Artists of the Great War
Will Dyson’s Australia at war: Drawings at the front
‘He was emphatically lost, lost like a child, and evoking some of the pity that goes to a child, he looked so very young …’
(Will Dyson, from the notes on Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60)
Will Dyson was the first Australian official war artist to visit the front during the Great War. Attached to the Australian Imperial Force, he travelled to France in December 1916 and remained there until May 1917, making records of the Australian involvement in the war. Dyson experienced the battles at close quarters; he was wounded twice. During his time at Ypres and on the Somme, he produced a large number of pencil, charcoal and watercolour sketches. A selection of these drawings, each with a commentary by the artist, was later published in Australia at war: Drawings at the front (1918).
Dyson preferred to describe the day-to-day life of ordinary Australian soldiers. Many of his drawings focus on the troops’ physical and psychological devastation by attention to pose and gesture, like the drooping head, slumped shoulders and fallen body in Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60. His aim was not to record heroic acts, but rather the miserable physical and psychological conditions of the Western Front campaigns. By all accounts the winter of 1916–17 was the harshest in the region for decades.
The paintings, drawings and prints in Artists of the Great War provide an introduction to the achievement of Dyson’s war art. His rapid, fluent line skilfully captures the soldiers’ dreadful circumstances and the loneliness and fatigue of life on the front line.
Will Dyson Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60 1917, Australian War Memorial, Canberra