Stretcher Bearers of the Somme

Artist Leslie Nicholl uses raw materials from the WWI battlefields to explore humanity amidst the horror in his current Linen Hall Library exhibition

The Red Cross postcard which inspired the exhibition and one of the featured works

The Battle of the Somme is remembered as being one of the bloodiest of WWI and resulted in more than a million casualties. July 1 subsequently marked the centenary of what was a defining moment in the First World War, and which for many, epitomises the horrors of the time.

While the soldiers who fought are rightly honoured and remembered however, there were many more who paid their dues during WWI, doing ‘their bit’ in and around the fighting. They too put themselves at risk, fulfilling their duty alongside their comrades in arms; one such group being the stretcher bearers.

A new exhibition at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, which is currently on display and is available to view for free until July 30, pays homage to these WWI heroes. Entitled Stretcher Bearer! The Last Days of Mankind, it consists of 27 original paintings on Irish linen and six drawings from Bangor artist, Leslie Nicholl, interspersed with poetry from the award-winning Sam Burnside.

Based on archive photographs of the WWI stretcher bearers, Nicholl’s artwork depicts both the stretcher bearers and their wounded charges – from all sides of the fighting. Indeed, it ultimately explores the humanity displayed by these men - Irish, Ulster, British, German and French – in one of the most inhumane environments – the war-field.

Making the paintings even more poignant is the fact they were created using soil, chalk and poppy seeds from the Somme battlefields. They’re also infused with tannin extracted from tea – an astringent with a bitter flavour, which would've been used to treat burns during the Great War before more modern regimens were introduced.

Stretcher bearers 2

'Even to this day, many people think the stretcher bearers were conscientious objectors - by default, cowards - because they would not carry arms,' says Nicholl. 'This is so untrue and does a great injustice. It vastly short-changes the memory of brave young men who wanted to save lives - to show humanity in the midst of inhumanity and warfare.'

Opened at the beginning of June by the former curator of paintings at the Imperial War Museum, Ciaran Elizabeth Doran, the exhibition is the result of nine years of research from Nicholl. Part of the formal programme of events commemorating that summer in 1916, all the proceeds from the sale of work are subsequently going to the Red Cross.

Indeed, it was a Red Cross postcard that Nicholl uncovered in Berlin which inspired him to research the stretcher bearers and which ultimately sparked the idea for the exhibition. After his wife Elaine received the all-clear from cancer a few years ago, the pair travelled to the city for a well-deserved break. While they were there, Elaine bought Nicholl a WWI postcard from a flea market by the River Spree near Museum Island.

'The postmark was the 11/11/18 - at the end of the war,' says Nicholl. 'A young man was writing home to his parents to say he had survived. I'm guessing he’d been wounded because it was a Red Cross postcard.

'Well, that card haunted me and still does. Attrition warfare is brutal and stretcher bearers show a unique form of courage. They go forward unarmed, but under fire, to save the life of a comrade or even the enemy, while they themselves are terrified they’ll not survive.

'While we hopefully measure our lives in years, they measured theirs in days. Irrespective of nationality and irrespective of religion, that is courage. Young men from Connaught, Munster, Leinster and Ulster, Germany, Britain and France showed that courage on a daily basis, not necessarily because they were brave, but because it was their duty to bring in the wounded from a battlefield under fire. I am in awe of and full of respect for those young men.'

Stretcher Bearers 1

Nicholl’s subsequent research into the stretcher bearers incorporated Dublin, Belfast, London, Belgium, France and Germany. He then emailed it to his friend, Derry-Londonderry poet Sam Burnside, who used the information like postcards from a different time to inspire his own work. His poetry, which features in the exhibition, is also included in his latest book, Forms of Freedom.

Such is the interest in the exhibition that its next port of call may be the Imperial War Museum in London, while it’s also now poised to travel to Berlin. Its current Linen Hall Library location is, however, a suitable spot for the Belfast exhibit, says Nicholl, adding that the young men marching off to fight at the Somme passed this very building.

'There are archive photographs of them passing the City Hall, the Linen Hall Library and the old Waterworks Building,' he says. 'But also, when I was an art student during the Troubles my traditional route on a ‘culture fest’ was the Linen Hall Library, the Crown Bar and the Ulster Museum.

'In the midst of a nightmare then, these places were ‘civilised’ and represented ‘normality’. The wonderful people in the Linen Hall Library saw how all these things linked together and of course, the paintings, and agreed to give me the show.

'When you read letters from Irish, British, German and French young men and woman who served on the Front Line and just to the rear of it, well you don't need a great imagination to feel moved by the relentless suffering experienced by a generation that was in its 20s doing something no-one in their right minds would wish to undergo…'

Stretcher Bearer! The Last Days of Mankind is on display in the Vertical Gallery at the Linen Hall Library until July 30, with free entry. For opening times visit www.linenhall.com.