Coquelicot Art of the First World War
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William Roberts, The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918, oil on canvas, 304.8 x 365.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

© National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921.

The battlefield

19 - William Roberts

Although Roberts (1895-1980) had distinguished himself through his brightly-coloured semi-Cubist style, this work reveals a different, more descriptive style. The painting commemorates one of the most symbolic events of the war: on April 22nd 1915, the first use of toxic gases by the German artillery against positions held by the Allies, French Zouave troops dressed in red and blue, and Canadian troops dressed in khaki. The clashes of colours add to the intensity of expression, as do the view from above, the expressions of horror, and the large number of figures in this monumental work. Exhibited in London during the winter of 1918-19, it gave rise to equally lively reactions of rejection and approval. It remains an outstanding work due to its construction and the violence it contains - a violence inspired by Roberts' own personal experience as a volunteer in the artillery in 1916 before becoming a painter with the Canadian contingent, as Wyndham Lewis had done before him.