Tuesday, November 13, 2012

While perusing through a series of WWI and WW2 paintings created by Canadian artists posted here, I came across one fascinating painting, The Conquerors by Eric Kennington, painted in 1920 and displayed below.

The picture depicts the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) CEF as they marched somewhere between Arras to Amiens late in World War One. Some descriptions refer to the battalion as a regiment, improperly perhaps since only later was the unit a regiment. The painting struck me for a number of reasons. These men seem comfortable in their victory, calm and stoic. Quiet, sullen and proud. But they march through desolation wearing kilts, their uniforms neat and orderly. Two men I thought to be African-American are actually Canadian Native Americans and/or Asian Indians. There are crosses in the pictures, markers for or indicating the dead. These men seem immune to the danger around them. They in fact seem to be major contributors to the desolation. What am I to make of this scene?

The artist had served in World War One earlier in the war and had been severely wounded. He returned to the war to travel with the regiment and paint what he saw of the war. He at first named this painting The Victims, an ironic name, perhaps aimed at the underlying emotional distress he assessed the men in the painting to be feeling, or perhaps referring to those they have destroyed. The battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck (winner of a Victoria Cross and pictured below), took exception to the title and Kennington changed it to The Conquerors. On the surface, a more distinguished name but perhaps another ironic move by the artist. With the name change he has sent the tone of the painting in the opposite direction or has he? You are conquerors he seems to say but look at what you have conquered and what it has cost you. The dead are not directly pictured but we know they are there. Lost but remembered by those still marching on. Regardless of the artist’s intent, I believe he cared deeply for his fellow soldiers and wished to honor them but also wanted to let it be known to the public, what terrible destruction and death they were required to be a part of to achieve victory.

Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck 

A few notes on the battalion. They were noted for sometimes fighting with their kilts on and playing their bagpipes before and during battle. Lt Colonel Peck was not Scottish but insisted the pipes motivated the men. Accounts from the time suggest the pipes did motivate the battalion and other units around them. The Germans allegedly feared the sound of the battalion’s pipes because the 16th Battalion troops were known as “storm troops” and the “ladies from hell.” Indeed, the Battalion always distinguished itself on the field and four members won Victoria Crosses, the highest honor achievable for valor in the face of the enemy and awarded to members of the Commonwealth nations.

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