By Peter Vass
For General Haig, the Battle of the Somme was supposed to be the solution to the stalemate on the western Front not, as it turned out to be, a further problem. Its impact changed the mood in Britain significantly, particularly for those serving on the home front.
The collapse of the Asquith coalition at the end of 1916 and its replacement by one led by Lloyd George, gave new impetus to an all-round determination to bring the war to a successful and emphatic conclusion. For Lloyd George and his cabinet this wasn’t going to be easy. The optimism and enthusiasm of 1914 and 1915 had been replaced by a weariness, almost a pessimism in some quarters, with a rising feeling that ‘suing for peace’ might be the best option. For Lloyd George, this was not acceptable – only a ‘won war’ would justify all the sacrifices of the previous three years. He realised that if this was to be achieved efforts would not only have to take place on the battlefield, but also on the home front where ‘hearts and minds’ needed reassurance. It was for this reason that 1917 saw an unprecedented effort in ‘war winning’ on the home front through a unique art and propaganda project.
From 1914 onwards concerted efforts had been made to persuade the British people that the war was right, just and legitimate. In the early years there was a strong pro-war feeling which ultimately led to the formation of ‘Kitchener’s army’ remembered best for the recruiting campaign that touted his image. At its height it numbered 2.5 million men – the largest volunteer army in history, but this was the army that had been destroyed on the Somme.
The visual image was becoming an ever more effective medium for communicating the war to the people. Poster campaigns, newsreels and photographs from the various theatres of the war had become everyday meat and drink for those active on the home front. By 1916 the War Propaganda Bureau had recognised the importance of artists who could record and capture (in a positive light!) the ‘reality’ of the fighting overseas.
Official war artists were people like any other caught up in the times and most were fiercely patriotic and determined to ‘do their bit’. However, the realities of what they were seeing on the western Front and elsewhere changed, for many, their perceptions of the war. Exhibitions of war paintings held in London in 1915 and 1916, particularly from young avant-garde artists like Christopher Nevinson, were hugely popular and attracted the attention of a little known department in Ministry of Information, the War Propaganda Bureau.
In 1917 a scheme was hatched to produce a series of lithographs that could be easily produced and circulated at home and abroad. These pictures would remind the country of the ‘rightness’ of the allied cause and the efforts being made by ordinary people to win the war. The project was entitled The Efforts and Ideals of the Great War. These were to be lucrative commissions at a time when work for artists was hard to come by and attracted a number of established and eminent artists. It also attracted the ‘new wave’ like Christopher Nevinson and another young turk, Eric Kennington.
The Ideals prints showed, often in allegorical form, the higher moral and political principles for which the war was being fought e.g. The Rebuilding of Belgium, the Defence of Democracy. The Efforts prints were more down to earth showing the contribution of industry, the medical services, agriculture and other bodies to win the war. Each commissioned artist was a given a theme to develop, Kennington’s was Making Soldiers.
Of all the themes selected for representation, Making Soldiers was one of the most important. The destruction of Kitchener’s volunteer army at the Somme had led to a crisis in recruitment. Conscription acts had been passed in January and May 1916 but they had not been popular and there had been demonstrations against them in April. This makes the decision to give this subject to Kennington even more mystifying for here was a young man who was unlikely to produce gung ho images. He had served, he had fought and he was ambivalent about the way the war was being waged.
Eric Kennington was 26 when the war broke out and he joined up immediately in August 1914, volunteering for the Kensington Battalion of the London Regiment. His military career ended ignominiously in 1915 when he was discharged after becoming wounded unjamming a friend’s rifle and shooting his toe off! He was something of an acerbic character and had problems with military authority, but this suspicious exit from the army does seem to be a genuine accident. The art he produced were honest, truthful depictions of the experiences of the ordinary soldiery, none more so than the Kensingtons at Laventie, the First War painting to cause a major stir when it was shown at the Goupil Gallery in London in April 1916. The picture includes a self-portrait: Kennington is wearing black balaclava, top left.
A critic wrote,
“The picture convinces us that it is real life, but it is not like a photograph of an actual scene. Without sentimentality or forcing of expression Mr Kennington makes visible to us what these men are feeling.”
“They are ordinary men, very tired and dirty; there is none of the romance of war that is commonly painted. No-one is enjoying that he is a hero or is making history: and yet all the soldiers are at one in their common duty and determined to endure; and in this sense, made visible, that imparts beauty to the picture.”
The Kensingtons at Laventie © IWM (Art.IWM ART 15661)
These words encapsulate Kennington’s style and approach. The six images he produced for Efforts and Ideals tell the story of a young conscript, a Tommy, and his induction onto the western Front. The thoughts and feelings of a soldier’s training and experience are shown without sentiment or romance, a real person in a real situation. However, coupled to this is the expression and style of a modern artist seeking the best way to show soldiering in a contemporary idiom.
Bayonet Practice, 1917
On the face of it this is a bizarre image. It shows the back view a soldier striding forward with his bayoneted rifle thrust out ahead of him. There is something of the medieval knight about his look, his top half bonded in leather jerkin with gauntlets and visor mask to match.
Despite the fact he has standard WW1 trousers, puttees and boots it would be difficult to place this image in the First War if were not for the background of aeroplanes, tents, sandbags and parading soldiers. This surreal depiction is intended.
By this time of the war Kennington had become a notoriously irascible character, frequently falling out with gallery owners and the directors of the propaganda department. If it wasn’t for the support senior artists and writers (Robert Graves was a big fan), his work would never have been shown. However, what could never be doubted was his respect and admiration for the fighting soldier.
The Gas Mask, 1917
Another stark and individual rendering of an early aspect of training. The efficient donning of the gas mask was an essential skill needed to be learnt quickly by the 1st War soldier. If not applied effectively it would lead to a horrible and painful death through poisoning.
The silhouetted figure in the foreground seems to be very aware of this and his attitude is one of calm and concentrated effort. However, in this picture the soldier has a blankness of expression, he seems to be ruminating on his fate – a future out his own control.
Ready for Service, 1917
This picture is entitled ‘Ready for Service’ and it is strange that halfway through a commission of six prints entitled Making Soldiers, the subject seems to have come to an end. However, the point Kennington is making is that the making of a soldier requires more than mere training; it’s what happens next that determines how ‘well made’ he is.
A feature of Kennington’s images is the attention he gives to detail from the sheepskin underjacket to the belt and cartridge pouches. The smartness of the ‘finished soldier’ is in sharp contrast to the dishevelled soldiery lounging in the background – the shape of things to come?
Into the Trenches, 1917
This is the starkest and most effective of Kennington’s Efforts and Ideals set of images, a most powerful depiction of the soldier’s experience. The same silhouetted figure now makes his way into the trenches, his face anonymised, his step tentative, his attitude one of caution and wariness.
The ‘trench’ image is one of the most iconic of the western Front but few artists have managed to capture the impact of that place on a raw recruit as evocatively as this.
Over the Top, 1917
The ‘matter of factness’ of this image makes it disconcerting, almost unreal. I suppose it’s because we’re used to the moving images filmed at the time of the Somme to gauge our own perceptions of this reality. We are spared the horror. The soldier’s step is carefully casual, rather like a window cleaner ascending a ladder, a man who knows precisely what he’s doing.
Bringing in Prisoners, 1917
It contrasts his fellow in the background who seems to be having an unseemly scramble up to the parapet. The now signature ‘backview’ again takes all hysteria and emotion out of the portrayal.
The final frame returns to the mundanity of war. Tommy watches serried ranks of captured Germans being marched behind the British lines carrying their wounded with them. What does he feel? As in most of these Kennington pictures the back view tells us nothing.
My reading is that Tommy is just doing his job, or rather another aspect of it. He is detached, bored even? But his back is giving nothing away. Again Kennington’s eye for detail fills the foreground with the ballast of warfare barbed wire, tin hats and spiralling curls of the wire poles.
Kennington’s soldier is a cog in the machine, he is mechanically going about his duty; his life or death, a throw of the dice.
Here is an artist taking almost an existential stance on his subject. He is standing outside the experience unwilling perhaps to get involved. Kennington had had enough of that in 1914/15, he didn’t seem to want it again although the events still drew him. He continued as a war artist until its conclusion.
Eric Kennington was a complex man and it is no coincidence that after the war he became a close friend of that other most complex of men, T.E. Lawrence. The images he created are a particular and personal perspective on the soldiers’ experience. Do they work as art? Do they work as propaganda? Kennington did not try to disguise the realities of the war but the position he took was subtle, almost a slight of hand that might deceive the viewer. For this reason they did not always work well as propaganda but they were, and still are, very significant art.
Eric Kennington was also an accomplished sculptor, and one of his most celebrated pieces is in a tiny church at Wareham in Dorset. In the north aisle of St Michael’s Chapel, you’ll find an effigy of his friend, T.E.Lawrence, dressed in his ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ robes.
It was originally intended for St Paul’s Cathedral, but neither it nor westminster Abbey nor Salisbury Cathedral would accept it, so it ended up in this church – described as the smallest in Dorset – not far from where Lawrence lived and died.
About the Author
Peter Vass specialises in the teaching of history. For 20 years he was Head of Humanities in the School of Education, Oxford Brookes University. He is now an Honorary Research Fellow and is currently researching British artists in the First World War. He is contactable at email@example.com
The Efforts and Ideals of the Great War portfolio of 66 lithographs had a run of 200 copies. Many are held in museums and galleries in the UK including The Imperial War Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford. It includes works by Augustus John, Christopher Nevinson, Frank Brangwyn and George Clausen.
The Kensingtons at Laventie is reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
For fuller details, see:
The Eric Henri Kennington lithographs are reproduced courtesy of Alasdair Kennington and the Kennington Estate, and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, the University of Oxford. The Ashmolean catalogue numbers are WA1919.31.13; WA1919.31.14; WA1919.31.15; WA1919.31.16; WA1919.31.17 and WA1919.31.18.