30 December 1914 – Raid On Dunkirk

Avenging the British Christmas Day seaplane raid on Cuxhaven, four German Taube aircraft appear over the French coastal town of Dunkirk today. The pilots buzz the city for a half-hour, apparently making multiple passes as they drop small shrapnel bombs from their cockpits in defiance of the fierce rifle and machine gun fire from the ground. Reported immediately in the world’s newspapers, the attack leaves fifteen people dead and thirty-two wounded, but does little material damage to the town’s defenses or industries.

Witnessing the event from the ground is Christopher R.W. Nevinson, a volunteer driver for the Quaker-run Friends’ Ambulance Unit and a graduate of the prestigious Slade School of Art. “Dunkirk was one of the first towns to suffer aerial bombardment,” he later writes in his autobiography Paint and Prejudice, “and I was one of the first men to see a child who had been killed by it. There the small boy lay before me, a symbol of all that was to come.”

Although Nevinson later exaggerated many of his wartime experiences, we can safely assume this episode happened much as he claims, for the experience later informs one of his most famous works, “A Taube.” The word means ‘dove’ in German, but can also be regarded as a pun on ‘tod,’ the German word for death. Seen above, Nevinson’s painting evokes the random nature of total war, for although the bomb has clearly murdered the child, his killers are long gone and can never be held responsible. We are left only with questions of guilt, for there are no answers other than the silent witness of the dead boy and the damage of the bomb.

La Patrie

La Patrie, Nevinson’s 1916 portrayal of French casualties in the squalid conditions of the hospital at Dunkirk

At Sloan, C.R.W. Nevinson was greatly influenced by the Italian-based Futurist movement and the related, but now little-known, Vorticism school. Characterized by sharp lines and angles in motion, his paintings express a fascination with the modern era of manufacturing and machines as well as their effects on the human race. The first artist known to have portrayed a shellburst, explosion and bombardment are common themes in Nevinson’s work, which places mankind in subordination to his own mechanical creations. Men marching to destruction in perfectly-identical kit are transformed into machines themselves, anticipating the robots that will appear in the science fiction of the 1920s.

Becoming an official artist of the War Department in 1917, Nevinson’s landscapes of the Western Front will have a permanent impact on our visualization of the fighting and the blasted hellscape of no man’s land; through oils and lithographs, he portrays humans, societies, and even nature itself as victims of the unemotional, unsparing destructive power of mass-manufactured weapons.

The Strafing, a Nevinson painting t

The Strafing, a Nevinson painting of the Western Front, reduces the humans to supernumeraries in a grand opera of destruction

Developed four years ago by Austrian Igo Etrich and intended for reconnaissance rather than combat, the Taube aircraft are already obsolete when Nevinson witnesses them in action. An artifact of the pioneering days of flight when no one knew anything about aeronautics or aviation engineering, the Taube’s shape is inspired by the winglike Zanonia macrocarpa seedpod, and its status as Germany’s first-ever production airplane is more a function of licensing than proven effectiveness.

Stable in level flight, it is nonetheless difficult to maneuver and poorly-appointed for mounting machine guns. Despite being the first airplane to bomb Paris and claiming the world’s first air-to-air kill, early models of the Taube are already being withdrawn from front-line service. By 1916, all models of the Taube will be completely obsolete, but Nevinson will continue to paint them as the quintessential German fighter until the end of the conflict, for they are a perfect example of the biological made mechanical.

Pursuing a Taube

Pursuing a Taube, one of Nevinson’s later works portraying air combat