“The Front Line – At Night” – J.A Churchman


1. What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

This painting by J.A. Churchman allows us to understand the fighting situation at the front line during World War I. By looking at this small patrol illuminated by the bursting shells and flares on the top right corner of this painting, it depicts that frantic activity only took place at front line at night time because it was extremely dangerous to attack when the sun was out. As we can see from this painting, the front line was the place where there were no walls or fences for Canadian soldiers to hide themselves from attacks by the enemies; there was only flat land and mud. Soldiers often had to lie down, covered in the mud to protect and camouflage themselves from the enemies. It was not easy for them to fight during the day time as they could be easily detected. The bursts and flares in this picture show the extreme violence at front line, and illustrate that night was the best period for Canadian soldiers to attack and fight.

2. Who created this piece of art?

The piece entitled ‘The Front Line – At Night’ was done by James Alexander Churchman. J.A Churchman was originally born April of 1898 at Costabelle along the Mediterranean coast of France at Côte d’azure. He attended both primary and high school in Scotland. Churchman served in World War I with the Grenadier Guards for over two years on active duty before moving to Canada. J.A. Churchman joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and served with them in Toronto, Ontario, Saint John, New Brunswick and in Montreal. In Montreal he participated in the Drug squad among other law enforcement activities.
J.A Churchman served as the Noncommissioned officer (N.C.O) in charge of the Drug Squad and the Preventative Squad until 1938 when he was chosen to take over the ballistics work at the newly established RCMP Crime Detection Laboratory in Regina, Saskatchewan. In preparation for this posting he was sent to observe operations in the Ballistics Bureau of the New York City Police Department in the United States for four months. This four month course was considered a ‘life-time of experience’ by Canadian standards and he acquired considerable knowledge of forensic and homicide investigation techniques. Churchman specialized in the identification of firearms through impressions and engravings on ammunition components and allied studies.
Churchman retired from service in 1958. J.A Churchman was awarded the military medal in 1917 and was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada by the Governor General, December 17, 1973.

3. Where was this piece of art created?

It was never specified when “The Front Line – At Night” by Major J.A. Churchman was actually painted, but it was most likely after the war was over. Serving as a Sergeant in the 1st Canadian Division of the Canadian Army of World War I, he drew on his experience and memories of battles and events that he witnessed. He obviously painted these from memory, since you couldn’t obviously paint something in the middle of battle, but it shows what the front lines of the war were like. When most people thought about war you think battles in the day time, but in this perspective, using night during this time, especially in post-war that battles also took place at night, and kept going on. There is not even a date to put to this particular piece of artwork, but date, and time do not really matter when you consider the context and that it was painted from a first hand account of what he witnessed while he was at war.

4. For what purpose was this art created?

“The Front Line – At Night” by J.A. Churchman is a painting depicting a patrol squad during what appears to be a small night bombardment. The Front Line was perilous and at a constant threat of enemy attacks and night raids. Although only J.A Churchman will know his exact purpose for painting “The Front Line – At Night”, it can been seen as a testament to the lethality of the front lines, both during the day and at night. Even though the front lines were less dangerous at night, J.A Churchman proposes that there were still casualties (as shown in the painting, both with the dead man [center of painting], and then the man shooting towards the enemy). The purpose of the painting is to depict the reality of what the soldiers experienced throughout the day and into the night; the never ending threat of danger and death.

5. What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?

The painting shows men in trenches at nighttime, but even though the painting depicts night, there is a lot of light and vibrant colour. This shows that in the dark of night, there were many shots and explosions. The men appear to be alert, as nighttime was highly dangerous during war; because of the cover of darkness (aside from explosions), enemies could maneuver with greater ease without being detected, which they would be during the daytime. Because of this, soldiers would get very little sleep, and many would experience shell shock from the constant fear of attack and loud explosions that were occurring constantly. The uniform of the Canadian soldiers can also be seen in this painting. The piece can be quickly identified as from the First World War because of the helmets that the soldiers are seen wearing. The uniforms provided little protection, and were improved upon when the Second World War began. With such little protection, many soldiers were easily injured or killed. Another telling feature concerning wartime experience is that the soldiers are up to their knees in water while standing in the trenches. Many men suffered from “trench foot” – infection of the feet from prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions – because the trenches collected water whenever there was rain, and there was poor drainage. Naturally, this condition that soldiers faced made war even more miserable than it already was. Overall, the painting effectively portrays many negative aspects of war that Canadian soldiers had to face.

6. How accurate is this depiction of war?

The front line during the First World War was known as a brutal and messy place as the soldiers were always covered in mud and being shot at. In the photo, the line is painted very dark and dirty which is also how it is described by soldiers. Churchman also accurately depicts the uniforms from the First World War as the men’s uniforms and helmet match the description of what a Canadian soldier. According to most First World War accounts, movement in the open by daylight on the Western Front was frequently fatal; night was therefore a period of often frantic activity. J.A. Churchman’s painting accurately depicts the war as the men were shooting at night as it was the best time to fight with the most coverage. J.A. Churchman accurately shows bursting shells and flares as they light up the sky and illuminate the small patrol on the front line.

7. How does your piece of art further our understanding of Canadian history?

J.A. Churchman was a Canadian Artist who served, and painted from his experiences, wanting to show his own experience, and preserve Canadians experience during war-time. This was from his point of view obviously, but it helps our further understanding of Canadian History because it expresses the experience of average Canadian soldiers, what Canadians experienced, and how they perceived war. On a more impersonal level, the painting furthers understanding as it depicts what World War One warfare would have looked like. As opposed to a textual explanation of nighttime trench warfare, Churchman’s painting offers a visual representation. With this, the experience can be understood on an inherently emotional level by those who view it, regardless of the era in which they are observing.


Posted on March 19, 2014, in War Art: WWI and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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