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World War II: The Hitler Line (1944), by Charles Comfort.

In order to better understand the Canadian war effort over the course of the World War II (1939-45), our class has been tasked with studying war art of the period and presenting information on the source, the topic of the painting, its purpose, and its historical relevance. These are the answers we, as a group, proposed through the study of the painting The Hitler Line (1944) by Charles Comfort.

Collective response for both pieces of war art: Both of these pieces further our understanding of Canadian history because they show us how effective the Canadian forces were during this time. We implemented new tactics like the use of armored tanks. These tactics were able to conquer difficult defenses like the “Sugar Factory” and the village of Courcelette. Not only were they able to capture these locations, but they were able to hold off all German attacks, and counter-attacks. This showed the world that Canada was a force to be reckoned with and deserved the respect that they fought for.

Question #1: What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

As Charles Comfort’s 1944 title suggests, this painting depicts what is know as “The Hitler Line”. The Hitler Line was a German defensive line in central Italy during the Second World War. The two major strong points of the line were found at Aquino and Piedimonte. This line was used as a fallback for the German’s Gustav line, which was situated a couple of kilometers south.

The Allies had broken the Gustav line on their way to the Italian capital of Rome. Their next objective was the Hitler line. It was on May 23, 1944 that soldiers from Canada’s Van Doos, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Seaforth Highlanders, and Carleton and York regiments successfully attacked the Hitler line. It was the hardest part of the line to conquer, as it was a barricade of steel, concrete and barbed wire 20 feet thick. Following the penetration of the line, tanks from the Canadian Fifth Armoured Division were able to drive through and attack the awaiting German Panther tanks. The Hitler line had then officially fallen.

This painting gives insight to the total destruction with which the Canadians were faced as the fought through the Hitler line. Luckily, the destruction of the Hitler Line was followed by two weeks of rest for the Canadians.

Question #2: Who created this piece of art?

Charles F Comfort, the painter of The Hitler Line, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1900. In 1919, he moved to Canada where he acquired a Canadian citizenship as well.  Throughout his life, he was an artist, painter, teacher, muralist, writer, poet, photographer, and art gallery director. (“Charles F. Comfort”)

Comfort also served in the war, beginning as a rifle instructor for the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps in 1939. Next, he became a lieutenant in the Canadian Active Service Force to serve as an official war artist from 1943 to 1946. Some of the most popular Canadian paintings of the Second World War were made by Comfort (“Charles Comfort, 1900-1994”). These include The Hitler Line, a dramatic subject based on the artist’s experiences in the Italian campaign, which hangs permanently in the Canadian War Museum (“Charles Comfort, 1900-1994”).

After the war, Charles Comfort played a significant role in Canada’s War Art program and in the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts. He was an avid supporter of the War Art program after Canada had successfully formed such a program during WW1(“Charles F. Comfort”). From 1960 to 1965 Comfort served as the director of the National Gallery of Canada. He played a key role in insuring that there were enough funds available for the proper storage and care of the War Art collections. Charles Comfort later passed away in Ottawa in 1994.

Question #3: Where was this piece of art created?

The piece of art titled “The Hitler Line” by Charles Comfort in 1944 was created in Italy where the Allied troops, including the Canadians were trying to break through into Rome. The Germans had a line of defense across Italy which they named The Hitler Line. When the Allies landed, among them were three Canadian divisions which took part in the invasion; The Canadian 1stt Division, The 5th British Division, and The 1st Canadian Arm Tank Brigade. Italy provided difficult terrain for the Allies. The Canadians had to overcome broken up roads, mud, and mountains, which gave the enemy an advantage. They also had to watch out for land mines. Despite the difficult and dangerous conditions the Canadian divisions still managed to advance in land. The Canadians fought in
the Liri Valley in 1944 where they were ordered to apply pressure to the German line of defense. The attack on the Hitler Line occurred on May.23rd, 1944. It was a difficult battle for both sides, but the Canadians advanced ending most of the Liri Valley conflict. The purpose of the Hitler Line was to prevent the Allies from entering Rome. Rome was vital for the Germans and they did not want to lose control over it. The Hitler Line eventually collapsed after continuous fighting from both sides. Rome was then seized by the
Americans. The breakthrough of the Hitler Line was crucial for the Allies since D-Day occurred not long after. The D-Day landings made having control of Italy even more important because the Allies needed to keep the German army under control to ensure their success.

Question #4: For what purpose was this art created?

As warfare erupted on the global scene for the second time in the span of less than a generation, wartime artists once more found themselves in a situation where they would be deployed to the front lines, using their talents to capture what a camera lens simply could not, despite important technological advancements.

Much like the First World War artwork that we have already considered, Comfort sought to encapsulate the Canadian war front experience. This painting, titled The Hitler Line, captures Canadian soldiers fighting in Italy. What is absolutely captivating about this painting is not solely the content, but also the manner through which it is presented; the soldiers are weary, the war is damaging and the wreckage is immense. Comfort obviously sought, in this work of art, to summarize the war effort, as he so often did in his other paintings. The harshness of war was not glossed over. The fumes from the detonations, the ragged dirty uniforms, the tired looks on the soldiers’ faces, the broken and desolate landscape completely torn apart by new forms of artillery and war machines. There are numerous elements to this painting that speak true of the Canadian military experience during the Second World War. Comfort, in short, demonstrates the true purpose of war art: it captures, through the artists’ gaze, what a camera simply cannot. There is raw emotion in the painting that will go unnoticed in photography, especially the photography of the mid twentieth century. War artists navigated through the war in an incredibly personal way and put to canvas not only their unique perspective, but also the human outlook on the devastation and wreckage brought on by unparalleled warfare.

Question #5: What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?

The painting “The Hitler Line” by Charles Comfort depicts a scene from battle on the Hitler Line during the Second World War where a large gun exploded from a hit to its magazine. The painting also depicts soldiers standing with guns in front of a background filled with smoke and darkness from gunfire, setting an ominous tone that surely was felt amidst the battle as well.

In the foreground of the painting is a piece of splintered wood, setting the perspective as being the first person perspective of a soldier. This makes the painting seem more personal, since the scene is portrayed from the eyes of a soldier. It makes the image more real, as if the viewer themselves was a soldier witnessing the scene first hand, which also makes the scene that much more powerful. It is easy, through use of this perspective, to imagine seeing this scene of men in arms with smoke and debris, let alone a large exploding gun, giving the impression of an experience filled with loud noise, smoke, and explosions, which must have been quite traumatic.

The moment Comfort decided to depict in his painting says a lot about the experience of war as well, and Comfort says in his own words that the large gun sticking up from the ground from its explosion was “like a gigantic pylon memorializing the disasters of war.” Even amongst the duration of battle, Comfort was able to see the poetic side to things, and his depiction of this moment in its own way memorializes the disasters of war, mirroring the memorialisation factor to the large gun.

Question #6: How accurate is this depiction of war?

This painting could almost be said to be a picture of how the battle actually looked like in this time. It was very accurate by showing the death and suffering the troops had to endure throughout the war. It shows no actual plant life save for the dead or dying trees in the battle. Explosions and troops advancement are shown. Men helping other fellow comrades are shown caring or helping wounded soldiers. A tank is also shown looking stuck, and that is pretty accurate because back when tanks were first used they got damaged or stuck easily and were not able to function anymore. It is also pretty accurate the bi-planes that were used in battle against other enemy planes or scouting enemy lines.

Sources used by the group:

Website for painting: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artwar/artworks/19710261-2203_hilter-line_e.shtml

Canadian War Museum. “The Hitler Line.” Canadian Museum of History. Accessed 19 March, 2014. http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.warmuseum.ca%2    Fcwm%2Fexhibitions%2Fartwar%2Fartworks%2F19710261-2203_hilter-  line_e.shtml&h=9AQE9YnqZ

Stursberg, Peter. “The Italian Campaign: Breaking the Hitler Line” Recorded May 23, 1944. CBC Radio News. CBC Digital Archives. Radio. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/second-world-war/the-italian-campaign/breaking-the-hitler-line.html.

National Gallery of Canada, “Charles F. Comfort .” Accessed March 18, 2014. https://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=1093.

Canadian War Museum , “Charles Comfort, 1900-1994.” Accessed March 18, 2014. http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artists/comfort1eng.shtml.

“Veterans Affairs Canada” Canada-Italy 1943-1945. Minister of Supply and Service Canada. March.6th, 2014. Date accessed: March.20th, 2014 http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/canada-Italy-1943-to-1945

“Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?” BBC News. Accessed March 19th, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8604570.stm

World War I: The Battle for Courcelette (1918), by Louis Weirter.

In order to better understand the Canadian war effort over the course of the World War I (1914-1918), our class has been tasked with studying war art of the period and presenting information on the source, the topic of the painting, its purpose, and its historical relevance. These are the answers we, as a group, proposed through the study of the painting The Battle for Courcelette (1918) by Louis Weirter.
Battle  of Courcelette

Question #1: What aspect of war, or event, does this piece of art depict?

The piece of art, “Battle of Courcelette” by Louis Alexander Weirter, depicts the Battle of Courcelette, also sometimes known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, from a soldier’s point of view. It was painted two years after the battle. As is evident in the painting, the Battle of Courcelette, as well as the Battle of the Somme and fighting on the western front as a whole, was a chaotic bloodbath.

The Battle of Courcelette was the first major assault launched by the Canadian Army during the Battle of the Somme. This attack was launched the morning of September 15th, 1916 near the village of Courcelette in northern France. The Canadian Corps advanced along a two-kilometer front and implemented combined armed tactics. One of these tactics was the use of armoured tanks, which had not previously been used in battle. These tanks aided in the rapid capture of the defence bastion that was know as the “Sugar Factory”. After capturing the Sugar Factory, the Canadians continued all the way to the village of Courcelette.

Despite many counter-attacks by the Germans, the Canadians had officially captured the French village of Courcelette by the following day. This initial attack during the Battle of the Somme was both significant and successful for the Canadians.

Question #2: Who created this piece of art?

The Battle of Courcelette was painted by Louis Weirter, sometimes also known as Louis Whirter. Weirter was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and lived both in London and at Étaples, France. As a young adult, he studied at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools and later at schools in Paris.

Louis Weirter joined the army and served as a solider during World War One. He witnessed many of the allies’ battles at the Somme (“Canada and the First World War”), including the Battle of Courcelette which is illustrated in the painting. The painting, Battle of Courcellete, was bought for the national war collection at Ottawa. His other works such as the Peronne is also at Ottawa, and War in the Air is in the British War Museum. (“Louis Whirter” 13 12, 2013)

Louis Weirter was an original member of the Scottish Society of Artists, which is an artist-led membership organisation which promotes and encourages experimentation and “adventurous spirit” in contemporary art, as stated on their website.  He showcased his art at the Royal Academy of London, the Paris Salon, and other art exhibitions all over the world.  Weirter is best known for his pictures of World War One (“Louis Weirter, 1873-1932”), but he did some architectural paintings and etchings as well. Weirter’s obituary of 1932 states that he died on January 12 at his home in Onslow-gardens, London, at the age of 61. (“Louis Whirter Biography” )

Question #3: Where was this piece of art created?

“The Battle of Courcelette” by Louis Alexander Weirter was created during World War One in the village of Courcelette, France. The battle was part of the well-known Somme offensive, which lasted for months and had massive causalities for both the Allies and the Germans. The Canadian corps at Courcelette was commanded by Sir Douglas Haig who proceeded with the attack on September. 15th, 1916. The Canadians played a vital role in The Battle of Courcelette since it was the Canadian division who captured the village. As a result of this battle, the Canadians became known as “Storm Troops”. They had gained respect for their effort and bravery. The Allies success at Courcelette was partly due to new strategies and the unveiling of tanks for the first time in battle. The tanks were slow and not very effective in most situations, but they frightened and confused the enemy so they did have a slight advantage. The Allies also experimented with “creeping barrages”. This tactic was successful because it created massive shelling on enemy trench lines, which allowed the Canadian infantry to advance behind the barrage to cross No Man’s Land. The Battle of Courcelette was a very important victory for the Allies, however, they would not be as successful in the following battles. Courcelette taught the Allies valuable lessons and improvements that would be beneficial later on in combat.

Question #4: For what purpose was this art created?

Although the camera had been around for quite a few decades prior to the outbreak of the Great War (1914-1918), it was a widely held belief that the quality of photography at the dawn of the twentieth century was still lagging in some respects. Therefore, as the First World War dramatically erupted on various parts of the globe, it became apparent that war artists would once more be required (seeing as war artists had been used several times before, including during the Crimean War of 1853-56) in order to capture pivotal moments. The Battle for Courcelette, the painting at study, is an example of this.

The subject of the painting in itself is seared in the Canadian narrative; in fact, it is considered to be “one of the Canadians’ greatest achievements during the Battle of the Somme.” Although the painter, Louis Weirter, had been commissioned for a variety of battle-scene artwork, this particular piece was a rendition of what he himself had witnessed as a serving soldier.

It is an incredibly busy painting: numerous soldiers all across the canvas, some wounded while others are gripped in the midst of battle, rifles raised. It is very bleak and sombre; one needs only look at the painting to understand why it was created: not only would it be used as a means to commemorate this decisive battle and the people who fought in it, it also very accurately demonstrates the horror and the carnage that came to embody ‘modern warfare’, as well as the wreckage brought about by the “onset of trench warfare”. This is most certainly not a piece that would have been used for propaganda, seeing as it provokes feelings of sadness and despair, rather than a burst of nationalistic pride. However, it most certainly would be appreciated in later years as representative of the hardships Canadian soldiers faced against the German soldiers at the Somme, where “twenty-four thousand soldiers were killed and wounded for an advance of just six kilometres.”

Question #5: What does this piece of art tell us about the experience of war?

The painting “Battle of Courcelette” by Louis Alexander Weirter is a very busy piece that tells us a lot about the first-hand experience of war. The painting itself, done in 1918, sets the sombre tone of being amidst the chaos of battle through the use of fiery and earth-toned colours, representing the fire of artillery and the upending of the earth, and the distant perspective, allowing for broad visuals of the events of battle.

On the ground level of the painting, soldiers are depicted in trenches, as well as on foot, with shelling and artillery fire going on around and in front of them. So many men are depicted, in fact, that it is almost difficult to distinguish between them, and between them and the ground. This aspect of the painting shows how chaotic the First World War was, and how, in the middle of battle, soldiers were completely surrounded with other men, shelling, artillery fire, and war equipment. This chaos is also evidenced by Weirter’s depiction of the sky being filled with warplanes and smoke from explosions, showing that soldiers on the front lines were surrounded by battle on all sides during the Battle of Courcelette.

This tumultuous scene from the Great War is a great example of just how horrible being on the front lines would have been. The soldiers depicted in this painting are either tightly packed together in the background or tightly packed into the trenches in the foreground, and being surrounded with the smoke, flying debris, and the noise of gunfire and warplanes depicted would have added to the effect of the Battle of Courcelette being quite overwhelming.

Question #6: How accurate is this depiction of war?

This painting could almost be said to be a picture of how the battle actually looked like in this time. It was very accurate by showing the death and suffering the troops had to endure throughout the war. It shows no actual plant life save for the dead or dying trees in the battle. Explosions and troops advancement are shown. Men helping other fellow comrades are shown caring or helping wounded soldiers. A tank is also shown looking stuck, and that is pretty accurate because back when tanks were first used they got damaged or stuck easily and were not able to function anymore. It is also pretty accurate the bi-planes that were used in battle against other enemy planes or scouting enemy lines.

*Collective response on blog post for WWII art.

 

Sources used by the group:

Website: http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/guerre/photo-e.aspx?PageId=3.D.2&photo=3.D.2.o&f=%2fcwm%2fexhibitions%2fguerre%2fofficial-art-e.aspx&p=1

Veterans Affairs Canada. “Courcelette Canadian Memorial.” Government of Canada, 02 07, 2014. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/Courcelette (accessed March 17, 2014).

“Veterans Affairs Canada” The Somme. Government of Canada. Februrary.7th, 2014. Date accessed: March.20th, 2014. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/Courcelette

Canada War Museum, “Canada and the First World War.” Accessed March 18, 2014. http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/guerre/photoe.aspx?PageId=3.D.2&photo=3.D.2.o&f=/cwm/exhibitions/guerre/official-art-e.aspx. 

Cylopadia.net, “Louis Whirter .” Last modified 13 12, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2014. http://en.cyclopaedia.net/wiki/Louis-Whirter.

The Annex Galleries , “Louis Whirter Biography.” Accessed March 18, 2014. https://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/2502/Whirter/Louis.

The Modernist Journals Project, “Louis Weirter, 1873-1932.” Accessed March 18, 2014. http://www.brown.edu/Departments/MCM/people/scholes/MJPstuff/24aNew/Weirter/Weirter.html.

Oliver, Dean F., Laura Brandon et al. Canvas of War – Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000 (pages 20 – 22).