Posted in Film, History, Literature, Vintage, World War One

The Artists Rifles: Stories From The Great War Part 11

001I recently visited Southampton City Art Gallery to see ‘The Artists Rifles: From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele’ exhibition. Regular readers of Come Step Back In Time will know I originally trained as an Art Historian before specialising in social history. I have to confess, I don’t ever remember being taught about The Artists Rifles and therefore approached this exhibition with a completely open mind. I knew about the work and life of the various artists featured but not their involvement with The Artists Rifles regiment.

It is a compelling and poignant exhibition, if you are in Hampshire before the end of this year then I urge you to go and see it. It is a touring the county and is currently on at The Willis Museum (Sainsbury Gallery) until 27th September, then transfers to Gosport Discovery Centre (Gosport Gallery) from 4th October until 27th December.

This is the first ever major exhibition on The Artists Rifles and features original artworks as well as artefacts from major lenders. The Imperial War Museum, Leighton House Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the British Council Collection have all loaned  objects such as uniforms, medals and other memorabilia, some of which, particularly the World War One artist sketchbooks, are quite incredible.

Early Years Of The Regiment

In 1859, the idea to set-up The Artists Rifles had been suggested by art student, Edward Sterling, at a meeting held in the studio of portrait painter Henry Wyndham Phillips (1820-1868).  It was agreed that an Artists’ Corps should be created, made-up of painters, sculptors, engravers, musicians, architects and actors.

On 12th May, 1859 the government ruled that the Lord Lieutenants could raise a volunteer corps in each county. However, all expenses would have to be privately met, there was to be no public funding. Across the country, hundreds of units were formed and in 1859, The Rifle Volunteer Movement was created, called the 28th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteers.

Members had to be a minimum of 5ft 3″ with a chest measurement of 32″ or more. They all took an oath of allegiance liable to serve in the threat or event of an invasion. In its early years, the main purpose of this volunteer corps was actually to harass and invading army in their local area. Regular drill exercises took place in the gardens behind Burlington House, London.

To do your duty as an Artist Volunteer there were the daily hours 7-9am and Company and Lock Drill from 4 to 7pm in Burlington House Gardens. On Saturdays, the whole afternoon, sometimes the whole day, was taken-up in drill, route marches and sham skirmishing but men really in earnest managed to get their seven or eight hours’ work of painting besides their patriotic duty, and the latter told wonderfully upon the health of us all – never was I so well and full of energy.

To some the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ seemed synonymous! William Morris, for example, invariable turned to the right when the order was ‘left, then, surprised at his mistake, he invariably begged pardon of the comrade whom he found himself facing and whom he should have followed. Rossetti, on the other hand, was apt to argue. He wished to know the exact reason for every movement which he and his comrades were told to execute.

(Portrait painter and designer, Sir William Blake Richmond RA (1842-1921) writes about his experiences as a member of The Artists Rifles)

All recruits had to buy their own kit, including uniform at a cost of £3 8s 4d and pay an entrance fee of half a guinea. The annual subscription was one guinea and volunteers were expected to attend eight drills per month. The uniform was pale grey with a specially created badge displaying the head of gods Mars and Minerva, representing war and wisdom respectively. In addition to military discipline, members also had the opportunity of networking amongst their peers, a way of progressing an artistic career.

In 1860, the regiment became officially recognised and after two major world wars in the twentieth century, the regiment amalgamated with the SAS in 1947. On 10th May, 1860, the founding members of the regiment were:

  • Henry Wyndham Phillips;
  • Valentine Prinsep (Major) (1838-1904);
  • Frederick Leighton (1830-1896);
  • George Frederick Watts (1817-1904);
  • Charles E. Perugni (Captain) (1839-1918);
  • Sir John Everett Millais (Captain) (1829-1896).

Later members included:

  • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910);
  • William Morris (1834-1896);
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882);
  • Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909);
  • Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898);
  • John Ruskin (Honorary Member) (1819-1900).

The Regiment In World War One

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  • Over The Top’ by John Nash (1893-1977) 1st Artists’ Rifles At Marcoing, 30th December 1917, a landscape in the snow. The regiment were ordered to advance in daylight with no artillery support, a suicidal mission by any military standards. On the left, a red earth trench lined with duckboards stretches away from the viewer. A group of soldiers clamber from the trench, going ‘over the top’. Two lie dead in the trench and another has fallen lying face down in the snow. Those who have survived plod forward towards the right without looking back. They walk beneath a grey, stormy sky, with clouds from shell and gunfire in the distance. (Photo by John Nash/ IWM via Getty Images)

It is in fact pure murder and I was lucky to escape untouched…It was bitterly cold and we were easy targets against the snow and in daylight. I think the vivid memory of the occasion helped me when I painted the picture and provoked what intensity of feeling may be found in it.

(Artist John Nash  joined the regiment in 1916 and saw active service between 1917 and 1918. He is describing his iconic painting ‘Over The Top’)

I am now an Artist in a wider sense! having joined the ‘Artists’ London Regiment of Territorials, the Old Corps which started with Rossetti, Leighton and Millais as members in 1860. Every man must do his bit in this horrible business so I have given-up painting and bid it adieu for who knows how long, to take up the queer business of soldiering.

(Artist Paul Nash (1889-1946), older brother to John, writing in September, 1914)

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  • November c.1915: Gelatin silver print. Photograph by Horace W. Nicholls of a procession of men filing out of the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House in Piccadilly. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images) According to Regimental Historian for The Artists Rifles, Patrick Baty:

This photograph of men trooping out of Burlington House shows a group of The United Arts Volunteers / The United Arts Rifles. ( This corps formed part of the 1st Bn County of London Volunteers along with elements of the Kensington Volunteers. 1st Bn was part of the Central Group along with 2nd Bn – Inns of Court reserve Corps, 3rd Bn – Old Boys Corps and 4th Bn – London Volunteer Rifles. Many ex-members of The Artists Rifles served with them.

The volunteer force of 1914-18 were part-time home defence soldiers (ie too old or young for the army or in reserved occupations) similar to the Home Guard of WW2.There were Motor Transport and Medical units as well as infantry. They were strong enough to be organised into groups (equivalent to brigades) and wore white sweaters, which led to their nickname of ‘The Unshrinkables’.

The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen, recently interviewed Patrick about his involvement in the Artists Rifles exhibition. For his article, CLICK HERE. You can also follow The Artists Rifles on Twitter (@artistsrifles)  or visit their Facebook page.

On 14th June, 1917, The Artists Rifles went to the Western Front as part of the 190th Infantry Brigade, 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.  Between July and September 1917, the regiment served on the front line at Oppy and Gavrelle. This was John Nash’s first experience of life in the trenches. In October, 1917, the 63rd Division were sent to Ypres to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele. Men encountered heavy gun and shell fire, thick deep mud and water, the latter causing many to drown.

In March and April, 1918, the regiment were part of the retreat of the British Fifth Army in German offensives as well as participating in Allied counter-offensives which helped bring World War One to a close. The last action the regiment saw, was on 15th November, 1918, during entry into Mons.

The Artists Rifles had a reputation for turning-out fine soldiers, most of the men were high calibre Officer material in both class and training. New recruits were subjected to a highly selective recruitment process.  Approximately a hundred Officers graduated every month. Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, near Romford, Essex was where a majority of the training took place. On 21st October, 1915, poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) enlisted in the regiment and began his Officer training at Hare Hall. He remarked:

I was put on Guard Duty from 9am yesterday to 9am today. Miserable time, not allowed to take-off packs or boots during twenty-four hours… this camping is beginning to get troublesome.

(Wilfred Owen, Hare Hall Camp, 1915)

I enjoy the burst of exercise- marching, drilling all day in the open air, about the pleasant parts of Regents Park and Hampstead Heath. We are not camped anywhere yet so live at home – later we may pig it at The Tower, a dirty, haunted sort of place I hear…

(Paul Nash, England)

The conditions are cramped and not over clean. The food is ill-cooked and ill-served, and has to be eaten in haste in a dark dirty room that the rain comes into.

(Edward Thomas writing from High Beech training camp, Epping Forest)

Well-known individuals who served in the regiment during World War One:

  • Clive Brook (1887-1974);
  • Wilfred Owen (1893-1918);
  • Edward Thomas (1878-1917);
  • Noel Coward (1899-1973);
  • Hugh Lofting (1886-1947);
  • Lance Sieveking (1896-1972);
  • R. C. Sherriff (1896-1975);
  • Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934);
  • Barnes Wallis (1887-1979);
  • Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930);
  • Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909).

Key World War One statistics for the regiment:

  • 8 Victoria Crosses were awarded to men from the regiment;
  • 14,401 men were recruited between 1914 and 1918;
  • 10,256 of these men were trained and commissioned to other regiments;
  • 2,003 of these men were killed;
  • 3,250 were wounded or gassed;
  • 532 were posted as ‘missing’;
  • 286 were Prisoners of War.

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  • Oppy Wood, by John Nash, 1917. Evening, the lower half of the composition has a view inside a trench with duckboard paths leading to a dug-out. Two infantrymen stand to the left of the dug-out entrance, one of them on the firestep looking over the parapet into No Man’s Land. There is a wood of shattered trees littered with corrugated iron and planks at ground level to the right of the composition. The sky stretches above in varying shades of blue with a spectacular cloud formation framing a clear space towards the top of the composition. (Photo by John Nash/ IWM via Getty Images)

I used to have my habitation in that dug-out there…It looks a peaceful, idyllic scene. It was supposed to be a quiet sector. It was our introduction to the front.

(John Nash writing from Oppy Wood, 1917)


By Edward Thomas

(Written by Thomas whilst training at High Beech Camp, Epping Forest, 7th January, 1916)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain

On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me

Remembering again that I shall die

And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks

For washing me cleaner than I have been

Since I was born into this solitude.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:

But here I pray that none whom once I loved

Is dying tonight or lying still awake

Solitary, listening to the rain,

Either in pain or thus in sympathy

Helpless among the living and the dead,

Like a cold water among broken reeds,

Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,

Like me who have no love which this wild rain

Has not dissolved except the love of death,

If love it be for what is perfect and

Cannot, the tempest tells me,





Social historian, based in the UK.

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