American artist and illustrator Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge published I Was There in 1919. The book contains over 30 illustrations, sketches, and paintings made by Baldridge during his time on the Western Front.
Baldridge studied at the University of Chicago before searching out adventure as a ranch hand in Texas and joining the National Guard. With the outbreak of the Great War, he sought adventure overseas and travelled through occupied Belgium as a war correspondent.
Having taken part in the 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico, Baldridge returned to Europe in 1917 to volunteer with the French Army as a stretcher bearer and truck driver. When the United States entered the war, he transferred to the American Expeditionary Force.
His skills as an illustrator soon saw him join Stars and Stripes, the US military’s weekly newspaper. He was also a talented cartoonist, and his cartoons and illustrations were frequently featured in Leslie’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine. While some of Baldridge’s work had obvious propaganda value, such as his sketch of French and American soldiers walking arm in arm, many of his pieces offered a more damning view of war.
I Was There spans Baldridge’s two years on the Western Front, capturing scenes from along the front line between Soissons and the Argonne. These works are combined with moving prose by H R Baukhage, whom Baldridge met while working as a journalist with Stars and Stripes. Baukhage went on to become a successful radio and television broadcaster during the 1940s and 50s.
Through his work, Baldridge strived to show the range of emotions experienced by soldiers fighting on the Western Front. His aim was to reveal the reality of war to people at home. Stripping away any pretence of honour, he captured the fortitude of the men who fought. In the book’s handwritten introduction, Baldridge lamented that ‘the sketches do not sufficiently show war for the stupid horror I know it to be’.
Baldridge’s sketchbook never left his side; he drew everything and everyone that surrounded him. The book is filled with candid images, including one of a little boy staring up at the sky, captivated by an aerial dogfight, and others of the French family Baldridge was billeted with in Soissons.
The illustrations seem to capture every emotion felt by the troops fighting on the Western Front. Baldridge’s works depict men terrified, anxious, exhausted, beaten, and victorious. Another image shows men spoiling for a fight. And his illustrations are as comprehensive as they are expressive, featuring British, American, and French troops, as well as the civilians he met and lived with. A number of pages are dedicated to the many colonial troops who fought for France, featuring sketches and paintings of soldiers from Senegal and Indochina.
After the war, Baldridge returned to America as a pacifist. During the 1920s and 30s, he travelled extensively throughout Africa and Asia, and his work was published by many popular American publications. He retired to Santa Fé to focus on painting in the early 1950s. He died in 1977, aged 88.
Baldridge uses the Western Front’s bleak colour palate to evoke the exhaustion of two soldiers gripped by shock as they stand in no-man’s-land.
THE LIDS WE WEAR
A sketch study of the headwear worn by the people Baldridge encountered.
A chalk piece depicting an American relief force advancing up a communication trench towards the front-line.
Baldridge captures the swagger of an American doughboy posing with his Springfield M1903 rifle over his shoulder.
This is an extract from an article was published in issue 69 of Military History Monthly. More of Baldridge’s illustrations can be viewed on-line at archive.org