Women Artists of WW1: Iso Rae

In 1918 Australia appointed sixteen official war artists. All were men. Iso Rae – who had lived in France throughout the war – was not included.

The Australian impressionist painter Isobel Rae (1860-1940) moved with her mother and sister Alison – also an artist – from Melbourne to Paris in 1887. Three years later they settled in Étaples in northern France. On the coast – and just across the river Canche from the more fashionable Le Touquet/ Paris Plage – Étaples had become a thriving art colony attracting many predominantly English-speaking artists from North America, Great Britain and Australia. 

Rae met with success and exhibited her paintings at the Royal Society of British Artists, the Society of Oil Painters, and the Paris Salon.

When war began in 1914 most of the artists left but Iso Rae stayed in France. Her mother was ill and Iso and Alison did not want to move her. She died in 1916. They were among the very few foreigners to remain in the town. They were not to be alone long. By 1915 Étaples had become the principal depôt, transit and training camp for the British Expeditionary Force in France – a kind of sprawling multi-purpose Salisbury Plain on the dunes of France.

A Dark Place

The Étaples Army Base Camp, the largest of its kind ever established overseas by the British, was built along the railway adjacent to the town. It was served by a network of railways, canals, and roads connecting the camp to the southern and eastern fields of battle in France and to ships carrying troops, supplies, guns, equipment, and thousands of men and women across the English Channel. It was a base for British, Canadian, Scottish and Australian forces.

The camp was a training base, a depot for supplies, a detention centre for prisoners, and a centre for the treatment of the sick and wounded, with almost twenty general hospitals. At its peak, the camp housed over 100,000 people; altogether, its hospitals could treat 22,000 patients. With its vast conglomeration of the wounded, of prisoners, of soldiers training for battle, and of those simply waiting to return to the front, Étaples could appear a dark place. http://throughtheselines.com.au/research/etaples/

In a letter to his mother Wilfred Owen reflected dismally on his time at described staging area for a slaughterhouse and on the facial expressions to be seen only there.

I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles.

I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead …. But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples.

Rae’s drawings offer an insight into the support system behind the lines. They depict soldiers returning from the training ground, troops arriving, German prisoners at work, the football game and one of the large hospitals.

Its size and strategic importance to the allies made it a target for German air raids and the hospitals there were bombed and machine gunned from the air on more than one occasion. Iso and Alison’s house was destroyed in a bombing raid and Alison sustained a permanent injury to her foot.

The Étaples Military Cemetery  stretches for fifteen acres and is the burial ground for 11,658 British and Allied personnel including 20 women – nurses, army auxiliaries and civilian volunteers of the YMCA and Scottish Church Huts organizations – killed in air raids or by disease.

This a photo taken from an observation balloon of the damage to hospitals Etaples after a bombardment. (Archives A. Caron). Source: Médecins de la Grande Guerre

Rae’s work is a record of life at the camp. She drew hospitals, barracks, recreation huts and tents, horses, German prisoners of war and soldiers drilling, marching, training, playing. They provide an insider look at the support systems behind the front lines and the vast scale of the infrastructure of the war. 

Many of Rae’s drawings are night scenes, perhaps reflecting the fact that she worked in the hospital during the day and had little spare daylight time. In this drawing – 23rd General Hospital – light spills from windows and an open door at the end of a hospital ward hut. The name – 23rd – and the size of the camp are a reminder of the scale of the war.

Etaples November 1915, 23rd General Hospital (later 7th Canadian Hospital) at night.  Etaples November 1915.The hospital consisted of rows of pavilion wards, Nightingale pattern. In 1917, 100,000 troops were camped among the sand dunes and the hospitals, which included eleven general, one stationary, four Red Cross hospitals and a convalescent depot, could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick.

Rae lived inside the camp and she and her sister both worked in the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross (VAD).  And she continued to draw. Her work from the war years – over 200 pastel drawings – provide an intimate and unique documentation of life on the base – of personnel arriving, leaving, preparing for battle, caring for the wounded, keeping prisoners occupied and of recreation and entertainment.

A night scene troops queue up outside a cinema with rows of tents stretching back into the distance conveying a sense of the vast scale of the camp. Life is ordered, lined up and waiting for something to happen. Even the entertainment is regimented and dark. Cinema Queue, a pastel and gouache on grey paper, showing a scene at Étaples Army Base Camp, January 1916

Here Iso Rae sits with British soldiers and a dog mascot posed in front of a barracks converted to a cinema. It looks as if the sides of the entrance have fenced in plantings. I don’t have a date for the photo.

Another Austrailian – Elsie May Tranter, of Fyansford, Geelong – was also at Étaples serving with the A.A.N.S. Her diary provides insight into the life at the camp. 

Rue de la Gare (Station Street). November 1918

2.3.1917 The streets are very narrow, indeed in one part so narrow that you could touch the walls on either side from the car.

We passed through the village, along past some farms, under a railway bridge, past the motor ambulance depot (which, we are told, is called ‘Thumbs Up Corner’) to the Land of Hospitals. Here before us was a stretch of six kilometres of hospitals. This district, Camiers and Etaples, takes 6 500 patients. This hospital, No. 26, takes 2 600. The nursing staff, including VADs and special military probationers, number eighty-five. It is a regular city of huts and tents. Hospitals on one side of the road, officers’ and sisters’ quarters on the other…

26.3.1917 We have large training camps round us here for Australian, New Zealand, English and Scotch troops. Thousands of men pass by every day. Day after day we say ‘Goodbye and good luck’ to lads with their full kit on, on their way to that well known place ‘up the line’. There is a continual tramp, tramp all day long. Each morning just after breakfast, we see hundreds of soldiers passing on their way to the ‘Bull Ring’ for drill. They are usually headed by the Australian band…

The village of Etaples is filthy dirty-such narrow, pokey little streets and-no decent drainage-so if you take two sniffs when going through ‘Paradise Alley’, you are indeed proving yourself a glutton. The housewives do not seem to be very tidy, in fact, they are not a bit fussy and when walking on the footpaths you have to dodge basins of rubbish and pails of water all the time for they just open their front doors and fling the rubbish out into the street.

Elsie TranterIn all those lines

Vera Brittain also served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Étaples – in the German Prisoner Hospital and at No 24 General Hospital. She was there from August 1917 until the end of April 1918  and wrote about this experience in her memoir Testament of Youth in the chapter entitled “Between the Sandhills and the Sea”.

Étaples was a place of passing through – a transitional space for most as they moved on and from their way to the front. Men arrived in their thousands. Troops from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – disembarked at Boulogne – arrived for their final training before going up the line. Convoys of the wounded arrived by the trainload.The wounded passed through for medical treatment  to be sent back to the front or to England. Or they died and were buried at Étaples. Today the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in France holding 11,500 burials is all that remains of the military presence.

Vera Britain wrote:

Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all – Testament of Youth p. 372

For the nurses who worked there – and did not pass through – it must have been a place of great foreboding, suffering, sorrow, and constant farewells.

A farewell, 7th Canadian, Etaples. January 1918 Pastel sketch of two horsemen saying farewell to a VAD nurse at night fall. The troopers and nurse are standing in front of buildings of the 7th Canadian Hospital (formerly the 23rd General Hospital). The VAD is both the object of the troopers’ attention and the focal point of the composition, the striking blue of her uniform breaking up the predominant brown tones of the foreground and harmonising with the deep blue evening sky.

The Base! dismal tents, glum roadways, prisoning wire!

Edmund Blunden describes his passage through Etaples as a dismal and deadly episode. He disembarked at Boulogne and …

… there was a train journey between verdurous banks and silvering poplars, ending drearily at Etaples, known as Eatapples or Heeltaps. The Base! dismal tents, glum roadways, prisoning wire! I took my share of a tent, trying to remember the way to freedom, and laid on my valise the ebony walking stick which had been my grandfather’s, and was to be my pilgrim’s staff. It went. I was away from it but a few minutes — it went. But this was before the war was officially making the world safe for democracy….

I associate it, as millions do, with “The Bull Ring,” that thirsty, savage, interminable training ground …..

I found myself on the sandy training ground. The machine guns there thudded at their targets, for the benefit of those who had advanced against such furies, equally with beginners like me. And then the sunny morning was darkly interrupted. Rifle-grenade instruction began.

A Highland sergeant major stood magnificently before us, with the brass brutality called a Hales rifle grenade in his hand. He explained the piece, fingering the wind vane with easy assurance; then stooping to the fixed rifle, he prepared to shoot the grenade by way of demonstration. According to my unsoldier-like habit, I had let the other students press near the instructor, and was listlessly standing on the skirts of the meeting, thinking of something else, when the sergeant major having just said, “I’ve been down here since 1914, and never had an accident,” there was a strange hideous clang. Several voices cried out; I found my- self stretched on the floor, looking upward in the delusion that the grenade had been fired straight above and was about to fall among us. It had indeed been fired, but had burst by some error at the muzzle of the rifle: the instructor was lying with mangled head, dead, and others lay near him, also blood-masked, dead and alive. So ended that morning’s work on the Bull Ring.

This particular shock, together with the general dreariness of the great camp, produced in me (in spite of the fear with which I had come into France) a wish to be sent quickly to the line.

The training ground – the bullring – was notorious for its harsh routines and brutal discipline. This was the place Napoleon had staged his planned invasion of England and the bullring was where his troops paraded.

Mutiny and The Battle of Eetapps

The brutality of the bullring contributed to the resentment and tension that led to the mutiny and disorder that began in September 1917.  This mutiny was kept secret from the press and was denied by the high command. Letters were censored and the fact of this and other disturbances, demonstrations riots and mutinies amongst the troops a tÉtaples and elsewhere suppressed.

Troops in Town after Riots Previous Sunday, September 1917

Iso Rae’s drawing “Troops in Town after Riots Previous Sunday, September 1917” is documentary evidence that the mutiny happened. It shows the town square in Étaples teeming with military police as soldiers who had been confined to their quarters on the other side of the river were allowed into the town. 

There is further confirmation in the memories of Vera Brittain who broke the official silence in Testament of Youth.

Sixty miles northeast of the battle of Passchendaele was grinding forward. The ambulance trains arrived with their heavy loads of dying and wounded.

After a rare and welcome day off Brittain

…returned to my ward for another six weeks without a half day – a deprivation due not only to the perpetual rush of operations and dressings, but to the local mutiny afterwards described by the men as the “Battle of Eetapps”. At the time, this somewhat disreputable interruption to a Holy War was wrapped in a fog which the years have deepened, for we were not allowed to mention it in our letters home, and it appears, not unnaturally, to have been omitted from the standard histories by their patriotic authors. – Testament of Youthp.385-6

This fog of official secrecy about what happened continues even today although various accounts have enabled historians to piece the story together even in the absence of the records of the official inquiry.

Brittain continues acerbically that the nurses  “were shut up in our hospitals to meditate on the effect of three years of war upon the splendid morale of our noble troops”. Meanwhile, “numerous drunken and dilapidated warriors from the village battle were sent to spare beds….. for slight repairs.” She says that it was mid-October before the mutiny ended. In a  footnote she comments that “the mutiny was due to repressive conditions……and was provoked by the military police”.

Writing to Siegfried Sassoon in October 1917 Robert Graves mentioned the rumor he had hear of a mutiny at Étaples and expresses himself unsurprised “(you know how badly they are treated at the Bull Ring)”.

Private Joe Perks from Dundee remembered the unnecessarily harsh treatment of new soldiers

… we were treated in a manner that made us ashamed to be soldiers ….What a bad war it was at Étaples

– from Allison and Fairley, The Monocled Mutineer. P.63

The brutality of the training regime at the bullring at Étaples was undoubtedly a factor that contributed to the low morale at the camp and to the riots. The camp was notorious for the harsh discipline and punishing severity of the training. The officers and NCOs in charge of the training wore yellow armbands and these “canaries” had a reputation for not having served at the front This inevitably led to tension particularly with seasoned troops sent for for additional training. New soldiers, seasoned troops and the returning wounded were all subjected to punishing training regimes that included route marches as well as intensive training in the use of the bayonet and gas warfare.

It was not a happy camp for most who passed through. 

Infantry returning from training ground (Bull Ring) November 1917 The “Bull Ring” was notorious infamous for severity of the training and the field punishments that were administered there.

Iso and Alison stayed close to Étaples after the war. They left as Hitler rose to power and moved to England where they lived in St. Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex.

At the end of her life Iso Rae’s mental health deteriorated and in 1939 she was admitted to Brighton Mental Hospital where she died four months later. The diaries and memoirs of who those who served in the hospitals at Étaples reflect the trauma they experienced and tell of the relentless strain and horror of the work. It would be easy to speculate that her experiences in the war contributed to Rae’s condition.

The drawing below shows a theatrical performance for NYD (not yet diagnosed) patients. By 1916 the British Army medical services had tried  to replace the term shell-shock with the official diagnosis NYD and NYDN (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) and neurasthenia. The term shell shock was officially banned in 1917 although it still continued to be widely used. Today we would use the term that came into use during the Vietnam War – PTSD.

During WW1 the pressing need for manpower for the army led to a concerted effort to manage and treat psychological trauma. While the ignorant and ill-informed called it cowardice, army medical services were developing theories about the causes and treatment methods.

Many who had not experienced actual combat or even closeness to the front also exhibited signs of trauma. This ruled out organic theories that trauma was the result of the concussive effect of exploding shells. (In the Boer War one theory was that it was caused by train travel.)

W.H.R.Rivers who treated Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockart Hospital thought that shell-shock was result of failure of repression. Experienced troops, he argued, had built up a resilience to the fear and danger and were thus better equipped to withstand the onslaught. This thinking led to the notion that battle stress was a preventable disorder. This was a theory that was to be challenged by the experience of WW2.

In WW1 many thought that forward psychiatry – the so-called ‘PIE’ method – was the most effective treatment in all but extreme cases. PIE had three principles: Proximity to battlefront, Immediacy of treatment and Expectation of recovery.  This led to the practice of referring soldiers to specialist units 20 or so miles from the front, where they were rested and put on a graduated regimen of physical exercise. The general idea was to rebuild the psychological defense mechanisms and control the conflict between duty and self-preservation.

This theater performance may well have been a component of that treatment program for NYDNs in Étaples

NYD at Lion d’Argent, YMCA, Etaples, August 1919. A theatrical performance held in the YMCA hut at the Etaples Army Base Camp for NYD (not yet diagnosed) patients often suffering from psychiatric illnesses caused by shell-shock. The performance was of Pierrot and Columbine, played by a customary  all-male cast. This watercolor highlights the colorful performers in contrast to the back view of the faceless and sketcily drawn audience of damaged soldiers waiting to be sent home.

Here is a slideshow of the Iso Rae drawings I have been able to find on line. As you can see – they are not all dark! They provide a calm, muted and poetic glimpse of a behind the scenes that was often none of those things.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For more on Iso Rae and her work:

“Iso Rae in Etaples – another perspective of war” by Betty Snowden

‘Wartime’ n°8 (1999), magazine of the Australian War Memorial (pdf – 0.4 MB)

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