The Nek was a vitally important position on the northern end of the Anzac front line. At dawn on 7 August 1915 the Australians and Turks faced each other over this narrow strip of open ground on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Australians were met with a torrent of gunfire, and four out of five who took part in the assault were killed or wounded. In its futility, this was one of the great tragedies of the First World War. It was intended as a feint to help operations elsewhere, but the Turks had been warned and, through an error in timing, the preliminary bombardment of the enemy lines ceased seven minutes before the assault, allowing the Turks time to man their positions after sheltering during the bombardment. The Australians were massacred.
Lambert depicted the tense drama of the awful moment when the Australian soldiers charged forward across the rocky plateau as the line of Turkish soldiers fired at them. He showed the Australian soldiers running, thrusting, hurtling forward; as the Sydney Guardian observed on 26 November 1930, he presented them thrust ‘into the air like marionettes jerked into eternity’, so that ‘you can almost hear the crack of the bullets’. Lambert portrayed a kneeling soldier at the centre right of his painting, with his stunned face and bullet wounds, like stigmata, on his hands suggesting the sacrifice of these men led like lambs to the slaughter. He used a narrow picture plane with the figures on one plane and the landscape behind them on another, a device that makes the soldiers appear to leap out from the canvas but which also contributes a sense of unreality to this dynamic image of battle action.
Lambert presented this event within the context of a beautiful, silent and undisturbed landscape – in dramatic and ironic contrast with the brutal reality of war. The sky, the purple-misted distant hills, can be seen as Lambert described them to Amy on 6 March 1919, to sit ‘stern, unmoved, callous of the human’ (ML MSS 97/4, item 1, p.75). A reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald noted on 11 September 1924 that the ‘cold, bleak, mountains seem to point to the moral of “how vain a thing is man”.’ Lambert was conscious of the irony of war taking place in a scene of beauty, and how it emphasised the violence of the human action by locating it within this setting. He commented to Amy on 17 February 1919 that ‘evidence grins coldly at us noncombatants, and I feel thankful that I have been trained … to stop my emotions at the border line. From the point of view of the Artist Historian the Nek is a wonderful setting for the tragedy’ (ML MSS 97/4, item 1, pp.25–7). The lyrical landscape, however, can also be viewed as offering hope: through nature’s eternal cycle it will continue to grow, to regenerate and will eventually cover up the scars left by the war disease that took place on it.
During his tour of duty in 1919 with C.E.W. Bean on his fact-finding mission to Gallipoli, Lambert went over the ground where the charge at the Nek had taken place, at the time of day that it had occurred, and made sketches of the terrain. He noted the bones that littered the ground, and the cruel presence of death, and in his letter home on 16 February 1919 he observed to Amy that ‘the gruesome is … scattered all over the battlefield’ (ML MSS 97/4, item 1, p.17). Bean provided him with an account of the action, and discussed with him how a man might fall if hit on one side and spin around. In his London studio in 1920 Lambert made pencil sketches of models dressed in uniform, posing as if taking part in the action, and a pencil design of the composition. He seems not to have returned to the subject until late 1923, when he was settled in a spacious studio in a military hospital at Randwick, Sydney. There he worked from an oil sketch of the terrain made at Gallipoli, and from the pencil sketches made in London.
In depicting battle scenes Lambert used particular historic events to make generalised images, the tragedy and horror of war. He described this painting as the most dramatic of his war commissions, reporting to the Melbourne Herald on 18 March 1921, before he recommenced working on it, that he was finding it ‘the most elaborate and difficult’. The Sydney Morning Herald ’s critic noted on 11 September 1924 the way Lambert avoided the ‘spectacular element of war’ and revealed its ‘grim reality’, observing that the painting ‘strikes a chill to the heart’. Table Talk ’s reviewer commented on 13 September 1924 that it showed war ‘stripped of all its glamor’, and the Sydney Guardian ’s commentator remarked a few years later, on 26 November 1930, that it was ‘one of the most graphic close-ups of war ever painted’. In his account of the Gallipoli expedition, Gallipoli mission (1948) Bean observed that in this painting Lambert created ‘a rather terrible work and meant to be so’. It is an image which epitomised Lambert’s personal attitude to war as a ghastly debacle that ‘wrecked one’s faith in human reasonableness and laughed hideously at love and culture’ (ML MSS 97/3, pp.179–80).
The painting was commissioned by the Australian government through the Australian High Commission in London in 1919, for £500, as part of the official war art scheme.