A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Captured on canvas, the moment when writers and artists went ‘over the top’

Artist John Nash not only painted the ordeals of Britain’s front line troops: he experienced them first-hand

When British troops went over the top at Welsh Ridge at Marcoing, near Cambrai, it was in some respects just another murderous, poorly planned attack, from which many did not return. But in one respect it was different: the artist John Nash was among the attackers.

Three months later, Nash commemorated the failed assault in his most famous painting, Over the Top. And nor, it turned out, was his the only creative vision that preserved that miserable morning for posterity. Two years after the end of the war, another survivor, RA Lee, saw Nash’s painting and was inspired to write his own eyewitness account of what happened that day to “B” Company of the 1st Battalion Artists’ Rifles.

The snow and bitterly cold weather had given the regiment a “somewhat trying spell in the front line”, and they were looking forward to a rest in the “less gruelling conditions” of the support line. Yet they had barely taken over the support line – in a captured part of the Germans’ Hindenburg Line – when, on 30 December 1917, they were ordered to “stand to”.

The Germans had taken advantage of the mist and attacked, capturing a series of the regiment’s positions. The Artists’ Rifles were ordered to counter-attack, with disastrous consequences. The exhausted soldiers made their way back to the front, but it was slow going through the frozen trenches, as they were forced to avoid the bodies of casualties and the heavy shelling.

“The move was so slow that my own Company (‘B’) only arrived in the front line at zero hour and had to jump out over the top immediately on arrival. This is what you can actually see in Nash’s picture,” Lee wrote. His platoon of 15 men walked through the mist judging the direction by the troops on their left. “At about 30 yards distant from the front line we walked into a machine gun barrage. On my left men were getting hit but on my right a handful of men were moving forward comparatively untouched.”

He edged to the right and, advancing 50 yards, came upon the barbed wire put up by the Germans.

“Beyond the wire, I could see the heads and shoulders of the German troops. They commenced to fire at us with their rifles and before we could get down they had caused us further casualties.”

Lee and the remaining three survivors from his platoon, two of whom were injured, took cover in a shell hole and fired on the Germans, which “possibly may have helped ‘A’ Company, who had got into the German line on our left and were bombing down the trench.”

The enemy gunners eased up around midday and, taking advantage of the lull, “B” Company Sergeant-Major HE Frank “joined us in our little post. He had a bullet wound in his arm, but otherwise was his usual cheerful self.” They waited until nightfall to contact Battalion headquarters and were withdrawn from the shell hole. In all, 80 “B” Company soldiers went over the top, and within minutes most were dead or wounded. Only 12 (including the wounded) survived.

Nash’s painting, part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection, shows the soldiers climbing out of a trench already littered with bodies and into a snowy field, shoulders hunched seemingly resigned to their fate.

The artist had been appointed an official war artist, and Over the Top is one of the few officially commissioned works depicting a specific and identifiable action from the war. The battle “profoundly affected the artist and his painting” one account said.

The work also shines light on the Artists’ Rifles Regiment, which was set up in 1860 as a rifle volunteer regiment to fight off the perceived threat of invasion by Napoleon III.

The founding fathers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, were among its first members. It continued to attract artists but by 1914 it was not exclusive.

The regiment played a crucial role during the Great War when it became an officer training corps. More than 14,000 recruits passed through the regiment during the conflict; a total of 2,003 recruits were killed and 3,250 were wounded or gassed. Eight from the regiment would receive the Victoria Cross and 52 received Distinguished Service Orders.

As well as John Nash and his brother Paul, other artists who served included Herbert Gunn, James Bateman and Frank Dobson. Another member of the regiment was Alfred Leete, who was responsible for the iconic recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener. Poets who served in the regiment during the conflict included Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen.

Earl French wrote that the regiment’s bravery during the First World War earned  it “the sobriquet of The Suicide Club. That perhaps is the highest honour that could be paid to them.” The regiment was disbanded in 1945 but was reformed two years later and became the 21st Special Air Service Regiment (Artists Rifles). (The apostrophe was dropped in 1930.)

Three Hampshire museums are now staging, in turn, the first major exhibition of work by artists who served with the Artists’ Rifles during the First World War. It includes Nash’s The Counter Attack, his study for the more famous  Over the Top – and forms a fitting memorial to the often forgotten sacrifice of Britain’s writers and artists.

tomorrow: Rationing begins in Britain

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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