The Nek 1915 – a visual description

Charles Bean (Australia’s official First World War correspondent) considered the combination of visual records, written records and relics collected from the field of battle, would present a comprehensive, powerful account of Australia’s involvement in the First World War, and help people gain an understanding of what happened.

Charles Bean recognised images played an important role in making the war visible to the general population, and was aware the whole story of the war could not be told by a single narrative. He considered images had a capacity to unite strong storytelling with powerful emotions. He believed emotions gave people viewing artworks recording war an insight into what people in the battle might have felt, especially aspects of soldiers’ experiences remote from ordinary life.

In 1917 Australia’s Official War Art and War Photography schemes were established as part of Charles Bean’s project to assemble material that would help people interpret Australia’s role in the First World War.

Early in 1919, a small team led by Charles Bean for the Australian Historical Mission, visited Gallipoli. One of the Australian Historical Mission’s aims was to document with visual records, the landscape and history of the 1915 Gallipoli battlefields. Artist and painter George Lambert was part of the small team.

George Lambert was commissioned to paint the charge of the Third Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, occurring on the 7th of August, 1915. With Charles Bean’s direction, the painting had to present both factual information, and convey the emotional intensity, bravery and tragedy of the event.

In 1925, The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915, by George Lambert, was a celebrated addition to the Australian War Memorial’s collection.

Image reference: George Lambert, The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915, painted in 1924, oil on canvas, 152.5 x 305.7 cm. Australian War Memorial ART07965.

Follows a description of George Lambert’s process for creating this painting.

‘During his visit to Gallipoli in 1919, Lambert painted only one small study at the Nek; but he had clearly been thinking about the composition for this large painting as the Historical Mission left Gallipoli. During the next few weeks of travelling towards Cairo, he made a rough sketch of the main theme of the painting on the back of a panel. Another study in pencil, completed in London, gives an indication of what the final painting would look like. He started to sketch some figures that he would use in the final composition and asked Charles Bean what men looked like when bullets struck them. Bean described how their ‘knees seemed to go like string’ or they crumpled and sank forward before sliding onto the ground. Lambert made other enquiries about the uniforms and kit worn on the day and was given details, such as that many of the men had worn hats or sun helmets and were in summer-weight breeches or shorts. Shirtsleeves were rolled up or cut off above the elbow and many wore white cloth armbands and white patches sewn on their backs so they could be recognised by their comrades in the early morning half-light. All these details would be essential in producing the final painting.

For his composition, Lambert adopted the viewpoint of a soldier – one reviewer said it was a soldier of the second line – just on the edge of the Australian trenches. In front, men are falling, spun around by the force of the bullets, as someone noted, ‘like marionettes jerked into eternity’. Others lie wounded or dead on the field, while only a metre or so in front of the Turkish front line, men are being shot down. A man on his knees in the centre right of the picture looks stunned and disbelieving as he raises a wounded hand to his head. In the middle of the painting, smoke and dust kicked up by the Turkish rifle and machine-gun fire adds to the sense of confusion. It is a scene of terrible carnage, made more powerful by the dominant blood red colours of the earth and the churned-up ground. Lambert deliberately painted the bodies and the earth in the same tone, to make them nearly indistinguishable in the dawn light. From his own experience of walking the ground on Gallipoli, he was only too aware that the earth had literally swallowed up many of these men and obliterated their identity.’

Reference: Walking the ground – Gallipoli revisited, 1919, by Janda Gooding, Chapter 13 in Gallipoli: a ridge too far.

Gooding’s chapter (the source for this story) focuses on the visual collection of Hubert Wilkins’ photographs and George Lambert’s art, related to the Australian attack at the Nek during the August offensive of 1915, in the Gallipoli campaign. The chapter also writes about Charles Bean, and his commitment to creating records of Australia’s involvement in the First World War.

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