World War I Combat Artists – William James Aylward

Guest bloggers Gene Burkett and Jan Hodges became interested in World War I combat art during their work on a holdings maintenance volunteer project with the textual records of the American Expeditionary Forces at the National Archives at College Park. This article is the second in a nine-part series on World War I Art and Artists.

As one of the eight official artists with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), William James Aylward followed the army from his landing in France through occupation in 1919. By the end of September 1918, he had produced twenty-six works covering a wide range of subjects. From the troopship USS Leviathan to a poignant rendering of a soldier standing mournfully over the grave of a friend, Aylward captured life in the AEF with a deft hand.

aylward, william james
Capt. William J. Aylward, E.R.C., one of the eight official artists appointed by the War Department. April 1918. Local Identifier: 111 SC 86627

American troops began to arrive in France toward the end of 1917, at ports in the Northwest of France, often at Brest. One of the ships making the voyage between the U.S. and France was the USS Leviathan. It was a huge ship that ran on steam generated by coal furnaces. Ironically the Leviathan was a German luxury ship that had the misfortune to be moored in Hoboken, New Jersey when the U.S. declared war on Germany. It was seized and converted into a transport ship. It made several trips across the Atlantic to deliver American soldiers. After the war ended, the Leviathan returned the veteran soldiers to the U.S. Captain Aylward sketched the USS Leviathan as coal was being loaded into the monster-size ship.

Coaling the Leviathan. Capt. W.J. Aylward. Local Identifier: 111 SC 31695

When the American army first arrived in France, it was assigned duties with the French and British. Although General John J. Pershing, the Commander in Chief of the AEF, provided American soldiers to the allies as requested, he was determined that American soldiers would fight under American command. Pershing’s goal was achieved in September 1918, when the United States was assigned to push the Germans out of the St. Mihiel area. The British and French regarded the task as simple. By September, the Germans were already pulling back from the front line. The Americans would punch through; routing the Germans, giving the allies a victory and the Americans confidence.

Aylward made his way to the St. Mihiel area, and drew pictures that captured the life of the soldiers at the front. The first shows the doughboys lining up for a hot meal in a structure that is marked by damage from artillery shells.

First Division Headquarters Kitchen, St. Mihiel Drive. Drawing by Capt. W. J. Aylward. Local Identifier: 111 SC 57042

 A simple task isn’t necessarily an easy task. Due to continuing rain in the area, the American infantry had to slog across a muddy plain to get to the enemy’s stronghold. The Germans held the high ground, able to watch the movements of the Americans. To American soldiers with combat experience, going “over the top” to reach the Germans was a grim prospect.  For the untried doughboys, it was to be a march into the nightmare of World War I. Aylward’s second sketch of the St. Mihiel area depicts the moments before the troops receive the order to advance. It’s a quiet scene, with a soldier in the forefront removed from rest of the doughboys, deep in his own thoughts. Other soldiers are huddled in clusters smoking or talking quietly.

The American attack started early in the morning of September 12, 1918, and continued to push forward over the next few days. The army achieved its first goal as an independent unit, winning the battle and capturing more than 15,000 German prisoners and 200 cannons. The casualties on the American side were 7,000 dead, with additional troops wounded or missing. The experience prepared the young army for its next assignment in the grueling Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Troops waiting to advance at Hatton Chattel, St. Mihiel Drive. Drawing by Capt. W.J. Aylward. Local Identifier: 111 SC 57041

More than four thousand American soldiers, mostly from the St. Mihiel Battle, are buried in the American Cemetery and Memorial at St. Mihiel. Aylward captured the sense of loss and sorrow of battle in his sketch simply titled “His Bunkie.” The background is empty in the picture; we see only a single soldier, a cross, and a newly dug grave.

Drawings by Official American Military Artists. His Bunkie. Capt. W. J. Aylward. Local Identifier: 111 SC 20063

The art of Walter Jack Duncan will be highlighted in the next post in this series about World War I Art and Artists.


Barry, Gregory. Argonne 1918: The AEF in France. Ballantine Books. NY. 1972.

Bonk, David. St. Mihiel 1918: The American Expeditionary Forces’ Trial by Fire. Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK. 2011.

Griess, Thomas, ed. The West Point Military History Series: The Great War, Strategies & Tactics of the First World War. Square One Publishers, Inc. Garden City, NY. 2003.

Krass, Peter. Portrait of War: The U. S. Army’s Combat Artists and the Doughboys Experience in World War I. John Wiley and Sons.  New York. 2006.

National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.

National Archives, Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I); General Headquarters: General Staff: G-2: Censorship and Press Division (G-2-D). Correspondence Relating to the Eight Official Artists of the AEF, 1917 -19.