Ever since armies first gathered to conquer and defend, soldiers have practiced their art, honing their martial skills in preparation for war. In medieval Europe, the tournament jousts, while entertaining, served the more important function of preparing the riders for the charge with lance, shield, and sword, and many castles were equipped with tiltyards for practicing such drills.
In an age when the bow supplied the main projectile on the battlefield, most villages had their own archery butt or target range. As warfare became more formalized in the early modern period, some nations imposed training regimens on every able-bodied man. The Swedish armies of Gustavus Adolphus in the seventeenth century drilled meticulously in the art of marching, forming for battle, firing in ranks, and coordinating musket, pike, and lance into a unified fighting machine. They may have practiced for battlefield conditions, but the idea of staging a mock battle using soldiers from the same side, known as a sham fight, was still a century or two away.
For artists, soldiers and soldiering offered a certain attraction, and while the representation of actual battle was difficult to achieve, there were many opportunities to observe the military in pursuits that were more peaceful. For every battle scene that was painted, there were many more images created of soldiers drilling or off duty. With the development of “war games” in the eighteenth century, artists had the opportunity to convey an idea of warfare firsthand, albeit staged and controlled, without fear of being injured. Mock battles removed the threat of real violence, making it safe for artists to sketch the proceedings of soldiers going through the motions of combat.
The Prussian army of Frederick the Great carried out maneuvers whereby units “fought” against each other as intrigued civilians, writers, and artists watched all the while. Prussia created the standard by which other European armies—including the British, soon to be mired in the debacle of the American Revolution—measured themselves. At the same time, fear of invasion from France was very real. The British established a number of training camps in southern England to allow raw militia and regular troops to train for what seemed likely to be an inevitable clash.
Westminster Magazine reported on events at one such camp held at Coxheath, near Maidstone, Kent, during the summers of 1778 and 1779. By all accounts, this camp was on a massive scale, involving seventeen thousand troops as well as civilians, many representing the seven hundred retailers who had come from London to service the soldiers. The paper quoted a letter from an officer of militia in August 1778 to his friend: “We are frequently marched out in considerable bodies to the heaths or commons adjacent, escorted by the Artillery, where we go through the various movements, manoeuvres and firings of a field of battle. In these expeditions, let me assure you, there is much fatigue, and no little danger…the most grand and beautiful imitations of action are daily presented to us; and, believe me, the army in general are becoming enamoured of war, from the specimens they have seen of it.”
Watching the proceedings was the celebrated Alsatian-born artist and scene painter Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, who had had some successes staging theatrical pageants, reenacting real-life events. Using sketches made on site, the artist was able to create a simulation as a backdrop for a two-act entertainment written by the renowned playwright Richard Sheridan, The Camp, which premiered in October 1778 and was performed fifty-six times.
This brought increased attention to de Loutherbourg as well as an important commission, possibly from the king himself, to paint another military camp, this one at Warley Common, Essex. Warley, like Coxheath, attracted its share of celebrities, including travel writer and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was not present, however, when a grand review was held on October 19, 1778, before George III. The following day, the king proceeded to the common, where he reviewed the troops on horseback, while Queen Charlotte, seated on a specially constructed stand, observed a mock battle. The London Gazette described what happened next:
The line then went through their several firings, after which the light Infantry and grenadiers, with the artillery, marched immediately through the woods towards Little Warley (followed by the whole line in two columns,) where, as well as in the adjacent woods, several batteries were placed, and many manoeuvres of attack and defence were performed, with a continued fire of musquetry and cannon, to which the situation and variety of the ground were very favourable, and afforded much pleasure to the numerous spectators. The operations concluded shortly before 3 p.m.
De Loutherbourg was able to sketch fine pencil drawings of some of the scenes and to delineate members of the various participating units. No doubt he was privy to the complaints expressed by the soldiers that there was not enough food to go around. The fruits of his endeavors were displayed in two large oil paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779 and 1780, depicting the review of the 19th and the mock battle of October 20, respectively.
A century later the Prussians were achieving remarkable military success with their trilogy of victories over Denmark, Austria, and France in the wars of German unification between 1864 and 1871. Other nations took careful note and sent military attachés to observe the Germans training, so they could implement some of their methodologies. Again members of the British general staff were paying close attention, and as early as the fall of 1871, the British army conducted a number of maneuvers involving a variety of sham battles ranging over the heath lands of Surrey and Hampshire.
Viewing these exercises were foreign military observers along with a host of journalists, including the expatriate British military artist Orlando Norie. He had traveled from his home in Dunkirk, France, to record the activities for fine-art publisher Arthur Ackerman.
In the following year, the army held similar maneuvers, and again Norie was present. His pictures of the events went on exhibition at Ackerman’s at the beginning of 1873 and were described as:
A series of drawings of the highest interest and merit, representing the various manoeuvres of the several regiments, in mimic war, at Aldershot and places adjacent, during the autumns of the two past years. In number there are about a hundred; forty of which are finished drawings, some of large size, the remainder being sketches. They are the productions of Mr. Orlando Norie; it is not too much to say that military drawings so excellent have never been produced either in England or in France.
The postmortem into the failure of the French army in 1870-1871 revealed many shortfalls, and its general staff sought to make amends by developing new tactics. Surprisingly, the French artists began to take an increasing interest in their army’s role during the recent war—bordering on an obsession.
Frenchmen were painting numerous scenes of heroic stands and dramatic incidents, as well as quiet moments away from battle. Some have said that their artists won on canvas what the army failed to win in the field.
Side by side with the war scenes were other military pictures depicting army life, and reputable artists such as Edouard Detaille produced many images of training and maneuvers. From a young age Detaille had been exposed to military life, and he once stated, “I never missed a review, and during my holidays it was my delight to be present at the maneuvers of regiments, and to go to listen to the trumpets in the forest of St. German.”
In 1865, as an impressionable seventeen-year-old, Detaille witnessed the grand maneuvers at the camp of Châlons where, as he said, “I had the honor, and I was not a little proud of it, when talking to my comrades, of sleeping in the same tent with Colonel Corot of the Second Cuirassiers.”
Detaille himself had seen war firsthand as a soldier in the Garde Mobile during the Franco-Prussian War, and afterward was a sub-lieutenant in the reserve. As such, he took part in the grand maneuvers of the 3rd Army Corps on the plains of the Eure River around Dreux, and a number of his paintings and sketches of his experiences appeared in Les Grandes Manoeuvres, published in 1884.
By the twentieth century, maneuvers and war games were common training methods for simulating battlefield conditions, but the subject held little attraction for artists. This would change dramatically during World War II, when thousands of artists found themselves called up into the armed forces, especially in the United States. This was their first taste of military life, and many began to record their new experiences on paper. One such artist was Dwight Shepler, who later recorded the practice landings with live ammunition at Slapton Sands on the coast of Devon, England, in preparation for D-Day. But like most World War II artists, Shepler ended up in combat, and is best remembered for his dramatic depictions of real battles.
Peter Harrington is the curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island.
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.