Mary Horlock worked as a curator at the Tate Gallery Liverpool and Tate Britain, and has written widely on contemporary art and artists. Her first novel, The Book of Lies, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. She lives in London.


The Book of Lies

For Alice Maureen Barclay


Fiona Paice

With special thanks to

Darian Leader

Paddy Whitford

Dear Reader,

The book you are holding came about in a rather different way to most others. It was funded directly by readers through a new website: Unbound. Unbound is the creation of three writers. We started the company because we believed there had to be a better deal for both writers and readers. On the Unbound website, authors share the ideas for the books they want to write directly with readers. If enough of you support the book by pledging for it in advance, we produce a beautifully bound special subscribers’ edition and distribute a regular edition and e-book wherever books are sold, in shops and online.

This new way of publishing is actually a very old idea (Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary this way). We’re just using the internet to build each writer a network of patrons. At the back of this book, you’ll find the names of all the people who made it happen.

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Founders, Unbound



1 A stands for Aeroplane: his is the eye That Camouflage tries to defeat; this is why

2 B is for Bomber: he’s coming so fast, If he can’t see you quickly, why, dammit, he’s past

3 C is for Camera. Try to confuse The enemy’s reading of aerial views

4 D is Deception, which plainly implies You’ve got to tell Jerry some credible lies

5 E is for Enemy: keep him in doubt When you must make a mess what that mess is about

6 F is for False Work, which will serve to distract The enemy’s eye from the genuine fact

7 G is for Garnishing, this should be wound To copy the texture and tone of the ground

8 H is for Hiding, so please keep it dark, And remember to go in the shade when you park

9 I is for Invention, consider the new Ways to conceal our secrets from view

10 J is the Job which has got to be done: The Camoufleur knows it and so does the Hun

11 K is the Knowledge of how to combine Doing the job with leaving no sign

12 L is for Lay-out: the way that you face Is of vital importance so choose the right place

13 M is for Maintenance of the disguise: Leaving covers unchecked is always unwise

14 N is for Nets which are simply a frame For the garnishing on them, so garnish the same

15 O is Opacity over the gun, You must garnish opaquely, but think of the sun

16 P is for People moving around, Do so at night and merge with the ground

17 Q is the Question you cannot decide, But the Camouflage officer’s there as a guide

18 R is for Regularity, huts in a row, Or guns equidistant are certain to show

19 S stands for Siting, for Spoil or for Scrim: 3 covers 2 but on 1 sink or swim

20 T is for Tracks, which will photograph light, And disclose your activities; keep them from sight

21 U is the Use you make of dummies, So the enemy can never trust what he sees

22 V is for Vision, this means more than sight, Use a strategy to keep your scheme tight

23 W is for Waste. Please do not forget Steel wool is much harder to replace than a net

24 X is for Extras, there will always be some, But think economically to get the job done

25 Y is for You, sir, on whom will depend The success or the failure of all in the end

26 Z is for Zeal with which you apply These few simple principles – do have a try


An Ending

Select Bibliography






This story starts with a picture: a vast turquoise sky, an endless yellow beach, a mother and her child playing in the sand.

My grandmother lifts a trembling hand and points towards the smallest figure.

‘That is me.’

She now has a room measuring nine feet by five. There isn’t much wall space, so the picture hangs in the corridor outside, beside the sign: ‘No. 18: Maureen Barclay’.

Maureen Barclay is a widow and there are many here. Some don’t know where they are, nor do they remember the lives they have lived. Maureen is different; she remembers plenty. But with this blessing comes a curse: the older she becomes, the more she worries what she might soon forget. She has moved into a nursing home quite by her own choice, but as she downsizes, reducing her life to the essentials, the more she is stripping back memories, the memories embedded in clothes, objects, papers and pictures.

There simply isn’t room for them here.

The only solution is to pass them on to the people she trusts. She has given me many things over the years – her love and time above all else – and now she surrenders a most treasured possession. It is a pencil-drawn self-portrait of her father and my great-grandfather, Joseph Gray. This is the man who first painted that small child playing on the beach.

Joseph Gray is an artist most people have never heard of, but for much of my early life he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. His paintings filled all the rooms of my grandparents’ flat and much of my own family home. Smoke-filled streets and blitzed churches lined our staircase, thickly painted still lifes crowded in corners, restless seas churned over each mantelpiece. While the houses of my friends contained candy-coloured Impressionist prints or tastefully anonymous landscapes, we had this curious mix of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never even met.

But at least I knew what he looked like. I would stare for hours at this pencil-drawn self-portrait: darkly piercing eyes under hooded lids, a wide curving nose, a proud, rounded jaw. With a crumpled hat pulled low on his head, Joseph Gray stood straight and returned my gaze. Now that’s what an artist should look like, I thought.

The first time I met Joe was through this drawing, and the first time I saw London was through his paintings of the Thames. I was told he’d been a war artist and because of the prints on our staircase – images of St Paul’s ablaze, a city in ruins – I assumed this meant the Second World War. I was wrong. Joe had fought in the trenches of the First World War and, once invalided out, had become an official war artist to The Graphic newspaper. He was later commissioned to paint battle scenes and portraits of fallen heroes, with his prints and drawings making their way into museums up and down the country.

Now, as Maureen’s life shrinks – she has one cupboard to hang her clothes, one chest of drawers – so mine must expand. On each visit she surrenders new memories. First she hands me a file of old art reviews from the 1920s (‘Mr. Gray has done wonders’, ‘Mr. Gray may be ranked with the great battle painters.’1); the next week there are photographs of actual paintings with titles like A Ration Party or After Neuve Chapelle. Then comes a huge cardboard roll jammed full of newspaper articles: sheet curled upon sheet (‘June 1916 – A Day in the Life of a Trench, by our correspondent, Joseph Gray’2).

I think again of the pencil self-portrait, dark eyes haunted by what he’s seen.

‘It is a shame,’ Maureen tells me. ‘Nobody knows about him now, nobody remembers him. He lived such a life, he did such extraordinary work.’

I nod slowly, familiar with that lament, and reach over to give her hand a gentle squeeze. Despite the passing of the years there is something unresolved at her core, a sadness buried deep within. Maureen has lived a vivid life, created a large and loving family who adore her, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of the little girl on the beach, still looking for her father.

She refers to Joe often, as a war artist, a painter and etcher of note, and reminds us how successful he was once. That once was long ago, but it is what she clings to. She cannot really grasp the rest; why she never saw him after, where he went and what he did.

‘There was, of course, another war.’

She uses her long ebony stick to prod at an ominous file abandoned at her feet.

‘To serve in two world wars. It’s hard to understand. Can you take this, please. I’m sure you’ll find a use for it.’

I lean casually to pick up the file but am instantly defeated. It spews yellow papers and is as heavy as a brick. It bears the cryptic label: ‘Steel Wool: Camouflage’.

‘Camouflage,’ I repeat, as if it is a question.

Joseph Gray was a good artist. My grandmother maintains that with a little more luck he might have been great. She is frustrated by the injustice of it all, by his failure to find a proper context. She has a point. After risking his life in one war Joe shouldn’t have had to struggle through the next decade, fighting to get his paintings seen.

But just because something can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For the uninitiated, the word ‘camouflage’ can be traced to seventeenth-century France: ‘camouflet’ was a slang word that meant a puff of smoke blown into someone’s face to dupe them.3 Another derivation is the French verb ‘camoufler’, which originally meant to make up for the stage.4 The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of published usage is when, on 25 May 1917, the Daily Mail reported, ‘The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed “camouflage”.’5 This makes it sound so simple, but camouflage is never just a matter of concealment; it is fundamentally about deception. You must fool someone with a surface resemblance, make them think they understand what they see, yet what they see is a lie.

All the facts sit in this heavy file, crammed full of reports and memorandums, photographs and drawings. I’m not sure how much of it Maureen has actually read, but I kiss her goodbye and take it away, struggling down the stairs that only the care-home staff ever use. I pass a few elderly residents slumbering in their comfy chairs. One pale, hairless gentleman repeatedly wipes at an invisible smudge on the table in front of him. I think of the stories lost, or so well hidden they will never be told.

Later, in my own home, I confront the file of scraps and secrets. There’s a photograph of Joe in what I’d guess as middle age, standing on a grassy hillside. He is smiling coyly and if I look closely I can see why. It’s not a grassy slope at all but a canopy of fake undergrowth hiding something. What? There are three more photographs showing a vast framework under construction, and hundreds of bombs stacked below. The view from underneath is astonishing: a man balancing on a wire like a trapeze artist at the circus. There’s so much more. I find drawings for ‘dummy trees’, ‘dummy farmhouses’, ‘movable hedges’; more photographs of landscape which isn’t really landscape. It’s magic. No, it is camouflage.

Art and camouflage are not obvious allies – the former makes something unreal recognisable, the latter makes something real unrecognisable – but for my great-grandfather one paved the way to the other. Joseph Gray spent one war representing reality, and the next misrepresenting it.

Here, in this file, I find pages of a tattered manuscript entitled Camouflage and Air Defence. There are memorandums and reports written on War Office letterhead, addressed to ‘Major Joseph Gray R.E.’, a camouflage officer and adviser on matters of civil defence, an ‘expert in structural concealment’.

Maureen is proud of her father’s work, but by the time Joe wrote this book so much was being hidden. He would meet and fall in love with another woman, a woman some fifteen years younger than him. ‘Concealment is an art, and like every other art reaches perfection only through much practice.’6 So declared the War Office in 1937, at the very time when Joe was leaving his wife and only daughter, making himself disappear from the family he’d once been part of.

I have grown up with Joe’s presence – in his paintings, prints, fragments of stories – but this only ever seemed to reinforce his absence. I want to find Joe for Maureen, to find the man and make him whole. It’s the very least I can do, but it won’t be easy.

A complete draft of Camouflage and Air Defence is lying sealed in a box in the Imperial War Museum. Dated 1935 it is marked ‘SECRET’, ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ and ‘Not to be published by order of the War Office’. It was intended as a guide to concealment and deception in a modern, mechanised war and proposes a range of strategies to protect from air attack. Joe was one of the first British artists to be recruited to the cause of camouflage in the 1930s, and it became an abiding obsession. He went on to invent a new kind of covering material – steel wool – that could be used to create artificial landscapes, covering vital sites and protecting them from the Luftwaffe. There is a sample of this material in his archive – bristling papery fragments painted in greyish green – and more photographs, ‘notes on research’, testimonials that bear witness to his knowledge and expertise. It was presented by the woman who was for a time his most precious secret. Her name was Mary Meade, or rather, as I discover much later, Kathleen Mary Meade.

I am Mary Kathleen, which seems a strange coincidence.

Maureen had four daughters. My mother, Patricia, is the eldest. She was the only grandchild to meet Joe.

‘Was I named after Mary Meade?’ I ask, when I realise the connection.

There’s a long pause down the telephone.

‘Well, not really,’ replies my mother. ‘But I liked the name and I liked her.’

It takes a moment for me to understand.

‘You knew her?’

‘Oh, y-es, and so did your aunt Victoria. They became close after Joe died. In fact, Victoria has some of the letters that Joe wrote to Mary during the war, when they first met and fell in love. You should ask to see them, they are really wonderful . . . just don’t mention it to your grandmother.’

My aunt Victoria arrives at my door within days, looking furtive and flustered. She hands me a bundle.

‘They are love letters,’ she says quickly. ‘Mary kept all of them, but I haven’t mentioned them to your grandmother and I’m not going to. I know she’d find it painful. I mean, she wouldn’t want to read them . . . but I don’t see why you can’t.’

How swiftly I have become the repository of family secrets. I’m not sure if it’s right, but I read the letters anyway.

‘Darling Mary . . . I love you devotedly and entirely and until I met you I did not know what love was. I will never leave you unless you want me to go.’

‘My dearest Darling . . . I was sorry if I was difficult but I can’t camouflage what I feel and I won’t try to. I am at the moment in a very vulnerable position. Do you really love me (I dare you to try not loving me and see what happens!)’

It seems deception was quite Joe’s speciality, but was it an art he learned or a talent he was born with? I read and reread his letters then return to the Imperial War Museum and scour the archives of other camouflage officers, trying to fix him in a wider context. There are lecture notes on blending in and how to spot bad cover, private papers and photographs. ‘Having two lives makes it so difficult,’ notes one officer in his diary.7

I also find a poem. It is called ‘The ABC of Camouflage’ and is a jaunty alphabetical guide intended as an instructional tool to make troops ‘camouflage-minded’8. It stays in my head so it’s obviously effective. How I wish Joe’s life could be made simple, broken down to an ABC. Perhaps I could try, using this poem as a starting point, and so I plot two intertwining histories – one personal and particular, the other more objective and collective – Joseph Gray and camouflage.

But how can I get close to a man who was so good at hiding, a man who had made camouflage the fabric of his life?

I begin with the first story I ever heard about Joe, from 1959. My mother, Patricia Barclay, was nineteen years old, a coltish teenager with kohled eyes and a pixie cut. Having secured herself a place at Glasgow School of Art, she had big ideas and a huge portfolio, which made her own mother anxious. Maureen feared her eldest daughter was making the wrong choice, and perhaps that history might be repeating. She felt out of her depth but was too proud to admit it.

‘If you want to be an artist then we should go and ask one for advice,’ she said. ‘We shall go and see your grandfather.’

Patricia didn’t hide her shock. She had assumed her grandfather was long dead, since nobody had ever told her otherwise.

Without further explanation they took a train from Paddington down to Marlow, the small town where Joe and Mary had made their home, and he was standing on the station platform, stick in hand, waiting for them patiently as if he’d been waiting half his life. As Patricia stepped out of the carriage and met his gaze, she felt certain they had met before, and then she realised it was only the shock of resemblance. Maureen and Joe shared the same eyes, the same nose and cheekbones; it was like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. After the briefest of introductions Joe took his daughter and granddaughter to his house to meet Mary, and they sat on benches in the rambling garden, drinking tea from mismatched china.

‘I want to be an artist,’ Patricia announced with some finality.

She hoped he’d be pleased, but her grandfather appeared to be quite mortified. His gentle face set into a frown. He levelled his eyes on Patricia then turned to her mother.

Art?’ he queried after a long pause. ‘Art? What has art ever done for us as a family?’

It was a question that hung in the air between them, a question for which there was no answer. Maureen stared at her father uncertainly. What had art done? She couldn’t say. Joe shook his head again and left it there. Patricia gulped her tea and wondered. She couldn’t possibly grasp the hurt in her mother’s eyes, or the true weight of the silence. What had art done? But she made up her mind there and then to visit her grandfather as often as possible.

After that she invited herself to Marlow every other weekend. She’d sit with Joe in his studio, perusing the creaking bookshelves and watching him at work. There were many canvases, stacked eight to ten deep, and none were ever finished.

‘Not yet,’ Joe said. ‘They’re not quite ready, they’re not right.’

He worked on different paintings at different times, moving between them according to his own logic, adding little details, blending light and shadow. He would paint and paint and paint. What should art do? It shouldn’t end.

Patricia became particularly attached to a painting of an almond tree in blossom. She could stare for hours at the glistening surface: the dappled sunlight on scattering petals, the delicate brickwork on the wall behind, and the white cat sitting at the base of the trunk, a small and silent spectator. She watched the painting move through various stages, and then on one visit the cat had vanished. She told Joe that this was a mistake. She suggested he put it back.

After a short debate he did as his granddaughter asked, and in a matter of a few moments its pale, glistening form was reinstated.

‘Better,’ said Patricia. ‘Much better.’

But the next time she visited the cat had gone again.

‘Now why have you done that?’ she asked. ‘I think the cat should go back.’

Joe eventually relented, only to remove it on another day and wait to see what happened. A shadow grew where the cat had sat, as the paint was layered over it. The cat came and went, and this game of hide-and-seek continued over months. It might have gone on for ever.

‘But then I met your father and moved to Australia. I never came back, and neither did the cat.’ My mother sighs at the memory. ‘I inherited the painting, long after Joe had died, and I was sad to see the cat had gone.’

I smile and shake my head.

No, I tell her.

The cat didn’t disappear. It was just very well hidden.

Let me explain.


CAB = Cabinet Papers

CD, TC, CDTC = Camouglage Development and Training Centre

HO= Home Office

IWM = Imperial War Museum

PREM = Prime Minister’s Office Records

TNA = The National Archives

WO = War Office

Jack Sayer, ‘The Camouflage Game’, refers to his unpublished, hand-written memoir, courtesy of Gillian Ward.

To avoid repetition, the majority of quotes from Joseph’s letters to Mary are not noted. Unless stated otherwise, they form part of the Barclay family archive. Similarly, images reproduced form part of this archive, except where credited otherwise.

1 ‘London Press’, June 1922, Joseph Gray to Andrew Paterson in a letter, 22 June 1922, from the Paterson Family Archives, courtesy Andrew Paterson Collection

2 The Graphic, 20 June 1916, n.p.

3 Tim Newark & Jonathan Miller, Camouflage, ex. cat. IWM, London, 2007, p. 56

4 Ibid.

5 Roy R. Behrens, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage, Bobolink Books, Iowa, 2002, p. 171

6 ‘Notes on Concealment and Camouflage’, The War Office, 1937, IWM collections WO 1732

7 Diary of 2nd Lt. David Cooper (September 1940–December 1943), IWM Archive 90/6/1

8 The original version of this poem can be found in IWM Archive Maj. D. A. J. Pavitt Documents.2790

images stands for Aeroplane: his is the eye That Camouflage tries to defeat; this is why

They no longer looked like soldiers, at least not the kind of soldiers he had ever seen before. Their faces were smeared with dirt, their tunics stiff with mud, their heads and legs swathed in rags. Joseph Gray scanned his own filthy uniform. Was it enough? He took the badge from his bonnet and tucked it in a pocket, just as an extra precaution.

‘We had heard that the sun’s rays striking a badge or button had often been the cause of attracting fire.’1

It was 10 March 1915 – not a day for taking any chances; even if there was no sun, even if it had been raining non-stop for days, even if the landscape ahead looked so destroyed nothing could survive there.

He crouched low beside a man of the Second Black Watch. With a shaky hand he was lighting cigarette after cigarette, taking a puff or two on each, then throwing them away. To his left, another was emptying his pack.

He thrust something out.

‘What is it?’

‘Shirts and socks.’ The man was digging into his pack. ‘I don’t want them. Here’s a loaf, too!’

Joe knew what he was really saying, what he was really thinking, but he tried to push him off.

‘Away! You’re havering! You’ll be laughing at this tomorrow.’2

He didn’t sound much like a Scot, and he didn’t look like much of a soldier. He was neither. Joseph Gray was from South Shields, and a year after graduating from its art school, he had moved to Dundee to work as an illustrator for the Courier. The son of a sea captain, he had already travelled plenty – to France, Spain and even Germany – so when the war broke out he saw it as another great adventure. He’d enlisted with his workmates; they all had the same idea.

‘There were about twelve of us who called ourselves, from some headline, “Writers and Fighters Too”. We were all from the newspaper offices in Dundee, and meant to keep together.’3

Lord Kitchener, the war minister, wasn’t allowing any journalists on the Front, and the Official War Artists Scheme was at least another year away, but that didn’t stop men from the Courier, the Dundee Advertiser, the People’s Friend. They’d eagerly joined the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch and had every intention of reporting their experiences from the trenches. As they’d set off from Caledonian Station, people had shouted ‘Keep it short!’, the subeditor’s nightly cry to reporters.

Yes, that was the plan. Keep it short.

When I first told my mother that I was going to write Joe’s story, she said: ‘Don’t make him out to be some kind of hero.’ I thought that very strange. She knew nothing about Joe’s time in France. She remembered him only as the old man who’d cut himself off from his only daughter, the old man who would endlessly fuss over his paintings, never able to say: ‘Yes, it is done.’ But if each painting was a battle, then Joe’s first was Neuve Chapelle.

The 4th landed in France on 26 February 1915; eight days later they were in the trenches. Neuve Chapelle was a small village about twenty miles north of Ypres. If British troops could break through German lines and capture it, then they could push on to the higher ground of Aubers Ridge.

Yes, that was the plan.

It started with the ominous drone of British planes. They flew back and forth over the German trenches like giants birds of prey, checking and re-checking the enemy’s positions. Neuve Chapelle was the first large-scale offensive by the British and the first time aerial photography was used. This meant the trench lines were known in advance. This should have made it easier.

But then a single gun boomed and any sense of a plan disappeared. Joe held his breath as the first bombardment began. He pretended to himself that he knew what to expect, yet it was beyond anything he had imagined. From that first warning signal he felt an assault on all of his senses. Shells and bullets whistled past, whipping up the earth and filling his nostrils, his mouth, making him choke. Shots from eighteen pounders screamed, explosives came like express trains. For a second he dared to peer over the edge of the parapet; he saw clouds of dust and smoke, continuous flashes of fire like a furious burning sunset. It was beautiful in all the ways it shouldn’t be.

‘Fourth Black Watch, move to the left in single file!’

Every order had to be screamed. Joe was blinking grit, following the man in front, barely able to see beyond him, barely able to see anything until he was clambering over it: burst sandbags, earth, the already dead and wounded. Bullets thudded into the ground on both sides, throwing up mud and burning his eyes. Surely he would die now. Through the smoke, blinking, he saw a stretcher-bearer drop like a stone, taking the man he carried down with him. Men were falling all around and the communication trench was filling up with bodies. Blood and mud. It turned out blood was more slippery, but still he was alive and still he followed orders. Those who were able inched their way towards Port Arthur, a ruin of a trench only forty yards from the German line. It twisted and turned like a Chinese puzzle, at times so narrow they had to squeeze their way along. Joe was on his hands and knees, moving inch by painful inch. The confusion and chaos engulfed him. The air was thick with smoke and the explosions didn’t stop.

The battle was going on around him but without him. He accepted he would die, pushed himself flat on his stomach, and waited. A group of Seaforths appeared. Was this a sign of success? They brought with them a straggling band of German prisoners, wild-eyed and terrified.

‘The remarkable thing is not that some were insane – but that any had retained their reason.’4

A few years ago my aunt Victoria visited a number of First World War battlefields in France. As she was shown around a workshop where they were making headstones, she explained to the guide that her grandfather had been at Neuve Chapelle.

‘Oh,’ he said, lowering his eyes. There was silence. ‘I am so sorry.’

‘No,’ she replied. ‘You don’t understand. He survived.’

The guide looked up, shocked. ‘Well, he was one of the very, very few . . .’

My mother’s words come back to me: ‘Don’t make him out to be some kind of hero.’

Joe never claimed to be. When he wrote about Neuve Chapelle later he was clear about the facts: he was little use to anyone. The 4th had been in France no time at all and he hadn’t yet fired his gun. When evening finally came, he was put to work repairing a dugout, the very one he’d built two days before. He had to step over still-warm corpses to do so, passing back and forth to reach the only working pump. Staying alive was, so far, his great achievement.

How to make sense of it? He wasn’t sure, but as long as he was breathing he could draw, and there was no denying that these strange, unatural sights demanded it.

That night he was on sentry duty. ‘As I stood at my post and looked over towards the captured positions, the scene, after darkness fell, was most dramatic. Ahead two farmhouses were burning furiously. From the blazing buildings crimson and golden tongues of flame arose that illuminated the rising billows of smoke. Our artillery still fired incessantly, filling the air with an infernal din. The heavy shells hurtled wailing over our heads, their bursting flashes cleaving the darkness . . .’5

He began sketching. It made him feel more in control. He drew the men of different regiments, the destroyed earth they hid in, the shells exploding in the night sky. He recorded colours and shapes and shadows. And as he worked he tried to imagine himself back in Dundee, in a future he didn’t dare believe that he had.

Art was his escape. It gave him a purpose and helped make meaning, and it also offered respite. With pencil in hand Joe could be in two places at once, sunken deep in this ruined earth whilst floating free of it. If he died – which he knew was likely – then his drawings might survive. That was as close as he got to hope.

But if drawing gave him comfort, it was soon to become his job. Captain Boase had been in charge of the battalion since their first weeks in the drill hall in Dundee and he was aware of Joe’s skill as a draughtsman. Early on, Joe had come under suspicion for his thick Northumbrian accent and his interest in German newspapers – some of the men even thought he was a spy. Joe had had to explain about his background and his travels, how he had drawn many different landscapes. It was enough for Boase to set him to work as his observer, his scout, his extra pair of eyes.

Joe wasn’t the first artist to find himself so employed. Commanding officers discovered, much to their surprise, that artists could be quite useful in wartime: ‘Every artist is a trained observer,’ after all. ‘His profession has taught him to use his eyes more keenly than the ordinary man, and consequently the artist–soldier is particularly valuable for all reconnaissance and observation work. His ability to draw rapidly and accurately is helpful for many military purposes.’6

It was no sinecure. The observer had to be good at map-reading and judging of distance, have a keen sense of light and shade. He had to draw quickly, and under intense pressure. He often worked alone, and not only did he need to be attuned to every detail of the landscape, he also had to blend with it. There was no point gathering crucial evidence if it died with him in No Man’s Land. He had to see without being seen.

By the end of March, Joe was regularly being sent on reconaissance, by himself or shadowing Boase. He perfected the art of crawling on his belly like a lizard, always moving slowly, taking advantage of the debris of the battlefield to make a shield. His uniform was already the colour of the earth, and his hands and legs were now bandaged in rags to protect them from cold as much as anything else. He looked more like an animal than a man, and that was fine, because that was safer.

Dawn or dusk were the best times since he needed light to work, although that increased the risk, and not just to himself. On Palm Sunday he angered an entire trench occupied by Indian troops. They initially ‘seemed to derive considerable amusement from my sketching’.7 But it didn’t last long. ‘I worked unmolested for five minutes, the Indians gathering round with sundry amused expressions, until a bullet thudded into the parapet about a yard to my right. This was at once followed by another, so I hastily sat down while a Boche across the way emptied his magazine without doing any damage.’ Joe waited and tried again, tentatively lifting his periscope. More fire broke out, much to the disgust of those around him. He soon knew many swear words in Hindustani – ‘at least it sounded more like bad language than anything else’ as he carried on with his task.8

It helped to see the humour in it – to write letters home boasting about a luxurious billet and delicious food – since only the next night he was lost in the darkness, stumbling from shell hole to shell hole, trying to find his way to a new location. ‘The whole ground was terribly torn up, and many German dead lay around.’ Joe hid under corpses as shells exploded over him, trying not to look too long into their empty staring eyes. They were men just like him, the only difference being the colour of their uniform. ‘Some lay peacefully in composed attitudes; others were twisted into grotesque formless heaps.’9

He had to wait for a long time until it was safe. The landscape always looked desolate and empty, but even when it looked empty he knew it never was. It was bristling with men poised to kill him. Joe hated the German snipers but had to admire how well they hid: under nets, in hollow trees. They were clever with their trenches, too, alternating different-coloured sandbags that made it harder to see the loopholes. He reported it all back to Boase. The British didn’t understand such tricks, opting for one colour, neatly patted down to form a perfect line.

Tidiness didn’t help anyone. There are no straight lines in nature, as every artist knows. There should be curves and dips, nothing too jarring. But Joe wasn’t now thinking of marketable pictures and an audience back home. He was part hunter, part prey, and he tried to convince himself it would make him a better artist. One day.

But it wasn’t just about making sketches from life. He had to read and replicate air photographs to make drawings of the German positions; he had to duplicate maps and plans of attack. Sometimes he knew what would happen ahead of time. Would that make it easier?

Joe Lee, an artist and poet, one of his fighter–writer friends, sought him out one bright May afternoon.

‘We’ve got an important job to do in a hurry. We must have a secluded place to discuss it.’10

They took themselves off to an empty office and there examined the contents of a large brown envelope. It was a map, or rather a plan that showed the distribution of troops for their next engagement. They were now tasked with making exact copies for all commanding officers.

So it was that Joe knew the exact distribution of troops before the Battle of Festubert. The 4th were to be used in the assault on the German trenches in front of Aubers Ridge. He had a strong, abiding sense that it would be bad.

The following night, the night of 8 May, it was unseasonally cold. He would remember it years later. A strange wind moaned through the trees as they began marching to Lansdowne Post through darkness, the few lanterns casting ghostly shadows. It felt as if nature was offering a warning. Joe stayed at the head, close to Captain Boase, and in the pale light of dawn they first glimpsed the smoking ruins of the battlefield. It looked like a storm at sea, with clouds of dust and smoke that stretched to infinity.

Their communication trenches snaked towards the road, but the Germans had located every furrow and a barrage of shell fire had already begun.11 The bombardment had started at four o’clock in the morning and showed no signs of relenting. The battalion couldn’t get any closer. Instead they held back in the reserve trenches, trapped under constant fire. Every inch was jammed with men of different units; Seaforths and Gurkhas, most of them wounded. The smell of burning flesh became overpowering. Stretcher-bearers moved back and forth. Keeping low, Joe waited until the order came to move, but then he wondered how they would move since so many men crowded him. Boase ordered them forward. They stopped and started.

‘The enemy reopened a fearful fire upon us. The range was accurate, the shells bursting in hundreds one after another. The concussion was fearful, one seemed to be torn asunder . . . the bombardment reached an awful intensity – we realised now what the Germans experienced at Neuve Chapelle.’ They tried to keep moving. Then Boase stopped abruptly.

‘I’m hit, Gray.’

As he said it, he was hit again.

The world sped up and slowed down. Joe was pulling out his first-aid dressings, wanting to stem the blood pumping from Boase’s arm.

But Boase pulled himself up, insisting they continue.

Joe knew there was a medical officer, Major Rogers, just ahead. The problem was everyone in-between was wounded worse than Boase.

‘It was impossible to move forward. Dead and dying choked the passage, so full was the trench in parts that one man, dead, stood erect, sustained by the pressure of the living, who themselves could not move. I assisted Captain Boase along the trench but soon he had to stop, for progress in the trench, slippery with blood and crowded with the living and the dead, was impossible.’ Joe didn’t know what to do. ‘To step outside was suicide.’ But step outside he did, using all his strength to drag Boase with him.

‘After a desperate rush across the open we reached the first aid post.’12

A desperate rush. Open ground. Was it luck that kept Joe alive or was it something else? There was a skill to keeping low and moving fast. He was deaf to the noise, blinded by the smoke, but he managed to survive. They both did.

After he watched Boase loaded onto a stretcher, someone tugged at his tunic.

‘What about you? You are wounded.’

Joe didn’t understand until, looking down, he saw that he was covered in blood. But it wasn’t his, it was the blood of other men.

Many soldiers, once they’d been through this war, would find it impossible to talk about. How to describe the horror, the despair, and then how to acknowledge the guilt that came with survival. Joe would make it back to Dundee, marry a beautiful woman and have a child, but in the one surviving photograph he’s still in his Black Watch uniform, his eyes tired and troubled. He would remain buried in the trenches for another five years, ‘slithering in mud’ and ‘soaked to the skin’;13 he would wake in the middle of the night in a sweat of panic, then be gripped by a coldness in his bones he couldn’t shake.

Men fresh out of the firing zone would come to his studio, dazed, blinking in the sunlight of civilian life. He’d relive ‘hot moments’ with them and then make them pose as models, and as they talked, he’d sketch. Day by day, Joe reimagined action scenes and battle charges, he drew medical officers and stretcher-bearers carrying out their duties, different moments from trench life. And as he collected stories, so he gathered objects, paying well for billy cans, bayonets and belt buckles as props to furnish every picture.

Because Joseph Gray was still observing, and he had to be authentic.

He would be made official war artist to The Graphic, a popular rival to the Illustrated London News. Everyone wanted realistic front-line images and Joe offered that. There, alongside the photographic spreads of the Home Front and endless maps of France, were drawings by Solomon J. Solomon, Francis Dadd and Joseph Gray. His sketches brought to life what was happening in the trenches, illustrating the drama of specific offensives or different artillery and equipment. They had an immediacy and naivety which spoke of direct experience and so had huge appeal. Around half the working domestic population were now reading newspapers. This was the first mass-circulation war and artists’ impressions were seen by a far wider audience than anything in a gallery.14

But a gallery would soon be needed.

The newly founded Imperial War Museum would purchase seven of Joe’s pen-and-ink sketches, all of them ‘drawn in the firing zone’. They were less idealised treatments than his sketches for the newspaper, depicting different corners of the Western Front and the battlefield after Festubert. Sir Martin Conway, the directorgeneral, travelled to Dundee to open the ‘Victory’ exhibition of war relics at Kinnaird Hall, where he singled out Joe’s drawings as ‘a record of priceless value’ and ‘the work of a man who had fought’.15 The two men took the time to discuss a larger commission.

‘It will be called The Ration Party.’ Joe already had the composition in mind, pinned to an actual event.

On the night of 11th March the artist was one of a party that left the trenches to bring up rations for the company. The night was wet and stormy and the flat ground was flooded. The only light was provided by bursting star shells. The picture shows the return of the ration party to the front lines. A star shell has dropped near to the men – Their position, now exposed, is swept by machine gun fire and they make a wild dash forward towards cover.16

Joe would depict the men ‘who were actually present when the incident took place’. He had to ‘make the painting accurate in every detail’ and for all the survivors to pose as models ‘(but photographs will have to be used in the case of men who were killed)’.17 He also supplied an outline sketch identifying each man. The first, the central character, was already a hero. Charles McCririck had fought with Joe at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert, earning the nickname ‘McGurkha’ for his bravery.18 After losing a leg at the Somme, McCririck had been awarded a Military Cross, and though he never once talked about the war to his son or grandson, they treasured Joe’s sketches of him. Because Charles came time and again to Joe’s studio, and he stands at the centre in A Ration Party, a ragged spectre, pushing his way through the debris of No Man’s Land as if wading through a fast-flowing river.

A Ration Party is an eerie painting, its bedraggled soliders half sunk in mud, half lost in shadow. They are caught in a kind of limbo, between light and dark, between life and death, and Joe is right there with them. I know it’s him because he identified himself on his own list, but he is the most obscure figure in the corner, a face hooded and hidden in the shadows, almost invisible. Almost a ghost.

By going back over each moment of each battle, Joe was making sense of it, to make his subjective war objective, but the line between the dead and the living was less and less distinct. By the time he came to write up a history of the 4th for the Dundee Advertiser every family in the city had lost someone they loved. Joe would try to give a focus to their grief, filling his columns with vivid descriptions of each battle, reminding everyone this was ‘the greatest test of all’19 and it wasn’t all a waste, but breaking up each column were the grainy, head-and-shoulder photographs of soldiers mentioned in the narrative – all either dead, wounded or missing. Their faces accumulated steadily and silently, saying far more than words ever could.

‘Nothing in our time will haunt us like the War. Our dead comrades live on in our thoughts, appealingly, as if afraid to be forgotten.’20 But forgetting wasn’t an option. Joe knew that he had survived for a reason: to keep his friends alive.

Years later he wrote: ‘In the last war, all of my best friends died alongside of me. As they went, one by one, all in their early twenties – all men of subtlety and imagination – really the best in the country – I remember the conviction that I formed that it was ridiculous and absurd to assume that because their bodies were shattered and finished that they were finished too. Of course they went on.’21

They went on in his paintings. He wouldn’t let them vanish. But the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915 would be his last.

It was just before six o’clock in the morning. A mine exploded beneath the German trenches, and the ground shook over half a mile away, where the 4th were waiting. Two minutes later British guns opened fire, the gas was turned on, and candles were used to thicken the great clouds of smoke, which billowed ominously across No Man’s Land. Soon the enemy lines were blotted out behind dense yellow and black fumes.

And there was Joe again, charging over the parapet. He ducked close to the ground and tried not to look at the men who fell down on either side not to get up again.22 It was impossible to see further than a few yards but he was one of a very few who stumbled into the first enemy trenches. Any Germans left alive were huddled in corners, gibbering and terrified, ready to surrender.

‘Carry on!’ came the order.

They tried, they really did, but the artillery fire was suddenly more brutal. The Germans had recovered from the surprise of the first onslaught and now aimed all their artillery on the captured trenches, blasting them to bits. Men’s bodies were mangled in the earth. High explosives dived into the midst of little groups crouching in shell holes. Everyone was killed.

‘The battleground was a bloody inferno. The dense clouds of smoke from the enemy’s bombs filled the air; it was almost impossible to distinguish friend from foe.’23 Reinforcements, so badly needed, would never come. Communication lines had been cut, shrapnel had ripped out the cables. When Colonel Walker tried to get word back, he was picked out and killed instantly.

The remaining men dug themselves in, preparing for the worst. Joe closed his eyes, waited, prayed. He couldn’t hear the screams any more; he couldn’t hear anything. It would be hours before the fire decreased. Only then the straggling band of survivors began edging back to their old front line. Some were blown apart as they crawled, literally obliterated by gunfire or grenades. ‘It had been a grand advance but at great cost,’ was how it was phrased in the battalion diary. Nothing, though, could summarise the nature of that cost, as the roll was called next morning.

The air was thick with smoke and guns still thundered. Mechanically the old orders were called and survivors lined up slowly and quietly. Joe found his place in line, yet it was barely even that. On either side were the spaces where his friends were meant to be. It hadn’t hit him, not yet. He waited. Where were they? Surely they had overslept. Yes, that was it.

‘One looks around to the billets. One’s special pal is late for parade again – just as he ever is. In a moment he will peep carefully from behind the billet door. The sergeant’s head is turned away; out he will run and slip stealthily with dancing eyes, and an adroitness that shows much practice, into a place in the rear rank.

‘But he does not come – nor will he ever.’24

The 4th had lost their colonel and twenty officers of the twenty-two who had gone into battle. On the night of the 24th, 423 non-commissioned officers and men had marched to the trenches. From these trenches 167 remained.

One of Joe’s journalist colleagues later wrote that ‘the heavy proportion of officers killed arose from their wearing, as the other ranks did not, a ready mark for snipers, the gleaming red hackle of the Black Watch in their bonnets’.25 It’s hard to know if that’s true, but as Joe stood quietly, looking around, trying to take in what was left of his battalion, he saw only empty spaces where his friends were supposed to be.

He had to wonder – how could he not? – if it wasn’t just that the dead men were more visible, but that they had died because they’d been more visible.


CAB = Cabinet Papers

CD, TC, CDTC = Camouglage Development and Training Centre

HO= Home Office

IWM = Imperial War Museum

PREM = Prime Minister’s Office Records

TNA = The National Archives

WO = War Office

Jack Sayer, ‘The Camouflage Game’, refers to his unpublished, hand-written memoir, courtesy of Gillian Ward.

To avoid repetition, the majority of quotes from Joseph’s letters to Mary are not noted. Unless stated otherwise, they form part of the Barclay family archive. Similarly, images reproduced form part of this archive, except where credited otherwise.

1 J. Gray, ‘The Fourth Black Watch in the Great War’, The Dundee Advertiser, 11 December 1917, n.p.

2 Ibid.,14 December 1917, n.p.

3 William Linton Andrews, Haunting Years, The Naval and Military Press Ltd, Uckfield, 2001, first pub. 1930, p. 21

4 Gray, ‘The Fourth Black Watch’, 14 December 1917, n.p.

5 Ibid., 17 December 1917, n.p.

6 Frank Rutter, The Influence of the War on Art, in H. W. Wilson (ed.), The Great War, vol. 12, ch. 263,

7 Gray, ‘The Fourth Black Watch’, 21 December 1917

8 Ibid., 22 December 1917

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 28 December 1917

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 29 December 1917

13 Ibid., 2 January 1918

14 Stuart Sillars, Art and Survival in First World War Britain, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1987, p. 154

15 The Dundee Courier, 19 December 1918, p. 3