Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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  The age of artillery

"The rumbling of the artillery became more and more frequent and ended up forming a single rumbling of the whole earth. From all sides, outgoing bursts and explosions threw forth their flashing beams which lit up the dark sky over our heads with strips of light in all directions. Then the bombing grew so heavy that the flashes became continuous. In the midst of the uninterrupted chain of thunder claps we could see each other directly, helmets streaming like the bodies of fish, gleaming black iron shovels, and the whitish drops of the endless rain, truly it was like moonlight created by cannon fire." This is how Henri Barbusse describes the night-time bombardments on the Artois front in 1915, in terms of a fantastic landscape. Such passages can be found in all the books, memoirs, novels and letters telling of the Great War. The soldiers were crushed, terrified by the blind violence of the artillery, the salvos, the preparatory shots and the destruction, the explosions and the devastation caused by a single projectile. From the Battle of the Marne, which was won by the French with their 75-mm guns, to the duels on either side of the firing line, and the long-range guns that bombed Paris early in 1918, the artillery gun was the most important element in the war - a machine, the machine par excellence, blind and tireless, surrounded by its servers and its caissons. It was the symbol of tactics subordinated to industrialisation where factories were needed to mass produce shells, foundries to manufacture the tubes and carriages, and ballistic calculations to determine backsight adjustments and firing angles. An artillery war was the war of engineers and blacksmiths, and a war of numbers.
In France, the number of heavy guns rose from 300 in 1914 to 5 200 in 1918 and the number of 75-mm guns from 3 900 to 5 600. The types of matériel also changed - field artillery lost ground to heavy artillery and so-called 'trench' artillery. Further figures: at the end of the war, there were 600 000 artillerymen, as compared with a million infantry. In August 1917, during the French offensive to secure the positions around Verdun, three million shells were fired inside three days. On September 26th 1918 alone, in order to break through the German front in Champagne, 1 375 000 75-mm shells were fired, representing a third of the entire stockpile of this calibre for 1914. One last figure: during the Great War, losses due to artillery fire rose to 67% of total casualties. The figure had previously stood at around 15%. 

The Guns

More than machine-guns or any other type of equipment, the artillery caused the build-up of a vast collection of pictures, including both photographs - an aspect we will come back to later - and paintings. 


From the very earliest days of the war, photographs familiarised civilians on the home front with a picture, almost always the same, of a shell exploding, with plumes of smoke and a crater left in a field. Throughout the conflict this image repeated itself and soldiers vied with each other as to who was the most daring and skilful and who could produce the most convincing photograph, the snapshot taken at the best moment and as close up as possible. Maurice Genevoix told the story of Boquot, a lieutenant in the Engineers stationed at Les Eparges. During a torpedo bomb raid, he refused to take shelter, but instead waited "with his Kodak on his stomach, taking photographs of the explosions", while "the monstrous column of earth and smoke (...) rose up and up into the air, sending plumes of smoke a hundred feet up in the sky". When the shooting stopped, "Boquot laughed along with us, stroked his Kodak and calmly murmured, 'I got some good photographs, mind! I'll get them to the big magazine Illustration. On the sly, wif (sic.) my initials... these documents are for real, aren't they?'"
These countless photographs and written descriptions beg the question of the role of the painter and artist. What could the artist paint or draw to convey these brief and so violent events characterised by their noise and speed? Artists came up with all kinds of different solutions, from the shapeless ink blot to the radiating geometrical figure. 

Le Miroir May 2nd 1915  

The Desert and Hell

Fire invented a new landscape, devoid of landmarks or colour. When Jean Hugo went to the front line for the first time during the spring of 1915, he discovered the battlefield with the rising of the sun: "The plain, which stretched as far as the eye could see, seemed to have been churned up by a mad plough. The entanglement of trenches formed in the grass a huge white net with much of the mesh gnawed away. In the middle, there was a pile of stones and beams from which emerged, here and there, a house and a tree with all its leaves: La Targette. Further on, some charred tree trunks and a few white stones: Neuville-Saint-Vaast (...) There were thousands of men on this plain and I could only see one of them. He was lying face down with his nose in the grass; he was dead." Jean Hugo, Le regard de la mémoire 1914-1945 (The Look of Memory), Actes Sud, 1983.

Total war . . .

      The Guns
34 - Roger de La Fresnaye
35 - Gino Severini
36 - Gino Severini
37 - Paul Nash
38 - Percy Wyndham Lewis
39 - Armin Horovitz 

40 - André Dunoyer de Segonzac
41 - George Grosz
42 - Max Beckmann
43 - C. R. W. Nevinson and
      Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
44 - C. R. W. Nevinson
45 - George Grosz
46 - Félix Vallotton
47 - Paul Nash 

    The Desert and Hell
48 - Félix Vallotton
49 - Oskar Kokoschka
50 - Jacques Villon
51 - John Nash
52 - Paul Nash
53 - Georges Leroux