Even in 'The War to End All Wars,' There Was Art Coming from the Trenches

  • 2017-08-02
  • NPR

One hundred years ago, the U.S. entered the first global war — an ugly, dirty, agonizing conflict that cost millions of lives and changed the world. Now, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is observing the centennial with art and artifacts in an exhibition called Artist Soldiers.

The Americans didn't arrive until three years into the war and fought for less than a year. They joined French, Russian, British and other troops fighting Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. World War I was the first "modern" industrial war with large numbers of tanks, heavy artillery and planes. Tragically, it was also a war of trenches.

"Hundreds of thousands of people died just to advance a few yards," explains Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Air and Space museum.

Troops dug trenches along the Western Front from Belgium through France to Switzerland to dodge the constant shelling and machine gun fire, Jakab says. Then, they waited in those trenches, until orders came to move. With the troops were professional artists, sent to war by the U.S. government.

"These eight illustrators were the first true combat artists who were really capturing war in the moment, with a firsthand experience," Jakab says.