History

Dec 16th, 2017 | | History | Patrick's Writing | 5 Comments

‘Over The Top’

over-the-top-iwm

Over The Top (with thanks to the IWM)


The 30th December 2017 is the centenary of the action that led to one of the most evocative works of art to come out of the First World War. ‘Over The Top’ was painted by John Nash R.A. (1893-1977) and depicts a specific and clearly identifiable action that the artist himself took part in. The painting commemorates the 1st Artists Rifles involvement in an attack on the morning of 30th December 1917, at Welsh Ridge, near Marcoing (south west of Cambrai).

NPG x127172; John Nash and fourteen soldiers by Unknown photographer
A Group of Artists Rifles’ Soldiers at Gidea Park, 1917. (NPG)
Nash is sitting on the ground to the left


Nash was a Sergeant at the time, serving in B Company of the 1st Artists’ Rifles. He was to be commissioned in the following year and, as a result of lobbying by his artist brother, Paul, was appointed an Official War Artist shortly after. This work was amongst the first that he produced in that capacity.

The painting now hangs in the Imperial War Museum, London. However, few know of the second version, which Nash painted in 1921 and presented to his old regiment. The two can be seen on this page.

over-the-top-AR

Over The Top. Second Version (with thanks to the Artists Rifles Association)


The Artists Rifles suffered heavy casualties during the action – of the eighty men who took part, sixty-eight were killed or wounded during the first few minutes. Nash was one of the twelve spared by the shellfire.

mars-and-minerva

Mars and Minerva. The Badge of The Artists Rifles

The painting well illustrates the following account, which was written by another survivor of the day:

The picture ‘Over the Top’ has always been of particular interest to me because the first time I saw it, some years after Nash painted it, it immediately recalled in every detail the early morning scene at Welsh Ridge on December 30th 1917. As I happen to be the only survivor of the particular incident depicted still serving in the Regiment to-day, your Editor is of the opinion that an eye-witness account of it would be of interest. I will, therefore, attempt to paint a picture in words so that they who are unable to see Nash’s picture as I see it may perhaps appreciate it better.

welsh-ridge

Welsh Ridge and the British and German Front Lines

At Christmas 1917, the 1st Battalion Artists’ Rifles were holding the salient at Marcoing and at night, on December 29th, were relieved, the battalion front being taken over by another battalion in the Brigade, the Artists’ Rifles going back into the support line. Owing to the snow and the bitterly cold weather, the Regiment had had a somewhat trying spell in the front line, and the less gruelling conditions ‘in support’ were anticipated with a certain amount of satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, the Regiment had scarcely taken over the support line, which was actually in the well-known Hindenburg Line, when it was ordered to ‘stand to’, for just before daybreak on December 30th the Germans – taking advantage of the mist – launched an attack, capturing most of the positions which had been held by the Regiment up till the previous night. As a result of this, the Regiment was called upon to deliver a counter attack and recapture the lost positions. The attacking Companies were ‘A’ and ‘B’, with ‘D’ in support and ‘C’ in reserve.

Just before daybreak the Regiment moved up the front line, which may sound quite an easy operation to-day, but which was actually – owing to the fatigued condition of many of the troops, and the difficulty in making reasonable progress caused by casualties, also heavy shelling – a very tedious and trying movement. As a matter of fact the move was so slow that my own Company (‘B’) only arrived in the front line at zero hour and had to jump out ‘Over the Top’ immediately upon arrival. This is what you actually see in Nash’s picture. The snow and mist; men of ‘B’ Company characterised by the blue square on the upper arm of their greatcoats; the sergeant with a Lewis Gun, already the sole survivor of his Lewis Gun section, and later a casualty himself.

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A Lewis gun team manning a post on the bank of the Lys canal at St Venant during the Battle of Hazebrouck. (IWM)

As for me, there is little to tell.

My platoon consisted of about fifteen men and included a Lewis Gun team. It was on the right flank, and when we jumped out of the trench we moved forward into the mist, judging the direction by the movement of the troops on our left. At about thirty yards distant from the front line we walked into a Machine Gun barrage. On my left men were getting hit, but on my right a handful of men were moving forward comparatively untouched, and with them the Nos 1 and 2 of my Lewis Gun team. I edged away to the right somewhat, and after continuing about fifty yards, came upon the German wire at about twenty-five yards distant, and beyond the wire – somewhat indistinctly through the mist – I could see the heads and shoulders of the German troops. They commenced to fire at us with their rifles, and before we could get down they had caused further casualties, including my Nos 1 and 2 Lewis Gunners. The remainder of my platoon, now only four men – two of whom were wounded – and myself, took cover in a shell hole. From this spot we were able to be of some use with our rifles, as we were able to make the Germans keep their heads down. This may possibly have helped ‘A’ Company, who had got into the German line on our left and were bombing down the trench.

About midday the German artillery and machine gunners eased up. Taking advantage of this lull in the activities, H.E. Frank [Franck], who was then Company Sergeant-Major of ‘B’ Company, joined us in our little post. He had a bullet wound in his arm, but was otherwise his usual cheerful self.

As soon as it was dark we got in touch with Battalion Headquarters, and were withdrawn from our position.

That is all there is to tell, excepting to say that ‘B’ Company’s casualties were very heavy. Out of eighty officers and men who moved up to the attack in the morning, when we called the roll that night there only remained two sergeants and ten other ranks.

R.A.L.

(This seems to be 6463 Sergeant R.A. Lee)

Artists Rifles Gazette, February 1935. No. 19. By ‘An Old Artist’

John Nash had been a friend and fellow-painter of my great grandfather and I met him when an old man.

john-paul-nash-by-lance-sieveking-sml

John and Paul Nash. 1937. By Lancelot de Giberne (‘Lance’) Sieveking. (NPG)
All three men had served in The Artists Rifles


With Acknowledgements to the Imperial War Museum; National Portrait Gallery and Artists Rifles Association.

Originally the regiment was designated as The Artists’ Rifles until the apostrophe was officially dropped from the full title in 1937, as it was so often misused.

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Comments (5)

Reply
Eddie BlissNo Gravatar » 21. Dec, 2017

I am profoundly impressed.
Also, the scarring is still visible in the crop-marks;
lest we forget.

Reply
Nick SnellingNo Gravatar » 21. Dec, 2017

An excellent article – and what a joy to read the account by Sergeant Lee. It brings the picture into real perspective. Well done!

Reply
Eddie JonesNo Gravatar » 22. Dec, 2017

Good Stuff Patrick…. Reginald Alfred Lee- renumbered as 761355.He would have been 28 years old when he went over the top….

Reply
Christopher LawrenceNo Gravatar » 05. Jan, 2018

Thanks for this Patrick. It’s hard to imagine virtually an entire company wiped out by one attack. Lee’s account puts the painting into perpective.

Reply
PatrickNo Gravatar » 05. Jan, 2018

Mike O. has been working on the casualty list and has made good progress.