One cold day in January 1918, the one eyed artist Alfred Munnings was riding near the front line at St Quentin. He was wearing a deerstalker cap, an eye patch, a cape and had an easel attached to his saddle. Not a good combination for the military blimp approaching him on horseback.
“Where are you going and what the devil are you?” barked the blimp. Munnings was un-cowed to a fault and certainly wasn’t taking this. “I am going to see General Seely,” he replied before adding with characteristic elan: “What am I? Well back home they say I am a genius.” Collapse of stout party.
General Jack Seely was my grandfather, then commanding the Canadian Cavalry to which Munnings had been despatched by Max Aitken (later the first Lord Beaverbrook) to record that part of the Canadian war effort. If Munnings was over the top, then so too was Seely. When a ship was wrecked near his Isle of Wight home, he swam out with a lifeline to get everyone to safety. When his light grey Arab horse Maharajah was refused boarding to sail to the Boer War “for reasons of camouflage”, he took it round the back of the warehouse and dyed it brown. When, as Secretary of State for War in the Asquith government he had to resign over a Northern Ireland crisis in 1914 – not the last man to do that – he sucked it up and he and his famous horse Warrior went to the front within a week of the outbreak of war.
So it was that on clear frosty morning in January 1918, Seely and Warrior was the very first of the paintings of men and horses and landscapes and lumberjacks that Munnings did in France over the next five months, and which have never been back together in Britain until the exhibition now on at the National Army Museum. Modesty somehow does not prevent me saying that I have edited the accompanying book which should make a unique addition to your library.
It must have been a precarious sitting for both artist and subjects. The German line was less than two miles away so a lucky shot could have taken out all three of them. What’s more, as the ground thawed, Warrior kept sinking into the mud and although Munnings was standing on a duckboard the cold kept numbing his fingers.
After a couple of hours Seely found some important military duty to call him away leaving his batman Harry Smith to deputise and take great delight as unwitting troops respectfully saluted his senior uniform. Smith was a survivor, with Seely you had to be. An ambitious farm boy from Itchen Abbas he had first met his mentor in the Hampshire Yeomanry and returned from South Africa to the role of butler at Brooke House only to be shipped off to war again in 1914. Butlering days were resumed after France, Harry married Rose the cook and they finally retired to a rose covered garden nearby in the Isle of Wight to live happily ever after.
Back in 1918 Munnings enthusiasm for wine and song was an instant hit in the battered Nissen huts that served as the Canadian Cavalry HQ. They must have become the most valuable front-line lodgings in history as assorted masterpieces dried out on the barrack walls. Munnings forte was the recitation of long sporting country ballads in which, when they moved to rather grander quarters such as the nearby Chateau de Davenescourt, he would be accompanied by Seely on the piano.
Finding such superior digs was made possible by my grandfather employing as ADC what must surely have been the best connected and certainly most blue-blooded soldier in any army, Prince Antoine d’Orleans Braganza, the grandson of the last Emperor of Brazil and the great grandson of Louis Phillippe, the last king of France. Antoine’s full names were Antonio Gastao Luiz Filipe Francisco de Assis Maria Miguel Rafael Gabriel Gonzaga. His friends just called him ‘Toto’ and his niece’s memoirs included the enviable line: “Oncle Antoine, aime par tous mais adore par les femmes.”
Prince Antoine was also the subject of one of Munnings’s most magnificent mounted portraits but he was also a lot more than some ex-royal super fixer witness, both the MC and the Legion d’Honneur won for remarkable feats of daring before his tragic death in an air crash just four days after the Armistice. He had been part of a Seely band that included a genuine super hero in Fred Harvey, a bishop’s son from County Kildare who had emigrated to ranch life in Calgary only to return as full back for Ireland against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park and double that in 1917 by winning a VC by taking out a machine gun post single handed at Guyencourt.
When the long expected German onslaught of Operation Michael broke through the Allied lines in March, Munnings was moved to cover the invaluable work of Canadian lumberjacks in the Forestry Corps, but he never lost touch with Seely and the cavalry. Indeed one of his most famous works is Flowerdew’s Charge, an idealized image of part of what was mostly a bloody hand to hand, fixed bayonets battle at Moreuil Wood near Amiens. Many years later Harvey growled to a friend – “I don’t know about Guyencourt but I think I did a VC’s worth in Moreuil Wood.”
After the war the acclamation for Munnings work in the 1919 Canadian War Art exhibition at the Royal Academy led him to become the ‘go to’ painter for the seriously rich wanting to see themselves immortalised in the saddle. So much so that by 1934 when Seely invited him down to the Isle of Wight to illustrate the book he was writing about his horse Warrior, Munnings would have been just about the most expensive canvas by canvas painter in the world.
Notwithstanding, Munnings accepted the invitation, sketched all day, caroused into the night and a good time was had by all until it came to payment. “Pay him?” Seely said when my aunt enquired on the artist’s behalf, “I made him.” It was an impasse only solved when grandpa noticed how lame Munnings had become at a dinner of Winston Churchill’s ‘The Other Club’ of which both were members and suggested he join him on his annual trip to Bad Ems spa in the Rhineland.
There cordiality and carousing were resumed in what must have been something of a self-defeating exercise. For the two old comrades would sweat away in the steam room of a morning only to put most of it back in the town square of an evening listening to the band, swigging down the local hock, and no doubt enhancing the usual stories.
Both of them were remarkable men, but no one ever rated modesty at the very top of their many virtues. One story has it that after Moreuil Wood, Seely suggested Warrior for the VC. The citation he wrote was a simple one. “He went everywhere I went.” They don’t make them like that any more.