George Braque at War
Recovering from War

On August 3rd, 1914,  Germany declared war on France and, oddly enough, France never declared war on Germany. The last days of July and the first days of August were like tumbling dice, with the Russians starting the roll of Germany through Belgium and into France on July 20 when the Tsar issued orders to mobilize. In so doing, without being aware of the consequences of what seemed to be a prudent move, the Tsar unwittingly activated Germany’s carefully developed Schlieffen Plan. This famous plan called for Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to attack, not Russia, but France. Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised the German strategy for conquering France, basing it on assumptions, all of which proved to be false: Russia would take weeks to mobilize and during those weeks the German army would simply walk through a compliant Belgium and cut through France, driving towards Paris. The Schlieffen Plan was a six week operation in which Britain hung back and allowed the Germans to take over two entire nations before turning and attack a third, Russia. As is well know today, this fantasy based battle plan went awry immediately, the Belgians fought back and held the Germans at bay, Russia mobilized and very quickly turned the new war into a two front conflict, and France swiftly called out its troops on August 1st, On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The next day, Great Britain declared war on Germany. And so the dominos fell, one by one.

The young men of France, carrying the collective memory of the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the scar of Germans occupying their native country, responded to the imminent threat from Germany with alacrity. Occupations were put aside, as were political differences, as men of all walks of life marched off to a War that would change them forever–if they came home, if they returned. The radical avant-garde artists of France immediately sprang into action, placing their carefully honed careers on the shelf, and signing up. Georges Braque (1882-1963) joined the French army on August 2nd, a day after general mobilization was declared. His artistic partner and his aesthetic collaborator, Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard from a neutral country, famously said, “On 2 August 1914, I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again.” Picasso’s statement was not literal, of course, both Braque and André Derain (1880-1954) survived the Great War, but both men would be profoundly altered as human beings and as artists. The cost to the French artists in terms of the growth and development of their art can be seen in their post-war work, which would be conservative and safe and familiar. Once suspended, their forward mobility was never to be resumed as a new generation took the place of the “Cubist heroes,” such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and became the School of Paris. The artists who stayed behind, Picasso and Henri Matisse, were able to continue to evolve their art, taking it into new directions. For Georges Braque, Picasso’s new direction away from Cubism and his military experiences in the trenches, culminating in a life-threatening wound, meant that their work together and their personal connection could never be resumed.

As has been pointed out in previous posts, the Great War was a mobile one for only a month. By the end of September, both sides were paralyzed into lines that would quickly become trenches, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. The credit for slowing the German invasion belonged to the heroic Belgium army which held off the Germans, slowing down its advance through the neutral country for almost a month. The French army moved quickly towards–not Belgium–but towards their long lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, attacking on August 7, only to be repulsed and driven out by the Germans. The French determination to take back these border lands was the basis for their answer to the Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII, and the quest quickly devolved into two major battles, the Battle of Mulhouse, Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers. Although the British joined the French in these early clashes, it was the French who suffered losses so great that it can be argued that the nation never recovered from the shocking blow. As Brian Best wrote in his book Reporting from the Front: War Reporters During the Great War, The Mons battle, which compared with the subsequent battles was more like a skirmish, was one of what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. It was the French plan to recapture Alsace-Lorrians attack the Germans at the Belgium border. The battles took place at Mulhouse, Colmar, the Ardennes and 13 September, the French suffered about 30o,000 casualties, of which 75,000 were fatal. On 22 August, 27,000 were killed, making it a day to rival the first battle of the Somme for bloodshed. As Romain Leick of Spiegle Online International elaborated,

On Aug. 22, 1914, the French army experienced a disaster of historic proportions. In a series of battles near the town of Rossignol in the Belgian Ardennes Mountains, near the border with France, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day, four times as many as at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. It was a slaughter without compare, in both the past and the future of the country’s long military history.

Like all able-bodied young French men, Georges Braque had been subject to conscription or the draft. According to the 1913 Three Years Law, a man had to be ready to go to war if called. In 1911, Braque was photographed in his uniform at Picasso’s studio at boulevard de Clichy, and the twin photograph showed Picasso trying on Braque’s uniform.

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Georges Braque in his uniform

Retroactively, Braque was part of this law or a Troisanniste, being part of a military that was just beginning to recover from the ugly scandal of the Dreyfus Affair. When the War began, the French army was divided, as it were, between competent NCOs who would be swiftly promoted to the officer class and those who were not promoted, the ordinary soldier, considered a form of low life, known individually as Le Poilu, or the “Hairy Beast.” According to Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker in their book, France and the Great War, “Each man had a “class” indicated by the year in which is cohort turned twenty. Elaborate rituals involving parades, bands, costumes, and much else evolved into localities throughout France to celebrate the induction each class to military service. These comprised rites of manhood as much as citizenship.” However, to return to the famous photographs of the artists in uniform, the French military uniform was famous for its dangerous regressiveness. As the authors reported,

Even the French uniforms of August 1914 dark blue jackets and red trousers, dated from the last century. By that time, all of the other Great Powers had abandoned uniforms that presented such obvious targets. Historians have often, but mistakenly, attributed the persistence of the colorful French uniform to  stubborn myopia on the part of the French high command. But support for the anachronistic attire really spoke to a more broad-based and ancient notion that soldiers who go off to war should do so as beautifully as appointed as possible. Heroes had to dress the part, most of all in a democracy, in which the army represented the sovereign people at war.

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Uniforms designed by Édouard Detaille and Georges Scott, military artists, in 1912. Detaille’s design for the metal helmet was rejected by the infantry but was accepted by the 3rd Battery of the Horse Artillery. After nearly a decade of debate over military uniforms, the infantry below wears the final choice: dark blue jacket with red trousers.

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There is a direct connection between the impressive French uniform and the enormous losses suffered by the French on August 22nd, for these early battles showed the complete incomprehension of the consequences of modern warfare in which leaders, using Napoleonic tactics, as old as the uniforms styles, marched soldiers, fueled by élan, towards machine guns and long range artillery guns. Being held back at his home base, Le Havre, for training on the machine gun, or the “coffee mill,” Braque was lucky that he missed the first slaughter. As was customary for intelligent enlisted men, he was promoted and became  a sub-lieutenant, moving to the front lines on the Somme by mid-November.

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According to Braque’s biographer Alex Danchev,

“I’m now in the firing line,” he wrote to Picasso on 29 November. “I had my baptism about a week ago…There’s a lot of fighting here and we’ve taken up guard among dead Boches and unfortunately some (French) marines. Now the area is fairly calm. You can’t imagine a battlefield is like with the uprooted trees and the earth dug up by the shells.” Danchev continued quoting Braque when he also wrote to Apollinaire, “I’ve been at the front two months,” he informed Apollinaire, with a touch of pride. “We’ve had some pretty serious engagements with the Germans.” According to Danchev, “The order to attack came on 17 December. Braque led his platoon over the top. In the teeth of the guns he gave a good account of himself, but the attack, like so many attacks, failed. The regiment history speaks of heavy loses. A vigorous officer, commanding hs platoon well, dedicated. Shows wiling. His military dossier is a pean of praise to his drive and his fortitude. Braque had the right temperament for trench warfare..”

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Braque as Soldier in the trenches

However, Braque would not last a year in this war. After his regiment was transferred to the area around Vimy Ridge, and on May 11, 1915 Braque was caught up in an explosion of a shell and went down in no man’s land, where he lay unconscious until stretcher bearers found him. In the interval, he had been “left for dead,” and his family was informed of his death. His lover, Marcelle Lapré refused to accept what turned out to be a false report. Braque survived but was temporarily blind, a terrifying fate for a painter, and his skull had to be trepanned to relieve the pressure on his brain.  According to Danchev, “Braque, wounded in the head was awarded the Croix de Guerre, first with bronze star, then with palm, and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.” The a ward noted that Braque was“An officer full of drive, seriously wounded, leading his platoon with the greatest bravery in the assault n the German trenches.”

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Braque recovering from his wound

Over a two year period, Georges Braque had undergone a sea change. No one could serve in such a war, deep in the front lines, with responsibility for the lives of other human beings, sustain a wound that was almost a dead wound and emerge untouched. It was’t just that he could not paint while he was on active duty, it was a question of what to paint during and after the transition back to civilian life, back to normal. Perhaps because although the friendship with Picasso continued their partnership had broken off, Braque returned to painting, abandoning papier collé. Along with the other Cubist artists, especially the Salon artists, Braque created a recognizable signature Cubist “look.” With Kahnweiler marooned in Switzerland, Braque signed up with the dealer who had stepped forward to rescue the avant-garde artists, who were now marketable in the post-war era, Léonce Rosenberg. By selecting this dealer in 1916, the summer of his demobilization, he gave himself a cushion during his period of reconstruction. Later Braque would join Picasso in the stable of Paul Rosenberg in a more permeant situation, but he began to make tentative steps towards recovering himself as an artist.

Convalescing in Sourges, in Provence in the villa Bel-Air where he, in the summer of 1912, he and Picasso began experimenting with collage. Most accounts give Braque the credit for pasting papers and for passing along the idea to Picasso. In writing of this summer of experimentation, Jean-Pierre Jouffroy in La révolution de Braque et Picasso durant l’été 1912 à Sorgues stated,

Le papier collé – et surtout le papier peint ou imprimé – nous introduit, de force, dans un monde hétérogène. Avec aussi bien des plaisanteries comme ce bout de journal collé par Picasso dans sa Guitare, partition et verre, de novembre 1912, dans le bas de la composition, qui proclame “La bataille s’est engagée .” Picasso et Braque auraient pu se disputer l’antériorité s’ils avaient eu ce mauvais esprit. La nature morte à la chaise cannée, peinte sur un fac-similé de cannage imprimé, date de mai et de Paris. Les lettres au pochoir et l’usage du papier peint, c’est Braque. Cette préfiguration du cubisme synthétique, c’est œuvre commune.

But when Georges Braque returned to the villa in Sourges, he was alone, lacking his long time partner, and recovering from a war that had nearly ended his life. For months, he had not being able to make art, a lack in his life that was ultimately more terrifying than his temporary blindness. Demobilized and finally freed from military obligations, the question Braque faced was nothing less than the future of Cubism and his own future as a Cubist artist. The next post will discuss his return to painting.

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

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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