Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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John Nash, Over the Top, oil on canvas, 79.4 x 107.3 cm, Imperial War Museum, London.

© Imperial War Museum.

The battlefield

14 - John Nash

The archetype of the battle scene, Over the Top depicts the attack during which the First Artist Rifles left their trenches and pushed towards Marcoing near Cambrai. Of the eighty men, sixty-eight were killed or wounded during the first few minutes. John Nash (1893-1977) was one of the twelve spared by the shellfire. Painting from memory - unlike his brother Paul Nash - he produced this uncompromising picture which has remained the painter's best known work and one of the most remarkable to come out of the war, revealing as it does, with methodical neutrality, the absurdity of the unprotected offensive and the certainty of not coming back alive. Even more important than the artist's style or his naked realism is the strength of conviction of a picture intended to leave a mark on the memory.

14-Nash" As soon as our line, set on its jolting way, emerged, I felt that two men close by had been hit, two shadows fell to the ground and rolled under our feet, one with a high-pitched scream and the other in silence like an ox. Another disappeared with a movement like a madman, as if he had been carried away. Instinctively, we closed ranks and pushed each other forward, always forward, and the wound in our midst closed itself. The warrant officer stopped and raised his sword, dropped it, fell to his knees, his kneeling body falling backwards in jerks, his helmet fell on his heels and he remained there, his head uncovered, looking up to the sky. The line has promptly split to avoid breaking this immobility.
But we couldn't see the lieutenant any more. No more superiors, then... A moment's hesitation held back the human wave which had reached the beginning of the plateau. The hoarse sound of air passing through our lungs could be heard over the stamping of feet.
- Forward! cried a soldier.
So we all marched forward, moving faster and faster in our race towards the abyss. "

Henri Barbusse, Le feu (Fire), Paris, Flammarion, 1916.