On the Wire

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

On the Wire

On the Wire – inspired by With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1972
Pencil, charcoal and watercolour, 46.9 cm x 36.8 cm

'The drawing entitled On the Wire is not taken from my own First World War artillery experiences in Flanders, but from a little book by George Coppard: With a Machine Gun to Cambrai. His description of the dead Tommies hanging on the barbed wire of No-Mans-Land, some kneeling as if in prayer, was the starting point for my drawing' – Roberts, Paintings and Drawings (1976). With a Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969; rev. edn 1980), by George Coppard (1898–1985), contains the author's First World War memoirs, including accounts of his front-line service with a machine-gun team in the battles of Loos, the Somme and Arras. Roberts's picture evidently relates to Coppard’s description of the scene following a British attack early in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 (ch. 21):
Immediately in front, and spreading left and right until hidden from sight, was clear evidence that the attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead, many belonging to the 37th Brigade, were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark, Quite as many had died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in a net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying: they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall.

PROVENANCE: Imperial War Museum (6172)
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Royal Academy 1972, Newcastle 2004

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