Our 'Little Contemptibles', 1914
Oil on canvas by William Barns Wollen (1857-1936), 1918 (c).
Composed of regular soldiers and reservists, the British Expeditionary Force landed on the Continent in August in 1914. During the early months of World War One (1914-1918) it was engaged in slowing down the German advance. This painting depicts open warfare with British infantry wearing large packs, taking cover behind a hedge; German artillery in the distance.
The British Army's experiences in the Boer War (1899-1902) had resulted in major reforms in organisation, administration, tactics, weapons and equipment. Introduced in 1906, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, shown in this painting, enabled troops to produce very rapid, accurate fire. Infantry training now placed more emphasis on the ability to shoot straight and fast, and on mobility. These professional soldiers, drilled in new methods of attack, defence, and withdrawal, were taught to take greater advantage of cover.
The title of the canvas relates to an order given by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (1859 -1941) to the commander of his First Army, Alexander von Kluck (1846-1934), in August, 1914:-
'It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over General French's insignificant [or contemptible] little Army.'
In fact the German advance was checked, and the men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces who survived these heavy engagements proudly adopted the ironic title, 'The Old Contemptibles'. These men who served between the outbreak of war and midnight on 22 November 1914 were awarded the 1914 Star.
In the 1880s, the artist, William Barns Wollen, served in the 20th (Artists') Volunteer Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own), popularly known as the Artists' Rifles.
NAM Accession Number
National Army Museum, Out of Copyright
National Army Museum, Study collection
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