Wyndham Lewis in the Great War

By January, Lewis had filled out a form declaring himself willing to serve his country: that is, he had “attested”. He tried pulling strings to gain a commission (he had been a public school boy, after all!), but one of the contacts, Maurice Bonham Carter, the private secretary and son-in-law of the PM Asquith, suggested that a job in the artillery would be easier to acquire. Lewis enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery. ‘What!” exclaimed Violet Asquith, “GARRISON artillery!!, my dear, safe as a church” (O’Keeffe, 177). He was soon promoted from Gunner to Bombardier (the artillery equivalent of a lance-corporal). It was hardly possible for him to forget the past, though, even had he wanted to. One day he was instructing his squad in one corner of a field, and the sergeant-major called him out to report to the adjutant.

I brought my heels together with a resounding spank, gave my rifle a well-deserved slap, and stood looking over the adjutant’s head: it was impossible for me to do otherwise; as he was the best part of a foot shorter than myself. I knew what was coming, or I thought I knew. My squad and its instructor were to held up to obloquy.

“Bombardier,” said the adjutant, “what is all this Futurism about?”

I blinked, but did not move.

“Are you serious when you call your picture Break of Day—Marengo? Or are you pulling the Public’s leg?” [The Daily Sketch that day had published a picture of this abstract oil painting.] […]

“No, sir,” I said. “Not the Public’s leg” (BB, 22).

Lewis regretted not holding out for a commission—at least until he discovered how devastating the first month of the Somme had been. However, his request for a commission was finally agreed; and he passed through Cadet School in Trowbridge, and on Christmas Day 1916 earned the right to wear the pip of a 2nd lieutenant.

NPG x6534,(Percy) Wyndham Lewis,by George Charles Beresford  He had his photograph taken early in 1917, and boarded the SS Viper on 24 May, bound for France. His artillery were stationed just four miles south-west of Ypres.  He wrote to his mother on 6 June, reassuring her (not very successfully) that “you need not be unduly anxious. Many more people are wounded than killed” (Letters, 88). The next day, 7 June, was the start of the Third Battle of Ypres. It began with the explosion of 19 enormous mines in tunnels under the German front line: an explosion felt in London. Soon Lewis was on the crest of the Messines Ridge. He wrote to Ezra Pound, “I have been particularly lucky in dropping into the midst of a very big attack” (O’Keefe, 186). By 24 June he was in hospital, suffering from trench fever. He rested in Dieppe, and then joined his battery again at Dunkirk. In October he had to spend some time writing letters of condolence; casualties included all but two of his detachment.

Lewis had a fine sense of the nightmarish yet also absurdist nature of warfare, particularly warfare in the modern age; perhaps the gunner was best placed to appreciate it.

A gunner does not fight. He merely shells and is shelled. He discharges a large metal cylinder, aiming by the means of a delicately-adjusted mechanism, to fall at a certain spot which he cannot see, in the hope that he may kill somebody he hopes is there. He himself suffers from the desire of the other, enemy, gunners, a long away away, to achieve the same object with respect to himself (BB, 125). […] It is “active service” all right. But it is not strictly speaking “fighting”. I have said that I am no friend of war, and I am not. What is more, I never discovered in myself any of those instincts that go to the making of the “perfect soldier”. When from above a front-line trench (at Passchendaele) I was “registering” batteries on what was left of a village, I was glad to think that none of the enemy were in it. As our shells fell, and I watched them through my field-glasses, it was a satisfaction to me to know (as we had been told) that it was only brick-and-mortar that was being “strafed”. By no means a soldierly reflection! I should add, perhaps, that of course this was particular to myself, and that many of my companions were, I am quite sure, the most blood-thirsty people, and determined to wash out Fritz’s sins in his own blood (BB, 128).

Lewis took part in the bombardment before “the battlefield, or battle-bog, of  Passchendaele”. It was there, he mused long afterwards that the German and British attitudes found their most perfect expression.

The preparations for Passchendaele were a poem in mud cum blood-and-thunder. The appetite of the Teuton for this odd game called war—in which a dum-dum bullet is a foul, but a gas-bomb is O.K.—and British “doggedness” in the gentle art of “muddling through”, when other nations misunderstand British kindliness and get tough, made a perfect combination. If the Germans and the English had not been there, all the others would long before that have run away and the war been over (BB, 151).

It was around this time that a low-flying plane tried to machine-gun him.

It was the first time any of us had met with this particular type of aeronautical caddishness. I even didn’t know they could do it. Now, of course, airmen think nothing of picking off shoppers in the streets of a city, or whisking past a window and spraying a woman with bullets in her bath. Tt is recognised as one of the most triumphant assertions of man’s mastery over his biped handicap. And we’re all very proud to think that our airmen can retaliate and pick off bipeds of discordant nationality. But at the time we all felt it was an uncalled-for interloping to say the least of it, on the part of a particularly vindictive type of flying Bosche (BB, 155-56).

He managed occasionally to escape briefly from the constant bombardments. Once he had dinner in Cassel, twenty miles from the front. He saw a familiar figure: the Irishman Major William Orpen, Official War Artist (knighted in 1918, and a Fellow of the Royal Academy in 1919). They had been contemporaries at the Slade, though they hardly saw eye to eye on anything. Nor did they this time: Orpen insisted that it (the Front) was all hell, and Lewis protested that it was more like Goya, Delacroix, and very El Greco (BB,170). The meeting probably gave Lewis the idea to apply for a post as war artist himself. He mused in Blasting and Bombardiering about his desire for a rather more comfortable position, even though it would men “deserting my companions in misfortune”. The artist Gaudier-Brzeska had died in the trenches. “Why should a Gaudier die, and a ‘Bloomsbury’ live?” Lewis thought that war was an absurdity, and an abomination, partly because it released the barbarian in man. That did not make him a pacifist.

The “Bloomsburies” were all doing war-work of “national importance”, down in some downy English country, under the wings of powerful pacifist friends; pruning trees, planting gooseberry bushes, and haymaking, doubtless in large sunbonnets. One at least of them, I will not name him [probably David Garnett], was disgustingly robust. All were of military age. All would have looked well in uniform (BB, 184).

In late 1917 Lewis was given compassionate leave to visit his mother, who was very ill. He took advantage of this at the very end of 1917 to make some connections. He had luncheon at Claridge’s, at the invitation of Lady Cunard, in an assembly that included the Prince of Wales, “inebriated viceroys”, and cabinet ministers: he was the only one in uniform. A story is told, which may or may not be true (it is told by Peter Quennell, and passed on by Meyers, 82) that he was “taciturn and pensive and self-absorbed”, and that as soon as they sat down he produced a small pearl-handled revolver, which he placed by the wine glasses. Lady Cunard detached herself from His Highness, admired Lewis’s “pretty little pistol”, exclaiming at its elegance, and then “with an absent-minded smile” dropping it into her hand-bag before returning to the prince. (Lewis himself, in Blasting and Bombardiering, talks about this occasion; he says it was a dinner, not a lunch, and does not mention the pistol.)

Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) was the Officer in Charge of Canadian War Records, and he was on the look-out for artists. An interview with Aitken was successful, and he was seconded to the Canadian Army for three months. Augustus John was recruited at around the same time, and given the temporary rank of Major (like Orpen). John was allowed, alone of army officers apart from the King, to keep his beard, which on more than one occasion caused soldiers to leap to their feet, mistaking him for the King. “Augustus John—every inch a King George—would solemnly touch his hat and pass on” (BB, 200).

Lewis’s first task was to paint a Canadian Gun Pit, on a twelve-foot wide canvas; it was such a huge task that his three months were extended by another four months. He would be paid £250 for this. At the same time he was commissioned by the Ministry of Information (who had commissioned Orpen) to paint a much smaller picture, for £300. The Canadian picture was finished by September 1918, and appeared in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Canadian pictures in January 1919. His own catalogue entry concluded “It is an experiment of the painter’s in a kind of painting not his own” (O’Keeffe, 209): he was much happier with some of his smaller paintings and drawings.

At around this time Lewis heard of his father’s death, in Philadelphia. Soon afterwards, his mother died too, “from the Great Epidemic that immediately succeeded the Great War” (BB, 211). Indeed, Lewis himself had been in the Military Hospital near the Euston Road in London for several weeks earlier in the year, with double pneumonia. His mother had brought him books. And now she was dead. “I was distracted at the time by this, the reader may believe me, and that event, for my mother was not an old woman, gave me a peculiar feeling about the Great War which I have not noticed in most War Books, because it had worn her down and killed her; and I swore a vendetta against these abominations” (BB, 211).

See Richard Cork, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 33 (2004). For much more detail, see Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). A less reliable biography is Jeffrey Meyers, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980). Wyndham Lewis’s own autobiography is arguably even less reliable, but it is certainly entertaining: Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1937; 2nd edition, Calder and Boyars, 1967), which I shall abbreviate as BB. There are some letters from the Front in The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, ed. W.K. Rose (London: Methuen, 1963)There is an interesting discussion of his attitude to war in Tom Norman, “Wyndham Lewis, the anti-war war artist”, in David Peters Corbett, ed., Wyndham Lewis and the Art of Modern War (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), 38-57.

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