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18 September 2014
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Art from Different Fronts of World War One

By Roger Tolson
'Blood and Iron' by Charles Ernest Butler
'Blood and Iron' (1916) by Charles Ernest Butler, Imperial War Museum ©
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'Blood and Iron'
Detail from 'Blood and Iron' showing Kaiser Wilhelm leading his troops into action
Detail showing Kaiser Wilhelm at head of his troops ©
The painting is dated 1916, two years after the events it depicts. Kaiser Wilhelm, on horseback with the Angel of Death at his shoulder, turns aside from leading his troops into further action. The response of the man on the ground is defiant but emasculated and Christ, too, is neutered, limited to the role of offering succour. In the background, the Belgian town of Louvain burns.

The work shows no obvious hero to resolve the chaos and destruction. Instead it calls out to the viewer to step forward, to take on the challenge of what looks like an Arthurian quest, and to defeat the foe.

In this work Butler depicts the horrors of war, not as a pacifist statement but rather to encourage the recruitment of men to fight the evil of German aggression, personified in the Kaiser. Although this was neither a commissioned painting nor authorised in any respect, it carries a strongly populist message about the war. It is part of a body of work that described German atrocities with an almost pornographic relish, both in attempting to motivate people to resist aggression, and to justify the Allied war effort.

Detail showing the Belgian town of Louvain burning
Detail showing town of Louvain burning ©
The Louvain uprising
In 1886, the Prussian war strategist Count Otto von Bismarck, arguing for a strong military force to achieve German unification, said:
'This policy cannot succeed through speeches and shooting competitions and songs; it can succeed only through blood and iron.'

In 1914 Louvain was razed to the ground, in retribution for an uprising in Belgium against occupying German forces, and for the shooting of the German commander of the town. The painting seems to show the inevitable and desired result of Bismarck’s policy - demonstrating how the consequence of unification through military power leads necessarily to empire building driven by aggressive expansion and evil intent.

By 1916 the Western Front of World War One was dug in and efforts to break through opposition defences were hugely costly in terms of soldiers and armaments. The Somme offensive launched in July 1916 lost 58,000 British troops on the first day of a four month campaign.

The artist has mythologised and recreated historical events with the specific purpose of supporting the war effort at a difficult time. Pre-war British cabinet policy regarding Belgium did not appear to respect Belgian neutrality any more than German policy did, but this painting, along with numerous recruiting posters and popular prints, relentlessly exploits peoples' antipathy to the German invasion.

By harking back to an event at the start of the war, the painting diverts attention from the static reality of the Western Front in 1916 and the gross failure of the Allied initiatives to translate overwhelming superiority of resources into anything other than failed initiatives and staggering losses.

The artist
Little is known about Charles Ernest Butler, but one of his paintings is often reproduced. Painted in 1903, it is a highly idealised depiction of the young King Arthur in an inhospitable wasteland claiming the crown of England.

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