2nd Lieutenant Gilbert S. M. Insall by Edward Newling, 1919.  Imperial War Museums © WM ART 2629

  Self-portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1915. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; Charles F. Olney Fund, 1950 © Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio 

At 7.30 in the morning of 1 June 1916, the first phase of the Battle of the Somme got underway.  Eighty British and French infantry battalions commenced a mass attack on the opposing German lines along an 18 mile front.  Their instruction was to walk towards the enemy.  Following a five-day artillery bombardment, the assumption was that the opposition would be decimated and resistance minimal.  Instead, secure in deeply dug trenches and underground bunkers, the German Second Army had not only survived the onslaught but now confronted the advancing troops with raking machine gun fire.  By the end of the first day there were 57,470 British casualties, including 19,240 men killed.   By the time the battle ended 141 days later, the toll of British and French casualties had reached 485,000, with a further 630,000 incurred by the Germans.  At the conclusion of the Great War, globally seventy million men had been mobilised.  A conservative estimate puts the total losses at nine million. 

Edith Cavell by an unknown photographer, 1910s. © National Portrait Gallery, London

    As the curator of The Great War in Portraits, I have contemplated these appalling statistics many times.  My personal response remains one of stunned disbelief.   While the facts are irrefutable, death and suffering on this scale subdues the imagination and the numbers confound comprehension.  This predicament was the beginning of my work in making an exhibition to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.  It seemed to me that, a hundred years later, we are in danger of losing contact with the conflict’s most vital aspect: its human, individual dimension.   This exhibition of portraits of those involved in the events of 1914-18 is, I hope, a way of reconnecting.  Images of people evoke lived experience.  Bitter-sweet, they return us to an apprehension of mortality - but also, through stories of selfless endeavour, to human nature’s nobler aspects.  


Image credits (top to bottom)

2nd Lieutenant Gilbert S. M. Insall by Edward Newling, 1919.  Imperial War Museums © WM ART 2629

Self-portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1915. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio; Charles F. Olney Fund, 1950 © Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio

Edith Cavell by an unknown photographer, 1910s. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Comments

Got something to say?

admin

24 June 2014, 15:30

Thanks. I am sorry you found the exhibition disappointing. It was not intended to be a comprehensive military history, but a exhibition about the human experience of the War. The exhibition was critically acclaimed and visited by over 200,000 people. The extraordinary level of very positive feedback we received suggests that the perspective presented was welcomed and appreciated.

David Sceats

20 June 2014, 18:52

I found the Great War in Portraits a very disappointing exhibition, in view of the immensity of the subject and the significance of this year's anniversary. I appreciate space and resources may be limited but there was little sense of the gigantic extent of the world wide conflict or the numerous states and theatres involved, so that there were only nominal non-British exhibits. I left with a sense that many opportunities had been missed.

Make a Comment

Comments are moderated. We'll need your email address so that we can contact you to let you know when your comment has been approved.

Privacy Information

close

The National Portrait Gallery will NOT use your information to contact you or store for any other purpose than to be displayed on the blog posting. By pressing submit you are indicating your agreement for your post to be shown on the blog page. Please note your email address will not be displayed on the page nor will it be used for any marketing material or promotion of any kind.

Please ensure your comments are tasteful, relevant and appropriate. Your contributions must be polite and with no intention of causing trouble. All posts are moderated.