The World Goes to War: 1914–1918

World War I, also known as the Great War, engaged all the great powers of Europe, and their worldwide colonial empires, including South Africa, German East Africa, French West Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, and Canada. The United States, Japan, and China also entered the conflict. More than 70 million military personnel were mobilized by all nations. The modern industrial capacity of the principal combatant countries fueled one of history’s most destructive wars. 

Read more
The AEF Art Program and Collection

Mobilization of the American war effort was an immense undertaking. Decisions about everything from how to form fighting units, to manufacturing the needed equipment, to the logistics of transport and supply had to be addressed. Part of this planning was the decision to send artists to cover the war in Europe.

Eight professional illustrators, commissioned as U.S. Army officers, were embedded with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in early 1918. Their mission was to capture the wide-ranging activities of American soldiers, including combat, with the intent of shaping popular understanding at home of the war experiences of the AEF.

Read more
Meet the AEF Artists

The eight artists selected for the AEF art program were all established illustrators and painters before their military assignment, and had accomplished art careers after the war. They were selected by a committee chaired by Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator who had gained fame as the creator of the popular “Gibson Girl” idealized image of feminine beauty. Gibson’s Pictorial Publicity Committee was under the broader wartime Committee on Public Information, established to coordinate propaganda for the war effort.

Read more
Engineers Go to War

Although the assignment of the eight AEF artists to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was purely a formality, they found the many and varied activities of this branch of the AEF interesting subject matter. The industrial scale of the military effort demanded an enormous technical and logistical presence. Tens of thousands of men served loading, unloading, stockpiling, moving, and maintaining the tons of war materiel sent to France in support of the combat troops.

Read more
Life at the Front

The AEF artists were embedded with the troops to capture the full experience of those serving in Europe, not only what transpired on the battlefield. Beyond combat scenes and the ravages of war, their work also depicted mundane everyday chores, feeding the troops, personal time, and entertainment—subjects very different from traditional war art that focused on heroic figures and gallantry on the field of battle. These works contributed to a more complete and realistic view of the war experience.

Read more
The Technology of World War I

Military technology has always shaped and defined how wars were fought. The First World War, however, saw a breadth and scale of technological innovation of unprecedented impact. It was the first modern mechanized industrial war in which material resources and manufacturing capability were as consequential as the skill of the troops on the battlefield.

Read more
The Battlefield

The AEF artists had great freedom to travel about, affording them broad access to events, including combat. Although devoid of the more shocking realities of war that photography captured, their depictions of the battlefield powerfully convey a sense of immediacy and on-the-spot observation. Their art provides a window on their role as both recorders of history and as first-hand participants in that history. Most of the AEF artists were trained and worked as professional illustrators before the war. Their approach placed the viewer on the scene in ways not common in earlier war art.

Read more
The Human Cost

The AEF artists attempted to capture as full a picture of the war as possible. That of course included the human cost of the conflict, for both military personnel and civilians. During World War I, the battlefield cut through villages and homes and displaced local people to an unprecedented extent.

Read more