Dead Germans in a Trench

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William Orpen, Dead Germans in a Trench, 1918; Imperial War Museum

Dead Germans in a Trench is a 1918 oil painting by British artist William Orpen, made during the First World War. It was inspired by the battlefield of the Battle of the Somme that Orpen had visited in 1917, and depicts the bodies of two dead German soldiers sinking into the mud at the bottom of a trench.

The painting depicts two dead soldiers, one lies on his back, with an agonised open-mouthed expression on his face and a clenched hand raised. The other, wearing a helmet, lies face down in the mud. The skin on the face and arms are painted in a blue-green colour, suggesting putrefaction and decomposition. In the background are the wooden wattle sides of the trench, supported by wooden planks, with white heaps of chalk spoil beyond, and a deep azure sky above. The bright colours contrast with the sombre subject matter. It measures 91.4 by 76.2 centimetres (36.0 in × 30.0 in).

It was first exhibited at Agnew's Gallery on Bond Street in London in May 1918, after the initial decision of the military censor Arthur Lee to deny permission was overruled. The Times commented that "Mr Orpen is certainly not a sentimentalist; he seems to paint with cold, serene skill, just as he might paint a bunch of flowers" and "only Germans die in this war".[citation needed] Orpen donated the painting to the Imperial War Museum in 1918.

This painting, depicting the stark reality of war, has been compared to an 1865 photograph of dead soldiers of the Confederate States Army in a trench with cheveaux-de-frise, at Petersburg, Virginia, during the American Civil War.[citation needed]

Dead Confederate soldier, in trench beyond a section of chevaux-de-frise, 1865; Library of Congress

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