Bearing Witness: Paintings of the Great War

 The Twentieth Century was one marked by great conflicts that changed the world. The Great War, or as it is more commonly called World War One (1914-1918), was the first, and perhaps most significant, of these mass violent conflicts. This conflict changed the very foundations of society in the western world, and in terms of art and literature it created an entire genre and inspired thousands of pieces.  

            At the beginning of the war many artists volunteered for service and governments recruited them to  go to the Front to paint and record the war. Even those who did not directly participate in the battles did record the conditions and realities of war, many times more faithfully than the war photographers who were also recording the war.              This exhibition of paintings artists who served and witnessed the war first hand, wishes to enlighten you about the moving, and beautifully sad art that was created as a result of the war. The artists set out to record not just the events of the war, but the emotions and experiences of the soldiers themselves. Their goal was to find a way for their art and styles to reflect what they were witness to.  (For more details about war painters and government response see Paul Gough's Why paint war? British and Belgian artists in World War One). 

Most soldiers heading off to the war went with a caviler, hopeful, and adventurous spirit. This spirit was quickly crushed by the harsh realities of the war: the horror of trench life, shellings, and 'going over the top.'
Trench Warfare was common during World War One. One event experienced by a soldier during his time in the trenches was 'going over the top.' When the battle began and the whistle sounded the men climbed up ladders and charged into No Man's Land. Most offensives had heavy casualties and most soldiers detested 'going over the top.'
Of the 8,904,467 men of the British Empire that were mobilized for active service 908,371 soldiers were killed during the war.
No Man’s land was the name given to the stretch of land between the opposing trenches. When the soldier’s went over the top they made the journey across the bombed out piece of land, in the hopes of reaching their objective, namely the enemy’s trench or the town they were holding.
Throughout the war the trenches and the battlefield were shelled on a regular basis. These bombardments, coupled with the conditions of war led some soldiers to develop a psychological condition known as 'Shell Shock,' the symptoms of this condition manifested in several ways, including (not limited) feeling panic, being unable to reason, sleep, talk or walk. Similar symptoms in World War Two were known as Combat Stress Reaction, today it is known as PTSD.
Germany mobilized 11,000,000 of their men to fight in the war, of this number 1,773,700 were killed, 4,216,058 were wounded, and 1,152,800 were taken prisoner or missing.
World War One saw a mass use of chemical weapons, notably Mustard Gas. As a result of the damage and horror of the realities of effect of the gas its use as a legitimate weapon during war was banned in 1925 at a League of Nations conference held in Geneva (the conference and the resulting protocols is commonly referred to as the Geneva Convention).
2,090,212 soldiers from the British Empire were wounded and treated at Dressing Stations and hospitals during the war.
Conditions in the trenches were extremely difficult, especially during the harsh winter months, or bombardments, and troop morale was quickly depleted. As a result the troops were rotated from the trenches to the bases every few days or weeks. Although the consecutive time in the trenches was brief the conditions still exhausted the men, such as the ones in this artist's unit.
Building and maintaining the trenches and support lines during the war was a constant endeavor, and given the the skill of enemy marksmen and the exposure the builders and those who strung the barbed wire this was dangerous work and was often done at night to lower the risk.
Barbed wire was strung across the tops of trenches on both sides of no man’s land making the barren wasteland even more ominous and dangerous. The desolation of no man’s land is made even clearer when viewed through a barbed wire frame.
The four long years of war resulted in mass death, and in the destruction and desolation of thousands of acres of land. Shells, guns, charging men, and the movement of heavy machines and supplies turned what was once fertile farm land into muddy nightmares.
There are close to 1000 cemeteries that serve as the final resting place for those who were killed in action from 1914-1918. The number of men buried in each range from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.
Credits: All media
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