No, Remembrance Sunday does not glorify war; it never has, and never will. Yes, you would be right to say that the symbol of the poppy has its roots in the patriotic rhetoric that gave us colonial conflicts. They originated from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, which was picked up as an Empire propaganda piece, with one of the flower’s original proponents being the infamous Douglas Haig, the field marshal who ordered so many out of the trenches and to their deaths. But, with time the poppy has formed into something different, something more saddening and reflective, not joyous or boastful. The sombre minute of silence we all sit through is not a celebratory occasion. None of us think to ourselves, ‘war was good’; instead, we think of the horrors and the people that bravely faced them. In fact, nothing shows us these melancholy feelings more than the art of the time; which, when painted through the experiences of an artist, depict the true reality of these conflicts. This article will show us a few commissioned by the time’s Ministry of Information; which, rather than glorifying the war, show us its horrors.
Completed by Sargent in 1919, Gassed is a large oil painting depicting the horrid aftermath of mustard gas attacks during the first world war. At the canvas’ center we see a procession of blinded soldiers holding each others’ shoulders as they are moved along by a medical orderly. A similar group can be seen behind them, and all around the two are the injured bodies of yet more men, bundled together in a mess of bandages and dried blood. Special attention should be paid to the men’s dependant connection on one another through their turmoil, and also their football playing comrades in the distance, whose games heavily contrast with the foreground suffering.
Finished in 1919 by Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled portrays a scene from the Western Front, where homogeneous, stylised soldiers worked amongst the craters of a bombed out trench. Smoke rises above them in jagged columns as a group of three officers look down upon them with serious, nonchalant expressions. There is something to be said of the difference here between the officers on the soldiers; the former are detailed, human, more important, whilst the latter are contorted, similar and lacking features. Rather than glorifying war, this painting shows us the monotony of the average soldier’s suffering, and the labour they must take in the view of an unconcerned warring elite.
This last piece, which was completed in 1918 by John Nash, depicts an attack in Northern France in 1917 in which the soldiers have been pushed “over the top”. The artist took inspiration from his own experiences of trench warfare, and the terror of it can be seen in this sombre, wintry image, where the troops move eastward almost unwillingly with their fellow soldiers lying dead around them. In Nash’s own experience of the battle, 68 of the 80 men sent into no-man’s land were killed or wounded by shell-fire in just a couple of minutes. Keep this in mind when looking at the painting, for most of the men you see will die in those frozen fields. Here Nash shows us what war really is: cold, inglorious death. Nothing in this image speaks to glory of any kind.
There are many more paintings, or stories, or poems that I could show you which depict the truths of war. Delve into them, perhaps visit the Imperial War Museum (which houses many works such as these), and keep it all in mind for Remembrance Sunday. If you see the war through the eyes of those who suffered from it you will surely never forget, or ever stop appreciating, their struggle.