Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards From the Front: WWI Sketches of Percy Matthews

The last surviving veteran of World War I died this week at 110 years old. Out of the tens of millions who served, Florence Green was the very last, and her death marks the passing of one of the defining events of human history.

The human urge to create art somehow endures despite the most hellish conditions imaginable. In some cases it can be a desperate effort to record events as documentation, such as the scratched visions of concentration camp horror or the drawings of David Olère. In others there is a discernible effort to create something beautiful, perhaps in an attempt to transcend misery through art, or maybe it's just the fleeting relief fighting artists found while concentrating on the act of sketching.

Percy Matthews trained as an artist in England before serving on the Western Front during World War I as a Private in the Kentish Buffs, and later in Salonika (today called Thessalonika, Greece), as a Lieutenant in the Middlesex Regiment. The remarkable sketches reproduced here are from a collection of scenes and characters drawn from military and civilian life at that time. Percy's son Peter donated these sketches to the Imperial War Museum in 2007, almost one hundred years after they were first created.

 " You will be driven into the sea,
and you will not have time even to cry for mercy"
Greek Chief of General Staff

There's a deep humanity in the portrait drawings of Percy Matthews sketched during "that awful pause (between fighting) in which defenders and attackers are braced up to face the ordeal, with fear or desperation, with cool courage or with blazing ardour."

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, (1893-1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Harold Anderson (1894-1973), The Happy Greeting

Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis is a terrifying read, full of crawling around in the fetid slurry of rotting corpses and mustard gas, and makes Anderson's painting (above) seem like a kind of manufactured lie on a par with Russian posters of happy, well-fed peasants while millions were starving to death in the Ukrainian 'bread basket' during WWII.

The truth is, Daddy was more likely to come home looking like the poor sod in this disturbing video of a shell shock victim from World War I than the saccharine chocolate box cover by Anderson. You can also watch War Neuroses, filmed in 1917 at Netley Hospital in its entirety here. It's disturbing viewing, and makes society's desire for shuttered normality during the 1930s and (later) 1950s completely understandable given what the world had just gone through.

Still from the Seale Hayne shell shock video

From the artistic fiction of fairies and butterflies drawn on postcards and sent back home to children missing their fathers, to the disturbing visions of Otto Dix, artists have been using art as a method of processing pain as long as there's been war.

There has been a huge effort recently to make freely accessible a vast collection of drawings, letters, documents and memorabilia from the hands of the people who were there. Here are some fantastic online resources whose breadth of content, excellent image databases, attractive presentation and ease of use will make you forget all about that boring To Do list you've been avoiding all day.

The Great War Archive
First World War Digital Poetry Archive
Europeana 1914-1918 (The World War I documents of everyday life)
World War I Document Archive
1418: Documenti e Immagini dela Grande Guerra
UK National Archives

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this...too much has already been forgotten