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22 Apr 20

Behind the lines

Somewhat unexpectedly, it was the daily experience of boredom, of endless waiting and mindless routines, rather than the sporadic danger and heightened emotions of battle, that characterised much of military life during the First and Second World Wars. The depiction of mundane everyday experiences of servicemen and servicewomen behind the lines became the subject of many artists’ work, and their images of such ‘non-events’ of war give us insight into the individual human dimension of war in contrast to its military, political and social aspects.

The tedium of war is perhaps most fully examined in the paintings and drawings made by Russell Drysdale between 1941 and 1944 during the Second World War. Rejected for military service due to defective eyesight, Drysdale was nonetheless able to observe army life while living on his property near Albury, New South Wales. The station yard, 1943, depicts two soldiers in front of the Albury railway station at night. While Albury station was vitally important in the movement of troops and goods within Australia, Drysdale chose an unremarkable moment to convey a sense of loneliness and isolation.

Photographer Max Dupain’s joyous Boys bathing, Goodenough Island, 1944, captures a group of naked soldiers in a moment of light-hearted enjoyment behind the battle lines. Dupain casts these young men as ideals of manhood, harking back to the ANZAC myth and echoing his prewar images of bathers, themselves so important to the construction of an ideal ‘Australian’ body in the 1930s.1See Isobel Crombie, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture, 1919–1939, Peleus Press and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 85–97.

The Second World War provided many employment opportunities for artists, and various branches of government and the armed services found uses for trained artists. Dupain, for instance, worked in the camouflage unit in the Department of Home Security, and was attached to the Royal Australian Air Force in Darwin, New Guinea and Goodenough Island.

During the First World War the government established the official war art scheme to create a record of the war in art. Will Dyson, the internationally renowned political satirist and cartoonist, was the first Australian official war artist to be appointed, taking up his commission in December 1916. Over the next two years he completed hundreds of drawings depicting the day-to-day hardships suffered by Australian diggers on the Western Front. Compensation (Back at the wagon lines), 1918, is an unusual image within his oeuvre and, indeed, among the works of the First World War official artists. It shows an Australian soldier talking to a young local woman and we are left to wonder about the nature of the ‘compensation’ invoked in the title of the work. Sexual encounters between soldiers and the local population were strongly opposed by military authorities, as venereal disease among the Australians – of which there was a high incidence – rendered them unfit for active duty.

While the only official role for women within the military during the First World War was limited to nursing, many joined voluntary organisations to support the war effort. One such woman was the artist Iso Rae, who made an extraordinary record of life behind the lines while working as a volunteer with the British Red Cross in France.2See Betty Snowden, ‘Iso Rae in Étaples: another perspective of war’, Wartime, no. 8, 1999, pp. 36–41. A long-term expatriate, Rae had left Australia in 1887 bound for further studies in Paris before eventually moving permanently to the coastal town of Étaples on the English Channel. During the First World War, Étaples Army Base Camp was the largest staging camp for Allied troops in France, serving as a transit centre for troops and supplies bound for the Western Front as well as the main Allied hospital base in France. Over 100,000 troops could be stationed there and the multiple hospitals could house up to 22,000 patients. Unlike many expatriates, Rae remained in France for the duration of the war, and worked for the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross in one of the YMCA huts in the camp. Her hundreds of pastel drawings record daily life in the camp, from football games and the cinema to the troops training and the German prisoners who were interned there, as shown in works German prisoners putting up tents, 1917; Étaples, 1917; and Part of New Zealand camp, 1917. Created solely for her own interest, Rae was one of very few female artists to depict life behind the lines during the First World War.

Elena Taylor is Senior Curator, UNSW Art Collection, UNSW Sydney



See Isobel Crombie, Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture, 1919–1939, Peleus Press and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 85–97.


See Betty Snowden, ‘Iso Rae in Étaples: another perspective of war’, Wartime, no. 8, 1999, pp. 36–41.