As the First World War commemorations continue it seems that every week a new photograph or print surfaces from a dusty suitcase in a cluttered attic which originally belonged to grandad. Each one of these new discoveries helps us all to fill in the picture of a war that no-one left alive can comprehend. The difficulty with many of the First World War photographs is that they were staged and therefore have a certain falseness about them. I am thinking in particular of the photographs taken by Charles Hilton DeWitt, an official war photographer, many supposedly showing soldiers in the attack.
For immediacy photographs are hard to beat, but the black and white faces that stare at us across a hundred years often fail to portray the sense of humour and mischief that most, if not all, soldier’s share, which makes their service far more tolerable.
The item that concerns us in today’s blog is very far from those somewhat stern faces, and in many ways could not be more irreverent. Entitled Sketches: Memorised from Recollections of the Great War 1914-1918 it is the favourite museum object of Derek Bowes, a volunteer researcher with the Black Watch Archive, who describes it as follows:
“Subversive, irreverent, a bit cheeky, though at times over sentimental. This slim book of hand drawn and water-coloured cartoons and sketches provides a left field view of the war from an ordinary soldier’s perspective.
Although the style and artwork is not National Gallery standard it would qualify as trench art, or as a series of satirical cartoons in Private Eye.
What does get you is the minor details, the incidental things that he, the artist, took as normal. To modern eyes they are somewhat grotesque or disturbing but it does let us peek into another and now rapidly fading world.”