Postcards from Slough
Postcards from Slough

Slough World War One

John Nash CBE, RA

1893-1977

 

Born in London on 11th April 1893, John Northcote Nash was a painter of landscapes, still life and illustrator of botanic subjects. He was also a wood engraver. He was the younger brother of artist Paul Nash. His father was lawyer William Harry Nash and his mother sadly suffered mental illness and died in an asylum in 1910.

The family had moved to Iver Heath in 1901 and John was educated at Langley Place in Slough and later at Wellington College, Berkshire. Though he had no formal art training, John was encouraged by his brother Paul, who was a student at the Slade School of Art, to develop his skills as a draughtsman.

 

In 1914 John Nash began painting in oils. His health initially prevented him from enlisting in the First World War but from November 1916 to January 1918 he served with the Artists’ Rifles. Incidentally this regiment eventually became part of the SAS, its full title becoming 21 Special Air Service Regiment (Artists) (Reserve) or 21 SAS(R). He took the rank of sergeant and was involved in the battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai. Nash became an official war artist from 1918 his most famous painting being Over the Top, an oil on canvas work measuring 79·4 x 107·3cm (31¼ x 42¼ inches).

 

ther paintings by John Nash depicting scenes from the First World War include: Oppy Wood 1917: Evening, painted in 1918; and A French Highway, also painted in 1918.

 

In May 1918, John Nash married Dorothy Christine Külenthal and they settled in Gerrards Cross. After his paintings inspired by the war, Nash began painting peaceful landscapes inspired by summer expeditions to the Chiltern Hills and also Gloucestershire. He became a member of the New English Art Club and in 1921 he became the first art critic for the London Mercury.

The same year the couple moved to Meadle near Princes Risborough. For inspiration on his landscapes Nash would travel to the River Stour in Essex and Sufflok. Their only child, William was born in 1930 but was sadly killed in a motor car accident in 1935.

 

Over the Top

The John Nash painting Over the Top commemorates the 1st Artists’ Rifles involvement in an counter-attack on the morning of 30th December, 1917. The action was a hasty response to a German attack on Welsh Ridge near Marcoing south-west of Cambrai. Typical of impulsive badly planned counter-attacks, it was a disaster for the 1st Artists’ Rifles. Eighty men were ordered to take part in the action, sixty-eight were killed or wounded within the first few minutes. Nash was one of the twelve who survived.

©IWM Acc No IWM ART 1656

Over the top

Full title Over the Top: First Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917. John Nash, 1918

 

In the painting Over the Top, soldiers lay dead in the trench, shot before they had fully climbed out of the trench. Another is dead outside the trench having taken just a few steps. The ones who have survived thus far are walking out into no man’s land, their shoulders hunched, seemingly resigned to their inevitable fate.

Trench Warfare

 

On the Western Front in the First World War, trench warfare prevailed. It came about because technology of artillery guns, which are generally static, had advanced but making them mobile on tanks had not been developed. Also there was no meaningful air power to use for ground attack work. Both sides in the war aimed their artillery at each other’s lines so the only defence for the opposing armies was to build trenches to hide in and protect themselves.

 

Both sides built elaborate trench and dugout systems and in an effort to try to outflank each other, they extended their trench systems. The result was that the trenches, which originally had been built along the Franco-German border, eventually stretched from the Swiss border to the Belgian North Sea coastline.

 

This stalemate continued for almost the whole of the war, the artillery on each side pounding the lines on the other. Occasionally, when the guns stopped, the men were ordered to fix bayonets to their rifles and go ‘over the top’. They would then walk slowly across the gap between the lines known as ‘no man’s land’ towards the enemy lines whilst under enemy machine gun fire. The officers would follow the men with orders to shoot any soldier if he seemed to falter in the advance. If a soldier did falter or turn back and yet escape being shot on the battlefield, he would be court martialled and shot by firing squad for the crime of cowardice.

Troops suffered poor conditions in the muddy trenches when it rained and a condition known as trench foot was common. Trench foot is a condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to cold, damp, unsanitary environment. It can occur very quickly, in a matter of thirteen or fourteen hours and, if it’s left untreated, it can lead to gangrene which is severe tissue damage. Gangrene can spread around the body and the only treatment may be to isolate the condition may and perform an amputation in the limb but clear away from the affected area.

 

The First World War saw the first chemical weapons attacks and both sides were guilty of using them. The most well-known were chlorine gas and mustard gas. As tactical weapons, shells filled with chemical agents were useless because after attacking the enemy with them, you couldn’t send in your own troops because the gas would still be lingering. In many cases the gas didn’t kill soldiers so much as give them debilitating medical conditions that they would suffer for the rest of their lives.

 

To try to break down the stalemate the British developed the first battle tank by September 1916. It was known as the British Mk1 Tank but it didn’t see action until January 1917. Even then there was no real understanding of what kind of tactics to employ with it. The Mk 1 did provide a way of crossing no man’s land, overcoming barbed wire and crossing trenches but it’s main armament was a 6 pounder gun (male version) mounted on each side of the hull so did not afford the 360° arc of fire that a turret mounted on top would. Also, at 28 tons they were cumbersome and slow, about 3-4 mph, or walking pace like the infantry.

British Mk 1 tank Male

Armed with two 6-punder QF guns and three 8mm Hotchkiss machine guns. Female Mk 1s were armed lacked heavy fire power and were armed with four .303in Vickers machine guns and one 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun. Introduced in 1916 but not used in battle until January 1917. It had a crew of eight and combat weights of 28 tons (male) and 27 tons (female). The armour thickness was 0·23-0·47 inches.

General Haig

Haig was Commander in Chief of the allied troops on the Western Front and favoured these tactics which led to the slaughter of so many young men. His headquarters were in the Château de Beaurepaire which is situated near to Slough’s twin town Montrueil in Northern France.

 

To understand the futility of the strategies of this conflict you could do worse than watch the BBC TV series Blackadder goes Forth. The final scene where Captain Blackadder and his comrades go over the top is poignant to such a degree that I myself cannot watch it without my eyes filling up.

Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens VC

1892-1917

 

Born in 1892 at High Wycombe, Youens was a teacher at Chalvey Primary School. He joined the British Army in 1914 and later rose to the rank of second lieutenant in the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. 

Frederick Youens VC

On 7th July 1917 south of Ypres in Belgium near Hill 60, Youens was in a dugout being treated for wounds that he had sustained earlier on patrol when the Germans attacked the line. He rushed from the dugout still shirtless and rallied a Lewis gun team to return fire on the enemy. A bomb was thrown into their position. Youens immediately grabbed it and threw it back out. A second one was thrown into the position and again Youens took it to throw out. This time the bomb exploded in his hand. It wounded him fatally and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in this action. Frederick Youens was 24 years old.

Lewis gun

St Peter’s Church in Chalvey has a war memorial dedicated to the fallen service personnel of the First World War. Constructed in 1921, it is a Grade II listed structure. The plinth bears the names of 84 servicemen, the last name is Youens. His body is buried at the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground in Belgium near Ypres. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Durham Light Infantry Museum and Art Gallery in the north-east of England.

Youens’ name is bottom of the list on one side of the War Memorial at St Peter’s Church

Peace for our time

The Poppy Appeal

In 1921, the Earl Haig Fund was set up as a charity to assist wounded servicemen. Many people saw this as an insult the huge number of the wounded and dead who fell as a direct result result of Haig’s strategy. Incidentally, General Haig’s headquarters in France was at the Château de Beaurepaire near Slough’s twin town of Montreuil.

The Poppy Appeal

In 1921, the Earl Haig Fund was set up as a charity to assist wounded servicemen. Many people saw this as an insult the huge number of the wounded and dead who fell as a direct result result of Haig’s strategy. Incidentally, General Haig’s headquarters in France was at the Château de Beaurepaire near Slough’s twin town of Montreuil.

Birth of Slough Trading Estate

As the armed forces were demobilised, space was needed to store military vehicles until they could be refurbished and converted for civilian use. These vehicles consisting of lorries, trucks, cars and motorbikes were stored in an area north of Cippenham. The area was given infrastructure of roads, workshops and offices etc and eventually became the Slough Trading Estate.

 

This led to the expansion of Slough as a town since workers seeking employment on the trading estate needed homes, shops, schools and all the other infrastructure to live here. To read a more detailed account of the history of the trading estate click on the button below:

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