War artist gave new view of France's trench life
Phyllida Shaw is a researcher and a writer who has published an extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive book about life in the trenches during World War One based on the sketches of artist Morris Meredith Williams – who served as an officer in France from June 1916 to the end of the war – and letters home to his wife, Alice, who was also an artist.
How did you come to write this amazing book?
In her will, my great-aunt Grace left me the 15 sketchbooks Morris Meredith Williams drew in while he was in France during World War One and the 800 letters between him and his first wife during the war.
She did so “In the hope I might do something with them.”
My great-aunt was Morris Meredith William’s second wife.
His first, Alice, died of cancer in 1934.
In the book I have included a selection of the letters and the best of the sketches.
How long did it take to write?
It took several years to start the book.
My great-aunt died in 1995 and the letters and sketches were in a small metal cabinet, neatly laid out in drawers. T
he cabinet moved house with me three times, and at last I thought I had better do something, particularly as the war’s centenary was coming up.
I was not sure how I would get it published because I am not a known author, and though Morris and Alice were well known in Scotland after the war, they are not names many would recognise.
Luckily, I allowed one of the sketches to be used as publicity for a lecture by the well-known and respected military historian, Sir Hew Strachan.
He said many soldiers left letters, and many made sketches, but that it is unusual to have both together, with drawings of such high quality and letters in such great quantity.
He wrote a foreword for the book, so it was easier to find a publisher.
I chose The History Press, rather than a specialist military history publisher, because it is not just about war but social history too.
Who were Morris and Alice Meredith Williams?
They were artists.
Morris was living in Edinburgh with Alice when war broke out, earning his living from book illustrations and teaching.
He was 34 when he went to serve in the war, so older than many of the other soldiers.
His first attempt to join the army had failed because he was short, and it wasn’t until later that he was signed up into one of the first so-called Bantam Battalions, the 17th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment.
From June 1916, he spent 10 months in and out of the trenches of the Western Front near Loos, Arras and the Somme.
Later, he was taken on to map enemy positions from aerial reconnaissance shots and in 1918 he joined the camouflage unit at Wimereux, Pas-de-Calais.
At the end of the war he was among a handful of artists kept back to make paintings for the official record.
What do his sketches show about life in the war?
He was a true artist, someone who looks at the world with an artist’s eye.
He could not NOT draw.
Whenever he had the chance, he got out his sketchbook and his pencil and he drew what he saw, so you have a very accurate impression of what the soldiers looked like, what they were wearing and how they lived.
They show how men on the march slept in the open air, under mackintosh sheets and how farm buildings became temporary encampments.
They describe how the communication trenches dissected villages, tunnelling through the basements of houses, some of which were converted into dugouts and furnished with chairs, tables and beds foraged from the abandoned houses.
There are drawings of men carrying timber with which to improve their camps, and many of soldiers in the trenches, patrolling, sitting, sleeping, repairing and, in the case of one sentry, using a periscope to see over the top into no man’s land.
There are also landscapes, and some shocking sights, a detached skull still wearing a helmet, the decomposing body of a horse.
Some of the sketches included notes about colours and he saw them as raw material for potential works later on.
Each completed sketchbook was brought back to England, usually by a friend of a senior rank, who carried them in his personal luggage.
I think what is unusual about the sketches is they show what everyday life was like on the front, rather than just the horrors of the fighting.
Soldiers were not always in the trenches and a lot of their experience in France was spent waiting for time to pass.
They never knew what was going to happen, or where they would be sent.
How did you choose which letters to include and what do we learn from them?
It was a very long procedure as I wanted the sketches to be in the same chronological order as the letters, but there were very few dates on the drawings, so it took a very long time to match them together and find out where he was and when.
Letters were censored, and Morris was not allowed to give his location.
Alice and Morris had worked out a code, so she would know where he was and I even have their code explanation which used specific capital letters to mean specific places.
However, the explanation does not say which capitals in the letters were part of the code, so I could not decipher it.
Censorship also meant that all of his letters were written in pencil, and to keep up morale, he was also not allowed to include anything relating to the horrors of the situation or his personal fear.
So the letters often seem more cheerful than you would expect.
On August 20 1916, he writes: “I went up this afternoon and did a sketch for Gray’s battery” (Gray had been a pupil of his in Edinburgh). “It was quite interesting, and they were very pleased with it, I think.” What he does not mention is that while he was sketching, the observation post received a direct hit and several men were seriously wounded.
You also get the sense that Morris was trying to stop Alice from worrying.
During the winter he writes: “It is very cold with heavy mist, but I have such layers of clothes on that I keep warm. Vest, shirt, tunic, two Shetland wool waistcoats, leather waistcoat, leather jerkin, Mackintosh, wool scarf, wool helmet!!”
There could not be any passion in the letters, but you understand how desperate Morris and Alice are to see each other again and for him to get leave and for the war to end.
Alice was older than Morris, and was 40 in 1917.
She used her letters to boost his morale and to encourage him, even though she would have been worried sick.
Looking at the dates they must have written nearly every day. The letters must have been an incredibly important part of their lives.
The postal service was incredible. Sometimes Morris was disappointed and went for days without receiving any because the battalion had been moved on and it took time for the letters to catch up with him.
April 13 1917: “At last I have got one of your letters, the one dated April 4th with violets inside. I sent a man up to the Battn with instructions to get letters at all costs.
He returned with this one and says more are coming by the ASC tomorrow.”
What impression do you think the reader gets of the war from the book?
You get a strong sense of the physical discomfort the soldiers lived in. While he cannot talk about the terror of the warfare, he does talk about the rats and the cockroaches.
He describes the utter destruction of villages and the landscape.
“The scene of desolation is unparalleled here, nothing to be seen for miles but a few stumps of shattered trees, all the country is brown mud; villages small heaps of broken brick. Of some it is difficult to say where they stood.
“The mud is so beyond anything, often it is almost impossible to pull your foot out where it has sunk to the knee in the heavy, sticky mud.”
War was not a constant drama. It was much more complex than that. It was a manual war. They had to walk along duckboards to the front line.
Everything took a long time and it was the same thing, over and over again.
What came through to me very strongly, reading them all, was how normal life was in some ways. You could pop into the village to have your hair cut, read the newspaper and then you were back into battle.
What happened afterwards?
November 11 was not the end of the war for many soldiers and Morris did not get home until March 1919.
He stayed longer than many, because he was asked to use his artist’s skills to make a record of the battlefields, but it took a long time for the demobilisation papers to come through.
After that it seems perhaps strange to us how quickly people got back into their old routine.
Morris and Alice returned to Edinburgh and Morris was soon back at Fettes College where he had been a teacher before the war.
There was a post-war demand for public and private memorials which created numerous opportunities for artists and craftspeople and the 1920s were boom years for the couple.
They both contributed to the Scottish National War Memorial within the walls of Edinburgh Castle.
Together they created a bronze frieze, in five panels, of 60 men and women representing the many different activities in the war.
The frieze was drawn by Morris using photographs and drawings from the Imperial War Museum, plus sketches he had made in France. Alice turned the drawings into the frieze.
How important was France in their lives?
They loved France. They met in Paris before the war when they were both studying at art school. Florence and Paris were the places to be for anyone who already had some background as an artist.
The Beaux Arts were difficult to get into, but there were lots of private schools, made of workshops where established painters worked and gave lessons as well.
Morris went first to Florence and then to three schools in Paris and met Alice at one of them.
She was a very serious student and went to Paris because it was the only place where she was allowed, as a woman, to study male nude and train alongside men.
They enjoyed the café life.
The gardens at Versailles were important to them and they went to Chartres where the highly coloured stained glass windows influenced their work in churches later on.
After the war back in Edinburgh they had a friend who was a teacher at Fettes [College in Edinburgh] who had a car and they would go on long painting holidays together to Tarn and the Cévennes.
When he first arrives in France during the war, he writes: “It did seem odd to be in France without you darling. I always associate you and France and happy times together.”
What reaction have you had from the book?
The response has been extraordinary and I have been asked to give several talks about An Artist’s War, including one at the 2019 Parisot Literary Festival in France.
People are interested because it shows another picture of the war. Lots of people asked questions about Alice, so I have now written a book about her too.
They were both very talented and I am thrilled the books mean more people are getting to know about them.
Writing the two books was an amazing experience.
An Artist’s War, £28, anartistswar.com