EXHIBITED: RA, Camouflage Exhibition, 1919, no 145
PROVENANCE: Maas Gallery
This evocative painting depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Hill 70, between the Canadian Corps and five divisions of the German Sixth Army in August 1917. It was a bloody and inconclusive fight, in which both sides used poison gas, initiated to draw German troops away from the main fight at Ypres. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers, and one to a Ukrainian serving with them. Nearly 10,000 Canadians were lost in the battle.
British artists commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau to paint the Great War found that massive battles seemed to defy dramatic representation and instead looked for new ways of depicting them that avoided conventional narrative. The most popular was paint the apocalyptic aftermath of the action, relying for effect on the memory of those who were there and the imagination of those who were not. There are many paintings of the battlefields around Lens in the Imperial War Museum in London. The mud is a particular light colour because of chalk in the ground.
Van der Weyden exhibited this painting in the Camouflage Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1919. He joined the British Army at the advanced age of 46, serving with the Royal Engineers as Camouflage Officer (an art that the Allies learned belatedly from the Germans). Both his sons joined up with him. One of them was awarded the Military Cross in 1918. There are two watercolour studies in the Imperial War Museum for the painting, one inscribed ‘Chicory Trench, N. of Lens 1918’, the other dated 1919. Both are close to the finished painting.