British Propaganda Posters of the Great War, Part Two

British Propaganda and Women

The Psychology of Posters

Warfare, especially modern war, has had a strange impact upon men. It is assumed that war and combat is the ultimate event of masculinization, completing the identity of the male. Traditionally, the equation of hyper masculinity and the military had been fairly reliable in the nineteenth century. Wars were fought elsewhere, out of the public eye, with the early war correspondents willing to find heroes who were “mentioned in the dispatches,” even in unpopular wars like that in Crimea. Normally this war is thought of as one that limped to an end, while the British government colluded to conceal the military blunders and mismanagement, but, in an interesting article in The Guardian, Orlando Figes, author of The Crimean War: A History, made a case for the Crimean War as a conflict that created new heroes. While Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mourned and celebrated the anachronistic folly of the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the British press was pointing angrily to the result of the class system. The rigid class system that ruled civilian society also formed the military hierarchies and would continue to do so through the Great War. The privileged ruling class ruled with the second sons of titled nobility crowding the ranks of those in charge whether or not they merited or deserved their elevation to power and responsibility. The men of the growing middle class became more prominent during this war, if only in contrast to the incompetence of the exalted officer corps.

As Figes pointed out, “..the public meaning of the war” was fixed by middle class “journalists and pamphleteers, poets, artists and photographers, orators and priests. This was the first “modern” war in the age of mass communications – the first to be photographed, the first to use the telegraph, the first “newspaper war” – and it shaped our national consciousness.” These observers in the newly emerging mass media took an objective perspective on a war that was being fought for no discernible reason, revealing folly and heroism. Figes continued, “The mismanagement triggered a new assertiveness in the middle classes, which rallied round the principles of professional competence, industry, meritocracy and self-reliance in opposition to the privilege of birth. It was a sign of their triumph that in the decades afterwards, Conservative and Liberal governments alike introduced reforms promoting these ideals (the extension of public schooling, opening of the Civil Service, a new system of merit-based promotion in the armed services, etc). The political scramble for Middle England had begun.” The middle class soldiers shone in comparison to their aristocratic superiors: “..the heroes who returned from Crimea were the common troops. Their deeds were recognised for the first time in 1857, when Queen Victoria instituted the Victoria Cross, awarded to gallant servicemen regardless of class or rank. Among the first recipients of Britain’s highest military honour were 16 privates from the army, five gunners, two seamen and three boatswains.”

The Great War was the first war that impacted upon the consciousness of the British public since the Crimean War and war, over five decades had changed enormously. And so too had the role of women in British society. During the 1850s, it was Florence Nightingale and Mary Jane Seacole, who defined convention and became the women who established military nursing–the care and healing of the wounded soldier. Even in the hands of a woman, the wounded British male retained his masculinity and it was important for the nation to celebrate his heroism, especially in light of the War’s failures reported in excruciating detail by William Howard Russell. The women who nursed the men also became heroes, apparently without threatening the manliness of the men. Writing in 1878, in Heroes of Britain in Peace and War, Edwin Hodder explained, “ our hospitals there is a noble army of brave women who are devoting themselves the to care of he sick; women, who not finding a sphere for labour in their home circles, and feeling the burden of humanity claiming their sympathy, have gone as heroically and in some instances more so, to labour among the sick in the hospitals of crowded cities as others have gone to tend the wounded and dying on the battlefield..” It can be assumed that nursing as a form of nurturing fell into the bounds of expected and accepted behavior for women, and it is clear that two decades later, the shock of women invading the precincts of medicine had worn off.

But the woman of 1914 was a different social person, living in a British society in which the middle classes were educated and ambitious. As Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) attests, nineteenth century attitudes still prevailed in an increasingly modern world, with the ruling class of males deliberately holding aspiring women back. For decades, after the Crimean War, women had been campaigning for the right to vote. As in America, at the same time, the movement broke into two separate sectors, one conservative and willing to wait patiently, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and one more militant and more impatient, Women’s Social and Political Union. As in America, the WSPU under the leadership of the Pankhurst women, mother and daughters, women were put in jail and stubbornly refused to eat. As with Alice Paul in America, the British women were force fed, a form of torture in those days. When the Great War began, the suffrage movement redirected its efforts towards working to win the war and thus prove women worthy of being given the right to vote.

It is against this political background that one understands the propagandistic efforts to encourage male enlistment in a deadly war. While at first, outraged by the invasion and “rape” of Belgium, men eagerly signed up, recruitment efforts flagged and atrocity propaganda could not inspire sufficient enlistment. The government embarked on another other approach, which was a play or a variation on the demanding Lord Kirchner poster–public shame. In what might be called the descendant of the “white feather” campaigns, men were shamed into playing a part in the war of attrition. The idea of the white feather can be dated back to the days of cock fighting in the eighteenth century. When a defeated cock “turned tail,” revealing the white feathers beneath his plumage, he was signaling refusal to fight, advertising defeat. The transference of the the meaning of a white feather to the practice of handing out white feathers to men considered cowards was popularized by the English writer A. E. W. Mason in his famous 1902 book, The Four Feathers. Written during the Boer War, this novel was a shameless advertisement for imperialism in which a young military officer who preferred not to serve the Empire was presented by four white feathers from his fiancée and his close friends. The entire novel is an adventure story in which the shamed young man, Harry Faversham, has to redeem himself, save his friends and win back the woman he loves, all while in the service of the Empire. The popular story (which has been made into at least six films) laid the groundwork for the White Feather Campaign during the Great War.

This campaign of public shaming men out of uniform was begun at the end of August 1914 by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald who advocated compulsory military service. He organized the White Feather Campaign in Folkstone and recruited young women to hand out white feathers, also a sign of an inbred cockerel unfit to fight, to young men out of uniform. The timing was fortuitous: the suffrage movement was on hold and young women had high expectations of being of service. At the early stages of the War, women were given nothing of use to do and many, particularly the young ones who had not raised a child, leaped at the chance to participate as patriots. But, in the process, many young men were shamed and suffered for decades over the public humiliation. As Peter J. Hart wrote in “The White Feather Campaign: A Struggle with Masculinity During World War I,”

The Campaign worked fairly well and by shaming Home front men, these women drove many into the army out of dread of receiving a white feather themselves. But an unexpected consequence arose from this attack upon Englishmen’s masculinity, one that these “patriotic” women didn’t foresee. As this campaign became more public and recognized, the community backlash against women who engaged in this practice became increasingly harsh. Englishwomen had been molded into a weapon against the masculine identity through propaganda and promises of patriotism.

There were compelling reasons why women echoed the shaming campaign of the propaganda posters. Given that the War had began during the long and violent Suffragette Campaign during which the British government stalwartly resisted the demand that women be given the right to vote, women would react with alarm to the horrors inflicted on the women of Belgium. The attack of the Germans upon helpless Belgium was the main reason the British entered the War and the women of Belgium had suffered terribly from the German army. The stories that swirled around the atrocities were so graphic and, at times, so exaggerated, that for decades it was thought that the tales could not be true. But revisionist history, searching though German Belgium archives has established that the atrocities committed in Belgium were very real indeed, even accounting for the inevitable tall tales circulated during wartime. For British women, the stories of how the Germans treated the women of Belgium were terrifying and they felt justified in urging men to avenge these female victims. But, perhaps more importantly, the women could take on the role of responsible citizens, doing their part and fighting the War in their own way. Not unexpectedly, the White Feather Campaign, which activated women, resulted in women being criticized for what they were asked to do. The criticism was based, not in the idea that they might be unjustly shaming an undeserving man, but on the grounds of “immodesty,” meaning that women were aggressively approaching men and imputing their masculinity.

Nevertheless, women were merely echoing a broader campaign of shaming, raised repeatedly by the press and mass media, driven by the desperate need for males to fight the long war. Nicoletta F. Gullace wrote that poet John Oxenham wrote a special poem directed to women, calling them to their duty:

O maids, and mothers of the race,
And of the race that is to be
To you is given in these dark days
A vast responsibility….
Remember!—as you bear you now,
So Britain’s future shall be great
—Or small. To your true hearts is
given a sovereign duty to the state.

In her article “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War,” Gullac quote the approving words of the Mayor of London, directed towards women: “Is your ‘Best Boy’ wearing Khaki?…If not don’t YOU THINK he should be? If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for—do you think he is worthy of you? Don’t pity the girl who is alone—her young man is probably a soldier—fighting for her and her country—and for You. If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will Neglect You. Think it over—then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO DAY!” The point is that the women who participated in the “Order of the White Feather,” had wide public support and wives and mothers and sweethearts were exhorted by mass media and by propaganda posters to reject men who would not join the military. Men were also directly addressed by the propaganda posters, which also employed a tactic of shame, implying a dereliction of duty and suggesting that their own families would reject them if they did not do their duty.

In his 2012 book Britain and World War One, Alan G. V. Simmonds explained how these shaming tactics were shaped by government propaganda: “..what began as a politicians’ and diplomats’ war declared for reasons of economic security and European hegemony became a struggle for national unity, civilization, liberty and for the protection of Britain’s Empire and her essentially Victorian way of life. The threat of all of this was a powerful reason for men to enlist, but it proved insufficient to satisfy the Army’s ever-growing need for recruits.” One of the earlier attempts at blackmailing men into joining the military was the innocent sounding Pals Battalions, which, as Simmonds expressed it, “successfully embodied powerful forces of peer pressure and civic pride. Groups of men, linked by a common bond of professional, recreational or emotional ties, were encouraged to join up together in units that combined a strong sense of local identity with group solidarity, along with an opportunity to exploit alternative loyalties for which to fight other than ‘King and Country.'” Another way of explaining the Pals’ Battalions was a way to encourage young men who were not necessarily invested in the British Empire to join up. These recruits would more likely be middle class but without the public school privileges enjoyed by the upper ranks and the working classes who owed little to what was a campaign to preserve the power of the upper classes.

Involving women was an ideal way of activating women of all classes who would be encouraged to hand out white feathers to the men they encountered. Lower class men could be directly confronted; middle class men shamed at home. Every woman had a network of male relatives who could not ignore the devices of the White Feather brigades. The result of the campaign in which women were asked to participate directly or indirectly was nothing short of emotional blackmail. The government recruited women, as much as it recruited men, as participants in the War, asking them to send away their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to a war from which many would not return or would return wounded in body or mind or both. The constant drumbeat of these early posters, issued before the Military Service Act in 1916 started forced conscription, emphasizes the inherent unnaturalness of war. Men and women had to be forcibly manipulated by a constant drumbeat of obligation with an underlying threat of being de-masculinized. This threat manifested itself in reality as conscription resulted in more and more men disappearing from the Home Front and into the military. Women began to take their place everywhere, in the factories, in the offices, in the hospitals, even wearing uniforms as police officers. The wartime posters began to address women, urging them to join the war effort and to take the places of men, whether driving buses or playing football.

The Great War utterly changed women, propelling them headlong into the twentieth century, proving that they could succeed at the very jobs men had insisted they could not do. Of course, when the War was over, the women were sent home to make room for the returning males. But, as with the Second World War, women would not forget their wartime experiences Unlike World War II, an entire generation of men never returned. After the Great War, women were widowed or were nursing men with permanent wounds, and there were those women who would never marry. This new independence was played out by their younger sisters who became “flappers,” who refused to live the lives of their mothers. For men, the Great War had begun as a noble cause, a fight for King and Country of for one’s closest friends; for women the Great War had begun with handing out white feathers and shaming men into enlisting. After the War, many of these men would not come home; others would never recover; others struggled with their traumatic experiences. The aggression and the enthusiasm “immodestly” displayed by women during the war when handing out white feathers was channeled into factory jobs and into college classrooms. One could argue that the generation of men who fought the war lost their place and women suddenly managed to find a purpose for their new lives.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Official Artists of the Great War, John Singer Sargent, Part Two

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

The Unlikely War Artist, Part Two

Made towards the end of his career as an elite portrait painter to the elite families of America and Europe, the famous painting of a scene the artist actually witnessed, Gassed (1919) became one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous and often reproduced paintings. Sargent had a final and unexpected interlude as an artist during the Great War. Sargent made numerous studies for the painting which, in the end, was huge, measuring 7 and a half by 20 feet. Gassed was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1919 and was declared “The Painting of the Year,” and, despite its controversial reception has become one of the iconic works of the Great War. At the time its execution, the painting was intended to show the importance the sacrifice of a generation, cut down in its flower, as it were.


John Singer Sargent. Gassed (1919)

All the young men in Sargent’s painting were ideal icons of the English soldier, all bearing their wounds and pains with the forbearance of true aristocrats. It would be inevitable that Sargent, a portraitist of the famous and wealthy, would find a lingering classical beauty and order in a scene that, in real life, would have surely been one of fear and terror and uncertainty. The procession of beautiful young men proceeds melodiously across the vast canvas, attesting to the stoicism taught to them, probably, given the artist’s milieu, to their training in public school. Year later, one of the heroes of Operation Market Garden, Sir Brian Urquhart, described his schooling and its tradition of service:

“..almost across the whole British public school system, because the system, as such, was designed to staff a very large empire run by a small, off-shore island. I mean the idea was that unless you were some sort of kind of a genius, like a musician or a painter or a poet or something, you should concentrate on the idea of serving. And it wasn’t a priggish idea – it seems to be not a bad idea really – and I think we were very much brought up to think that unless we displayed some fantastic genius for something, we would be lucky to be in public service, or indeed earlier on, to go into the church – the Church after all is a state religion in England, unbelievably – or to go into the army, to come to that. These were the main sources of public service. I wanted to be a civilian. And, you know, I think it wasn’t a bad idea – although bad luck on all those people we were going to rule over in the colonies – so you trained a whole group of people who would do that, and, incidentally, who would go to some distant part of the world and stay there their whole working life.”

Sargent, who was familiar with the nineteenth century tradition of heroic military painting, found this modern war dishearteningly free of glory and it is notable that the artist painted a composition consisting of one color–the dun, mud color of the contemporary uniforms, designed to blend in with the bleak surrounding of the Western Front. For a public anxious to find nobility in a war of attrition and the long siege of the trenches, Gassed would have been deeply satisfying: beautiful and brave, classical without critique, a gesture towards the nobility of service and sacrifice. Winston Churchill whose dubious accomplishments up to that point included the slaughter at Gallipoli, noted the Sargent’s “brilliant genius and painful significance,” but he was throughly in favor of continuing the use of gas in future wars. As Marion Girard pointed out in her 2008 book, A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas, “Churchill captured the sentiments of many of those who were enthusiastic about, not just tolerant, gas. He saw it as a useful weapon as well as a unique one whose reputation was unnecessary negative..he said it was ‘too silly’ not to use the weapon and that a any objections were ‘unreasonable.'” And yet the painting shows the full impact of one of the inescapable attacks of a remorseless vapor. The line of walking men pick they way between two rows of soldiers lying twisting in agony on the ground and, to the right, another line of marchers grope towards the same goal, the hospital tent. Although the effects of a gas attack could take twelve hours to materialize, the chances of survival were slim and, if one could recover, the effects of the gas were permanent.


The intent of the painting, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, was clear to the contemporary viewers: its obvious references to classical art and its bid to be a modern history painting. The blinded soldiers, guiding and supporting one another, were also symbolic of the comradeship of the War, eliding the true and grotesque effects of the gas. In contrast to the true debilitating effect of gas, the young men retain their brave nobility. According the 1917 account of Arthur Hurst in Medical Diseases of the War:

The first effect of inhalation of chlorine is a burning pain in the throat and eyes, accompanied by a sensation of suffocation; pain, which may be severe, is felt in the chest, especially behind the sternum. Respiration becomes painful, rapid, and difficult ; coughing occurs, and the irritation of the eyes results in profuse lachrymation. Retching is common and may be followed by vomiting, which gives temporary relief. The lips and mouth are parched and the tongue is covered with a thick dry fur. Severe headache rapidly follows with a feeling of great weakness in the legs; if the patient gives way to this and lies down, he is likely to inhale still more chlorine, as the heavy gas is most concentrated near the ground. In severe poisoning unconsciousness follows; nothing more is known about the cases which prove fatal on the field within the first few hours of the “gassing,” except that the face assumes a pale greenish yellow colour. When a man lives long enough to be admitted into a clearing station, he is conscious, but restless; his face is violet red, and his ears and finger nails blue ; his expression strained and anxious as he gasps for breath; he tries to get relief by sitting up with his head thrown back, or he lies in an exhausted condition, sometimes on his side with his head over the edge of the stretcher in order to help the escape of fluid from the lungs. His skin is cold and his temperature subnormal; the pulse is full and rarely over 100. Respiration is jerky, shallow and rapid, the rate being often over 40 and sometimes even 80 a minute ; all the auxiliary muscles come into play, the chest being over-distended at the height of inspiration and, as in asthma, only slightly less distended in extreme expiration. Frequent and painful coughing occurs and some frothy sputum is brought up. The lungs are less resonant than normal, but not actually dull, and fine riles with occasional rhonchi and harsh but not bronchial breathing are heard, especially over the back and sides.

In the 2012 book, Painted Men in Britain, 1868-1918: Royal Academicians and Masculinities, Jongwoo Jeremy Kim described the way in which the sixty-two year old artist prepared himself to approach the Great War. “During the Great War, Sargent ‘refused to read’ any war poems except for Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle.’ Sargent explained, “The verses are very fine and moving–there is something unusual in the sensation conveyed of all his perceptions and all his sympathies being keyed up to a high pitch by something enormous that is behind the scenes.'” This poem, published on the occasion of Grenfell’s death in 1915 at Ypres was far from heroic; it was a poem written by a soldier who obviously felt that he was doomed:

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind,
Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

According to Kim,

“..categorically contradicting the gruesome medical facts of the chemical destruction Sargent’s painted youths would have experienced, the warm light in gold and the delicate air in the subtle pastels in Gassed invoke calm euphoria as thought to mock the jingoist slogan Dulce et decorum eat pro patria more (It is sweet and decorous to die for one’s country) and to reveal its utter absurdity. The perfumed atmosphere of easy contentment in Gassed is almost more jarring that the panic Wilfred Owen’s ironically titled poem indicates. The chromatic aberration in Gassed constructs an anguished irony,coloring the juxtaposition of the ideal of heroic death and its reality..”

Kim continued in his critique of Gassed by comparing it to Sargent’s murals in the Boston Public Library, a project which had absorbed the artist for thirty years. He finished the murals in 1919, but the painting of the gassed victims was unsettlingly akin to the tangle of male bodies in his 1916 lunette panel Hell in the Library.


The author noted, “..Gassed adorns gruesome mass death, achieving the romantic chromatic allure in roes, lilac, and Gassed, the bodies of the young men wrapped in the romance of floral pastel shades betray fascination and desire. Every man in the panel is young, fit, and handsome in his uniform. Transformed into a grand spectacle, Tommies, like so many dandies, make endless layers of a sweet mille-feuille for the eye, lying down together feeling their fellows’ bodies against their own.” Kim notes the apparent class of the victims imagined by Sargent, remarking on their resemblance to earlier society painting which portrayed


Sargent painted a number of studies of British “Tommies” at rest

“..supine affluent young people..the same gestures and postures, representing languorous pleasure in repose and luxury, are applied to groups of choking and vomiting men who are blinded, burned, blistered, and castrated by a chemical weapon. They lie on the ground no two enjoy the sun or the breeze. These men are recumbent because they are poisoned and because their death is intoxicating and nonbonding Neatly dressed, combed, and freshly youthful, the sensuality of Sargent’s Tommies is thus deeply discordant. Their collective horizontal incapacitation becomes a repose following an unimaginable orgy of destruction.”


These studies may have served as partial inspiration for Gassed

While the general public and the mainstream art audience were pleased by the restraint shown by Sargent, who congenitally could not, would not reveal the truth of chemical warfare to his audience, the avant-garde art world viewed the painting with scorn. Indeed the very popularity and immediate acceptance of the painting almost guaranteed the reaction of those who felt that representing the Great War should go beyond a social commentary on the beautiful deaths of the upper class men who expired so gracefully.


The Bloomsbury Group was merciless in its attacks on Gassed. E. M. Forster, the great English observer of upper class behavior and sexual repression, immediately decoded the message: “You were of godlike beauty–for the upper classes only allow the lower classes to appear in art on condition that they wash themselves and have classical features. These conditions you fulfilled. A line of golden-haired Apollos moved along a duckboard from left to right with bandages over their eyes..” Allen McLaurin in his book Virginia Woolf: The Echoes Enslaved added that Forster thought Gassed to be “unreal picture of war and is therefore immoral.” In his 2007 book on Forster, Achievement of E. M. Forster, John Beer noted that the author “pours bitter scorn on an Academy picture of the trenches which he finds hanging amid conventional paintings of ‘important people.'”


In other words, the painting was out of context, shown with society portraits, and was not in the destination for which it was intended, the never-built Hall of Remembrance. Today Gassed is in the Imperial War Museum, where it lives comfortably with other official painting of the War, including Paul Nash’s The Menin Road and Stanley Spencer’s Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. But its initial showing at the Royal Academy in 1919 betrayed Sargent, revealing the origins of the painting. Forster immediately pounced, writing, “It was all a great war picture should be, and it was modern because it managed to tell a new short of lie. Many ladies and gentlemen fear that Romance is passing out of war with its sabres and the chargers. Sargent’s masterpiece reassures them. He shows that it is possible to suffer with a quiet grace under new conditions..” Foster imagines the adjacent paintings of social queens saying, “‘How touching,’ instead of ‘How obscene.'”


Virginia Woolf joined Forster in her condemnation of the painting. As usual, Woolf is indirect and elliptical in her complaint: “A large picture by Mr Sargent called Gassed at last pricked some nerve of protest, of perhaps of humanity. In order to emphasize his point that the soldiers wearing bandages around their eyes cannot see, and therefore claim our compassion, he makes one of them raise his leg to the level of his elbow in order to mount a step an inch or two above the ground. This little piece of over emphasis of the surgeon’s knife which is said to hurt more than the whole operation.” But, as McLaurin pointed out in 1973, the art critics did not always have the final word. If the question is not art but realism, then a letter from a field ambulance driver in The Athenaeum answered Woolf’s criticism by saying, “I saw Mr Sargent collecting his details. I have seen the picture in question, also, and it is the man at the end of the file that Mr Sargent has portrayed in this action. It is ‘over-emphasis,’ but on the part of the man–not that of the artist. Whether it be good art to depict this peculiarity I am not competent to say, but it is a depiction of the truth.”


For one hundred years, this painting has been argued about, a fate that probably would have astonished the artist who was fulfilling a commission, which was his life long career. Gassed irks and irritates as it draws admiration because it sums up the myths and legends of the Great War. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth mourns the loss of innocence and the scything down of her generation of beautiful young men. The poets and the poetry, the art and the artists, all come from the upper classes, an eloquent generation that rages against its fruitless gift of its greatest possessions, their lives. If Gassed carried any truth of message is the often told tale of how the finest flowers of the public schools dedicated themselves to service and selflessly gave their fates and futures over to a greedy and grateful nation. On one hand it romanticized a very unromantic War, but on the other hand, it remained England that an entire generation had been irrevocably lost, a lost that led a nation into years of “appeasement” to a mad man, a stance preferable to revisiting Gassed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Official Artists of the Great War, John Singer Sargent: Part One

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

The Unlikely War Artist, Part One

John Singer Sargent had the singular honor of being the official portraitist for the Gilded Age in America Europe, painting the last decades of a slightly decadent and negligent peace before the fabric of alliances, both family and political, unraveled. Perhaps it was only right and proper that the dashing artist should be among those who were asked to paint its tragic end. If his first great paintings had included an exquisite woman in a svelte black dress, then his last notable works would show the ruin and destruction of the young men, who were supposed to carry on that traditional way of life.

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent in his Studio with the Portrait of Madame X (1884)

Ironically it was also the task of this artist to depict the men who ordered them to die. The Great War was an unexpected climax to a glittering career unmarked by tragedy, but the life of Sargent, like that of everyone who lived through the War, could not go unmarked. It was the society painter, renowned for flash and dash, who would paint one of the great and moving images of what would be the First World War, and, in the process, would render one of the last history paintings of the nineteenth century. But over time, we have lost its original meaning.


John Singer Sargent. Gassed (1919)

In June 28, 1914 an obscure Serbian teenager, Gavrila Princip, assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand. While the killing was the unexpected result of a nationalist plot gone badly wrong, the event proved to be the arbitrary last straw that caused the collapse of an uneasy calm before what would become a great storm. The Great War was the first modern war, but the British government was ready to control the cloud of information that would inevitably gather. Although it had been decades since the Crimean War in the middle of the nineteenth century, the government had learned hard lessons about the modern press and its power. Writing for The Times of London, the first “war correspondent,” William Howard Russell (1820-1907) was unflagging in his determination to report the truth of a war that was going very badly. Russell was a combination of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in an age before governments had come to understand the power of a war correspondent corresponding with the British people. In his dispatches from the Crimean front, Russell explained, in terms both intimate and overblown, a war that husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers were fighting. As Martin Bell wrote in 2009, introducing his book, Despatches From The Crimea, “During the Crimean War,it was due to Russell’s dispatches from the scene more than to any other single factor that the British government’s mishandling of affairs, and the gross negligence of the War Office in particular, came to light and that the resignation of Lord Aberdeen’s cabinet was brought about.”

Undoubtedly wary of another out of control Russell embedded with the military, un-beholden to anyone but an independent newspaper, the British government immediately established the frankly named British War Propaganda Bureau, with the sole aim of shaping the information that was to be disseminated not only to the British public but also to the rest of the world. Located at Wellington House, hiding behind a fictitious National Insurance Department, this top secret agency was completely unknown to the public until 1935. The secrecy was extraordinary when one considers that the government corralled prominent English writers and major publishing houses so that the appropriate point of view would be extolled. The list of authors reads like a who’s who of turn of the century literature, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Ford Madox Ford, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. Overseeing all and controlling all was Charles Masterman. Masterman, perhaps remembering the telling images made by Matthew Brady and his photographers during the American Civil War, made sure that only two war official photographers were allowed to go to the front. Most of the photographs of this war were taken by the soldiers themselves.

The organization seemed to grow as the War continued and generated further operations. In 1916, the Propaganda Bureau became the Department of Information, with Masterman, as Director of Publications, being in charge of war paintings. Under Lord Beaverbrook, a British War Memorial Committee, which sent a group of prominent English artists to France, was established in 1918. The Committee gathered together mirrored the roster of authors supporting the official government perspective on the War: Augustus John, John Nash, Henry Tonks, Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, C. R. W. Nevinson, William Roberts, WyndhamLewis, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and other lesser known names. To be an “official” British war artist, during the Great War, meant to be under government control. The very nature of the job, which was to depict the war, carried within it a contradiction in terms, for communication and censorship do not rest easily with one another. More than a few of these artists had served on the Front themselves and returned as observers who could, like Paul Nash, measure the continuing damage of a long war on the land and upon human beings. Like Christopher Nevinson, many were censored and came under fire for their frank depictions of the dead or dying, but becoming “official” afforded an avenue for expression and an outlet for their outrage.

Out of place with this group of largely young men, John Singer Sargent came late to the party. Sent on a mission but the British War Memorials Committeee, he seemed to have had some difficulty deciding what to wear to the Western Front, but, like William Orpen, he was seconded to the headquarters of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Sargent found this modern war unsettlingly unpicturesque. His remarks indicate that he was expecting scenes inspired by Lady Elizabeth Butler. Sargent noted, “The further forward one goes’, he wrote ‘the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes and empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men?” Even more mundane was his brief: as an American expatriate, depict a joint operation of the Americans and the English. In the summer of 1918, the American Expeditionary Force had been in action only since May, fighting the prelude to the Second Battle of the Marne that would begin in July. Having learned of the way in which the British high command expended young lives with careless abandon, the leader of the American forces, General John Pershing refused to put Americans under European command, making Sargent’s commission difficult.


Gassed on Display at the Imperial War room at the Crystal Palace (1920)

The solution for the frustrated artist was to produce an enormous painting showing a suffering that was universal, the effects of a gas attack. The painting, Le Bac-du-Sud, Doullens Road, Doullens, Somme, France, would be called, simply, Gassed, and it would be completed in 1919. Being gassed had become by the end of the war a metaphor for all the mechanized savagery of the inhuman and inhumane war. By time Sargent was in France, the original gas, chlorine, which was carried in a terrifying green cloud, had been replaced by phosgene, a much slower killer. In analyzing the various gases used in the Great War, Marek Pruszewicz, writing for the BBC News, explained, “The most widely used, mustard gas, could kill by blistering the lungs and throat if inhaled in large quantities. Its effect on masked soldiers, however, was to produce terrible blisters all over the body as it soaked into their woollen uniforms. Contaminated uniforms had to be stripped off as fast as possible and washed – not exactly easy for men under attack on the front line.” It seems that the aftermath of a gas attack, witnessed and painted by Sargent, was the work of mustard gas (Yperite). The terror of gas was its slow, silent, creeping nature, its all encompassing cloud-like arrival, its all invasive properties made it a weapon more hated and feared than the other technological advances made during the War.


The actual event seen by Sargent was described later by Henry Tonks in a letter to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920: “After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint… Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.” It is possible that the aftermath of a gas attack was as orderly as Sargent illustrated it, borrowing the classical frieze composition seen in Greco-Roman art. Disorder is kept to a minimum in the horizontal composition. Sargent undoubtedly knew of Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting of Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau, February 9, 1807 (1808), where the prone bodies at the bottom of the canvas form a foundation for the horizontal layers of the middle ground. As in the large painting by Gros, Sargent shows glimpses of scenes in the distance, spotted between the marching legs of the stricken soldiers. It is possible to glimpse a scene of a carefree football game, suggesting that war is a game, indicating that life will continue, or possibly alluding to the famous soccer matches played during the Christmas truce of 1914.


Modern eyes, accustomed to the absolute ban on chemical weapons see Sargent’a massive painting as horrific and painful, a statement about the barbarity of war, but the contemporary audiences were not supposed to cringe but to respond to the patriotism and classical pathos of the scene. Pruszewicz made the point in his article that, according to Richard Slocombe, Senior Curator of Art at the Imperial War Museum, the meaning was less about suffering and more about the spiritual mission of the War: “The painting was meant to convey a message that the war had been worth it and had led to a better tomorrow, a greater cause, that it had not been a terrible waste of life. It is a painting imbued with symbolism. The temporary blindness was a metaphor, a semi-religious purgatory for British youth on the way to resurrection. You can see the guy-ropes of a field hospital tent depicted, and the men are being led towards it.” Vera Brittain, who had lost her lover, her brother, and her innocence to the War, complained of the government mandated attitudes that this was a “holy war.” Of the victims of a gas attack, she wrote to her mother that she wished the English public could see, “We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago: there were 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case–to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages–could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently – all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they are going to choke.”

But, as shall be seen in the subsequent post, John Singer Sargent had no intention of showing the horror of modern war nor was his painting about the actual suffering of the real victims of an attack of mustard gas. It is clear that what he witnessed must have been horrible but that, possibly because he was an “official” war artist, not schooled in this particular war, he had no intention of making an anti-war statement. Sargent was a patriot and a believer in the richness of this war against the barbarism of the Germans and how better to convey the inhumanity of the “brutes” as they were depicted by British propaganda than to contrast the behavior of the Hun with the nobility of the English lads outlined against the blank sky. The reception of this painting, both at the time of its first exhibiting and to this day, was and is complex and controversial. Gassed, while admired by the public, has been examined with jaundiced eyes for the past century, an issue examined in Part Two.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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