‘Drawing fire’ book review for Mars & Clio

E21 of Collected Articles

Private Len Smith ‘Drawing Fire: the diary of a Great War soldier and artist’ published by Collins in paperback

Presented with this book at Christmas time by my daughter who has lived with my interest in the Great War for many years, I found I had been given a winner. Len Smith was a volunteer who enrolled in the 7th London Battalion on 14 September 1914. He survived throughout the War, first as a trench warfare soldier and then as a back-room ‘boffin’. From taking part as a PBI in the calamitous battle of Loos and the first British gas attack (October 1915) to being selected as a sniper Len saw and wrote about the brutality and grim uncertainties of active fighting. However his skill in sketching “the Pimple” with its outlines of the German trenches whilst lying out in No Man’s Land on Vimy Ridge resulted in them being used by High Command in planning assaults. He was accredited as a War Artist. After recovering from bouts of illness he reported to the Camouflage Factory at the Royal Engineers Special Works Park, Vimereux, on 10 November 1916 becoming a “Very Superior Sapper”. There he helped prepare and install on site at gun pits the camouflage screens for hiding artillery cannons from the prying eyes of German aviators. Sniper suits were also made in the factory for front line use. His sketches were vital for making the facsimile ‘trees’ which on dark nights ‘replaced’ the real trees so allowing observers to climb up the hollow interiors and gather intelligence on German trenches just yards away. One novel task was camouflage painting two tanks in green, brown and cream – though he regarded them as being ‘huge, hideous man-crushers’,

The publishers Collins have accomplished the task of linking the layout of the text to the original pieces of paper of the diary – some pages are shown in his original longhand, the other pages in FCaslon font. Also printed by them are his cartoon sketches of comrades and foe which are charming, humorous and evocative. His water colour paintings of buildings and scenery are vivid, compared to the drab depiction of black and white decimated landscapes we are used to seeing. Well drawn under often difficult conditions they show his outstanding skill at recollection.

Len’s style of illustration foreshadowed his career after the War as a notable commercial artist whilst continuing to sketch until his death in 1974 aged 83. His childhood sweetheart, whom he married in December 1917, died later aged 99.

Len’s ability to create atmosphere in his writing and his drawings rather than being just a soldier trying to be an artistic craftsman offers an unique alternative to others writing about the daily life of front-line soldiers. He deserves to be remembered amongst those whose dairies are still read for their insights into the varied lives of the British ‘Tommy’. I thoroughly recommend this book.

This book review was published in Mars & Clio, the magazine of the British Commission for Military History, in the Spring of 2013