John Nash Oil on Canvas 1918
Eighty men went over the top on December 30, 1917. Sixty eight were killed or wounded in the first minutes. They were the Artists Rifles, the 1st Battalion, and this was the Welsh Ridge counter-attack. This was the Great War.
The Artists Rifles were formed in the 1860s as a volunteer group after the Crimean War. They were made up of painters, poets, architects, engravers, musicians, actors, and artists of all types. Many of Britain’s greatest (and some of my favorite) artists served with them, including William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, John William Waterhouse, and the list literally goes on through the thousands. These earliest volunteers had something else in common, they were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Before they were brothers in arms, they were brothers in art.
On this day, they were given the order to leave their trench and make their way to Marcoing near Cambrai. John Nash was among the 12 men that made it to their destination. Three months later he painted this oil painting. It hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. In 1918 he became an official war artist.
Over the Top is important historically because it is one of the few officially commissioned pieces that show a specific action during the war. It must have been both therapeutic and heart wrenching to paint this piece only three months after watching most of his division meet their fates. In the trenches you see two men already down, another in the snow in the foreground and one in the far background. You only see the feet of the soldier closes to the viewer, but they appear to be down as well. Another soldier kneels, head down, his helmet on the ground in front of him. Next to him is a soldier slumped forward, head in the snow.
The men that are walking are hunched, shoulders in, trudging through the snow. One thing I find interesting is none are holding up their weapons, they’re just carrying them. They were exiting the trench at an order to advance, but judging by the bodies around them, they must have seen action in the relatively recent past.
After the war, Nash mostly worked on landscapes, but the war never seemed to leave his paintings. There seemed to continue to be a sort of spindly, dreary feel to them, like the painting below. The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble was painted in 1922.
During World War I, 10,256 officers were commissioned after training with the Artists Rifles. The regiment has been part of multiple engagements, including the Boer War, World War I and II, the Malayan Emergency, and even Afghanistan.
To see a list of some of the artists and examples of their work, click here: Artist Rifles Members.
To read an interesting article from the Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen, click here: Telegraph
To read another article from the Telegraph about how Nash became a war artist, click here: War artist