Richard Aldington and Paul Nash: Images of War

“Images of War “contained 44 poems. Paul Nash’s  repeated pattern on the cover of the book evokes shell fire and explosions.

Some authors are blessed with illustrators who enhance their work with the distinction of their own. So it was in 1919 with Richard Aldington.

When Images of War was first published it was with a cover design and eleven colored woodcut illustrations by Paul Nash. They are matched with poems and depict scenes from the western front  – trenches, bombardment, ruins, barbed wire, blasted trees – in a semi-abstract style. Nash’s black and white sketches – with notes about suggested colors – are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Here’s one 


Ruined House; One of eleven drawings by Paul Nash to illustrate ‘Images of War’ by Richard Aldington,1919

Nash later transformed that book pattern into a textile design – The Cherry Orchard – block-printed crêpe de Chine in three colors for Cresta Silks, 1930

The cover design was an abstract pattern evoking shell fire and explosions. Nash later adapted it for a textile.

Nash who also illustrated the covers for Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Roads to Glory.

Before he returned to the western front in April 1918, Aldington negotiated with Cyril Beaumont for a limited edition of some of his war poems with the Nash drawings.

A total of 200 copies were produced –  30 numbered copies printed on Japanese vellum signed by the author and artist;  50 numbered copies on cartridge paper and 120 copies on hand-made paper numbered 81 to 200.

Aldington was already a published poet and noted literary figure before the war. He edited the influential magazine “The Egoist” and was a member of a wide circle that included the prominent literary figures of the time – T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence among others. He was married to the poet H.D.and together they were the leaders of the Imagist movement –  poets who sought to capture the essence of a feeling, an object or experience with a single image, with brevity and precise concrete language and form.

Aldington was conflicted about the war. He believed it was a necessary evil that threatened his way of life and his values but he was not eager to serve. He may have tried to join the Honourable Artillery Company in 1914 only to be rejected on medical grounds. He was not a conventional man and the conformity and anxiety of war oppressed him. He saw the war as a dramatic struggle of opposing forces that were political, personal and even poetic. In December 1914 he wrote to Amy Lowell:

This war is killing us all … the daily waiting, the anxiety, the constant strain is making us all ‘old’. Only just over four months! And those last four months seem immeasurably longer to me the all the rest of my life. I cannot concentrate my mind for long enough on beautiful things to be able to write good poetry – there is too much at stake in Belgium and France for me to forget them for long. For this is the great war, the war of democracy against autocracy, of the individual against the state, of the Anglo-Latin civilization against the Prussian, even of vers libre against academic meters! …If we lose I don’t see the use of my going on with my work. Logically I should have to become a professional soldier. So you see, I can’t work well at present.

The way they wobble … Well, thank God for rum.

As the war dragged on the decision of whether to enlist became more pressing. By 1916 he decided he could not be a conscientious objector and, in May – in the hope that it might allow a choice of regiment – he decided to enlist as a private soldier before conscription made the choice for him. In June he was inducted as an infantry private into the Devonshire regiment and began training.

Aldington called army life a “soul-destroying mechanism” and he was not anxious to go to the front. He worked on schemes to delay the inevitable by – for example – being eager to show himself a quick learner and adept with a rifle in order to be selected for NCO training. It worked but In December – now a  lance-corporal – he was soon en route for France.

He served in a pioneer battalion stationed near Loos. Pioneers were trained to serve as manual or infantry units depending on the need. They were often used for building and repairing trenches and dugouts and for maintaining roads and railways – work often undertaken in forward areas and often under heavy fire. As infantry, they were used to consolidate captured positions and clean and clear trenches. They often defended trenches against counter-attack. Among his duties were making crosses and digging graves for burials.

In the summer of 1917 he was offered a commission with the Royal Sussex regiment and returned to England for officer training.

In her biography of H.D. Barbara Guest was rather scathing about Aldington’s war experience:

“His army career had not been all that disagreeable. It is only necessary to
compare his book [Death of a Hero] with Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That to
realise that Aldington’s experiences are not so desperate or tragic as he would have
us believe. . . . The truth seems to be that he never fired a shot. He had managed to
be sent from camp to camp in England, rising in rank, until he had finally applied
for a commission. . . . his regret seems mainly to have been for the waste of time 

and the needless postponement of his real career.” – Herself Defined

This seems more than uncharitable and unfair. There was nothing heroic and gallant about enduring bombardment, living with the threat of immediate death or mutilation and the terror of seeing modern warfare up close and personal. And surely the idea that some one else had it even worse is irrelevant.

Aldington saw considerable infantry action in the last few weeks of the war and for years after he certainly suffered from what we would now call PTSD.
His letters indicate the level of his emotional suffering and for a long while he strived to maintain his former literary life. But the strain and demands were too great and he suffered occasional bouts of despair – longing for a blighty wound and having thoughts of suicide.
All this was complicated by his sometimes tortured relationship with H.D. and his passionate sexual and emotional entanglements with other women. The later war years are rather a saga of who’s sleeping with whom regardless of the collateral damage to friendships and marriage.
Aldington, it seems, was a feminist and a philanderer, an idealist and an innovator who was both a modern man and a modernist who laced his work with classical and traditional references.
The images of war in his poems capture his war experience in a blunt and direct way. He typically provides graphic detail coupled with references to classical mythology. His poems offer a haunting and direct account of war.
Nash’s illustrations offer a compelling visual complement. He had enlisted in 1914 and was appointed an official British war artist in 1917. His wartime landscapes offer powerful images of the devastation of the war.
In the Aldington illustrations there are many of Nash’s signature motifs – mutilated trees, trenches, barbed wire, shell-holes filled with water. They are nightmarish with off-kilter angles and strong colors. He conveys the impact of barrage and bombardment with sweeps of lines and blunt angles – an abstraction of the

 

…huge black dogs
 Leaping, full-mouthed, in murderous pursuit!
of heavy artillery fire.

Nash had enlisted in 1914 and experienced the war first hand. When appointed as an official British war artist in 1917, he witnessed the appalling aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele. From these experiences Nash revealed the terrifying landscapes or war by employing the angular abstraction of Cubism and Vorticism.

Here’s another page with the added rest of the poem: “Trench Idyll”. The poem has men of different rank conversing in a trench. In flat colloquial language and in the rhythms of everyday speech it moves from convivial thoughts of life elsewhere to tell an understated anecdote of grisly horror. Nash’s illustration of the dead hanging on the old barbed wire lends an additional ghastly impact.

ln another moment of horror the poet contrasts the soldier’s poetic thoughts of beauty with the reality of the bloated well-fed  rats that Nash depicts red-eyed and leaping over the trenches.

References:

Richard Aldington and H.D.Their Lives in Letters, Volume 4. Richard Aldington, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Hilda Doolittle. Manchester University Press2003

Richard AldingtonPoet, Soldier and Lover 1911-1929. Vivian Whelpton, Lutterworth press 2014.

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