Even In 'The War To End All Wars,' There Was Art Coming From The Trenches

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One hundred years ago, the U.S. entered the first global war — an ugly, dirty, agonizing conflict that cost millions of lives and changed the world. Now, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is observing the centennial with art and artifacts in an exhibition called Artist Soldiers.

The Americans didn't arrive until three years into the war and fought for less than a year. They joined French, Russian, British and other troops fighting Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. World War I was the first "modern" industrial war with large numbers of tanks, heavy artillery and planes. Tragically, it was also a war of trenches.

"Hundreds of thousands of people died just to advance a few yards," explains Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Air and Space museum.

Troops dug trenches along the Western Front from Belgium through France to Switzerland to dodge the constant shelling and machine gun fire, Jakab says. Then, they waited in those trenches, until orders came to move. With the troops were professional artists, sent to war by the U.S. government.

"These eight illustrators were the first true combat artists who were really capturing war in the moment, with a firsthand experience," Jakab says.

With pens, pencils, charcoal, watercolors, even oil paints, men known for their magazine illustrations showed Yanks in the field, huddling against gunfire, entering enemy-held villages, standing guard. In Harvey Dunn's 1918 oil The Sentry, a young soldier pops up from the trench — exhaustion muddies his face, his eyes almost blank.

"You see in his eyes what would later become known as the thousand-yard stare," Jakab says.

He's alone, with his rifle, some grenades and his thoughts. Before World War I, war art was created long after the conflict itself, and focused on generals or nobles. Here, you see the grunts, the injured, the mud.

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