Visions of War

Trench Life

The daily life of soldiers in the trenches, in the hiatus between bombardments and assaults, was portrayed extensively by artists of all stripes during the war.

Alfred Schönberner’s Sentry at St. Souplet is a sensitive depiction of a soldier on lookout duty. He stands upright, holding his rifle and gazing intently over the trench top into the distance, looking for signs of enemy activity.

Schönberner illustrates the details of trench fortification - piles of sandbags, sculpted steps and barbed wire fencing - using delicate shading.

Alphonse Robine's Sleeping soldiers on the Western Front (below) gives us a sharp sense of the basic and cramped sleeping quarters of ordinary soldiers. A sword plunged into the earth is topped by the end of a candle - and we can see another candle on the left.

In the midst of the primitive space, three soldiers sleep under brown blankets and one man still wears his helmet – ready for action lest he be woken suddenly by an attack. Without electricity, these must have been dark and damp places.

This fluid watercolour of Belgian infantrymen, signed by E. Steyaert, was found in a flea market in the Belgian town of Ghent fifty years ago, and contributed to the Europeana 1914-1918 project in 2014.

In a few moments of repose, men eat, smoke and chat together in the trenches as a fellow soldier keeps watch. Some kind of normal life seems to prevail, however briefly.

Isabel Codrington Pyke Nott (1874-1943) was born in Devon, England and had a thoroughly artistic upbringing, education and life. Having studied at the Hastings and St Leonard's Schools of Art, Codrington and attended St. John's Wood School of Art, she enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1889 at the age of fifteen. She established herself as a talented artist and her star rose further when she secured the commission to paint Cantine Franco-Britannique, Vitry-le-François, acquired by the Imperial War Museum in 1919.

It shares the air of relaxed conviviality of Steyaert’s watercolour. Within the interior of a canteen for French and British troops, soldiers gather around tables laughing, talking, eating, drinking and smoking together. A bottle of wine is held aloft whist another soldier waves to welcome someone who has just arrived. For a little while, the war seems a world away.