Saturday, October 11, 2008

Diary of a Wartime Artist & Sniper

Amazing story of First World War War Artist and sniper, Len Smith.

The Guardian "By day, Len "Smithie" Smith was to be found hunkered down in a shell hole in no man's land with his trusty pad and pencil. Or perhaps poking his head out of a British trench, risking a bullet from a German sniper to make a quick sketch. Later, in a candlelit cellar, he would painstakingly produce detailed images that were designed to help the top brass plan their war strategy, but would not have looked out of place as works of art on a general's drawing room wall.

The remarkable story of Smithie, who drew and fought in northern France in the first world war, is being told for the first time after his diary, complete with hundreds of vivid illustrations, was published yesterday.

Smith's journal recalls daring missions, such as when he produced a detailed sketch of an oak tree just six metres from enemy lines so engineers could produce an exact copy - with a built-in observation post - that was swapped for the real thing.

But it also describes more ordinary but moving tasks he was commissioned to undertake, including painting the names of fallen comrades on simple wooden crosses or scrubbing out German street names in northern France and replacing them with the French originals. The most remarkable aspect is that even in the heat of battle he produced work that was not merely functional but beautiful.

Before the war, Smith, from Walthamstow in east London, had a fledgling career as a commercial artist and enjoyed some success designing a poster advertising Crosse and Blackwell jam. At the age of 22 he enlisted as an infantryman. He hid his notebook and pencils in his leggings and kept an illustrated diary.

Smith started off sketching his friends. He drew his pal Sam reading the letter informing him his son had been born. He sketched caricatures of friends after the regimental barber had shorn their hair. And he made less sympathetic drawings of those he did not take to - such as an officer nicknamed "Murphy the Menace".

Smith also produced images of British and German equipment. On one page a rudimentary British grenade - explosive packed into an old jam tin - is juxtaposed with the much more professional German equivalent.
He lovingly drew pictures of steaming pots of Irish stew, baguettes strapped to a backpack, a friendly black pig he came across. Smith also records an extraordinary episode when British and German soldiers organised an unofficial truce. They exchanged gifts and had a snowball fight - until one "bright villain" thought to hide a bomb in a snowball.

Calmly and accurately, Smith wrote of the horror of war. Of one bombardment he wrote: "The sky seems a mass of flames - the air is drenched with fumes and smoke and all is chaos." But even these pages are lovely to look at, shot through with images of fire and explosions. On another page a missile whizzing through the night sky looks more like a shooting star, and to his artist's eye even mortars were "huge toffee apples sailing out rather slowly".

Smith's skill with the rifle and the pencil were noticed after a year and he was made a sniper and an observer. Delighted at no longer having to hide his pencils and paper, Smith spent whole days hidden away in no man's land making sketches and taking notes until the evening mist fell and he could crawl back home.

In 1916 Smith was ordered to make a detailed sketch of the German lines at Vimy ridge in northern France. Despite constant shelling from the Germans he produced a two-metre-long image of the enemy's position.

"I had to scramble all over the shop making rough pencil notes," he wrote. "Real risky work." The brigadier-general was clearly impressed with the work's artistic merits as well as the strategic benefit. Smith recalls that he declared it "very cleverly executed ... but above all infinitely useful".

After a bout of trench fever Smith was transferred to the special branch works park, where his talents were used to help camouflage troops and equipment.

One job was to camouflage guns. He would draw patterns on them and, just like a child's paint-by-numbers kit, mark the different areas with a figure corresponding to a colour so the gunners could finish the job off themselves.

But his most startling job involved sketching an oak tree stump that stood within the barbed wire six metres from German trenches. Engineers then produced a copy of the tree in iron and steel, complete with ladder running up through the hollow centre. "Scene shifters" removed the real tree and replaced it with the fake one by night, "praying that Jerry will not tumble the game". They didn't and, amazingly, a man was able to scramble through tunnels to the tree and observe what the enemy was up to.

War ended, and Smith's final sketch is of a one-way ticket back home that reads: "Blighty route. Single to England-home-beauty."
After he returned, Smith had a successful career as a commercial artist. He never spoke about the war but tried unsuccessfully to get his diary published. He died in December 1974 at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, at the age of 83, believing his diary would languish for ever in a cupboard.

But his great-nephew, Dave Mason, has finally published it by putting the collection online at


Anonymous said...

Bit of contrast with Col.Totall who resigned from the Parachure regiment in disgust at the fact that he watched his soldiers dying in Afghanistan because of a shortage of helicopters. How many times was it that Mr "no boom or bust went to the MOD when he was Chancellor - errr? that would be once, and only then because he wanted to keep Rosyth dockyard open. Labour shouldn't kid itself that anyone in the Armed forces regards them as a supporter -they can't even be bothered to provide a fulltime Minister of the Armed forces - and now the head of the Army has been passed over for the position of Chief of the Defence staff because he has been criticisng the Government - what a shallow bunch of hypocrites you are.

Robert said...

Well we know what the UK think of our troops look at how they are treated once at home, look how much money Tony Blair has donated to the war efforts as he buys another house.

If Governments go to war the bloody leader should lead from the front at least Churchill did a bit.

Anonymous said...

Well of course the cabinet all come from backgrounds where they themselves had some service connections - or they enouraged their children to serve - Cherie is too busy backing claimns for repetitive strain injuries amongst clerical workers to be bothered with soldiers who have had their legs blown off. The Army are just a photo opportunity for Brown.

John Gray said...

Hi Anons
Good to see you back! We’ve missed you – honest! Mind you, not that sure about your point? If you want to compare the present day situation with that of the First World War then I think that you would find present conflicts are handled in a far more efficient and better way. Things are not perfect but I don’t see any comparison. As far as I can gather, Col. Total issue was not the lack of helicopters but there was a “high command cock up” on the day. I don’t think that it was Gordon Brown’s decision not to put a winch in Chinooks either.
While I suspect many in the Armed forces are natural supporters of the Conservative I have always found support for the Labour Party. But I would imagine even those who don’t would be pretty horrified by your use of such shallow and sectretarian ranting supposedly on their behalf. Come on matey, use your brain - attack the Politics not the man (or woman).

Robert – in an age of home grown suicide bombers I am not sure were the front is anymore.

Anonymous said...

Actually he complained about the appalling Hospital treatment of the soldiers as well... Brown couldn't have cared less as Chancellor - he loves the photo opportunities now though