Recently I posted about Rex Passion’s new book The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War. Rex has performed a labor of love in preserving the voluminous corpus of work Shenton left behind. A few weeks back I sent Rex the link to an article about The Sketchbook Project, a Brooklyn-based library of 33,000+ sketchbooks from around the world. I believe Rex sent them a copy of his new book for their collection. The visual history of the Civil War–Winslow Homer, Alfred Waud, and their contemporaries–has been so well documented. It seems we don’t fully appreciate the visual culture of the First World War to anywhere near the same degree. I am hoping that changes during the Great War Centennial. The public needs to know of the work of such solider/artists as Ed Shenton, John W. Thomason and their counterparts from across the globe who lived and fought in the trenches of 1914-18.
The Strawfoot: Tell us about Edward Shenton and his experience in the First World War.
Rex Passion: At the time the U.S. declared war on Germany, Edward Shenton was in his second year as a full-time art student at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. He had just gotten through a very trying and depressing winter and the decision to join the army seems to have cleared away some of the dark clouds.
Ed and fifteen of his high-school friends joined the Pennsylvania National Guard at the armory in Philadelphia and Ed was assigned to Company apt, 103rd Engineers, which was later attached to the 28 Division. After several weeks of drill and training at the armory, Company B moved to Camp Meade between Baltimore and Washington. The land for the camp had been purchased by the government only weeks before so Ed was present with his sketchbooks as the camp was being built. He kept up his art school habit of drawing what he saw every day.
The new recruits spent the spring at Camp Meade then moved to Camp Hancock near Augusta, Georgia where their training intensified. They learned the building and demolition techniques of a combat engineer, but also the craft of an infantry soldier.
In addition to the soldiers’ training the men of Company B had various camp chores but still found time for a bit of rest and recreation.
Finally, after nearly a year of training, Ed Shenton and his friends embarked for France and the war.
On the first of June they arrived in Calais and after an additional three weeks of training moved toward the front.
The engineers’ first taste of combat was near the town of Charly-sur-Marne. They lived at a chateau near the river and marched to and from a place called la Canarderie (the duck farm) amid cannon fire and aerial combat. During this period Ed was building trenches all day and only had time to draw after a long days’ work.
On July 14, the engineers were hastily withdrawn from Charly-sur-Marne and redeployed to the east near the town of Condé-en-Brie. On the night of the 15th they marched to a hillside above the town of St. Agnan and the next morning relieved the 109th Infantry, which had been decimated by the advancing Prussian Guard.
About noon the advancing Germans started shooting at the Americans and the engineers returned their fire. An hour or two later the Germans started shelling the shallow trench where Ed and his fellows were crouched. Many were wounded and some killed and Ed Shenton had his baptism of fire.
After what seemed like an eternity the soldiers moved to the nearby woods where they dug in for two more days, taking additional casualties. On July 16, 1918 the line held and in the next days the Germans retreated to the north, back across the Marne, and the Engineers followed in the wake of the destruction.
The 103rd engineers arrived in Fismes on the Vesle River just after the Germans had vacated the town. Rotating squads stayed in a basement command post during the day and built bridges under fire at night. Ed was there with his sketchbooks and plenty of time to draw. Young men cannot remain cooped up underground when there are exciting things to see and Ed and his friends risked their lives dodging German fire to wander the ruined town in the daytime with Ed, of course, recording their adventures.
After more than a month in Fismes, the engineers had a short-lived rest in Bettencourt-la-Longe but soon were headed for the Argonne Forest. They fought in the early days of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, this time building roads and disposing of explosives. Once again they relieved the infantry, this time the 111th, at the battle of Chene Tondu.
On the day of the Armistice, Company B was preparing for an offensive to take the town of Metz. Ed was evidently on the move as he did one drawing captioned “Commercy, the day of the signing of the Armistice” and another dated November 12, 1918 from a village 25 miles away.
Tomorrow, part 2: the Armistice, Edward Shenton returns home from France, and nearly a century later Rex Passion tells his story
(sketches drawn by Edward Shenton and courtesy of Rex Passion)