Art of Nation: Mapping field sketches
The majority of the artworks included in ‘Art of Nation’ will be field sketches, pinned to the location they depict, so users will be able to follow the journeys of the First World War official war artists and explore the location ‘then and now’ in Google maps. Mapping the field sketches was fascinating; for some it was straightforward but for others in-depth detective work was required. George Benson, Frank Crozier, James Fraser Scott and Will Longstaff, all AIF artists, were my research subjects for this project. I reviewed the Memorial’s collection, and selected 25 works for each artist that provided a representative overview of their experiences as official war artists. The number of works was not a random choice; AIF artists were contracted to produce 25 sketches during their commission from the Australian War Records Section (AWRS), but most provided far more than they were required to produce.
The work of each artist presented different mapping challenges, and I will describe these in greater detail in upcoming blog posts. What was common, however, was the depiction of churches, and mapping these buildings was typically straightforward. During the First World War many villages on the Western Front were devastated by regular bombing. After the war, it was common for the villages to be restored to their pre-wartime appearance. Searching for churches simply involved locating the modern-day equivalent, which was possibly original, or more likely a partial or complete restoration. Churches reappear in Will Longstaff’s watercolour sketches and drawings that he created in France during his term as an official war artist in June to November 1918. Instead of battle scenes, Amiens Cathedral, Corbie Church and Bresle Church are often the focus of his imagery. Utilising street view in Google Maps enables a direct visual comparison between ‘then and now’ images of these sites.
Also straightforward to map was the town of Peronne, which is encircled by distinctive seventeenth-century ramparts. Peronne was a stronghold in the German defence of the surrounding area, blocking an Allied advance on the Hindenburg Line. Following an intensive series of operations, Australian troops successfully captured the nearby hill of Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918 and subsequently secured Peronne the very next day. James Fraser Scott made several sketches in Peronne, and it is illuminating to compare Scott’s The Citadel, Peronne (1918), with a Google street view of the area today. The structure of the ramparts largely remains the same while the surrounding landscape has transformed from wartime ruins in Scott’s scene, to a modern, urban town street scene. The Historial de la Grande Guerre, a museum addressing the First World War, is today housed in the ramparts.
The above examples required surface-level analysis; essentially Google Maps was consulted to locate a site that still exists. Other field sketches required greater research, especially locations on the front line which are completely different today. This led me to analyse First World War trench maps. Digitisation and online access to these historical resources greatly simplifies mapping. We are particularly indebted to McMaster University for their digital archive of First World War trench maps for this project.
One of James Fraser Scott’s watercolour sketches, End of day's rush, forward loading post, dated 23 August 1918, depicts a casualty clearing station of the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance. Beneath a cloudy, grey sky wounded soldiers are placed into ambulances. The ominous sky adds to the sombre mood of the task at hand; tending to the injured with little knowledge of the prospect of their recovery. Scott’s interest in this scene may have arisen from his own appreciation for the work of medical staff after he suffered a head wound in the field in September 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres, frequently known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
By referring to this unit’s war diary I discovered the coordinate ‘Q 26 C 7/7’ recorded against the entry for 23 August 1918. I also found ‘62D’ in the prior day’s entry. I opened map 62D, I narrowed my search to the 6,000 yard square Q, then the 1,000 yard square 26, followed by the 500 yard quarter sub-section square ‘c’. This square is further divided into 10 and the final element in the map reference ‘7/7’ is the easterly and northerly coordinates respectively. Counting 7 segments across from left to right along the lower border of square ‘c’, followed by 7 segments upwards, gave the exact location of Scott’s field sketch! It was then possible to plot the site by comparing geographical features on the trench map with an aerial view of the region in Google Earth.
Andrew Currey, Reference Officer of the Australian War Memorial, advised that the location 62D Q 26 C 7.7 started life as an Advanced Dressing Station, became a forward loading post and then a Main Dressing Station (MDS) over the next couple of days. The ‘forward loading post’ handled only stretcher cases (“lying wounded” as they were known) and quickly evacuated them to treatment. This may explain why there are only motor ambulances and stretcher cases depicted in Scott’s scene.
Equipped with the mapping methodology, I proceeded to plot additional field sketches in this manner where I could locate map references in relevant unit diaries and sources, although several sketches proved to be too generic to accurately plot a location. For example George Benson’s The Albert-Amiens Road (1918) simply depicts troops of the 7th Medium Trench Mortar Battery on the side of the Albert-Amiens Road. Supply wagons line the opposite side of the road and a sign warns "Drive slow to avoid raising dust". Lacking any further details, it was difficult to plot the exact location of the scene along the Albert-Amiens Road, which is approximately 30 kilometres in length. It was therefore a matter of plotting the sketch to the road at a point that provided a somewhat similar scene in Google street view.
Combining historical investigation with digital tools to map field sketches in the AWM’s collection has proven to be fascinating. It allows for the original work to be connected to the place where it was made, thereby deepening our appreciation of the context in which it was created, as well as prompting comparisons between ‘then and now’, which ‘Art of Nation’ users can explore in Google street view.