How numerous and dreadful might the mutilations be that this terrible war has wrought upon our future?
Franz Marc, in an obituary for August Macke, October 1914
The First World War saw the first large-scale use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, ranging from disabling agents like tear gas to lethal chemicals such as phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas. They were used to demoralise, injure and kill entrenched defenders, against whom indiscriminate and slow-moving gas clouds were highly effective.
Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front, witnessed by the artist in August 1918. Mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding, attacked the bronchial tubes and fatally injured victims sometimes took weeks to die of exposure. The skin of mustard gas victims blistered, their eyes became sore and they quickly began to vomit.
In Sargent’s work, the soldiers’ eyes are bandaged, each man clasps the shoulder of the man in front, and we see temporarily blinded soldiers also in the background. Sargent’s detailed charcoal studies for the final painting – such as the one seen here on the left – can be viewed on the Imperial War Museums’ website.
I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.
Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
The physical and mental trauma suffered by soldiers in World War I has been well documented. Terrible conditions in the trenches facilitated the spread of infectious diseases and caused illnesses such as trench foot, influenza, and trench fever. Less well understood initially were the various war neuroses later labelled as ‘shell shock’ to describe a range of symptoms including severe anxiety, nervous tics, uncontrollable panic and terrifying nightmares.
As early as 1915, disillusionment and war fatigue became widespread amongst artists – even those who had been gripped by patriotic fervour a year earlier. In Germany, Expressionist painters like Ludwig Meidner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner were transformed by their wartime experiences and the loss of friends.
Kirchner volunteered for military service in September 1914 and enlisted as a driver in an artillery regiment (thus avoiding conscription into the infantry). By 1915, however, Kirchner had developed a lung infection and had a nervous breakdown; he began abusing alcohol and became addicted to morphine. Kirchner was dismissed from military service and spent the next two years in Swiss sanatoria recovering from depression, paralysis and drug abuse.
Selbstbildnis als Kranker (Self-portrait as a sick person) was painted in 1918 during Kirchner’s convalescence in Switzerland. Portraying himself bedridden in a farmhouse, Kircher’s head is turned backwards as if greeting us, the viewer, as an imaginary visitor. His mask-like facial expression, his hand raised to his mouth and the cramped space express the fear and distress of Kirchner’s wartime experience. He reworked the picture in 1930 and backdated it to 1917, to mark the moment of his recovery.
Battlefield medicine during the war was often improvised, using available equipment and medicine. In Steyaert’s delicate watercolour (left) a Belgian soldier, with one eye covered in bandages, is carried by his comrades through a wooded landscape.
Few soldiers returned uninjured from battle. Wounds were inflicted by bullets, gunshots or shrapnel. Whereas bullets caused straight-line injuries, twisted metal shards from shrapnel blasts could disfigure a face so severely as to make someone unrecognisable.
Europeana’s 2017 exhibition Seven Men, One Leg explores the physical trauma suffered by soldiers and the pioneering plastic surgery used to treat their injuries.
Joseph De Necker was a soldier in the 10th Line Regiment who enlisted in order to make art at the front. His Cantonnement dans une Grange à Ramskapelle (Confinement in a barn at Ramskapelle) takes us into a gloomy barn interior in Belgium. Two wounded men lie on the barn floor, watched over by fellow soldiers, with a single candle illuminating the scene.
At the war’s outbreak, the Frenchman Henri Antoine volunteered and joined the 130th and 111th heavy artillery regiments, active in Alsace and the Oise. Antoine was a gifted artist who filled notebooks during 1914-1915 with pencil drawings and watercolours, recorded what he saw at the front.
After the war, Antoine exhibited several of his watercolors in an exhibition entitled ‘The War as seen by Lorraine's veteran artists’ held at Nancy's Musée des Beaux-Arts on the twentieth anniversary of the armistice.