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Contemporary sand sculpture rendition of the iconic Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia.


The years of warfare were the backdrop for art which is now preserved and displayed in such institutions as the Imperial War Museum in London, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Official war artists were commissioned by the British Ministry of Information and the authorities of other countries. After 1914, avant-garde artists began to consider and investigate many things that had once seemed unimaginable. As Marc Chagall later remarked, "The war was another plastic work that totally absorbed us, which reformed our forms, destroyed the lines, and gave a new look to the universe."[1] In this same period, academic and realist artists continued to produce new work. Traditional artists and their artwork developed side by side with the shock of the new as culture reinvented itself in relationships with new technologies.[2] Some artists responded positively to the changes wrought by war. C. R. W. Nevinson, associated with the Futurists, wrote that "This war will be a violent incentive to Futurism, for we believe there is no beauty except in strife, and no masterpiece without aggressiveness."[3] His fellow artist Walter Sickert wrote that Nevinson's painting 'La Mitrailleuse' (now in the Tate collection) 'will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting.'[4]

Pacifist artists also responded to the war in powerful ways: Mark Gertler's major painting, The Merry-Go-Round, was created in the midst of the war years and was described by D. H. Lawrence as "the best modern picture I have seen"[5] and depicts the war as a futile and mechanistic nightmare.[3]

The commissions related to the official war artists programmes insisted on the recording of scenes of war. This undermined confidence in progressive styles as commissioned artists conformed to official requirements. The inhumanity of destruction across Europe also led artists to question whether their own campaigns of destruction against tradition had not, in fact, also been inhuman. These tendencies encouraged many artists to "return to order" stylistically.[3] The Cubist vocabulary itself was adapted and modified by the Royal Navy during "the Great War." The Cubists aimed to revolutionize painting — and reinvented the art of camouflage on the way.[6]

Painting of Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, by Edward Wadsworth, 1919

British marine painter Norman Wilkinson invented the concept of "dazzle painting" -— a way of using stripes and disrupted lines to confuse the enemy about the speed and dimensions of a ship.[7] Wilkinson, then a lieutenant commander on Royal Navy patrol duty, implemented the precursor of "dazzle" on SS Industry; and in August 1917, the HMS Alsatian became the first Navy ship to be painted with a dazzle pattern. Solomon J. Solomon advised the British Army on camouflage. In December 1916 he established a camouflage school in Hyde Park[8] In 1920, he published a book on the subject, Strategic Camouflage.[9] Alan Beeton advanced the science of camouflage.[10]

An early influence of the War on artists in the United Kingdom was the recruiting campaign of 1914-1915. Around a hundred posters were commissioned from artists by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee of which two and a half million copies were distributed across the country. Private companies also sponsored recruitment posters: Remember Belgium, by the Belgian-born Frank Brangwyn and The Only Road for an Englishman by Gerald Spencer Pryse were two notable examples produced on behalf of the London Electric Railways. Although Brangwyn produced over 80 poster designs during the War, he was not an official war artist.[11] His grim poster of a Tommy bayoneting an enemy soldier (“Put Strength in the Final Blow: Buy War Bonds”) caused deep offence in both Britain and Germany. The Kaiser himself is said to have put a price on Brangwyn’s head after seeing the image.[12] Brangwyn states in 1917 that Will Dyson's cartoons were "an international asset to this present war." His exhibition of "War Satires" in 1915 was followed by him being appointed an Australian official war artist. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1915 was noted for the paucity and general poor quality of paintings on war themes, but The Fighting-Line from Ypres to the Sea by W. L. Wyllie was noted for its bold experimentation in showing a bird's-eye view of war from an aeroplane. George Clausen's symbolist allegory Renaissance was the most memorable painting of that 1915 exhibition, contrasting ruins and oppression with dignity and optimism.[13] When exhibited in the spring of 1916, Eric Kennington's portrayal of exhausted soldiers The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914[14] caused a sensation. Painted in reverse on glass, the painting was widely praised for its technical virtuosity, iconic colour scheme, and its ‘stately presentation of human endurance, of the quiet heroism of the rank and file’.[15] Kennington returned to the front in 1917 as an official war artist. The general failure of academic painting, in the form of the Royal Academy, to respond adequately to the challenges of representing the War was made clear by reaction to the 1916 Summer Exhibition. Although popular taste acclaimed Richard Jack's sentimental Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, 1916, the academicians and their followers were stuck in the imagery of past battle pictures of the Napoleonic and Crimean eras. Arrangements of soldiers, officers waving swords, and cavalrymen swaggering seemed outdated to those at home, and risible to those with experience of the front. A wounded New Zealander standing in front of a painting of a cavalry charge commented that "one man with a machine-gun would wipe all that lot out."[10]

It was therefore not to a painter of the academic style but to an artist in black-and-white that recourse was made when Charles Masterman, head of the British War Propaganda Bureau and acting on the advice of William Rothenstein, appointed Muirhead Bone as Britain's first official war artist in May 1916.[16] In April 1917 James McBey was appointed official artist for Egypt and Palestine, and William Orpen was similarly sent to France. Orpen's work was criticised for superficiality in the pursuit of perfectionism: "in the tremendous fun of painting he altogether forgot the ghastliness of war".[10]

The most popular painting in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1917 was Frank O. Salisbury's Boy 1st Class John Travers Cornwell V.C. depicting a youthful act of heroism. But of more artistic importance in 1917 was the establishment on 5 March of the Imperial War Museum and the foundation during the summer of the Canadian War Memorials Fund by Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere and significant work by Australian war artists.[10]

David Bomberg's experiences of mechanized slaughter and the death of his brother in the trenches - as well as those of his friend Isaac Rosenberg and his supporter T. E. Hulme - permanently destroyed his faith in the aesthetics of the machine age.[17] This can be seen most clearly in his commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, Sappers at Work (1918–1919): his first version of the painting was dismissed as a "futurist abortion" and was replaced by a second far more representational version.[18]

At the 1918 Royal Academy exhibition, Walter Bayes' monumental canvas The Underworld depicted figures sheltering in a Tube station during an air raid.[10] Its sprawling alien figures predate Henry Moore's studies of sheltering figures in the Tube during the Blitz of World War II.


Walter Richard Sickert's The Integrity of Belgium, painted in October 1914, was, when exhibited in Burlington House in January 1915 at an exhibition in aid of the Red Cross, recognised as the first oil painting exhibited of a battle incident in the Great War.[10]

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent's Gassed presents a classical frieze of soldiers being led from the battlefield -- alive, but changed forever by individual encounters with deadly hazard in war.

Among the great artists who tried to capture an essential element of war in painting was Society portraitist John Singer Sargent. In his large painting Gassed and in many watercolors, Sargent depicted scenes from the Great War.[19]

Wyndham Lewis

British painter Wyndham Lewis was appointed as an official war artist for both the Canadian and British governments, beginning work in December 1917 after Lewis' participation in the Third Battle of Ypres. For the Canadians he painted A Canadian Gun-Pit (1918, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) from sketches made on Vimy Ridge. For the British he painted one of his best known works, A Battery Shelled (1919, Imperial War Museum)(see [1]), drawing on his own experience in charge of a 6-inch howitzer at Ypres. Lewis exhibited his war drawings and some other paintings of the war in an exhibition, "Guns", in 1918.

Alfred Munnings

An unlikely war artist was Sir Alfred Munnings, who is best known as a painter of purebred racehorses; but he turned his painter's skills to the task of capturing images of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the war.[20] His mounted portrait of General Jack Seely (later Lord Mottistone) on his charger Warrior achieved acclaim.[21] Forty-five of his canvasses were exhibited at the "Canadian War Records Exhibition" at the Royal Academy,[22] including Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron at Moreuil Wood in March 1918. Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew of Lord Strathcona's Horse cavalry, was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the attack.[23] Less well known are paintings which feature teams of work-horses in the staging areas behind the front lines with the Canadian Forestry Corps.[24] The artist later recalled these days in his autobiography:

My next move was unexpected and unlooked-for. Amongst the officers who came to have a look, as the news spread that my pictures were to be seen on the walls of ... [headquarters] ..., there were two colonels, both in the Canadian Forestry Corps ... persuading me that I must go with them and see the companies of Canadian Forestry who were then working in the many beautiful forests of France ....[25]
The forest of Conche in Normandy was my first experience of painting with the Forestry. Then came the area of the forest of Dreux, one of the finest in France, taking up fifteen square miles of ground... Each company had a hundred and twenty horses, all half-bred Percheron types, mostly blacks and greys. A rivalry existed between the companies as to which had the best-conditioned teams. I painted pictures of these teams at work, pictures of men axing, sawing down trees...[25]

John Nash


Over The Top, 1918, oil on canvas, by John Nash, Imperial War Museum.

British painter John Nash believed that "the artist's main business is to train his eye to see, then to probe, and then to train his hand to work in sympathy with his eye."[26] The artist's most celebrated war painting is Over the Top (oil on canvas, 79.4 x 107.3 cm), now hanging in the Imperial War Museum, London. In this painting, the artist presents an image of the 30 December 1917 Welsh Ridge counter-attack, during which the 1st Battalion Artists Rifles (28th London Regiment) left their trenches and pushed towards Marcoing near Cambrai. Of the eighty men, sixty-eight were killed or wounded during the first few minutes.[27] Nash himself was one of the twelve spared by the shellfire in the charge depicted in the painting. He created this artwork three months later.[27] The war artist crafted a chilling, harsh, vivid image. The painting offers a narrative of men moving forward despite the likelihood of not coming back alive:

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.[28]

Nash's scene of devastation in We Are Making a New World used the destruction of the countryside as a bitterly ironic comment on war.[3]

Arthur Streeton

Portrait of Arthur Streeton (1917) by George Lambert.

"Amiens, the key to the west" by Arthur Streeton, 1918.

Australian painter Arthur Streeton was an Australian Official War Artist with the Australian Imperial Force, holding the rank of lieutenant. He served in France attached to the 2nd Division.

Streeton brought something of the antipodes Heidelberg school sensibility to his paintings of an ANZAC battlefield in France. Streeton's most famous war painting, Amiens the key of the west shows the Amiens countryside with dirty plumes of battlefield smoke staining the horizon, which becomes a subtle image of war.

As a war artist, Streeton continued to deal in landscapes and his works have been criticised for failing to concentrate on the fighting soldiers. Streeton aimed to produce "military still life", capturing the everyday moments of the war. Streeton observed that, "True pictures of battlefields are very quiet looking things. There's nothing much to be seen, everybody and thing is hidden and camouflaged."


Charles Webb Gilbert

The casting of the figure atop the memorial at Mont St. Quentin memorial -- Charles Gilbert's studio in, Fitzroy, Victoria.

The Mont St. Quentin memorial (c. 1925) commemorates the men of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and their contribution in the battle which was fought in this area.

This heroic sculpture was designed as a part of the Mont St. Quentin Memorial which was dedicated in the mid-1920s at Mont St. Quentin, France. The original memorial to the men of the 2nd Australian Division features an heroic bronze statue of an Australian soldier bayoneting a German eagle.[29]

A bronze plaque on the pedestal of the monument reads: 'To the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 2nd Australian Division who fought in France and Belgium in the Great War 1916, 1917, 1918.' The statue on top of the memorial and the bas reliefs on its sides, which were sculpted respectively by Lieutenant Charles Web Gilbert and May Butler-George, were removed by the occupying German Army in 1940. They were later replaced with a new statue and new reliefs.[29]


Iconic memorials created after the war are designed as symbols of remembrance and as carefully contrived works of art.

In London, the Guards Memorial was designed by the sculptor Gilbert Ledward in 1923-26. The edifice was erected on Horse Guards Parade and dedicated to the five Foot Guards regiments of World War I. The bronze figures were cast from guns from the Great War, commemorating the First Battle of Ypres and other battles.[30]


World War I has been the subject of numerous novels; by far the most well-known is Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which presented a bleak view of the war from the German perspective.

The war was also the subject of well-known poetry, most notably by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both of whom served in the war (as did Remarque). Another notable poem is "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian soldier John McCrae, who also served in the war; it led to the use of the remembrance poppy as a symbol for soldiers who have died in war.


Plays set during World War I include:

  • Journey's End (1928), by R. C. Sherriff
  • Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963), by Joan Littlewood
  • The Accrington Pals (1982), by Peter Whelan
  • Not About Heroes (1982), by Stephen MacDonald
  • My Boy Jack (1997), by David Haig
  • War Horse (2007), by Nick Stafford

Operas set during World War I include:

  • Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Richard Strauss
  • Wozzeck (1925), Alban Berg


Over 100 films have been set, in whole or in part, in World War I. Among the most notable are:

  • The Big Parade (1925) - an American soldier in France experiences both tragedy and love
  • Wings (1927) - shows the relationship between two American World War I fighter pilots
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - a group of German high school students join the army, but meet tragic fates during the war
  • A Farewell to Arms (1932) - a tragic love story between an American ambulance driver in the Italian army and a Red Cross nurse
  • La Grande Illusion (1937) - a group of French prisoners of war plot an escape
  • Sergeant York (1940) - a biography of Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I
  • The African Queen (1951) - a Canadian boat captain and a female British missionary attempt to evade German forces in German East Africa
  • Paths of Glory (1957) - a group of French soldiers are court-martialed for cowardice
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - the adventures of T. E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule in present-day Egypt and Syria
  • The Blue Max (1966) - an ambitious German Army Air Service fighter pilot seeks the aerial engagements to earn the German Empire's top military award, based on Jack D. Hunter's novel.
  • Johnny Got His Gun (1971) - an American soldier is rendered immobile after being hit by an artillery shell
  • Gallipoli (1981) - several men from rural Western Australia take part in the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey
  • War Horse (2011) - a teenage boy whose horse is conscripted for the war joins the British army in order to reunite with it
  • 1917 (2019) - Two Lance Corporals are ordered to cross No Man's Land (which the Germans had abandoned to form the Hindenberg Line) to reach the Second Devons in order to call off a planned assault which in actuality is an artillery trap.


There have been several television series and miniseries set during World War I.

The fourth series of the 1971-75 British television drama Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired in 1974, was set during the years of World War I, and showed the war's effects from the perspective of a townhouse in London.

The 1985 Australian miniseries Anzacs was about members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I.

Blackadder Goes Forth, the fourth and final series of the British sitcom Blackadder, which aired in 1989, presented a satirical view of the war and the British military.

My Boy Jack was a 2007 television film, adapted from the play of the same name, about Rudyard Kipling's son, who fought and died in France.[31][32]

The second series of the British television drama Downton Abbey, which aired in 2011, showed the effects of the war mostly from the perspective of the title estate.

Passchendaele is a 2008 Canadian war film, written, co-produced, directed by, and starring Paul Gross.

Popular songs

  • "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" (1967), song by The Zombies
  • "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" (1972), song by Eric Bogle
  • "No Man's Land" (also known as The Green Fields of France and Willie McBride) (1976), song by Eric Bogle
  • "Christmas in the Trenches" (1984) by John McCutcheon
  • "Children's Crusade" (1985), song by Sting
  • "All Together Now" (1990), song by The Farm
  • "1916" (1991), song by Motörhead
  • "Paschendale" (2003), song by Iron Maiden


There have been comparably few games set during World War I. Many of those that have been made focused on the air war, such as Sopwith from 1984. However, NecroVision is one of the few first person shooters games set in World War I, where the player fights on known battlefields during the war, such as the Somme. Call of Duty: Black Ops II's final DLC pack will feature origins, a zombie map that is set in a dieselpunk France during World War I.


  1. Cohen, Aaron J. (2008). Imagining the Unimaginable: World War, Modern Art, and the Politics of Public Culture in Russia, 1914-1917, abstract.
  2. Hughes, Robert. (1981). The Shock of the New, p. 15.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 British Art Since 1900, Frances Spaulding, 1986 ISBN 0-500-20204-4
  4. Sickert, The Burlington Magazine, September/October 1916.
  5. (Letters, 9 October 1916)
  6. Glover, Michael. "Now you see it... Now you don't," The Times. March 10, 2007.
  7. Fisher, Mark. "Secret history: how surrealism can win a war," The Times. January 8, 2006.
  8. Rankin 2008, p. 181.
  9. Rankin 2008, p. 232.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 The Influence of the War on art, Frank Rutter, in The Great War, ed. H.W. Wilson & J.A. Hammerton, London 1919
  11. Libby Horner, Frank Brangwyn. A Mission to Decorate Life, The Fine Art Society & Liss Fine Art, p137
  12. MacIntyre, Ben (8 November 2008). "The power of war posters". The Times. London. Retrieved 2 May 2010. 
  13. The Influence of the War on art, Frank Rutter, in The Great War, ed. H.W. Wilson & J.A. Hammerton, London 1919
  15. Paul Gough (2010) ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War (Sansom and Company) p.20.
  16. Vale Royal Borough Council. (2005). "Whitegate Conservation Area Update," p. 11.
  17. Hubbard, Sue (2006-09-04). "Back in the frame". The Independent. Find Articles at Retrieved 2008-01-19. [dead link]
  18. Raynor, Vivien (1988-09-25). "A Neglected British Genius". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-20. 
  19. Little, Carl. (1998). The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, p. 135
  20. Norfolk Museums: Watering Horses, Canadian Troops in France, 1917; Art Gallery of new South Wales: A Canadian Soldier
  21. Scott, Brough. "The mighty Warrior, who led one of history's last-ever cavalry charges," The Telegraph (London). March 23, 2008.
  22. Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum: the artist
  23. Canadian War Museum: Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron; Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Gordon Flowerdew
  24. Peter Nahum, Leicester Galleries: Archive: Draft Horses, Lumber Mill in the Forest of Dreux; Canadian War Museum: Moving the Truck Another Yard
  25. 25.0 25.1 Munnings, Alfred. (1950). An Artist's Life, pp. 313-315.
  26. Victorian and Albert Museum: "A John Nash Walk"
  27. 27.0 27.1 Gregory, Barry. (2006). A History of the Artists Rifles 1859-1947, p. 176.
  28. Art of the First World War: citing Barbusse, Henri. (1916). Le feu (Fire). Paris: Flammarion.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Australian War Memorial: Image number P02205.011, caption.
  30. UK Ministry of Defence: Guards Memorial
  31. "My Boy Jack". PBS. April 20, 2008. 
  32. Bellafante, Ginia. "A Different Kind of Kipling Adventure," New York Times. April 18, 2008.


The World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. shows the effects of the passing years.

External links

See also

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