Andrew Parsons, Curator of the London Scottish Regimental Museum discusses a work of art by Richard Caton-Woodville.
This magnificent oil painting depicts the most significant action in the storied history of the London Scottish Regiment. Sub-titled “The Stand of the London Scottish at Messines”, it records the baptism of fire on October 31st, 1914 of the 14thCounty of London Regiment (The London Scottish) at Messines Ridge. The Regiment was very proud of the boast that they were the first Territorial Force soldiers in action in WW1 (by which I mean the first formed unit in deliberate action against the enemy). The painting can be seen at the London Scottish Regimental Headquarters in London, where it has been displayed since it was purchased in 1927.
Richard Caton-Woodville Jr. (1856-1927) was described at the end of his life as “the foremost British battle painter” and his work as the “artist’s victory over many a British defeat”. He was a prolific illustrator for the Illustrated London News, some-time war correspondent and following the exhibition of “Maiwand -The Saving of the Guns” in 1882, he received the first of several commissions from the Royal Household. For the period before the First World War he was the “go to” painter for anything military with particular attention to detail in uniform, equipment and weaponry. By the end of the First World War, his style of glorious battle canvasses fell out of fashion, commissions dried up and his career seemed to be over. In 1927 he exhibited three large battle scenes at the Royal Academy inspired by actions in the recent war. These were: “The 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment Capturing six Guns at St,Quentin”; “The Entry of the 5th Lancers into Mons” and “Hallowe’en 1914 – The Stand of the London Scottish at Messines”. In August of 1927, heavily in debt and recently bereaved, Richard Caton Woodville took his own life.
The Hallowe’en painting was the last ever to be completed by Caton-Woodville. It was purchased from his estate for £500 by a voluntary subscription from members of the Regiment. Colonel Robert Ogilby, himself, contributed generously to this fund and was on Messines Ridge on the night of the battle although was serving in his Cavalry Regiment. It was shown privately first at Buckingham Palace in 1926 and then at Mr. James Connell’s gallery in Old Bond Street and then exhibited in 1927 at the Royal Academy (where it was again inspected by the King) and finally at the City of Liverpool Art Gallery at their Autumn exhibition. The painting has been on display at the London Scottish drill hall ever since.
The significance of the event the painting commemorates cannot be underestimated. It may be a proud boast for the London Scottish that they were the first Territorial Regiment in action but it demonstrated to the War Office and high command that the territorials could do the job they were tasked with and this, allegedly, gave the green light to use more territorials in the front line. In truth, if it wasn’t then London Scottish then it would have been another Regiment about the same time as the British Expeditionary Force was running short of rifles on the Ypres Salient.
The men in the painting were all reservists from a fairly exclusive club. Like a couple of the other London Regiment battalions, the London Scottish were a mainly white-collar Regiment, made up of ex-public school boys and university educated men. They paid a subscription to join and had to prove that they were Scottish by birth or parentage. It is interesting that no specific individuals were depicted in the scene, rather the soldiers are anonymous and representative.
The equipment and uniform shown is accurate. The soldiers are dressed in their hodden grey kilts, glengarries and horse hair sporrans. Caton-Woodville was a stickler for detail and he did have opportunity to interview survivors of the battle. The archive at the London Scottish holds correspondence between the artist and a veteran discussing the issue of cap badges and sporran tassels. In fact, the Scottish removed anything shiny such as the white metal badges on their headdress and sporrans before they arrived at their line of departure. Caton-Woodville acknowledged this but asked for artistic licence because he thought it confirmed identity, but was content to paint out the cap badges if there were strong objections.
Significant, although subtle, is what the artist shows in the middle of the painting. The eye is drawn to a figure who stands out because he is a bit taller and bareheaded. He is in the act of loading a round into the breech of his rifle. This seems a perfectly sensible thing to be doing in the heat of battle but there is a story behind it. When the 14th Londons crossed the channel on the SS Winnifredia on 15 September 1914, they were issued with the Mk 1 SMLE (Short Muzzled Lee-Enfield) Rifle. The Regular British Army by that time were using the Mk 4 SMLE. Prior to the engagement at Messines the London Scottish had their companies spread across vast distances and were employed as labour, as prisoner escort and the linguists were providing liaison with the French. They had no chance to test their weapons.
When they finally assembled at the front, and in the heat of battle, they discovered that the magazines designed for the Mk 4 SMLE did not feed rounds properly into the breech of the MK 1 rifle and as such, the Scottish were forced to “single feed” rounds, one at a time. The Scottish were very proud of their marksmanship record at Bisley and, as good soldiers, were trained and proficient in the “mad minute” of 15 aimed shots in 60 seconds. In this small but important detail, Caton-Woodville preserves this gem of Regimental history in oil paint on canvas.
The representation of the ground, flat farmers’ fields, is also accurate with the burning windmill in the back ground. The Regimental Memorial now stands on the site of that wind mill on Messines Ridge. Even the sort of combat depicted is correct for that action as the Scottish withstood four separate bayonet attacks over the night of 31st October. Some 50% were made casualties, either killed missing or wounded, 386 from a strength of 802.
Caton-Woodville’s genre of heroic battle scenes may have been out of fashion with the art world by the time he painted his last canvas. “Hallowe’en 1914” was well received by the London Scottish for whom it memorialised the most significant event in the Regiment’s history. Like a family portrait, it preserves a moment in time which then communicates the history of that family down the generations. Hallowe’en is also the London Scottish Regiment’s annual dinner so for almost a century, the men of 1914, immortalised by Caton-Woodville, look down upon the current generation of the Regimental family and now we all can look back up at them.
Andrew Parsons, Curator, London Scottish Regiment Museum