Document 1

Historical landmarks/chronological landmarks

On July 10th, 1917, the third Battle of Ypres had not yet started but both sides were preparing for it.

In fact the Ypres Salient was at the heart of one of the bloodiest sectors of the western front during the First World War. It is estimated that 500,000 soldiers died here between October 1914 and October 1918.

During the first Battle of Ypres (17 October-22 November 1914) the French and the British were struggling to prevent the Germans from breaking through the Allied lines and reaching the North Sea ports. The Germans launched the first ever gas attack in history during the second Battle of Ypres (22 April-24 May 1915). In French, mustard gas is called “ypérite”, referring to this horrific event. But the English term for it was coined due to its yellow colour.

The third Battle of Ypres (21 July-10 November 1917) started with a major British attack. During this event, which is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, the biggest losses occurred.

The artist

Jean-Louis Lefort, a former Fine Arts’ student from Bordeaux, had been drafted as a soldier during the Great War. He is one of the few artists to have left such a complete testimonial of daily life on the frontline (600 to 700 watercolours). He painted his first watercolour in Artois, where he was stationed in December 1914. He spent the summer of 1917 in Belgian Flanders where he painted the watercolour of July 10th, 1917. 

Jean Lefort merely recorded "what he saw, as he saw it, in the places where he saw it, from day to day. This wartime work’s significance is the outcome of Lefort’s absolute sincerity." Source: according to an article by Jean RENÉ, the Curator of the War Museum , published in Revue d’histoire de la guerre mondiale - Société de l’histoire de la guerre – 1924

Art during the Great War

In 1914 artists were also drafted and confronted with the horrors of life on the frontline. During their mobilization many of these artists continued to draw resulting in a significant artistic output. These wartime works are mainly drawings, sketches and watercolours. Few of them reflect the true destructive force of the new weapons, the ferocity of the confrontations... Instead they focus on the daily lives of the soldiers. 

How can we explain this? Soldiers on the frontline mainly considered drawings as a way of escaping from a sordid reality. The painters that were officially appointed by the army tended to focus on a more traditional view of the army. And like all the other soldiers, these painter-soldiers were censored. The exhibitions of Vuillard (1868-1940) or Steinlein (1859-1923) for example were supervised by the military authorities. Photography became more dominant showcasing the consequences of the violence in illustrated magazines.

Large formats were only created much later. Otto Dix created his War triptych in 1929-32.

Document 2

The British in Pas-de-Calais

There were numerous British logistical bases on the coastline of Pas-de-Calais. In the spring of 1916 the British High Command left Saint-Omer, where it had been located since 1914, and moved to Montreuil-sur-Mer. This was done for strategic purposes: the British army took over part of the front which had been previously held by French forces in Artois and in the Somme, thus effectively enlarging their area of intervention.

War photography

In Le Figaro of April 29th, 1905, Jules Claretie stated that "the real war painter, the most ferocious of them all, is a Kodak camera".

The process of photography, which had been invented a century earlier by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), was considered an interesting way of capturing reality. Photographs became an objective way of documenting reality at the time and photography itself an information tool. Photo reportages also became popular. The first was made by the British photographer, Roger Fenton (1819-1869) in Crimea. He had been dispatched to the Crimea by Queen Victoria and returned to Britain with photos which did not in any way reflect the reality of the war: his photos featured neither combat, nor wounded soldiers. By contrast, Timothy H. O’Sullivan (around 1840-1882), who witnessed the sad events during the battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863) during the American Civil War (1861-1865), did not hesitate to photograph the bodies of soldiers the day after the battle (Harvest of death, 4 July 1863). 

The First World War profoundly changed the way in which photography was used. Although it continued to be an information tool it also had other uses (aerial photography). The military discovered its subjective value and its role in boosting the morale of the troops and of the civilian population. So the army gladly relied on photographers, who were career soldiers, and whose messages could be controlled. "Black and white photography is used to show a certain aspect of the war: military parades, demos of different types of arms and parades of uniforms, spectacular explosions, life in the trenches, even down to the most intimate details (delousing). Everything was done to ensure that the people behind the frontlines could share in soldiers' daily lives, even though events were often staged" (quote taken from "Les cartes postales de 1914-1918", thematic collections on the website of the Museum of the Great War, Péronne).

Document 3

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit, was a prominent scientist. He taught physics in Cairo from 1905 until 1908. As an employee of the Museum of Natural History and following his election to the Academy of Science (1950), Teilhard de Chardin took part in geological and paleontological research all over the world, including in China. He also took part in the Haardt-Citroën expedition (the “yellow expedition”). He moved to New York in 1951.

Teilhard de Chardin, corporal-ambulance driver

Teilhard was sorely tested during the battles in Artois in 1915, in his capacity as corporal-ambulance driver. "He started keeping “a type of journal” from August 26th, 1915 onwards in a notebook. He ended up filling five notebooks during the war1, and fourteen essays before the armistice. Some people are surprised that he managed to write so much in such dramatic circumstances. But his case is far from exceptional. Several soldiers wrote literary works during this war. People also tend to forget that the units on the frontline were relieved from duty after the attacks in order to rest and prepare for a new line of duty on the frontline." Gérard Henry Baudry.

Follow-up: See "Il y a 90 ans, Teilhard à Verdun" (Ninety years ago, Teilhard at Verdun), in Revue Teilhard aujourd’hui, no. 18, June 2006, pp. 52-59.

1 They were published by Fayard in 1975.