Everyone can call to mind pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh, but did you know that the man who drew the first illustrations of the much-loved bear also drew pictures and cartoons in the trenches while serving in the Great War?
Actually, nobody knew that until 2014, including the custodians of Ernest Howard Shepard’s own collection, who were approached, as the Great War centenary neared, with a request for examples of his contemporary work. James Campbell, who runs the Shepard Trust and whose mother-in-law is the artist’s granddaughter, is quoted in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as saying, “To our astonishment we found that we didn't seem to have anything from his time in the trenches whatsoever, which was very odd. Then we found in our own private archive a large box which appeared not to have been opened in almost 100 years.”
The box contained cartoons, caricatures, sketches of the terrain around the trenches, and even some lovely watercolours showing scenes and scenery of life on the Front Line. They are not the disturbing images of horror that one might expect, but often pretty and light-hearted drawings, lampooning this absurd way of life and the people encountered on the way.
Despite his shrewd observations E H Shepard evidently knew his responsibilities as soldier, and took them very seriously. While a Second Lieutenant of the Royal Garrison Artillery, acting as Captain, he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during active operations against the enemy in the course of the Battle of Passchendaele. The accolade was announced in the London Gazette on 18th July 1917, and the citation for the award, which is transcribed on the Forces War Records site, says, “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Warrant Officers in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the Field. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. As forward Observation Officer he (E H Shepard) continued to observe and send back valuable information, in spite of heavy shell and machine gun fire. His courage and coolness were conspicuous.”
The man who could hold his nerve under fire was, thankfully, also able to retain his sense of humour and hold his paintbrush steady in conditions that would have broken a lesser man. Take a look at some of his war art here, or read our blog about the real Winnie-the-Pooh.
Did you or one of your ancestors create any similar personal sketches while in the field of battle? If so, we'd love to see them! Please send any drawings or paintings you might have found amongst the family papers to firstname.lastname@example.org for your chance to win a month's free subscription if we use it on our blog or in Forces War Records Magazine.