Relentless trench warfare and artillery fire on the Western Front disfigured the landscapes of Belgium and France, providing grim new motifs for artists at the front: scarred landscapes pockmarked by flooded shell craters; shattered trees and barbed wire.
There was not a sign of life of any sort. Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Death was written large everywhere. It is not possible to set down the things that could be written of the Salient. They would haunt your dreams.
R.A. Colwell, Private, Passendale, January 1918
La Tranchée (The Trench) by the Swiss-born, naturalised French artist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) transports us to a barren, denatured landscape just as a mortar smashes into the earth. It is one of six woodcuts in Vallotton’s series C'est la Guerre! (This is War!). Vallotton was too old to enlist in the army so he used press reports, newsreels and soldiers’ testimony as the source material for this series.
In 1917, Vallotton did manage to visit the Western Front, at the invitation of the Secretariat of Fine Arts and the Ministry of the Armed Forces, and his journals record his front-line experiences of death and destruction. Vallotton’s dramatic Verdun, 1917, conjures an apocalyptic vision of the battle in ‘projections colorées noires, bleues et rouges, terrains dévastés, nuées de gaz’ (black, blue and red coloured projections, devastated lands, clouds of gas).
The French painter Henri Morisset (1870-1956) studied under Gustave Moreau at the École des Beaux-Arts and later became a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. An accomplished painter of portraits, landscapes and still lifes, Morisset was mobilised at the war’s outbreak and went to fight on the Western Front.
Morisset’s wartime experience informed several of his paintings and watercolours. The lone figure in A soldier in the middle of ruins, 1916 surveys a scene of destruction that is emblematic of the relentless shelling that wrecked towns and villages across Europe.
Edwin Martin’s Arras, 1918, shows the destructive aftermath of the Battle of Arras. During this major offensive in April-May 1917 British troops attacked German-held trenches to the east of the French city. By the end of the offensive, the British had suffered over 150,000 casualties and gained little ground.
Like Morisset, Martin (of whose life little seems to be known) depicts soldiers in the midst of ruined buildings and evokes a similar air of futility.
The poor health of the English artist John Nash (1893-1977) prevented him enlisting in 1914 but he joined the Artists Rifles from late 1916 to January 1918 and served as a sergeant at the battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai. On the recommendation of his brother Paul, he worked as an official war artist from 1918.
Like Wyndham Lewis’s A Battery Shelled, Oppy Wood was commissioned by the British War Memorial Committee as part of a scheme devoted to ‘fighting subjects, home subjects and the war at sea and in the air’. The dimensions of the commissioned works were based on the (182cm) height of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, held in London’s National Gallery.
The stylised forms and vibrantly colours of Oppy Wood lie somewhere between realism and modernist abstraction. Below the top of the trench earthworks stand two infantrymen, one looking across no man's land towards the enemy’s position. The figures are surrounded by a landscape wrecked by battle, flanked by splintered tree trunks and overwhelmingly barren. The forms of the bare tree trunks and branches suggest crosses, referencing Christian iconography and alluding to sacrifice.
In the French village of Perthes-les-Hurlus, the 1911 census recorded 151 inhabitants. It was the scene of fierce battle from September 1914 to April 1915, when French infantry regiments of the 34th Division lost 6500 men in the course of forty assaults.
Alphonse Robine’s striking watercolour (above) takes Perthes-les-Hurlus’s ruined village church as its subject. Built in Romanesque style at the end of the 19th century (replacing a dilapidated 14th century predecessor), the church was completely destroyed by German artillery fire.
Set at nighttime, Robine’s picture foregrounds the church ruins with an array of crosses, poking out of overgrown vegetation and flanked by broken trees. The diminutive figure of a lone soldier is the only human presence in the scene.
DM Jourdain was the priest of Perthes-lès-Hurlus from 1912 to 1914. In a 1964 letter to his former parishioners, Jourdain reflected on the war's legacy:
After the war of 1914-1918, faced with the impossibility of reintegrating your village, you and your parents settled where you thought you could continue your life. Almost everyone today who is over 50 has been married and settled. Children were born to you, who were married in their turn. For them, Perthes is not even a memory, since they never knew it. But for us, it remains the land of Canaan, which we left before the advance of an army... without hope to inhabit it again.