Guest bloggers Jan Hodges and Gene Burkett became interested in World War I combat art as a result of their volunteer work in a holdings maintenance project for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) documents at the National Archives at College Park. This is part three in the series about World War I Art and Artists.
While the Great War raged far away in Europe, popular opinion in the United States was that the country should remain neutral, but events propelled the nation to war. President Wilson had warned Germany in 1916 that killing Americans aboard merchant ships would be considered an act of war against the United States, and Germany stopped the practice. However early in 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and sank three ships with Americans on board. About the same time, an intercepted telegram revealed that Germany was trying to create an alliance with Mexico while urging it to declare war on the United States. As a result, Congress formally declared war on Germany on April 6th.
Going to war presented the country with some challenges. First was to increase the army from a force of approximately 130,000 Regulars and 70,000 National Guard to one million soldiers. Second was to expand industry to support a war, to turn out arms and clothing and support equipment. Third was to house and train the raw recruits. Lastly, the country had to transport everything from America to Europe: men, arms, and equipment.
The United Stated instituted a draft to induct thousands of young men into the army. Military camps sprang up across the United States from New York to Kansas. Housing at the camps varied from basic to almost primitive. The new soldiers were trained in the camps and received more training (especially in trench warfare) after they landed in France.
The eight artists, including Captain Duncan, were sent to record the war and received little military training. They went overseas armed with easels and sketch pads, pencils and pastels. They shared cars to travel to the front lines, where they hoped to catch the moments when ordinary soldiers became heroes and when Germans surrendered to Americans. Their sketches would not only record history, but also provide fuel for the propaganda fire at home, images that would stir patriotism and support for the war.
The novice American soldiers were packed into troop ships for the voyage from the East Coast to Europe. Having crossed the Atlantic as the rest of the army did, Duncan was familiar with the crowded conditions aboard ship. He captured the moments of the arrival of the American soldiers in France in his sketch “Newly Arrived Soldiers Debarking at Brest.” In the drawing, it’s clear that the ship was crammed. As they stepped onto French soil, the soldiers were met by a cadre of officers and sergeants whose job was to sort them into manageable units and see that they were marched to their first lodgings (billets) in the Old World.
The new troops arrived in Europe fresh and optimistic about their role in the war. Some were undoubtedly afraid, but general attitude of Americans was “can-do”. The next eighteen to twenty –four months were to dampen their enthusiasm and take away their innocence. By war’s end, more than 80,000 lost their lives on French soil.When they weren’t in the trenches, the doughboys’ billets were often in barns or fields and sometimes in the bombed out remains of towns and farmhouses. As summer staggered to an end, Captain Duncan found a group of soldiers huddled in the remains of what may have been a farmhouse. They had found some firewood and kindled a fire close to the remnants of a chimney. A horse, still saddled, stands patiently on the left, waiting for his next assignment. Duncan captured the scene in his “Cold Nights Coming On”. In “A Quiet Game in Essey”, Duncan sketched war weary soldiers entertaining themselves by playing card games. Gone was the naivety of the doughboys, overtaken by the reality of war. The soldiers remained determined and certain of the American ability to conquer the enemy. Blacksmiths, dentists, and barbers set up their equipment in any available space. Haircuts and shaves were often administered in open fields or in the remnants of shelled out buildings. Duncan sketched an impromptu barber shop and first aid station at Essey.
Small villages that once dotted the landscape along the front, were victims of the war. Villages were turned into piles of rubble as artillery from both sides of the conflict inflicted damage. In somewhat of an irony, the rubble was used by the warring forces to build roads to carry their men and munitions and to fortify their positions.
Buildings that remained standing, even in ruins, were commandeered to billet troops. Eventually, as Duncan found, the Allies used them to house German prisoners. In this sketch, “German Prisoners Under Guard,” the prisoners seem to be nonchalant about walking through a village filled with enemy civilians. The American guard doesn’t seem to be too concerned that the prisoners might try to escape. Even the villagers who watch the small parade of men through the street appear to be only mildly interested.
In “French Auto Trucks,” Duncan shows a village turned into a truck storage and repair facility. Horses and mules were used frequently to move equipment and materiel over the rough country side. The roads along the front were not numerous. Many of them were little more than packed dirt paths that turned to quagmires in the rain. Nor could they withstand the wear and tear that artillery and engineering equipment and even tanks caused.
Duncan paid tribute to the contributions of Louis Raemaekers by including him in his sketch of a blacksmith and wagon repair shop. Most people today are unaware of Louis Raemaekers, but he was a celebrity in World War I. He was a political cartoonist in Holland when the war began and depicted Germans as barbarians and the Kaiser as being in league with the devil. The German government offered a reward of 12,000 guilders for Raemaekers, dead or alive. The cartoonist fled to England in 1916 where he continued to draw anti-German cartoons. Raemaekers cartoons were even published in America in an effort to persuade the nation to help with the war.
Captain Duncan continued to draw and submit his art monthly to Army Headquarters. He, like most of the artists, stayed in France past the end of the war. He used the time to refine his sketches and returned to the sites of several battles to fill in the details that movement and pressures of the war had prevented him from recording.
The next Combat Artist in the series will be Harvey Dunn, a man who saw soldiers as heroes and immersed himself in the grime and grimness of the battlefield.
National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.
Eisenhower, John S. D. Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2001
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.