The Art of Devastation, Part I: Medals and Posters from the Great War in Europe

American Numismatic Society

The Art of Devastation exhibition, jointly presented by the American Numismatic Society and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, explores for the first time on American soil the intertwined roles of posters and medals not just among European authorities, artists, and audiences, but among those on this side of the Atlantic as well, where they also served to shape public opinion of the war and help steer Americans into it. The original exhibit ran from January 27–April 9, 2017 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.

Initial Perceptions of the War: Leaders and Commanders

This plaque is an enlargement of a medal produced to commemorate the state visit of Wilhelm II to Vienna in September, 1910. The reverse depicts the German Kaiser standing on a dais in the Vienna Council Chamber surrounded by fifty Austrian military, political, and academic elites. Only four such plaques were produced: one was presented to the Kaiser, one to Franz Josef, the Austrian Emperor, and another to the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. The ANS’s example is the only one known to reside outside of Europe.

The reverse inscription, “Ich hatt’einen Kameraden/ Einen bessern find’st du nit” (“I had a comrade, a better one you will never find”), are the first two lines of a traditional German military lament composed by Ludwig Uhland in 1809 and put to music by Friedrich Silcher in 1825. Typically sung at soldiers’ funerals (see no. 32), on this medal the verse underscores the tight bond felt between the two leaders and, presumably, the soldiers who served under them.

This type of imagery of realistic close-quarter combat found on the reverse of this medal was something limited primarily to the medallic art of the Central Powers during the conflict. The “butt-stroke” pose appeared on a number of other German and Austrian-Hungarian medals.

Fought during the first month of the war (August 26–30, 1914), the Battle of Tannenberg was a complete German victory over Russia and was subsequently used in propaganda as “revenge” for the German loss in the same region in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War, which is alluded to on the reverse of this medal.

Commander of the German First Army at the outbreak of the war, Generaloberst von Kluck was ordered to advance along the western flank through Belgium and then France in the hopes that he would reach Paris at roughly the same time as the German Second Army advancing from the east.

Using a spirited cartoon style, prolific British illustrator John Hassall created this war loan poster mocking Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Crown Prince, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and another officer. Hassall placed them at a German butchery threatened by a coin-shaped, looming “War Loan” pushed by workers and accompanied by two other men, one resembling Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer during 1915–16. A member of the London Sketch Club and later its President, Hassall was well known for posters designed for London’s trains. One of his most popular posters before the war revolved around a cartoon character, the Jolly Fisherman, who encouraged vacationers to take a Great Northern Railway train to the seaside town of Skegness, Lincolnshire. Hassall had a long career working as an advertising artist for David Allen & Sons, a British company that printed the Skegness poster among numerous others by the artist.

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of John T. Spaulding, RES.37.437. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

War as Myth

Kéve (“sheaf”) was also the abbreviation for the Hungarian artists’ union “Magyar képzőművészek és Iparművészek Egyesülete.”

Chief of Staff of the Austrian-Hungarian army, von Hötzendorf was one of the key figures arguing for war against Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, which precipitated the outbreak of the conflict.

This medal refers to the failed attempt by the French to repulse the German forces in August 1914 during their initial push into France from the territories of Alsace-Lorraine, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), and which remained a “Black Stain” in the minds of the French until they recovered the territories following the end of the war in 1918.

Nocq sculpted his medal after drawings by “Oncle Hansi” (Jean-Jacques Waltz, 1873–1951), a noted French Alsatian artist whose satirical drawings of Germans led to his arrest and trial in Leipzig in July 1914. After the war broke out, he managed to escape to France where he joined the French Army as a translator.

As war broke, Winston Churchill was serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty overseeing the Royal Navy, then the most powerful navy in the world, which was charged with blockading Germany to curtail not only shipments
of goods useful for the war effort, but shipments of food and other necessities for the civilian population as well in the hopes of starving the Germans into submission. The response to the British blockage, the Germans hoped, would be their fleet of submarines.

Wilhelm, the German Crown Prince, was named commander of the German 5th Army in August 1914 at the age of 32, a position for which he had no experience. A year later he was given command of Army Group German Crown Prince, which along with the 5th Army suffered mightily in the Verdun Offensive in 1916 (see nos. 17, 63, 125–27, 129). Equating the Crown Prince with the German hero Siegfried, Goetz’s medal rings of both hope and obsequiousness.


After an initial month of horrible defeats, the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 marked the first major French (and British) victory of the war, turning the Germans back from the outskirts of Paris and forcing them to retreat northwest. The Battle also set in motion the “race to the sea” by both opposing forces attempting to outflank the other. Neither was successful and the result was four years of trench warfare.

The First World War witnessed the rapid development of modern warfare and weapons, including the first tanks. Soon after the British introduced tanks to the battlefield at the Somme in 1916, other combatants were quick to develop their own armored tracked vehicles. Like most of the tanks fielded during the conflict, the French Saint-Chamond was underpowered and lacked the maneuverability necessary for trench warfare, as depicted on this medal. A later improved model did, however, find some battlefield success once the fighting moved beyond the trenches in 1918. The “incongruous juxtaposition” (Jones 1979, p. 152) between the hard angular lines of the tank and the half-nude woman and flowing drapery of this medal are especially striking.

The term “die lebende Mauer” (“the living wall”) was used by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg in a speech delivered in response to the Italian declaration of war on May 23, 1915. (“Against the living wall of our warriors in the west our enemies up till now have stormed vainly.”). At the time, Crown Prince Wilhelm was commanding the German 5th Army, which was stationed in the center of the lines near Verdun.

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The online exhibition continues! Please explore the other parts of this incredible look at the medals and posters of the Great War.

Order the exhibition catalogue online.

The year 2017 marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I following three preceding years of destruction to great areas of Northern Europe and the loss of millions of lives. The relevance of returning to this moment and how the propaganda of the medallic and poster arts helped fuel the conflict seemed evident since, as has been remarked upon many times, the “war to end all wars” did anything but that. While physically small owing to the methods and materials of their production, medals are able to address powerfully the nature of tragedy, heroism and patriotism in a medium that invokes the Classical World. While unfettered by such matters of scale, the posters bring an almost cinematic yet synoptic power to their subjects thanks to their artists’ understanding of how graphic design and bold color can quickly evoke a mood. In both media the creation of caricatured heroes and villains can be effectively conveyed at a glance.

The desire to present this material fostered a new institutional alliance between the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College and the American Numismatic Society long headquartered in New York City. The riches of the medallic art found in the latter collection of over 600,000 objects are not often exhibited and the opportunity to focus on just a portion of their strong collection of medals related to “The Great War” was an opportunity for both scholarly institutions. The ability to add context by including propaganda posters, lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Archives and Special Collections of the Vassar College Library has resulted in a vivid recollection of the facts, subjective perspectives and the emotions of this period of an unprecedented scale of cruelty and barbarism arising from the mechanization of the art of war.

The text of this catalogue is the product of the talented curators from both institutions, Patricia Phagan of the Loeb Art Center and Peter van Alfen from the American Numismatic Society. Their work is supported by essays by Tom Hockenhull, Curator of Modern Money, Department of Coins and Medals, The British Museum; Ross Wilson, Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Chichester; and Bernhard Weisser, Director of the Münzkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This gathering of top scholars in the field lends luster to the project and we are indebted to them all. The result of their research helps us to better understand the nature of editorial imagery before the advent of the “old” media of television and the “new” digital forms of biased communications.

We are grateful to the Smart Family Foundation for its support of this unique project.

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