In John Nash’s painting ‘Over The Top’ 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, the artist depicted a disastrous attack in which he himself took part. A painting bereft of glory, it remains ‘an acknowledged masterpiece’ of war art. When John Nash later contrasted his work as an official War Artist in two conflicts he described his paintings from the First World War as ‘the result of actual vivid experience’, whereas those from the Second, ‘were really more commissioned and hadn’t a very warlike aspect at all’. 
The smaller of two studies by John Nash for ‘Over the Top’ in the Imperial War Museum, this was entitled ‘The Counter Attack’. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3908)
Though not formally trained, Nash was a successful artist when he enlisted at the age of 23 as a private soldier in September 1916. He joined the Artists’ Rifles, although by this time, Nash recalled, there weren’t any other artists serving in the Regiment. He was posted to the Western Front in November.
Part of John Nash’s enlistment document in the Artists Rifles, September 1915 (UK National Archives WO363).
Nash described the attack in 1974 to Joseph Darracott, Keeper of Art and Design History at the Imperial War Museum, both in a letter and during a long, recorded conversation but, by this time, as he himself acknowledged, his memories were uncertain. Not all of his recollections correspond either with contemporary official records, or with accounts by two other members of the Artists Rifles dating from the 1930s, but it is still possible to clearly match the painting with the recorded events of the brief but disastrous action.
John Nash (seated on ground) as a Private soldier with a bombing section of the Artists Rifles, possibly the same section he commanded as a Corporal at the time of the attack (detail, National Portrait Gallery x127172, Creative Commons licence).
On 20th November 1917, a major British surprise attack with massed tanks made deep advances into the German positions south of Cambrai, only for much of the ground to be lost to a German counterattack ten days later. A month afterwards, on the southern part of the battlefield the Germans made a further limited attack against a vulnerable salient held by the Royal Naval Division called ‘Welsh Ridge’. Beginning on Christmas Day, the Germans preceded the attack with heavy shelling which became intense at 6.30am on 30th December. Fifteen minutes later they attacked, the leading waves, dressed in white overalls, advancing over the snow in long lines in the morning mist. Equipped with flamethrowers, the attackers quickly gained a hold on the front positions in the north and centre.
The Artists Rifles, in reserve (part of the 190th Infantry Brigade of the Royal Naval Division) behind the northern part of the salient, were ordered up to the front line to make a counterattack, led by A and B Companies. This immediate and hasty assault, in daylight and without artillery support, aimedat ejecting the Germans before they had consolidated their gains and dislocating any further attempts to advance.
The Action at Welsh Ridge. The Artists’ Rifles attacked from the trench marked blue in a failed attempt to re-take Eagle Avenue. British-held trenches before the attack in red, dotted line shows the British front line at the end of the attack. German trenches not shown, German units in green. [Captain Wilfrid Miles, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917,vol. 3, (London, 1948)]
In ‘Over the Top’, British soldiers have just left a rough trench in which two men already lie dead, others fall after a few paces into no man’s land, the survivors plod fatalistically into no man’s land, their dark brown greatcoats contrasted with the white snow. In his letter to Darracott, Nash explained why he depicted the attack:
It was in fact pure murder and I was lucky to escape untouched. So you see I have very special memories as I was in charge of about fourteen men of the Bomber section… It was bitterly cold and we were easy targets against the snow and in daylight… I think the vivid memory of the occasion helped me when I painted the picture and provoked whatever intensity of feeling may be found in it… 
In an account of the attack published in the Artists’ Rifles Gazette in 1935, a sergeant of B Company, Reginald Lee, gave his reaction to Nash’s painting:
…the first time I saw it, …it immediately recalled in every detail the early morning scene at Welsh Ridge on December 30th 1917.
Ordered to move forward to the make the attack ‘just before daybreak’, Lee described how the journey from the rear to the front line was rendered ‘very tedious and trying’ by the fatigue of the troops and the heavy German shelling. By the time his Company reached the front line, it was already Zero hour, about 11.15am, and the exhausted men:
had to jump out ‘Over the Top’ immediately on arrival. This is what you can actually see in Nash’s picture! The snow and mist; men of ‘B’ Company characterized by the blue square on the upper arm of their greatcoats; the sergeant with a Lewis Gun, already the sole survivor of his Lewis Gun section, and later a casualty himself.
Detail from ‘Over the Top’. A man falls hit, behind a Sergeant Lewis machine gunner, said by Reginald Lee to be the sole survivor of his section. The blue square indicated B Company of the Artists’ Rifles. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)
Lee was on the right of the attack, with a platoon of about fifteen men; after about thirty yards, they walked into heavy German machine gun fire which especially caught the men on his left.
Nash, also in B Company, was a corporal in command of a section of Bombers, men trained in the use of grenades. He was probably to the left of Lee and his account also describes the heavy fire as they tried to cross no man’s land:
There was not a shot for a while, suddenly the Germans opened up and that seemed to be every machine gun in Europe.
Lee edged to the right, away from the fire, after about fifty yards he could see the German barbed wire, 25 yards ahead, and beyond that:
somewhat distinctly through the mist – I could see the heads and shoulders of the German troops. They commenced to fire at us with their rifles, and before we could get down they had caused further casualties including my Nos. 1 and 2 Lewis Gunners. The remainder of my platoon, now only four men – two of whom were wounded – and myself, took cover in a shell hole. From this spot we were able to be of some use with our rifles, as we were able to make the Germans keep their heads down.
The larger of two studies by Nash for ‘Over the Top’, both include barbed wire on iron pickets which was omitted from the final painting. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3907)
Lee believed that, to their left, some men of A Company managed to get into the German front line. A private in A Company, Alfred Burrage, was not one of them:
We scrambled over somehow when the whistle went, and it was a relief if anything to get out of that dreadful pelting of shells. The air now was stung with all the queer and variegated sounds of bullets. In the middle distance we saw the heads of our enemies, and a German officer standing up as large as life directing fire.
Burrage took cover in a sunken lane in no man’s land with a handful of others:
I crouched where I was for what seemed hours, not daring to show my head and suffering agonies of terror lest the Boche should walk over and murder what remained of us.
Eventually the survivors received orders to retire. To Burrage’s right, Nash, Lee and a few others of B Company, remained in the shell holes until it was dark when they were able to withdraw. Nash recalled:
We never got to grips with the enemy but were stopped in sight of them. We had to ‘hole up’ in craters and shell holes till nightfall and then got back to our original line.
The Brigade Major recorded in the War Diary that ‘the attack was doomed before it commenced’, owing to the ground being so well commanded by the Germans who were already firmly established in their captured trench. The War Diary of the Artists’ Rifles recorded the casualties for the 30th – 31st December as about nine officers and 108 men. Lee’s recollection was that, of 80 officers and men of B Company who had answered the roll that morning, just two sergeants and ten men returned. In an angry memoir published in 1930, entitled War is War, Burrage summed up the attack:
Of course we hadn’t a chance. We were the small cards in a game of bluff. The handful of us – A and B Companies – were tossed at the enemy as a tacit way of saying: “We can counter-attack, you see. We’ve got plenty of men. Don’t you dare come any further.”
Burrage described seeing John Nash among the survivors of B Company, ‘badly shaken and blackened all over with explosive’. He comments that shortly afterwards Nash went on leave and never returned as he obtained employment as an official War Artist.
John Nash, ‘Over The Top’. 1st Artists’ Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1656)
Nash painted ‘Over the Top’ in June 1918 after he had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information, working alongside his brother Paul in a large shed in Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. Here John also painted ‘Oppy Wood, 1917’, while Paul began one of his most famous war paintings ‘The Menin Road’.
Text © Simon Jones. See below for Notes to this article.
Battlefield tour The Ypres Salient War Poets: A Bitter Truth, 1st – 4th October 2020
Join me on a battlefield tour with The Cultural Experience:
Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters on 6-7 April 1917
 Sir John Rothenstein, John Nash, (London, 1983), p. 51.
 Recorded conversation with J. C. Darracott [and D. Brown], 1974, Imperial War Museum Cat. 323. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80000322
 Recorded conversation with J. C. Darracott, op. cit. Letter 15 January 1974 to Joseph Darracott, Keeper, Art and Design History, Imperial War Museum, quoted in Rothenstein, op. cit., p. 48.
 The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was an infantry division formed in 1914, originally comprising many Royal Navy Reservists.
 Letter 15 January 1974 op. cit.
 Account by ‘R.A.L.’ (Reginald Alfred Lee), Artists’ Rifles Gazette, January 1935, p. 5, quoted and identified as Lee by Rothenstein, op. cit., and Patrick Baty, ‘Over the Top’, http://patrickbaty.co.uk/2017/12/16/over-the-top/ (accessed 30/12/2017).
 ‘Ex-Private X’ [A. M. Barrage], War is War, (London, 2010, originally published 1930), pp. 185-190.
 Captain C. H. Dowden, 190 Brigade War Diary, UK National Archives, WO95/3117.
 1/28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment War Diary, UK National Archives, WO95/3119.
 Letter 15 January 1974 op. cit.
URLs for IWM online catalogue:
‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 1656
Sketch for ‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 3907
Sketch for ‘Over the Top’ Art.IWM ART 3908
URL for NPG photograph x127172