The War Artists

The Paintings of William Orpen

William Orpen
The Great Mine, La Boisselle, Oil on canvas. Painted in 1917


Half a mile from the village of La Boisselle, at 7.28am, twin charges of ammonal were detonated by the 179th Tunnelling Company. Royal Engineers. The huge explosion created a massive crater. This came to be known as The Great Mine of La Boisselle. It was the largest crater of the Great War and measured about 91 metres across. Many German troops lost their lives here as the explosion ripped out over 100 metres of their dug-outs.

Learn more about this crater here

There had been other craters of similar sizes documented and painted but this one captured the imagination of William Orpen. This is what he wrote about it in his book An Onlooker in France.

“The great mine at La Boisselle was a wonderful sight. One morning I was wandering about the old battlefield, and I came across a great wilderness of white chalk—not a tuft of grass, not a flower, nothing but blazing chalk; apparently a hill of chalk dotted thickly all over with bits of shrapnel. I walked up it, and suddenly found myself on the lip of the crater. I felt myself in another world. This enormous hole, 320 yards round at the top, with sides so steep one could not climb down them, was the vast, terrific work of man. Imagine burrowing all that way down in the belly of the earth, with Hell going on overhead, burrowing and listening till they got right under the German trenches—hundreds and hundreds of yards of burrowing. And here remained the result of their work, on the earth at least, if not on humanity. The latter had disappeared; but the great chasm, with one mound in the centre at the bottom, and one skull placed on top of it, remained. They had cut little steps down one of its sides, and had cleared up all the human remains and buried them in this mound. That one mound, with the little skull on the top, at the bottom of this enormous chasm, was the greatest monument I have ever seen to the handiwork of man.”

William Orpen walked around what was left of the British Front Lines at La Boisselle. This area is now referred to as The Glory Hole. I had access to this land and spent a few hours trying to match up some of his paintings with the views of today.

Inside a small crater, La Boisselle: Oil on canvas. Painted in 1917

Oil on canvas. Painted in 1917

The Somme: A Clear Day. View from the British trenches opposite La Boisselle, showing German front line and mine craters. Oil on canvas. Painted in 1917
The same landscape in 2013