7 1/8 x 10 in
Abbott & Holder, London
Private Collection, by descent
Andrew Causey, Paul Nash, 1980, Clarendon Press, cat. no. 162, p. 361
Having served three years on the home front as a Lieutenant with the Artists Rifles Regiment, Paul Nash was sent to the Western Front in France as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment in early March 1917. On the 25th May 1917, whilst sketching on a parapet, Nash tripped in the darkness and fell into a trench, breaking his ribs and was invalided home. Mere days later, his regiment was decimated under an enemy barrage during a futile forward push. As a result of the success of his June 1917 exhibition of watercolours he produced whilst a serving officer at the Front, Nash was recruited by the Ministry of Information. In October, Nash returned to the Front as an Official War Artist, visiting Passchendaele, where the terrain was reduced to a no-man’s land. Aghast at the obliteration of nature all around him, he transformed his Romantic landscape style and became committed to an outright condemnation of war. ‘It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless’, he told his future wife Margaret in 1917. ‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.’
Nash’s official war works were well-received by critics after his exhibition in May 1918 in the Leicester Galleries entitled ‘Void of War’. “In his pictures he is usually a romantic artist with a very definite convention,” wrote the critic for The Times, but “in these works his romance has turned to irony: ‘This is a beautiful and wonderful world, he seems to say; and see what man has made of it.’ See also how even man’s insanity cannot rob the tortured and battered earth of its beauty. In many of his drawings he has been struck by the strange, unaccountable beauty of the meaningless shapes of things so tortured and battered. You feel that it has been seen with frightened eyes, eyes frightened at the inhumanity of it. It is waste – the waste of worlds, of ages, which look as if it had been made by some indifferent will of Nature. And then we remember that it has been made by man in his babyish will to power. That is the effect these drawings have on us. They, like all good drawings of the war, might be used in the propaganda for a league of peace.”
Whilst at the Front, Nash worked feverishly, putting himself in extreme danger according to the memoirs of his wife Margaret. His determination to sketch, draw or paint within close proximity to the actual action of war resulted in mud splattering some of his works on paper. These works, created in the heat of battle, imbued with the terrified vitality of fear, anger and anguish were furiously captured in pencil or chalks, and frequently later worked up with pen, pencil and watercolour. He wrote to his wife: “I found the only way to work here was in rapid sketches”. 'Battlefield’ was part of a sketchpad that Nash worked on whilst in the trenches, as can be seen by the perforated edges where the page was torn from the pad, and as such this painting is an extraordinary piece of artistic history.
It would seem likely that Nash first sketched ‘Battlefield’ whilst in the action of the trenches, overlaying the pencil with his graphic applications of black ink. In pristine condition, the clarity and boldness of Nash’s vision of No Man’s Land strikingly transports us to the horror of the scene to which Nash bore witness. The churned landscape has become a sea of mud, with one lone tree remaining, its decapitated trunk topped by Nash’s idiomatic spikes. Three crosses mark the muddy, and far from peaceful, graves of unknown and innumerable soldiers of any nationality. In the background, the silhouette of a bombed-out village rises above the rolling waves of mud. Hatched lines in the sky perhaps suggest ominous clouds skating overhead. With economy of line and immense restraint, Nash conveys with forceful immediacy the devastation wreaked upon the landscape around the Western Front and, by implication of the village and the crosses, upon civilians and soldiers alike.