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Shrine Stories: The Dyson

An image of Will Dyson's 'Welcome Back to the Somme' on a red background where 'Shrine Stories' is repeated. The image is black and white and depicts a woman handing a bottle of wine to an Australian soldier. The soldier is one in a long line of soldiers marching away from the women. Next to the woman is another woman beckoning to people out of the frame, as well as an old man and a young boy.

The Shrine Stories podcast takes you on a deep dive behind the objects in the Shrine's Galleries.

In this episode, award-winning historian, storyteller and biographer Ross McMullin shares the story of Australia’s first official war artist, William Henry Dyson.

Will Dyson created hundreds of drawings of Australia’s soldiers at the Western Front, and managed to capture something no other artist could.

Ross references several of Dyson's paintings and lithographs, which can be viewed here.

This episode also discusses the below artwork, Welcome back to the Somme, in detail. 

An image of Will Dyson's 'Welcome Back to the Somme' on a red background where 'Shrine Stories' is repeated. The image is black and white and depicts a woman handing a bottle of wine to an Australian soldier. The soldier is one in a long line of soldiers marching away from the women. Next to the woman is another woman beckoning to people out of the frame, as well as an old man and a young boy.


Across the Line - Lone Canyon


LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance embraces the diversity of our community and acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to Elders, past and present. Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast – a place where we take you on a deep dive into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor.

ROSS MCMULLIN: In this episode, we’re diving into the world of Australia’s first official war artist, William Henry Dyson.  Will Dyson created hundreds of drawings of Australia’s soldiers at the Western Front, and managed to capture something no other artist could.  To tell us more about Will’s life and times as a war artist is award-winning historian, biographer and storyteller Ross McMullin. Ross is also the author of the biography Will Dyson: Australia’s radical genius. Welcome Ross. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now let's start at Dyson's early career. Can you please give us a brief overview of how he got into this world of art?

ROSS MCMULLIN:  He was born into a creative family. His eldest brother Ted was a well-known and remarkably prolific freelance journalist, and another older brother, Ambrose was a capable professional cartoonist. The Dyson's became close to the Lindsay's - another exceptionally creative family and Norman Lindsay became Will Dyson's best friend. And the links between the two families were consolidated when Jean Dyson, Will's sister, married Lionel Lindsay, and Will Dyson married Ruby Lindsay. So Will Dyson was naturally immersed in art and writing from an early stage.

LAURA THOMAS: A lot of connections there. 

ROSS MCMULLIN: Yes, indeed. 

LAURA THOMAS: And he started his work as a caricaturist, can you expand on that a little bit more?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Well, he displayed conspicuous potential as an artist and writer during his 20s, particularly as a caricaturist. But overall, he struggled to find a niche in Australia. And he eventually decided on a big gamble, and moved to London. 


ROSS MCMULLIN: To see if he could find a congenial slot in a broader cultural environment. So, in 1909, he married Ruby, and they headed off overseas together. His big break came when he was engaged by the London Daily Herald as its cartoonist. He was encouraged to go for the jugular. And he certainly did. His radical cartoons were passionate, and powerful and had an astonishing impact. Dyson became a sensational overnight success. He was a renowned identity in London's cultural circles during the period leading up to World War One.

LAURA THOMAS: Why do you think he had success in England rather than in Australia?

ROSS MCMULLIN: I think it was a combination of the greater scope in London, together with the particular opportunity that he was given. This was a radical paper. It gave him carte blanche, as I said, to go for the jugular. And he could certainly do that. And he was given a whole page, a whole page for his cartoon, and they were electrifying. They had an astonishing impact. He went, he went from relative obscurity to a sensational overnight success in a way that's hard to describe. Because it was so rapid, and so startling. But that is what happened. I think also, Laura, the era had something to do with it. So there was there was scope for him to do radical cartoons with a lot of oomph, just because of what was happening at the time; suffragettes, politics more broadly

LAURA THOMAS:  And then leading into the war and conflict as well.

ROSS MCMULLIN: Yes. So so the war came along, and he had strong views about that. He felt that Germany had initiated the war, and England had a right to defend itself. He drew a series of what he called Kultur cartoons, which exemplified that that aspect, but as the war proceeded, he became more gripped, he felt more and more impelled to involve himself in another way.

LAURA THOMAS: And you've led directly into my next question Ross, which talks about Will and his kind of strong, strong desire to go to France and draw Australian soldiers and I'm quoting here 'he wanted to interpret in a series of drawings for National Preservation, the sentiments and special Australian characteristics of our army'. What was the response to this request for him to go over to France and draw the soldiers?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Well, the British War Office after a considerable delay, rejected this request, Laura, as an official British artist, chap named Muirhead Bone had already been engaged, however, a way was found around this, as Dyson had no intention of being with the British forces. He only wanted to be with the Australians. And eventually, he was given approval to do so.

LAURA THOMAS: And why was he so persistent in wanting to go?

ROSS MCMULLIN: He was profoundly moved by what the Australians were doing, and enduring at Gallipoli in 1915, and then the Western Front in 1916. And he felt impelled to contribute himself by depicting what they were doing through his art. So he volunteered to go to France and sketch Australian soldiers for posterity to create an artistic record of this important era in the national story.

LAURA THOMAS: Now, he arrived on the Western Front in December 1916. What were those first few months like for him?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Well, this was the worst winter in France for 40 years. So the conditions were diabolical. So 1916/17  Winter, terrible time. You know, the terrible shell fire was relentless. But as well, in the wintertime, there was this, the mud was ubiquitous. And then it froze over. And this was diabolical mud. So you can sort of, if you slip off the duck boards, you can sort of sink into it and not be able to get out. People died by falling off the duck boards. And the cold was terrible. They were the the lice, the rats, it was just absolutely appalling. And the severity of the winter, of course, exacerbated all this. Worst winter for 40 years. So this is what he went into.

LAURA THOMAS: So let's talk about his drawings at the time. What was he depicting? Were there any kind of common threads that were coming through through these drawings?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Charles Bean, the official historian as he later became, he was then Australia's official correspondent. He was a key figure in Dyson's role. Dyson spent a lot of time with him at the Western Front, but they didn't know each other, particularly before Dyson went over to France, and Bean was a bit wary of him initially, but quickly came to accept that Dyson was an extremely capable artist. He knew what he was doing. And he was motivated to depict the Australians in ways that Bean approved of. And there's this particular comment that Bean later quoted at an early stage in their friendship, when Bean was still trying to sort of suss him out a bit. And Dyson said to him, 'I'll never draw a line to show war except as the filthy business it is'. 

LAURA THOMAS: Some Western Front artists gravitated to colourful landscapes or scenes of dramatic action, you know, blood and thunder, bayonet charges and lethal military hardware, straining horses dragging big guns forward that type of thing, but Dyson's focus was altogether different. He concentrated on the men. What he drew in his black and white sketches was much harder to draw. Exhaustion, and endurance, grit, and grime. So he sketched Australians waiting, resting, and sleeping. He captured them stumbling out of the line drained and dazed, he drew weariness, perseverance, fatalism. Now Laura, how do you draw fatalism? 

LAURA THOMAS: It's a million-dollar question 

ROSS MCMULLIN: But he did. There's this one he did. There's two soldiers in the foreground. One of them's ducking, and the other one is not ducking. And he's got this look on his face, which depicts a sentiment along the lines of 'Well okay, if it's got my name on it. Well, it's got my name on it. So be it. I'm not ducking'. That's fatalism depicted. Extraordinary thing to try and do but he did it very well. They're the sort of things that he focused on whatever other artists were doing or not doing

LAURA THOMAS: And he himself during this time illustrating was also injured in conflict twice.

ROSS MCMULLIN: Yes, he was wounded twice. One wound was relatively minor. But in November 1917, he had a very narrow escape. He was completing a drawing near a dugout when a German shell landed nearby. And he and the drawing were bowled over. Now, according to Charles Bean, Dyson was very badly shaken. He went back to London and Ruby to rest and recover, though Dyson himself made light of it to his brother Ted back in Melbourne. And he wrote him a letter saying this, 'I was caught by a big shell which should have finished me forever in a day, if not longer. But didn't. I got a nasty gash in the arm, a cut in the hand and a graze on the cheek, a little bit of stuff in the leg, but was alright in three weeks'. He's playing it down to minimise their concern. 

LAURA THOMAS: And he went back?

ROSS MCMULLIN: He went back. Yeah, he went back, he was drawn to go back there in the climax of the war, because he knew how significant things were. He was busy in London, dealing with an exhibition and and a book. But as soon as this German offensive was launched, and was a crisis of the war, he couldn't get back there quick enough.

LAURA THOMAS: And I guess that goes back to the original sentiment that we spoke about when he volunteered to go over and push very hard is that he felt that kind of sense of of duty and need to go to depict what was happening, is that correctly?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Exactly right. He felt impelled out of admiration for the Australian soldiers and what they were doing.

LAURA THOMAS: And beyond his incredible drawings. He was also an incredible writer. Can you talk to me about his writing and how he used that as also an art form in itself?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Well, Dyson was a superb writer Laura, as well as a brilliant artist, and he wrote exquisite prose and poetry about Australia's soldiers. During the war, he produced a book called Australia at War. That is little known, but a classic. In this book, Dyson reproduced some of his drawings, with a personal inscription on the page alongside. For example, he did a poignant drawing of an exhausted young Australian soldier, and he called his drawing dead beat. And I should point out that Dyson was about 37 when he did this drawing, so he's far from ancient himself, but he was very moved by the young age of many of the Australians he encountered. And as an example of one of these captions, this is what he wrote, as the caption to accompany that drawing dead beat in his book, 'He was there as we came back. I've not drawn him as childish as he looked. He had lost himself and floundered all night in shell holes and mud through the awful rain and wind. He had floundered into the cover of the tunnel and stopped there, disregarded, save for occasional efforts to assist on the part of the men, attempts that could not penetrate through to his consciousness, past the dominating instinct to sleep anywhere, anyhow and at any cost. He looked so very young. That quality which here has power to touch the heart of older men in the strongest way. To see going into the line boys whose ingenuous faces recall something of your own boyhood. Something of someone you stole fruit with, or fought with, or wagged it with through long, hot Australian afternoons, to see them in this bloody game, and to feel that their mother's milk is not yet dry upon their mouths'.

LAURA THOMAS: It's incredible. And I think those listening along at home, probably without having seen the image itself can imagine exactly kind of the expressions that would be on the soldier's face.

ROSS MCMULLIN: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed, he was a sublime writer, brilliant artist in multiple genres, but a sublime writer as well and Dyson's reverence for Australia soldiers, their perseverance and exploits was enduring. I never cease to Marvel admire and love with an absolutely uncritical love, our louse-ridden diggers', he declared. He felt inspired by the Australian soldier's endurance and accomplishments. But at the same time, he felt dismayed that a fine Australian generation was being destroyed before his eyes. Before his very eyes. He produced hundreds of drawings of profound empathy and sympathy. And Charles Bean, who we've mentioned a couple of times, concluded that Dyson experienced at least 10 times more of the real Western Front than any other official war artist, British or Australian. So inevitably though, this some Tom's proved perilous. And as we've mentioned, Dyson was wounded twice in the process.

LAURA THOMAS: Beyond the obviously very sombre and serious nature of the work that he was doing on the Western Front and in conflict, Will Dyson also had a brilliant sense of humour, both in art and in his wider life. Would you like to share some of that Ross?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Sure Laura, it shouldn't be overlooked that along with his brilliance as an artist and a writer, he was also as you've pinpointed, very amusing, and had an extraordinary wit. And this came out in his cartoon captions and the charactures through his career, but in a Western Front context, for example, he loved drawing quirky AIF cooks. And at one point he wrote as a caption to accompany a drawing of one of these striking cooks, he said, 'I think it's the cooking of the cooks that makes AIF unit so awe inspiring in the attack'. And, at one point, someone did him a favour, helped him with a drawing, and he dashed off this quick little sketch as a thank you and gave it to the chap who had helped him. And it's of this bedraggled, wet digger, making his way through slush and mud. And he's wet through, he has a bit of a scowl, and he looks directly towards the viewer of the sketch. And the caption has him saying, 'Isn't there ever any flamin' droughts in this country?'

LAURA THOMAS: So we saw kind of the light amid the darkness and a lot of these situations?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Oh yeah, wit was an intrinsic part of his personality.

LAURA THOMAS: So the artwork that we've selected to speak about today is titled 'Welcome back to the Somme'. Now this particular artwork isn't currently on display at the Shrine, but we do have the lithograph in our Shrine collection. Those listening along at home will be able to see the artwork in the show notes and the podcast tile, but Ross, I was hoping you could describe this piece for anyone listening along.

ROSS MCMULLIN: Certainly, Laura. The context of the drawing is that it depicts what happened in 1918. Dyson was especially stirred by what the Australian soldiers did in 1918. In this crucial year, the Australian soldiers were influencing the destiny of the world, more than Australians had ever done before. And more than Australians have ever done since. On the 21st of March 1918, the Germans launched an immense offensive that drove the British back no less than 40 miles. That's that's a pretty long way in the context of a conflict that's been relatively stagnant for years. Australian units were rushed to the rescue, and were prominently involved in plugging the gaps in the British defences. These were desperate days, Laura. For the British, that was the biggest crisis of the whole war. There was widespread genuine concern, that after years of fierce fighting, awful hardships and frightful casualties that Britain and its allies might well lose the war. And the arrival of Australian formations in vulnerable sectors was inspiring and influential.

ROSS MCMULLIN: Distressed French civilians whose homes had been in the path of the German advance were in terrified retreat, struggling along with whatever possessions they could gather or carry in the sudden crisis. And they were typically elderly or women, because the French men were away in the army, or dead,  often with a crying child clinging to mothers skirts, and you've got the situation transformed by the arrival of the Australians; confident, unflustered by the dismay all around them, ready to do the business and stop the Germans in the gravest crisis of the greatest war there had ever been. Many of these retreating civilians recognised the Australian uniform and they become exultant, they start raving about 'Les Australiens merveilleux!' 

LAURA THOMAS: Which translates to?

ROSS MCMULLIN: The marvellous Australians. And many of them, many of these civilians actually turn around and go back to their homes, because they are so confident the AIF will stop the Germans. What Will Dyson did was that he depicted these stirring events in this drawing, he entitled 'Welcome back to the Somme'. He showed Australian soldiers marching towards the fray and being greeted by civilians delighted to see them. The key to the drawing in my view, is the raised hand of the woman who is beckoning to other retreating civilians, urging them to turn around and return, as she is doing, to their vacated homes, because the Australian soldiers have arrived.

LAURA THOMAS: So Dyson was kind of depicting that relief. But also, I mean, to the right of the image, there's the figures. And then to the left, we have all the soldiers long lines, marching

ROSS MCMULLIN: Towards the fray. Yeah, yeah. So the Australians. And one of the women is offering a bottle of wine to the soldiers, as a thank you for coming back.

LAURA THOMAS: And we can see on the right hand side, a young child and an elderly man, which as you mentioned,

ROSS MCMULLIN: Yes, that's right. There's two women, an elderly man and a couple of kids. And yeah, there's no Frenchman of military age in the drawing. And that's, of course, no accident.

LAURA THOMAS: Dyson has hundreds of different artworks that you could have chosen from, why is this one significant for you? Why has this stood out in particular?

ROSS MCMULLIN: This drawing is especially significant in my view because of the momentous climax of the war depicted in it. Also, because of the importance of the Australian's role in this crisis, that Dyson has underlined in the drawing. And also because there's no other artwork, so far as I'm aware, that illustrates the Australian's vital contribution in this crucial phase of the war.

LAURA THOMAS: What did Will Dyson go on to do after he returned from war?

ROSS MCMULLIN: In 1919, in response to the Treaty of Versailles, he drew his most famous cartoon called Peace and Future Cannon Fodder. In this cartoon, he predicted not only that this tainted Treaty of Versailles would produce another world war, but also the actual year when hostilities properly began. This remarkably prophetic drawing has been described as one of the most outstanding political cartoons of all time, by any cartoonist in any country. Also, in 1919, he had to deal with the sudden death of his beloved wife, Ruby, who, who died because of the Spanish flu. And this was a calamity for him. The war's over at last, he's come back to London. They've got a little girl, Betty, they're in the process of resuming civilian life after this terrible time, and Ruby suddenly dies. Dyson was never the same. He he spent the next few years trying to recover, and also producing two books about Ruby. And eventually, later in the 1920s, he returned to Australia for five years to work for Keith Murdoch, his former colleague, at the Western Front, who was to become the father of Rupert Murdoch. And while he was in Melbourne, he took up etching and became very successful in this medium as well. When he took his etchings overseas, they were acclaimed in America, as well as in England. And he died in London in January 1938, aged 57.

LAURA THOMAS: Just before the Second World War

ROSS MCMULLIN: Shortly before the Second World War, but he had been an active cartoonist throughout the 1930s. And those cartoons had included mocking images of Hitler and Mussolini.

LAURA THOMAS: Do you think if he was still alive, he would have jumped at an opportunity to go to conflicts in the Second World War and do a similar kind of telling of those stories through his art?

ROSS MCMULLIN: I think he would have been motivated to involve himself similarly. He still felt a very strong sense of Australian nationalism. But he might he may have concluded and others may have recommended to him that he was perhaps not physically up to it, because he had those health problems that culminated in his death, emerging in the late 1930s. So he might have been physically ineligible.

LAURA THOMAS: Try as he might. 

Try as he might, yeah. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now, why do you think more people should know about Will Dyson?

ROSS MCMULLIN: Dyson is certainly under recognised. His exceptional and versatile creativity, his remarkable achievements. His vivid personality and acclaimed wit, and the extent of his fame, are all immensely underrecognised. He was a brilliant caricaturist, cartoonist, etcher and black and white war artist and a wonderful writer of prose and poetry. And as for his fame, there was an admirer who described him shortly before 1914 as the most famous Australian in the world. I found him a wonderful, fascinating biographical subject when I wrote my book on him. Perhaps one reason why he's not as renowned in Australia as he certainly should be is that he became famous overseas before the war. And he spent most of his life from then on overseas, with the only exception being those five years he spent back here in the 1920s. Even so, he should be much better known in Australia than he is. He was our first official war artist, and in my view, he remains our finest-ever official war artist.

LAURA THOMAS: Well, thank you, Ross, so much for sharing his story. Really appreciate it. 

ROSS MCMULLIN: Pleasure, Laura. 

LAURA THOMAS: Thank you for listening to the Shrine Stories podcast. If you'd like to learn more about Will Dyson, head to Ross's website, to see where you can purchase a copy of Ross's biography 'Will Dyson, Australia's radical genius'. Otherwise, we hope you tune in next time