The Battle of the Somme took place in June 1916, William Orpen visited the site several months later – April 1917. While this sketch by Orpen titled “No Man’s Land” is a perfect accompaniment to his poem – A Memory of the Somme, the second image by Orpen, while not at the Somme perhaps gives one a better vision of what he witnessed.
No Man’s Land by William Orpen
A MEMORY OF THE SOMME
by Sir William Orpen (Spring 1917).
A fair spring morning—not a living soul is near,
Far, far away, there is the faint grumble of the guns;
The battle has passed long since—
All is Peace.
At times there is the faint drone of aeroplanes as
They pass overhead, amber specks, high up in the blue;
Occasionally there is the movement of a rat in the
Old battered trench on which I sit, still in the
Confusion in which it was hurriedly left.
The sun is baking hot.
Strange odours come from the door of a dug-out
With its endless steps running down into blackness.
The land is white—dazzling.
The distance is all shimmering in heat.
A few little spring flowers have forced their way
Through the chalk.
He lies a few yards in front of the trench.
We are quite alone.
He makes me feel very awed, very small, very ashamed.
he has been there a long, long time—
Hundreds of eyes have seen him,
Hundreds of bodies have felt faint and sick
Because of him.
Then this place was Hell,
But now all is Peace.
And the sun has made him Holy and Pure—
He and his garments are bleached white and clean.
A daffodil is by his head, and his curly, gold
Hair is moving in the slight breeze.
He, the man who died in “No Man’s Land,” doing
Some great act of bravery for his comrades and Country—
Here he lies, Pure and Holy, his face upward turned;
No earth between him and his Maker.
I have no right to be so near.
This letter forms part of the current exhibition in The National Gallery Ireland –
Aftermath – The War Landscapes of William Orpen
The 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was commemorated on an Irish postage stamp (2006) which included a sketch by William Orpen entitled South Dublin Horse: A Dubliner resting on his way to Arras Front (on the 1st issue envelope). The stamp is based on a painting entitled The Battle of the Somme (36th Ulster Div.) by J.P. Beadle.
Post by Dominic Lee Orpen Research Archives.