Guest blogger Jan Hodges became interested in World War I combat art as a result of her involvement as a volunteer in a holdings maintenance project for American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) documents at the National Archives at College Park. This article is part five of the series about World War I Art and Artists.
The combat artists often rode together and sketched in the same areas, their paths crisscrossing the shell pocked land. The subjects of their artwork changed as they moved with the American army from training areas to combat zones; from tranquil landscapes to destruction, wounded men, and the new technology of war.
Captain George Harding, like Harvey Dunn, wanted to be near the action and he spent as much time as close to the front lines as practicable. He incorporated realism into his sketches, as contrasted with the heroism-infused drawings of Harvey Dunn.
Harding was with the troops as they fought their way through Chateau Thierry and the second battle of the Marne. Chateau Thierry was important because it was only fifty miles from Paris. To the French it would have been a disaster to lose it to the Germans.
The second Battle of the Marne was initiated by the Germans, their last offensive strike of World War I. It was not a surprise to the Allies; they had intelligence of the planned attack. The French and the Americans made plans to defend the Marne River and deployed their troops strategically. The French were unable to hold, but the American 38th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Division held on, beating back a ferocious German assault.
“Mr. Chairman, “Marne” is a name indelibly inscribed on the pages of history. It was at the Marne in September 1914, that the French under Joffre turned back the German hordes in their mad dash toward Paris; and it was at the Marne in July, 1918, on the selfsame ground that a single regiment of American Infantrymen, with some aid from the Artillery, once more stemmed the German tide and rolled it back in defeat; earning thereby for itself and its gallant colonel [Ulysses Grant McAlexander] the proud title “The Rock of the Marne.” Address to the 66th Congress by the honorable C. N. McArthur, representative from Oregon, on May 1, 1920.
Some of Harding’s drawings are titled “Verdun Offensive”. The Battle of Verdun was fought in 1916, a German offensive that nearly broke the French lines. General Robert Nivelle’s command, often attributed to General Henri Petain, “Ils ne passeront pas” (they shall not pass), inspired the besieged and tired French soldiers to stand firm against the enemy. All of this long before the first American doughboy stepped onto French soil.
So why Verdun? Perhaps because it was close to the path American soldiers took from St. Mihiel to join the fighting in the Meuse-Argonne. Perhaps because Verdun was a gateway from the East to the West. Or perhaps it was because the French victory at Verdun had made it a famous if not reverent memory to the valor of men.
The next combat artist to be featured in this series is Wallace Morgan.
National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.
National Archives. Textual Records. Record Group 120. American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Combat Divisions, 3rd Division.
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.
Pershing, John J. My Experiences in the World War, Volumes I and II. Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York. 1931.