In December 1914, four months after Britain had declared war on Germany, Gill suspended his scholarship at the British School of Rome to volunteer for the Royal Garrison Artillery and by October 1915, he had been sent to the front in France as a Second Lieutenant of the 17th Heavy Battery. In 1916 he was seconded to the Royal Engineers to work as
a camouflage officer before being invalided out with severe gas poisoning in April 1918. After spending several months convalescing at the Hospital for Officers on the Isle of Wight, Gill was appointed an Official War Artist to the Ministry of Information. While the few extant letters that Gill sent to his sister Marjory from the front only hint at the hardships that he endured, his later war pictures are evidence that he had in fact witnessed the horrors associated with active service. Heavy Artillery, 1919, was one of a series of paintings commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee as part of a scheme to build a Hall of Remembrance.
This portrait is a study for the The Forward Observing Officer, who is shown signalling away from the battery, in the top right-hand corner of the composition. The picture, which has as its subject a view of a heavy artillery position, depicts the impact of industrialised warfare; the imposing, camouflaged 9.2 Howitzers, the scattered sheets of corrugated iron, and the ruined village and bomb-damaged walls are set within a war-torn landscape, like the one Gill had witnessed on his return to the front at Mons in November 1918, hours after it had been retaken by the Allies at the end of hostilities: ‘desolate and encumbered with the debris of battle’. The broken roadside Calvary, which has been overturned by a shell-explosion, is a metaphor for the fallen soldier, a theme explored by Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, 1918. When the painting was exhibited at an an ‘Exhibition of the Nation’s War Pictures at Burlington House, (December 12, 1919-February 7, 1920), the critic P. G. Konody described it as ‘a Paolo Uccello with Howitzers’ and ‘a decorative scheme of massive design, elaborate but not confused, rich and sober at once in colour’. He found it fortunate that Gill, ‘who has already gained the Prix de Rome, was given this great opportunity at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career’.