image: A side on view of a line of soldiers being led along a duckboard by a medical orderly. Their eyes are bandaged as a result of exposure to gas and each man holds on to the shoulder of the man in front. One of the line has his leg raised in an exaggerated posture as though walking up a step, and another veers out of the line with his back to the viewer. There is another line of temporarily blinded soldiers in the background, one soldier leaning over vomiting onto the ground. More gas-affected men lie in the foreground, one of them drinking from a water-bottle. The crowd of wounded soldiers continues on the far side of the duckboard, and the tent ropes of a dressing station are visible in the right of the composition. A football match is being played in the background, lit by the evening sun.
The scene is the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 as witnessed by the artist. Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. The painting gives clues about the management of the victims, their relative lack of protective clothing, the impact and extent of the gas attack as well as its routine nature – the football match goes on regardless. The canvas is lightly painted with great skill. Sargent draws the viewer into the tactile relationships between the blinded men. There is a suggestion of redemption as the men are led off to the medical tents, but the overall impression is of loss and suffering, emphasised by the expressions of the men standing in line. In sharp contrast to the victims, the football players are physically and visually co-ordinated and have full kit. Sargent travelled to France with artist, Henry Tonks in July 1918. Tonks describes the context for this work in a letter to Alfred Yockney on 19 March 1920: 'After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, lead along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint... Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.' Sargent was commissioned by the British Government to contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for World War One. He was given the theme of 'Anglo-American co-operation' but was unable to find suitable subject matter and chose this scene instead. ' The further forward one goes', he wrote 'the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men - the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes and empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic - and how can one do an epic without masses of men?'
Ministry of Information commission, 1918
John S. Sargent Aug 1918