‘A German Attack on a Wet Morning, April 1918’ by Harold Sandys Williamson

IWM ART1986 (c) Paul Williamson; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

IWM ART1986 (c) Paul Williamson; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This remarkable depiction of a German attack in 1918 is by the artist Harold Sandys Williamson. He served in the ranks of the 8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and portrayed himself as the wounded man on the right of the painting. It shows the final German attack of the March 1918 offensive which was finally halted on 4 April just outside Villers-Bretonneux.  As a result of the action the already depleted battalion ceased to exist. The artist wrote a description when the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy later the same year:

The remains of the 8th Battalion KRRC, not a hundred strong, who had been on the retreat since March 21st, were hastily reorganized, and sent up in reserve the night before, to hold a sunken road, not a shot being heard from the Germans. Before dawn, an intensive bombardment of our lines opened up, and was maintained for a couple of hours. In the gloom and rain the storm troops then came over, and smashed through our two first lines. The picture shows them moving with exact discipline and just appearing to the few men in reserve. The shell holes in the foreground show the accuracy of the preceding bombardment. The British are hopelessly outnumbered, but training and discipline keep them going, without thought of retirement. Two men are firing a Lewis gun. The wounded man has a poor chance of getting away; he must cross much open country swept by enemy fire, and go through a heavy barrage. At the last the few left were surrounded, but fought their way out, some wounded, some being taken prisoner. [1]

The sunken road was known as Accroche Street, seen today looking northeast; the Germans advanced from the right (GoogleEarth).

The sunken road was known as Accroche Street, seen today looking northeast; the Germans advanced from the right (GoogleEarth).

The artist’s son is an actor and accompanied my 2013 ‘Ypres Salient Literature and Art’ battlefield tour as the reader. In one of the most moving parts of the tour, we visited the spot where his father had been in the line north of Passchendaele at Christmas 1917 when two company commanders were been killed on consecutive days. This inspired several works by the artist, including ‘Removing the Wounded, 60 Yards from the Enemy’. Paul Williamson read his father’s account of the incident and we visited the graves of the two officers.

[1] Imperial War Museum website/ archives.


Isaac Rosenberg

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