World War One has been called ‘the first mechanised war’. Significant advances in weapons technology were made in this period: tanks, aircraft, poison gas, armoured vehicles, heavy machine guns and airships were all deployed during the conflict.
Despite this technological development, soldiers’ equipment and military tactics dated from an earlier era of warfare and were slow to evolve early in the war. Mass advances across open ground by mounted cavalry and cloth-capped infantrymen armed with bayonets were met by entrenched defences, barbed wire and powerful machine gun fire. On the Western Front, a prolonged territorial stalemate resulted in horrific casualty numbers.
Innovations in indirect artillery fire dramatically increased its lethal effectiveness. In Alphonse Robine's Shelling at Night on the Western Front, we look out over a tangled mass of barbed wire fencing, lit by streaks of artillery fire overhead.
Robine was a French lawyer from Cherbourg who was posted to the Western Front in 1915-1917. He wrote home daily to his wife and made elaborate sketches of daily life in the trenches: councils of war, sentry duty, religious observances and so on. Robine's remarkable 164-page album of watercolours records his wartime experiences. It was presented to the Europeana 1914-1918 project by Mrs. Nicole Robine, in memory of her stepfather.
The Robine album includes a moving page on the horrors of Verdun in 1916, scene of the longest and largest battle on the Western Front. It lists grim statistics from the battle and quotes writers and historians of Verdun.
Verdun: 400,000 dead.
A wall of human chests, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, a wall of flesh and blood measuring 200 kilometres.
Paroles d'un revenant
Jacques d'Arnoux (1896-1980)
The English artist C.R.W. Nevinson (1889–1946) was embedded in the radical art world of his day and knew the poet Filippo Marinetti, leader of the Italian Futurists. Nevinson was appointed as an official war artist by the Department of Information in 1917 and briefly served as a driver in the Friends' Ambulance Unit, caring for wounded British and French soldiers.
When ill health has forced his return to Britain, Nevinson volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps. These experiences informed a series of paintings in which Nevinson applied the abstracted machine aesthetics of Futurism to motifs from the war.
Bursting Shell, 1917 is a kaleidoscopic vision of vivid colour and jagged that captures a moment of violent explosion. Seemingly abstracted from time and place, Nevinson’s painting is a radical treatment of the same subject presented in Robine’s watercolour.
In other works such as La Mitrailleuse, Nevinson suggests a fusion between man and machine, and the loss of individuality in war. This theme was also explored by Nevinson’s contemporaries in works such as Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill, 1913-14, and Wyndham Lewis’s A Battery Shelled, 1919.
A Battery Shelled was commissioned in 1918 by the British War Memorial Committee to become part of a ‘great memorial gallery’ that was never realised. On the left side of the painting, a trio of officers stand beside ammunition boxes, each man gazing in a different direction. Around this group we can see stylised plumes of smoke and drab automata-like figures moving in a fractured landscape.