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Four Questions for Rex Passion

"It is human nature to want to forget the horrors of war."

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission

MenuJust over one hundred years ago, a young art student in Philadelphia, named Edward Shenton, joined the National Guard. Before he went away to training camp, he stocked up on art supplies, including many canvas-bound sketchbooks. He kept one with him every day for the next two years, and drew in them constantly: portraits of friends, the men building Camp Meade and, his various accommodations, whether a pup tent or a requisitioned chateau. He drew throughout his training and while he was in combat in France, his numerous sketchbooks include pictures of wrecked towns, dead soldiers, cannons, airplanes and warships. After the Armistice, he filled pages with portraits of soldiers and local French citizens. When Shenton returned home, he hoped to share his stories and drawings. But sadly, he found that people only wanted to forget the war, and no one was interested in looking at them. Shelton put his sketchbooks away, and continued his studies. Shenton went on to become one of the premier book and magazine illustrators during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He had a fifty-year-long career, and passed away in 1977. Shelton's son, Ned, inherited many boxes of papers, sketches, journals, and books. As he looked through the pile left him, Ned Shenton discovered the World War I sketchbooks. Ned knew the value of what they were. With the help of editor/historian Rex Passion, they cataloged, researched, digitized, and edited, the sketchbooks, so their stories could be followed and understood. Now -- one hundred years after they were drawn, ninety years after they were stored away, forty years after the artist's passing -- Corporal Edward Shenton’s lost sketchbooks have finally come to light. "The Lost Sketchbooks, A Young Artist in The Great War" is an assemblage book, published by Komatic Press, and a commemorative partner of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. The project's new web page on the Commission's website has gone live, and we caught up with Rex Passion to find out more about "The Lost Sketchbooks" in print and online came about. 

Tell us about the Lost Sketchbooks. What are they? Who was the artist?

Rex mugRex PassionNed Shenton is a friend of mine. In 2010 he wanted to put up a website honoring his father, who was a major illustrator of books and magazines in the 1930s and 40s, and I agreed to help him. Ned brought over several boxes of his father's papers: book covers and magazine articles that he had illustrated, stories he had written, poetry and drawings. One box was full of old canvas bound sketchbooks. When I opened the book, I saw an amazing pencil drawing of two soldiers lying sprawled in a ditch with their bayoneted rifles pointing skyward. At the bottom was the caption, "Front line trench, evening. Shell-shocked and exhausted men waiting for darkness to be taken out." I was amazed, as was Ned. Although he had this box of sketchbooks since 1977, he had never looked inside; no one had seen them since his father put them away in 1920.

In the spring of 1917, Edward Shenton was an art student at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. Days after war was declared, he and fifteen of his high school buddies joined Company B of the 103rd Engineers. They drilled at the armory until the beginning of July, then moved to Camp Meade in Maryland to begin their training. Before they left, Ed stocked up on canvas-bound sketchbooks from Wanamaker’s, along with pencils, graphite sticks and a watercolor set.

He drew the world around him every day in Camp Meade and later in Camp Hancock in Georgia. After they left for France in May of 1918, his schedule was more erratic, and he drew whenever he could, but not as regularly as in camp. He drew the "rest camp" in Calais and their training in Cremarest, and the various billets on their trip to the front. When the engineers were called upon to stop the German advance in mid‐July, he drew the "shell‐shocked and exhausted" men in the shallow trench in front of St. Agnan between artillery barrages. In Fismes, the engineers built bridges over the Vesle River at night, and Ed filled a notebook with sketches of their lives during the day. His drawings became fewer when they were repairing roads in the Meuse Argonne, but once behind the lines at Bettencourt, he drew the men enjoying a feast of eggs and rabbit. After the Armistice, he drew constantly, recording a myriad of portraits of soldiers and civilians and of the engines of war.

CoverHe sent his filled sketchbooks home for safe keeping and Ned and I think that most of them survived the war. There is one gap, on the trip to France in 1918, where there may be a sketchbook missing, but otherwise they form a continuous day‐to‐day history of two years of one soldier’s life in World War One.

Once I had seen these amazing drawings, I knew we had to do a book and share them with the world. I was fortunate to find a comprehensive narrative of the daily activities of Company B of the 103rd, written years later by the officers ‐‐ Soldiers of the Castle ‐‐ which meticulously dovetailed with Ed's drawings. The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in The Great War was published in 2014.

The new website shows a great deal and tells us a great deal of this story. What will people find when they go there?

Earlier this year I was invited to create a section on the World War One Centennial Commission's website to expand the story of The Lost Sketchbooks, and that site is now live. I want to detail my experience of creating the book, and to expand on some of the events of history in which the 103rd participated. Much of the research required to accurately tell Ed Shenton's story did not appear in the book, and I want to share some of those details on the website. But most importantly, I want to further explore the world of the soldier artist.

Ed Shenton was first of all an engineer. He was trained to construct trenches and bridges, to camouflage roads and erect barbed wire; he was also a soldier trained in combat. In Camp Meade, Camp Hancock and at Cremarest in France, he was trained and drilled to kill the enemy using guns, knives, bayonets, hand grenades and his hands. These were his jobs in the army, but he was also an artist and driven to draw, and that is what he did whenever he got the chance.

There are many books and articles about the War Artists; men such as John Singer Sargent or John Nash, whose job it was to capture the war with their artwork, but few things are published about the soldier artists. Each sees the war from a different angle. In the section on soldier artists, I want to share the artwork and stories of these men and women from the Civil War to Afghanistan.

Drawing 1Like many soldier artists, Ed Shenton drew what he saw around him. He was a very curious young man who did not write letters home or keep a journal, so his sketchbooks recorded his life in the army. They are so fresh, so immediate and so intimate that I felt like I was walking at his shoulder throughout his training and into combat.

As you look through the drawings ‐‐ What is it that most strikes you about the artwork, and this artists eye? How did it change over time?

Ed was twenty‐two‐years‐old when he joined Company B and had been drawing constantly since he was five. In school, he learned how to use shading and perspective to create illustrations that caught the mood of the scene. He studied figure drawing and portraiture in school, and, by the time he joined the army he was very accomplished in these practices.

In the Museum School, he studied with Thornton Oakley, a student of Howard Pyle, the dean of American illustration, and as an illustrator he was honest in his work. He drew what he saw, without unwarranted embellishment, and in a manner that brought the reality of the scene to life. He captured emotions in a way that photography never could.

There are three phases to Ed Shenton's wartime drawings. First is the work he did in the training camps. He arrived at Camp Meade only weeks after the land was purchased and recorded the early construction of the camp. At Camp Hancock, he meticulously recorded his training, both for engineering and for combat and at both camps he recorded the daily activities such as peeling potatoes, washing clothes or writing home. He also drew portraits of those around him, soldiers, officers, cooks and civilians.

Whatever he saw, he drew. There is a light‐heartedness in his drawings during his months in camp ‐‐ he seemed to be enjoying this time with his friends.

Once in France this mood continued. He was off across the sea on a marvelous adventure, just like his childhood heroes in his favorite medieval stories. There were guns going off and planes battling in the sky and he was with his high school friends in the middle of all the excitement. This elevated mood continued until they were in the front lines at St. Agnan, where they are all baptized in combat.

As Germans shelled the shallow trenches above the town several engineers were killed and many wounded. They fired their guns in anger and retreated to fox holes where they spent two days. Afterwards, many of Ed's friends were gone and his world had become much more serious. His experiences were more dramatic, as are his drawings. Now, instead of sketching comfortable chateaux, he was drawing ruined towns; instead of Doughboys sitting on the ground, he was drawing dead Germans in a wheat field. But, even with a change of subjects, Ed's drawings remained accurate and true. He neither exaggerated nor downplayed the occasional barbarity he saw, but now he was drawing men with the look of fear in their faces.

Drawing 4After the Armistice, there was a great sense of relief; they had fought their last battle and there was no longer the threat of being blown to bits by artillery or cut in half by machine gun fire. The men could bathe and sleep and eat without the knowledge that soon their rest would be interrupted by more combat. Despite all they had been through, and all the horror they had experienced, they had survived.

Over time, Company B's work load lessened; the engineers had more time to themselves and Ed drew constantly. After the war, most of his subjects were people; he drew at least seven portraits of French policemen. There are drawings of wounded soldiers, train attendants, courtesans and nuns; of Mongolian truck drivers, French washerwomen and The Rat Hunter.

He drew a series of soldiers, all of whom claimed to have won the war single‐handedly ‐‐ artillerymen, drivers, first aid men, cooks, stevedores and, of course, engineers.

He drew so much, that he had to buy more sketchbooks and even resorted to using rolls of drawing paper, the individual drawings being torn from the roll. In May 1919, he sketched the voyage back home on board the liner, SS Finland.

These books were forgotten for so long. Why were they forgotten, and what should we take from that, in our lessons from WWI?

I am not an historian, nor was I, obviously, present after the end of World War One, but I was there after the end of the Vietnam War, and the war was the last thing I wanted to hear about and definitely the last thing of which I wanted to see pictures. I expect the same was true after the Great War.Ed and great daneEd Shenton later in life.

Some of Ed's drawings were published in The Philadelphia Record shortly after the Armistice, using several sketches re‐drawn in a larger format. Ned and I both believe that Ed was considering doing a book about his wartime experiences, using his own artwork, but it never came to pass. I expect people wanted to put the atrocity of the war behind them and get on with their lives. No one wanted to hear Ed's stories and no one wanted to see his drawings, so he put his sketchbooks away and went back to art school, this time at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

Ed Shenton had a career as an illustrator of books and magazines that lasted more than fifty years. He was the house artist for Scribner's Magazine for ten years, drawing covers and inside artwork. He also did book covers for various of Scribner's authors, such as first editions of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. He taught at both his alma maters: The Museum School and the Academy. He wrote and published nine books, forty‐five short stories and thirty‐five poems. He illustrated one hundred and fifty books, uncountable magazine articles and drew many book covers. He even wrote two musical cantatas, but he never went back to his wartime artwork. He died in 1977 after a very full life.

It is human nature to want to forget the horrors of war. The more horrific and the longer they are experienced the greater the desire to "move on," without stopping to honor and care for those who endured the savagery we only read about ‐‐ or saw on the nightly news. This was an error in 1920 and in 1953 and in 1975, and it is an error today. The suffering of today's Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans should not be tolerated.

Only now, one hundred years later, and after all the veterans are dead, are we truly celebrating the sacrifice of the soldiers of the Great War. All others veterans: those of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all other conflicts, should be cared for and honored in a much more timely manner.

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