of human suffering.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Near Langemark (February 1918)

Otto Dix, ‘Near Langemark (February 1918)’

Dix fought in Champagne, on the Somme, near Verdun, in Russia, and in Flanders – the latter experience leading him to paint Flanders in  1924: with its echoes of Breugel’s apocalyptic visions, it was subtitled ‘Adapted from Barbusse’s Under Fire‘.

Now, in the sinister light of the storm beneath black dishevelled clouds, dragged and spread across the earth like wicked angels, they seem to see a great livid white plain extend before them. In their   vision, figures rise up out of the plain, which is composed of mud and water, and clutch at the surface of the ground, blinded and crushed with mire, like survivors from some monstrous shipwreck. These men seem to them to be soldiers. The plain is vast, riven by long parallel canals and pitted with waterholes, and the shipwrecked men trying to extract themselves from it are a great multitude . . . But the thirty million slaves who have been thrown on top of one another by crime   and error into this war of mud raise human faces in which the glimmer of an idea is forming. The future is in the hands of these slaves and  one can see that the old world will be changed by the alliance that will   one day be formed between those whose number and whose suffering  is without end.

– Henri Barbusse, Le Feu, chapter 1

Otto Dix, Flanders, 1924

Otto Dix, ‘Flanders’, 1934

When Dix began painting Flanders, he had already been dismissed from his post as art tutor at the Dresden Academy. Dix’s dismissal letter said that his work ‘threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves’. In addition, two of Dix’s paintings, The Trench and War Cripples, had appeared in the exhibition in Dresden Town Hall of ‘degenerate art’  intended by the Nazis to discredit modern art. Dix’s response was to begin painting Flanders – another powerful anti-war painting.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Stormtroops advancing under a gas attack

Otto Dix, ‘Stormtroopers advancing under a gas attack’

‘Storm-troopers advancing under a gas attack’ is probably the print from the series that is most often reproduced. Dix portrays five soldiers in close-up, as seen through the eyes of French defenders, their faces covered by their gas masks, advancing on an enemy line through No Man’s Land during a gas attack. When soldiers wore their gas masks they lost all signs of humanity and Dix presents them as symbols of terror.

Otto Dix, 'Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

Otto Dix, ‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)

What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in.

– Otto Dix

Otto Dix, 'The Ruins of Langemark

Otto Dix, ‘The Ruins of Langemark’

Langemark was where gas used by the Germans for the first time in April 1915.  During the Third Battle of Ypres, British troops captured Langemarck (which is close to Passchendaele). A German counter-offensive then re-captured most of the ground around Langemarck. This print probably depicts Dix’s memory of what was left of the town after he and the Germans returned.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, A Dying soldier

Otto Dix, ‘A Dying Soldier’

The Historial’s caption to this print gets it exactly, terrifyingly right, pointing out that the title is ‘dying’, not ‘dead’ despite the unprecedented wounds inflicted by artillery and gunfire.

Otto Dix, Der Kreig, Lens bombarded

Otto Dix, ‘Lens is bombarded’

Lens was located in German occupied territory, still inhabited by elderly French civilians, women and children.  Dix focusses on one street.  A British or French plane flies low over homes in order to bomb enemy targets, but killing civilians in the process. Dix portrays the terror of women in the foreground, while bodies lie strewn across the street behind them.  Here is where it all started – the concept of ‘total war’ in which civilians are deliberate targets (in order to demoralize) or are simply ‘collateral damage’.  Think Gaza, Syria, Ukraine right now.

Otto Dix, 'Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Attack by a stealth patrol crawling through the trenches’

Dix represents what no war photos could show – the act of a German soldier stabbing with force a knife into the heart of his enemy.  The tension of the arm, the direction of the body, the blade piercing the body – force us to look at the killer’s grinning action

We are unfeeling dead who, through some dangerous trick of magic, are still able to run and kill. A young Frenchman falls behind; they catch up with him and he puts his hands up; in one of them he is still holding his revolver; we cannot tell whether he wants to shoot or to surrender. A stroke with a shovel splits his face in two. Another seeing this tries to escape, but a bayonet whistles into his back. He jumps in the air and, arms outstretched, stumbles screaming as the bayonet moves up and down in his spine.

– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Otto Dix, 'Shelter in the Trenches'

Otto Dix, ‘Shelter in the Trenches’

By a lamp, German soldiers sleep, play cards, smoke.  On the left, a naked soldier kills fleas on his shirt with his finger nails. Looking at this brought to mind ‘Vigil’, a poem dated 23 December 1915, by the Italian, Giuseppe Ungaretti which I first read in Jon Silkin’s 1979 Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – still, I think, the best collection.

A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
butchered
with his clenched
mouth
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I’ve written
letters filled with love

I have never held
so hard
to life

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt, 1914

Otto Dix, ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier in a Red Shirt’, 1914

See also

Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse: WW1 hero from Liverpool

Noel Chavasse in uniform

When the Liverpool One complex opened in 2008 it incorporated a once-shabby open space named Chavasse Park, named in commemoration of Noel Chavasse, son of a former bishop of Liverpool and the only man to be twice awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War.  Knowing something of the extraordinary acts of bravery that earned him the double VC, and having had read some of his remarkable letters home from the Western Front, I knew his grave was one place I wanted to visit on my recent WW1 trip.

This hero from Liverpool wasn’t even a frontline soldier, but a medical officer.  However, he was awarded the double VC  for some of the bravest and most unselfish acts of the entire war.

Noel Chavasse grew up in Liverpool, where his father was the Bishop of Liverpool (he launched the project to build the Anglican cathedral). Noel qualified as a doctor and was 30 when the war broke out. Like most families, the Chavasses were deeply affected by the war. Noel’s brothers, Bernard, Aidan and Christopher, also served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Noel and Aidan were not to return – Noel died in Flanders, and Aidan was one of the Flanders missing (his name is recorded on the Menin Gate at Ypres).

Aidan Chavasse Menin Gate

Aidan Chavasse: one of the missing, his name recorded on the Menin Gate, Ypres

With his background in medicine, Noel Chavasse served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as Medical Officer to the Kings Liverpool Regiment in Flanders. He was in the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres, and experienced the horrors of  the battle of Passchendaele. Throughout his time in Flanders he wrote home regularly to his family. These letters provide a graphic and moving account of trench warfare and record his increasingly critical observations on the brutality and waste of the war. His father, the Bishop, had some of them printed and privately circulated back in England.

Noel Chavasse’s letters form the core of Ann Clayton’s book, Chavasse: Double VC, from which these examples are taken.

Marching away to war

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

The Liverpool Scottish, leaving for the front in 1914

‘Thank you for the parcel of clothes for my RAMC boys. They are not Liverpool Scottish lads, but are detached from a St Helens Field Ambulance (5 of them) to look after water carts etc. They are poor boys and are not well off like most of our Liverpool Scottish, so they need better clothing and are very grateful. This is our last night in Old England. I don’t quite know what lies ahead, and I rather dread the thought of roughing it through the winter, but I have got devoted to the battalion. I have inoculated and vaccinated them, had all their teeth put right, and settled up their feet, and I think now that as far as fitness goes, they want a lot of beating.’

‘Even marching from the station [St Omer] yesterday through the crowded streets, they marched past as if they were marching from Sefton Park, but finer and steadier than ever Liverpool people saw them march. I believe and hope fervently that the Liverpool Scottish will ‘get into it shortly’, and that if they do a great boost will be given to recruitment.’

– 5 November 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p71.

We hate the war worse than we thought we could.

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish under fire at Bellewaarde Farm, 16 June 1915

Noel Chavasse records the death of Captain Arthur Twentyman, the first Liverpool Scottish soldier to die. The Liverpool Scottish occupied trenches in the Kemmel area, five miles south of Ypres. They suffered their first fatality on 29 November –  Captain Arthur Twentyman, killed while attempting to return to British lines. The combination of severe winter and trench warfare soon depleted the strength of the Liverpool Scottish. From an establishment of 26 officers and 829 men recorded in November, the battalion had dwindled to 370 able-bodied men by January 1915.

‘We heard the sad news by telephone from the trenches. He had been over rash – he was screened by a hedge, but not sufficiently, and was shot through the heart. I feel very sad about it because I liked him the best of the whole lot, and he has always been invariably kind to me… and I miss him very much. That evening the Colonel told me he wished me to take my stretcher-bearers up, and bring him down. At first the zip, zip of bullets hitting the sandbags close to one’s head was rather disconcerting, then it became just part of the general environment. At one point we had to get past a gate where a sniper lay in wait. I went by doing the 100 well within 10 sec…. We had to rest 5 times while crossing a ploughed field as the Captain was very heavy on the improvised Stretcher (2 poles and a greatcoat). On the way I saw a group of 10 dead Frenchmen. Next evening, the men came out of the trenches. The young chaps were haggard, white, and stooped like old men, but they had done gallantly…. 2 men have lost their nerve….Two days ago the King inspected us from a motor car, and now we are to go back to the trenches, tomorrow night. We all hate the war worse than we thought we could. Today, we are the supports. We are on a hill and look over a plain towards the spires of Ypres, for all the world like Oxford from the Hinksey Hill.

– 5 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p80.

Knee-deep in mud: another graphic account of life in the trenches

Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

 Liverpool Scottish trench, 1915

‘Our men have had a terrible experience of 72 hours in trenches, drenched through and in some places knee-deep in mud and water. To see them come out, and line up, and march off is almost terrible. They don’t look like strong young men. They are muddled to the eyes. Their coats are plastered with mud and weigh an awful weight with the water which has soaked in. Their backs are bent, and they stagger and totter along with the weight of their packs. Their faces are white and haggard and their eyes glare out from mud which with short, bristly beards give them an almost beast like look. They look like wounded or sick wild things. I have seen nothing like it. The collapse after rowing or running is nothing to it. Many, too many, who are quite beat, have to be told they must walk it. Then comes a nightmare of a march for about 2 to 4 miles, when the men walk in a trance…and in about 3 days, they are as fit as ever again.’

– 11 December 1914. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p82.

The tortured city: Noel Chavasse describes the effects of the German shelling of Ypres

Ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

The ruins of Ypres Market Square, 1915

‘Every now and then there passes overhead a thunderous shriek, like an express train tearing through a small station. This is followed by a dull roar, these are the real Jack Johnsons on their way to level an ancient city to the ground. I don’t know what thunderbolts of wrath were hurled on the cities of the plains, but they could not have been more terrible than those forged by the Hun. We hear them pass all day and we hear them crash and looking over tangled and shell-pocked fields we can see great pillars of smoke and dust rising from the tortured city.

It is wonderful to see how quickly but how graciously Nature tries to hide the hideous scars made by man in the countryside. I have now lived for a month in a shattered village 400 yards behind our trenches. When we came at the beginning of April, all around was a stark, staring, hideous abomination of desolation. The place was a ruin and wreckage of homes, with an awful collection of refuse left by French troops and a stink of decaying organic matter.

Now the shells of the houses are being veiled by blossom, in the rubbish flowers are forcing their ways up to the sunlight, and a kindly green veil is being drawn over all the unsightliness and shame of the outraged homestead. Meanwhile, between the bursts of cannonade, the birds sing ever so sweetly and are building everywhere. I found one only yesterday in a dugout. Every morning I walk across green fields, drinking in the sunlight…’

– 2 May 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p107.

In this letter, Noel Chavasse describes the extent of destruction in Ypres by June 1915 (though not naming it for fear of the censor):

At the time of writing I am in a trench on short rations which we don’t like half as much as shortbread. We had to go through a city of which you have heard a lot and it is now all knocked to pieces, it is practically only a rubbish heap. You pass between rows of empty houses all gutted by fire and only bits of the outer walls standing, some are absolutely levelled to the ground, and one passes between heaps of smouldering rubbish. When we went through there were two big fires blazing and the whole city is given over to the flames. The smell is appalling. I was afraid a great many people are buried in the cellars under the debris.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

A sad but necessary job

Liverpool Scottish Bellewaarde Farm 16 June 1915

The Liverpool Scottish near Hooge, 16 June 1915

This letter was written to Madeleine, the daughter of Professor Twemlow, with whom Noel had become acquainted whilst at Liverpool University. The Twemlow family lived on Upper Parliament Street, a short walk from the Bishop’s Palace on Abercromby Square. The letter provides a vivid account of his life under fire in the Hooge area, just outside Ypres. He also describes in a very matter of fact manner, the ‘sad but necessary job’ that led to his reputation for bravery and selfless concern for the soldiers.

As we carried our stuff to the trenches we had to pass through a little copse. It was about 11 p.m. and in the copse a nightingale sang most sweetly. This was most remarkable because bullets were spattering through the trees all the time and frequently shells burst quite near so that its song was drowned. But it did not mind and continued singing all the time. It sings every night and I love to hear it.

When we got to our dug-outs we found we had a hot spot because they are played upon by a machine gun. We found this out to our cost two days ago because as one of my poor stretcher-bearers was chopping up some wood to boil some tea the Maxim gun suddenly let off and a little shower of bullets kicked up the earth all round him. One bullet pierced his head and he dropped unconscious. He lived still when we put him onto the ambulance, but we hear he died on the way to hospital.

I have now had 4 stretcher-bearers killed and one wounded, and one has had to go home with a strained heart and another because his nerves gave way after a very bad shelling. That is 7 out of 16 already. Last night I had a bad but necessary job. I had to crawl out behind part of the trench and bury three poor Englishmen who had been killed by a shell. I am going out after another tonight. This is the seamy side of war, but all is repaired in the feeling of comradeship and friendship made out here. It is a fine life and a man’s job, but I think I shall be glad to get home again.

– 5 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p116.

 The attack itself was somewhat on this wise

The site of Hooge battlefield in 1919

The site of the battlefield at Hooge in 1919

The battle of Hooge took place on 16 June 1915, and the Liverpool Scottish played a major part. The objective was to capture the German trenches that lay between the Menin Road and the Ypres-Roulers railway, where a salient had been formed, bulging into the British lines. This is Noel’s account:

I have not been able to write for some time, but I have much to tell you now. All leave was cancelled, and we were told…that the Battalion would take part in a charge on the German trenches… The attack itself was somewhat on this wise. Our brigade had to take a thousand yards of trenches. Another battalion was to take the first line. We were to rush over and take the second line, and then they were to come over us again, and take the third line. The artillery were to bombard each line before it was taken. As a matter of fact our men made such a splendid rush that they carried all three trenches in fifteen minutes, and even penetrated the 4th line. But the artillery continued to shell the advanced trenches, according to order – the smoke obscuring everything. A great many of our own poor fellows were wiped out by our own shells. Then for some reason the people on our right gave way, and the Germans also began to come round us on the left, so our men were in the air at both ends, and had to retire to the first line we had- taken, and at one place to our second line. In this way a great many wounded fell into the German’s hands, among them three great friends of mine — Kenneth Gemmeil, and Captain Ronald Dickinson (the latter, I fear, dying), and Captain McKinnell, who went on ·leave with me. The remnant of our battalion was relieved the same night. 130 men reached the camp out of 550 who had marched out the previous day; 2 Officers (both Lieutenants) were left out of 22. The trench is a great gain, as it commands a very extensive view of our part of Belgium.

All the next day I had to look after my 11 wounded, and to try to shelter them from the sun under the mud wall. I then made a tour of the trenches, to see if any wounded were lying out, and learnt that one had been heard to cry from a trench between the lines, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his pains. A brave Officer had slipped out and given him a drink. J also found a great many wounded Germans and English – in ‘dug-outs’ in the trenches, but none of our men. I reported them, so that they could be carried back at night. When it was dark I brought up a stretcher, and an Officer of the regiment holding the trenches crawled out to the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole where the poor Scottie was lying. When we crawled to the hole I found that it was an Officer, such a nice chap, with a broken thigh. You may be sure he was glad to see us. The other Officers went back to get the stretcher, and the poor wounded chap put his hands in mine, and we sat in the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole, holding hands like kids. Then we got him into the stretcher, and ran him back to the trench, where many willing hands helped to lift him in.

Just after, Germans were heard crawling in front, and we expected the trench to be attacked. They gave me a spade. But nothing happened, except that a Maxim of ours swept the ground where they were. We got him back, and dressed him, and saw him carried off to hospital.

And then I went to see another bit in front of another part of our trench. The Engineers were there already, putting up barbed wire, and they had searched the ground thoroughly, but we found and carried back a poor chap from another regiment.

Then I was beaten for a bit, but a drop of brandy made me feel all right, so I did one more little crawl to search some ‘dug-outs’ in front of another part of our line, but only found dead Germans.

– 20 June 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p121.

Letter to a twelve year old

Attending to wounded in the advanced dressing station on Hill 60

Attending to wounded in an advanced dressing station on Hill 60

This letter was written to Cecily Twemlow, aged 12 and describes aspects of trench life and Noel’s work as a Medical officer.

Advanced Regimental Aid Post,
You know of what Regiment but
You don’t know where exactly – In Flanders.
July 23rd. 1915.

My Dear Cecily,

Just after I had got back from leave we were ordered back to the trenches. We were not able to take up much of a line, as we are only 200 fighting strength but we have a nice little compact piece of trench to manage. I will explain it to you. First, there is the fire-trench about 1SO yards away from the Germans. This trench is fairly comfortable and although we have been in the trenches 9 days I have only sent 3 sick men to hospital. We draw lime-juice for them instead of fresh vegetables and meat and we send a petrol tin round on all hot days at noon and give each man a good cupful. We also give them a great treat. There are potatoes in a farmhouse close by and we buy them for the men. You should see how they fry them on little fires they make out of chips of wood in tins. But best of all a stream flows through the trench. It comes from the German lines and has been poisoned with arsenic and they must not drink it but I have got basins made out of biscuit tins by a clever Sergeant of mine, and have canvas baths brought up and the men wash three at a time.

Behind this trench is a wood and through the wood a little fort called a redoubt (I think that is how it is spelt). In this little fort are 50 men, who if the Germans break through the first line never leave it but fire on the enemy all round, till they drive them back or get wiped out.

Then close by the fort is the sapper trench and at one end of this trench, I have my Advanced Dressing Station and live in a little dug-out I have had built. In two other little dug-outs live two medical orderlies and four stretcher-bearers. These are round a little square, and in the middle of the square we are building a large dug-out with one side open, and large enough to hold four stretchers. This is our hospital. From this medical square, a communication trench goes back for ‘half a mile to a road and there is also a path over the fields for night.

A way back by the road is a large house, in the cellar of which I keep a medical corporal and four men. Here I send seedy men for the night, and they can have a stretcher and a blanket and milk, eggs and bread, and are very comfortable, and soon get well. Here too I keep most of my dressings and bad cases are properly dressed here, after I have given first aid in the trench. The ambulances come here every night and take the wounded men away. Of course, any man who can walk can get back to the dressing station in the daytime down the communication trench. The bad cases must wait till night and be carried down the path.

I am writing this in my little dug-out. I am very cosy. It is very wet outside and the men go slosh, slosh, along the trench and so I have drawn the curtain (a sand bag) across the little window (a real little window with glass) and am waiting for my supper – fish (sardines), thick bread and jam. A fine feast, if no-one gets hit …

With love,

Your affect. friend,

Noel Chavasse.

– 23 July 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p127.

A smell of death hung on the damp air

Sanctuary Wood 1915

Sanctuary Wood in 1915

Noel provides a vivid account of the attack on Sanctuary Wood in late September 1915, ‘the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line’.

I have been the witness of as gallant a charge as ever took place, which has ended, so far as we are concerned, in our line here being exactly the same as it was before; but two regiments at least are cut to pieces. I doubt if much attention will be paid to it in despatches; yet it was the biggest thing that has happened since we came into this tortured spot, and as usual everybody responded to the call of duty, and blood was poured out like water, and lives cast away as carelessly as old boots. I am sick of seeing men sent out to die in the mud which is the mould of former battalions ‘gone under’; but it will always be a delightful honour to lend a hand to the wounded heroes, and so in spite of all, in a selfish sense, this year has been the happiest of my life.

Our Brigade was in reserve. There was a barn for the men and good dug-outs for the Officers. We had hardly laid down when a terrific bombardment took place. The Huns did not make much reply, but some shells dropped very close to our dug-outs I believe; I was too sleepy to notice much that happened. At 7.30 a.m. batches of prisoners arrived and I went out and inspected them. The first batch was pretty good; afterwards there were some very poor, low, types of men; but among them was one Officer who gazed about him with defiance and hauteur, and marched off with head erect and stiff back. He was only nineteen, but everybody liked him. In the afternoon the bombardment began again…

Finally, we reached the wood, and I got my men settled in about 11 p.m. The wood we were in was full of dressing-stations, and I wandered about till at last I hit on one. It had been the dressing-station of a Highland regiment, but the doctor and stretcher-bearers had been sent off exhausted, and the relieving doctor was trying to tackle the work. His relief when I offered our stretcher-bearers’ services was very plain. The trenches; he said, were choked with wounded. He could not cope with it. The R.A.M.C. had gone to lend a hand, but they were insufficient. I asked our Colonel’s leave, and he said he thought it was our duty to do all we could. So I called out my poor, sleepy, tired men, who came with splendid grace, saying that they knew how they had appreciated help given to them after June 16th. I was now wide awake and fresh as a goat. We had the communication trenches pointed out to us. It was a dark night, but lighted up by the flares shooting up nearly all round us.

The trench first led through a dreadful wood. The trees, stark and blasted, dripped with rain. Straggling briars were the only vegetation. The ground was pocked with shell holes, through which poured muddy water. A smell of death hung on the damp air. Bullets snapped amongst the splintered and blasted trees, and every now and again a shell fell and burst somewhere.

We hurried on, picking our way by the spasms of light, and suddenly found the trench ended in a large shell hole, in which floated the body of a Highlander. A Highlander limping back from the trenches — the only thing near us – pointed out our direction, and we emerged from the wood, and saw before us a muddy, shell-stricken rise of clay, on the ridge of which were our trenches.

I have described this place in detail, because by many it is supposed to be the dreariest and most dreadful spot in the whole of that desolation of abomination called the firing line. It is indeed the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Bunyan alone could describe its weird horror. It fairly grips the heart … Just here about a little party of wearied men who had charged so gallantly told us that close by in a bomb store two men had lain wounded and forgotten for nearly two days, so my men set off to bring them in. I believe that these poor fellows would not have been found for another two days if we had not heard of them, for no reinforcements were sent there.

It was now getting near morning, and all my men were gone, but I had a haversack full of dressings, and helped by a capital medical corporal, searched among the trenches for the wounded. Some of these were pitiful beyond words, but bore their sufferings with a patient courage, of which mere words are not worthy. I thought I might as well wash the mud away, and put a dressing on, even if we could not get them all removed at once, but the Officers near spared a man here and there. My men, though very tired, came back in the early morning for a second carry, and one by one the worst cases were borne away down the stricken slope, through the dismal wood, to the dug-out dressing station, where the doctors made good my clumsy trench efforts, and then despatched them to the collecting post, from which they had to be carried a mile through mud to the ambulance wagon.

At 4 a.m. some men came trooping along from advanced trenches, because they were not safe by day, as they were shelled. They reported that these trenches were full of wounded. These were the very advanced trenches, dug in front of our wire, out of which the men jump for the charge.

I could not bear to think of our wounded lying in trenches which would be shelled. They get so terrified. So I went up with my faithful orderly, to see how many there were. We found in one sector about nine. We got two of them dragged down. It was a long and tedious job…

– 28 September 1915. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p136.

The mud was fearful

PilckemRidge1August1917 British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud near Boezinge

British stretcher bearers carrying wounded in deep mud

Here Noel describes the attack on Guillemont, August 1916, in which the Liverpool Scottish suffered heavy casualties. It was here that Noel Chavasse performed the acts of bravery in searching for wounded in front of enemy lines for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation states that ‘under heavy fire, he carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey…Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men…His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’

‘We found an R.E. man. My S.B. Corporal bent over him and found him bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood….

The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud. We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.’

– 26 September 1916. Ann Clayton, Chavasse: Double VC, p163.

Brandhoek 2Brandhoek 1

Brandhoek New Military Cemetery

Noel Chavasse is buried in the New Military Cemetery at Brandhoek, a little village just west of Ypres.  It was here, in May 1915, that Field Ambulance No. 81 of the British 27th Division established a dressing station as medical units were pulled back from Ypres in the face of German attacks. Brjtish serviceman soon began burying their fallen comrades in a field adjojning the dressing station, which became Brandhoek Military Cemetery. Brandhoek remained a site for medical units, from field ambulances and dressing stations to large casualty clearing stations, throughout the war.

In the summer of 1917, in preparation for the major Allied offensive which would become known as ‘Third Ypres’, three
casualty clearing stations were sent to Brandhoek. Land was also set aside for two new cemeteries, Brandhoek New Military
Cemetery and Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3. The former contains over 550 burials, including those of 28 German soldiers, all dating from 1917. Over 500 British officers and men werelaid to rest here in July and August 1917,including captain Noel Chavasse, one of only three men in history to have been awarded theVictoria Cross twice. All three of the Brandhoek cemeteries were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial.

It’s a small cemetery, tucked (like the one where I found the grave of Edward Thomas) behind the back gardens of a quiet street (though when I arrived the street was noisy with machinery digging a trench to lay new mains water pipes) . On one side, back gardens with greenhouses and vegetable plots; on the other a field of maize, reaching taller than I am.

Brandhoek approach

The approach to the cemetery

Noel Chavasse was awarded his first VC for ‘the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ during the attack on Guillemont, in the Ypres salient, in August 1916. The second VC was awarded posthumously for his bravery in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in August 1917.

After setting up an Aid Post in a captured German dugout he was wounded in the head during an attack. Chavasse returned to his aid post after treatment at the Main Dressing station at Weiiltje. For a further 2 days and nights without rest or food he carried out further treatment on wounded men. He received two further serious wounds but refused to leave his post. Several times he searched the surrounding area under heavy fire for wounded, eventually receiving a mortal abdominal wound from a shell which penetrated the dugout. He was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station but died there on 4 August 1917 (the third anniversary of the outbreak of war).

This is the account given by Ann Clayton in her book:

Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter. It may be that his skull was fractured… He was, however, well enough to walk back to the dressing station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed. He was told, or at least advised, to stay in the dug-out until he could be taken back to the casualty clearing station for proper treatment. But he refused, declaring that there was no one to take his place. So back he went to the aid post on the Passchendaele Road.

There was very little food, a shortage of water, and the constant scream of shells overhead. Again and again the stretcher-bearers went out to fetch the wounded, and as night fell Noel collected his torch from the box of medical supplies brought up by his orderlies and systematically combed the torn-up area that the Germans had fled from only hours earlier. This was not no-man’s-land as such, as it was now in the possession of the Allied forces, but it was under continual bombardment, from the guns of the retreating Germans and from Allied artillery, whose shells might fall short at any time.

At about eight in the evening it began to rain. Sergeant Bromley, in the headquarters trench beyond the Steenbeke, was appalled by the conditions in which men were having to fight:

‘The rain continued incessantly throughout the night, and in a very short time our trench became merely a muddy ditch half full of water, and our condition became absolutely filthy . The night brought a certain amount of relief from hostilities, but the climatic conditions became even worse, and we simply stood and shivered until daylight came. What an indescribable scene presented itself as dawn came, and we looked back to our old trenches. Mud and water everywhere, stranded limbers, dead men and mules, damaged tanks, broken trees etc., made a scene of desolation comparable only with the Somme.’

For the next 24 hours, Noel continued to treat the wounded. At some point during August 1, Noel received a wound which would normally have required his removal from the battlefield. He was hit twice in the head and suffered intense pain, but carried on caring for the wounded. Then.within hours, Noel was wounded again, this time mortally when, early on August 2, as he was taking a rest at his first-aid post, it was struck by a shell:

What had happened was that another shell had entered the aid post, this time during the night while Noel was sitting in a chair in the lower room, leaning on the table in an attempt to get some sleep. All the occupants of the dug-out were either killed outright or wounded so seriously that they were immobilized. Herd recorded that a primus stove in use in the dug-out was untouched and still alight, but a man who had been using it was dead, presumably from concussion, and with no visible wound. It is ironic, after all his brave sorties into no-man’s-land at Hooge, Guillemont and elsewhere, that Noel should have been felled inside his own aid post.

He had received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping hole in the abdomen from which he bled profusely. Nevertheless, aware that relief would be a long time in coming, he managed to drag himself up the stairs and out along the remnants of the trench to the road. He stumbled and crawled along this lane in the darkness, in the direction of Wieltje, the filthy mud of Flanders entering and infecting the wound… He stumbled across a dug-out occupied by Lieutenant Charles Wray of the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment, who later sent an account to his local newspaper telling how Chavasse examined his own wound because the medical personnel went to help his men.

He was taken through Ypres to the 46th Field Ambulance and then on to the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, but his face was unrecognisable and he had suffered that serious wound to the abdomen. After an operation on the abdominal wound, he found the strength to dictate a letter to his fiancée in which he explained why he had carried on working in spite of his injuries, insisting that ‘duty called and called me to obey’. Noel died at one o’clock in the afternoon of 4 August 1917. It was the third anniversary of the outbreak of war.

Chavasse grave

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Noel’s grave has the only headstone in the world to have two Victoria Crosses engraved upon it. The inscription, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’, was chosen by his father.  There is are other memorials to Captain Noel Chavasse at his old school, Liverpool College, in Mossley Hill, Liverpool – and in Abercromby Square, where a statue dedicated to Chavasse, commissioned by the Noel Chavasse VC Memorial Association was unveiled in August 2008.  It’s by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy.

Chavasse Memorial' Abercromby Square, Tom Murphy

The Chavasse Memorial in Abercromby Square

For more on Noel Chavasse visit local historian Mike Royden’s website. His latest book, Tales from the ‘Pool contains a chapter on Chavasse and is out now.

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