War does not much discriminate as to its choice of victims. Military strategists have often targeted noncombatants as a means of forcing issues. But the effects of pre-1914 conflicts on civilians paled in comparison to the two world wars. During World War I, millions of civilians were caught in the fighting or were forced to flee their homes and were frequently victims of atrocities. Few artists in 1914 chose to highlight the plight of the civilian in that war, preferring instead to represent the soldiers, the fighting, and the battlefields. One exception was Gerald Spencer Pryse.
Pryse was a 33-year-old English artist who decided to see for himself the misery inflicted by the invading German armies on the populations of Belgium and France in the first bloody months of the war. Great Britain’s August 4, 1914, declaration of war on Germany found Pryse, a staunch Socialist, working as a respected free lance artist in London. Known for his posters created for the London Underground and the Labor Party, Pryse soon found his talents sought to create posters for various humanitarian relief agencies.
One of his first efforts to advertise the creation of the Belgian Relief Fund was Homeless and Helpless, an evocative depiction of weary women straining under large bundles as they trudge down a road. A child sleeps in a wheelbarrow that is being pushed by an unseen hand. Other civilians travel in a wagon near a soldier on horseback. The poster appeared in late August, by which time the artist was in France to see for himself the plight of the refugees. Pryse explained how he came to be on the continent this way:
Having realized that weeks might elapse before my services as a combatant in the field would be called for, I had actually waited a fortnight when the happy idea of running errands to fill in the gaps occurred to me. And at this juncture an invitation to lunch at Number 10 Downing Street seemed likely to help in the realization of my idea, as well as to quench a thirst for news no longer content with repeated assurances that the Montenegrin [sic] invasion of Hungary continued to make good progress.
Receiving official permission to go to France, he took a ferry to Boulogne in late August and proceeded to drive south. He was carrying an unusual load for someone traveling through a war zone: several heavy blocks of lithographic stones, his usual artistic surface. As one writer put it, Pryse “jeopardized his safety–and the springs of his 100 h.p. Mercedes–by carrying along the roads of our Allies a type of heavy baggage which, to the un initiated, must have suggested that he had been looting a cemetery.” Between August 28-31, Pryse was able to travel at will to Amiens, Compiegne, and south to Laon. Every so often he would halt the car, pull a heavy block of stone from under the seat, and commence to sketch the scene unfolding before his eyes. As the Allied troops trudged toward the front, their progress was hindered by the masses of civilians fleeing westward. A committed Socialist, Pryse took every opportunity to record his impressions of the war, particularly the suffering of the common people. At one place, he observed:
By degrees individuals could be distinguished–old men and women; young women and children; mothers nursing babies; a boy who sustained a crippled woman leaning heavily on his shoulder; and another wheeling a barrow top-heavy with a corded trunk. Close on the heels of a patriarch pushing a perambulator with an infant and a sewing machine inside, a bourgeois family trudged….Children bent beneath unreasonable loads, girls, and mothers; a sick man on a mattress mounted on a four-wheeled trolley, pushed along by a devoted family; a child carrying another almost as big as itself, but twisted with spinal trouble; after a wide interval, a solitary old woman, very grim and stark, staggering under two great bundles slung across her shoulders on a pole.
When he arrived in Amiens, Pryse found the ancient city throbbing with the sounds of soldiers and equipment. Walking around, he stepped aside just as an artillery limber thundered around a corner, the surge of people anxious to be out of danger upsetting cafe tables. Later, he recorded, a detachment of Territoriaux (Territorials) appeared, “shambling past with averted eyes as though ashamed to be seen. Some loyal soul tried to raise a cheer. From the back of the crowd there were catcalls and hisses.” He found soldiers and civilians inextricably mixed beneath the trees in a nearby boulevard where civilians were distributed by hundreds over the pavement, “packed into every alley and gap between the buildings, and even extended fast asleep along the fairway, so that our course had to be a zig-zag between.”
In front of the great Gothic cathedral crowds of shattered troops lay anywhere they could, having arrived in the city the previous night following a major setback at the front. According to the artist: “Many were wounded and some were dying; others were despairing and sinking with hunger, so dazed that they hardly knew what they were doing or where they were. At one end of the square officers were calling over the rolls of their platoons as they fell them in to march away.”
Pryse noted that no sooner had one detachment dragged itself off than its place was filled by another. Out of entire platoons of several dozen men, only two or three had survived or were able to answer to their names.
During the first week of September, Pryse moved into Belgium to observe the failing situation there. Arriving in Ostend, he went straight to the commandant to ask for a car to take him to Antwerp and was in formed that a small group was leaving the next day. Pryse decided to accompany it. The roads were crowded, and every crossroads was barricaded. He reached Antwerp just as the Germans were about to besiege the city. Their bombardment began on September 28. Shortly thereafter, Pryse obtained a commission as a dispatch rider for the Belgian government, allowing him to visit many parts of the front in Belgium and France, all the while committing to stone the vivid images that unfolded before his eyes. One writer commented that “An artist less sure of his methods would have contented himself with making rough notes on the spot, to be worked up comfortable, in his studio. The excitement of being frequently under fire, and of avoiding capture on one occasion only by a miracle, would hardly be considered conducive to the best results. But such conditions seem to help Spencer Pryse.”
Accompanying a French diplomat, Phillippe de Caramen Chimay, Pryse was armed with a bag of dispatches, a bottle of petrol, and a revolver. What had been sleepy little towns and villages a few months earlier were now scenes of frenzy, fear, and confusion. At Beveren, just east of Antwerp on the road to Ghent, Pryse walked over to the town plaza and chose a view in front of a large church where he sketched the scene before him. Numerous soldiers were gathered amid piles of stacked weapons and baggage, and he observed a little boy watching the scene with excitement. Once again, the artist used color very sparingly, in this case in the red tiles of the church steeple and the houses bordering the square for accent, although there is a tinge of blue on the uniform of a soldier who holds his bayoneted rifle as he peers out toward the observer.
Having passed through Ghent, Ecloo, and Bruges, Pryse and Chimay were back at Ostend, where the port was crowded with civilians and soldiers fleeing the advancing Germans. They found accommodation at the Hotel Majestic, and from the dining room window the artist could observe everything. But he was not alone. After the fall of Antwerp, the Belgian government, diplomatic corps, and military staffs had set up business in the same hotel. Amid this tension, excitement, and bustle, Pryse sketched on the stones with his wax lithographic crayons. One of his pictures depicted the embarkation of the Naval Division as the town was about to fall. The harbor was crammed with ships waiting to collect their human cargoes and take them to safety across the English Channel. In the image the orderly British troops gather alongside women and children on the quayside. Old men wearing bowler hats stand next to young women and girls, two of whom are dwarfed by the troops, while another smiles coyly at the viewer, her long hair framing her face. Fear and trepidation are visible in the expressions of the refugees, who have lost everything save for what they can carry. For them, safety is at hand. Many others were not so lucky.
The retreat of the Belgian armies and thousands of refugees provided Pryse with a wealth of material for his pictures. During his travels he saw a group of troops standing on a road beside one of the numerous wayside crucifixes that lined the roadsides in Belgium and France. In his lithograph, The Wayside Crucifix, the dis tant brown fields contrast with the blacks and grays of the uniforms. The intermixing of fleeing fugitives and soldiers was played out in another picture, one representing two girls being conveyed in an open wagon while a child lies asleep on one of their laps, unaware of the calamity unfolding all around. Pryse’s clever use of color creates a tension of the moment.
Eventually the march westward brought the artist back into France, where he was able to see something of the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. Pryse and Chimay were stopped more than a hundred times by sentries inquiring about their papers. They visited Rheims, and on their arrival at the River Aisne, the car was pressed into service as an ambulance to ferry some of the mounting French casualties to dressing stations. Many of the artist’s lithographs from this period focus on the work of the medical services. In a fine print showing the interior of a chateau on the Aisne in September 1914, a young nurse stands by an open door holding a basin while a man, presumably a doctor, kneels over a soldier lying on a stretcher. The expression of the medic and the closed eyes of the recumbent figure suggest that his efforts have been in vain. The ambulance that probably delivered the wounded soldier to the requisitioned chateau can be seen through the open door in the courtyard, highlighted with a touch of yellow to contrast against the stark blacks and grays of the interior and the overall gloom of the moment.
At a farmyard that had been hastily turned into a makeshift clearing station, Pryse saw ambulances emptying their battered and beaten human cargoes of stretcher-borne wounded and was inspired to preserve the scene. While some of the wounded are being carried into the farm buildings, other casualties litter the yard waiting their turn. One figure slumps while another offers solace to a recumbent victim. Two Belgian soldiers observe the harvest of war, helpless to stem the suffering. All is dark and gloomy save for the greenish tinge of the trees in the background, the red-tiled roof of the farm, and the Red Cross on the motor ambulance.
The roads of France were crammed with troops, many of them contingents of the British Expeditionary Force, which had been thrown into the fray in hopes of stemming the tide of General Alexander von Kluck’s German armies. Yet, while there is much confusion and terror accompanying war, there is also the necessary orderliness that comes with huge armies. Pryse depicted order and discipline under trying circumstances. In one image, a group of British cavalry bivouac on the side of a road during the fighting along the Aisne. The bandaged head of a trooper who tends his mount suggests that they have been in action. Two bicycle dispatch riders can be seen in the center, and an exhausted soldier falls down on the road to catch a moment of rest. In another representation, Sikh soldiers of the Indian army are riding or walking alongside their horses down a lane near Poper in ghe. The dead carcass of one creature lies in the adjacent field near a civilian who is watching the eerie martial procession. In the distance, two buses can be seen. Those same Indian soldiers are shown in another lithograph sitting around a campfire in nearby woods, their faces illuminated by the yellowish glow of the fire as one leans forward to warm his hands. The shadow of an adjacent chateau can be seen in the twilight of the background.
To the rear of Le Mans Cathedral, Pryse observed further orderliness as British troops carried supplies from vehicles. He made the following note:
On the road again at dawn we passed through Alencon into Le Mans, there to burst upon a refilling point in the British Supply Column with General Service wagons and lorries, motor buses from Clapham , the Elephant and Castle and West Hampstead packed together in the Place de la Cathedrale and Army Service Corps stores piled high.
In a lithograph of the scene, a collection of field guns is dwarfed by the imposing Gothic architecture of the medieval structure, whose glory is lost on the soldiers preoccupied with their duty. Elsewhere, in With the British in France, Pryse shows a British staff car in front of some French soldiers and civilians in a village as an officer in the back of the open-topped vehicle stands up as if to ask a soldier for directions. A battery of horse artillery casually rumbles by, the iron-shod wheels no doubt clattering on the cobblestones. With the British in France is a masterly piece full of dark, velvety shadows, extraordinarily rich. Later the artist observed the retreat of the Third Cavalry, a scene he recorded on lithographic stone as Retreat of the Third Calvary on Ypres. As the orderly lines of troopers move toward the viewer, a steady stream of horse-drawn ambulances snakes along in the opposite direction along the narrow lane, suggesting that another disaster has occurred. Sometime during this period, Pryse himself was wounded.
On the ship back to England, he could not escape the human misery. Having witnessed fugitives on land, he sketched a sequel in grays and browns that he called Fugitives at Sea. A group of women huddle on the covered deck of the ship. One stands looking over the choppy sea with an air of defiance as if to say that she will return. Her hand appears to grip a woman who is hunched over. To the right, a mother holds her sleeping child.
In a poster Pryse created for the Belgian Red Cross, The Stretcher-Bearers, women and children are depicting arriving in England surrounded by wounded soldiers and stretcher-bearers. The picture is simple but direct, and the artist’s usual paucity of color only adds to the melodrama, with the careful use of yellow to highlight the long braided hair of a young girl and the unruffled dress of the main figure, who has a look of despair as she stares out at the viewer. Behind her walks a soldier with his arm in a sling, the red of his hatband standing out like an island of color in a sea of black.
Back from France, nine of Pryse’s lithographs were published under the title The Autumn Campaign , 1914. Other lithographic stones upon which the artist had drawn had been completely spoiled when his car had served as an ambulance. Pryse next resumed his propaganda work, inspired by the suffering he had seen first hand, though also no doubt influenced by the anti-German rhetoric that was endemic in Britain. Various reports of atrocities, whether true or not, had a profound influence on his output. The plight of Belgium was at the forefront in everyone’s mind, and the propaganda merchants were eager for it to stay there.
The pictorial press and the poster industry welcomed any pictures representing the Germans as barbaric, and such a composition by Pryse titled Belgium, 1914 was published in an illustrated newspaper to solicit donations to aid Belgian refugees. Stunning in its simplicity but striking in its poignancy, it depicts a destitute woman sitting alone in a field holding the head of her dead husband in her lap. A burning house can be seen in the right distance, while German uhlans ride away on the left. The caption reads, “The sympathy of the British nation has gone out to the Belgians, who unlike the Germans, regard ‘Scraps of Paper’ as pledges of honor, and so have had to suffer grievous loss–the invasion of their land, the burning of their homes, their churches, their places of business, the death of soldiers and of civilians, pillage and looting, the pitiful lot of the destitute and the refugee….” In a variation of this image, also called Belgium, 1914, a tall, attractive young Belgian woman looks forlorn as she stands over a dead or dying soldier, symbolized by his ammunition belt, tended by a dark female figure who hunches over the casualty. Once again the artist includes the familiar motif of the burning house in the distance. Many artists used the representation of individual female figures to signify not only the suffering of “little Belgium” but also the fortitude with which the country was withstanding its mightier foe. Pryse used this theme continuously in his pictures from 1914. In many of his group scenes, he chose to highlight one figure, as he did in A Belgian Madonna, which shows a young woman whose expression conveys despair holding her infant child, who represents the future of the country. And in a glorious poster designed for the British Red Cross, a woman of rugged beauty, veiled in pale blue over a low-cut dress that falls off one shoulder, places a bandage around the head of a kneeling soldier in a devotional scene with obvious religious overtones.
In 1916, Pryse was commissioned a captain in the London Regiment’s Queen Victoria’s Rifles. He spent the last years of the war fighting on the Western Front with the Second Battalion. Pryse was mentioned in dispatches and received the Military Cross, the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and the French Croix de Guerre for his services. He did apply to the Foreign Office to become an official war artist, and while this was denied, in December 1917 he was successful in obtaining a license to make sketches of military subjects. In a letter written in July of that year accompanying some of his drawings, Pryse noted that “their value consists in their being an exact record of particular events, not embellished in any way.” He was wounded for a second time in the summer of 1918, and many of his watercolors were unfortunately lost during the German offensive. But others that survived were described by The Times as having “a freshness and authenticity that were not always apparent in the works of the official war artists.” Even after the war had ended, Gerald Spencer Pryse was concerned about the welfare of the returning soldiers and created a number of images showing their plight.
Pryse’s output of World War I lithographs was probably higher than that of any other artist. Working in an unofficial capacity, he was able to capture the suffering of the early months of the fighting, which lends a strong human appeal to his work. His prints and posters display the fullest range, depth, and variety of tone from highlight to darkest dark, and while he was sparing in his use of color, the blacks and grays of his lithographs proved to be the ideal way to convey the dark days of the summer and autumn of 1914, when all sense of color seemed to have deserted Europe. MHQ
PETER HARRINGTON is the curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue (Vol. 13, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Great War’s Human Plight
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!