His work is a massive, almost lifesize picture measuring twenty feet by seven which hangs today in the Imperial War Museum. It was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919.
It is a poignant image, portraying the grim reality of the battlefield. These soldiers are suffering the effects of mustard gas, a chemical weapon which was later banned. Its horrific effects were described well by Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est.’ They’ve been blinded. Eyes bandaged, each one is following the man in front with a hand on his shoulder. Several medical orderlies are leading them to the relative safety of a station where they can receive care.
Some of them have lost their rifles, others still carry theirs, determined to do their duty and somehow fight on. Some are stooped from other injuries or bowed in sorrow and trauma. Those who can, remain erect.
In front of and behind the group many others lie crippled with injuries, unable to walk. Some will never see home again. A surreal touch is added by other soldiers in the distance playing football.
The artist has captured many things here - the carnage of all these young men cut down or scarred forever, the ridiculous waste of life in human conflict, but also courage, dedication, defiance of the odds.
Not having experienced battle first hand, most of us can only try and imagine what it is like. My grandfather survived a gas attack at the Somme only to pass away while still a young man from related illness. I never had the privilege of knowing him.
Sargent’s epic picture suggests something else to me. While we should be careful never to glamorise war, there grows a comradeship between ‘brothers in arms.’ There can be a remarkable fellowship among the ‘walking wounded.’
These men are wounded but they are walking, helping each other to keep going. They are disorientated but they are trusting their rescuers to guide them to safety. They are hurting deeply but they are on their way home. One of the medics is on the lookout for others they might add to their group.
I’ve seen similar ‘fellowship’ elsewhere, most notably among patients in treatment centres and their families. Everyone there is in the same boat, everyone waits their turn. Few complain, most give each other tremendous support.
The Apostle John in his first New Testament letter declares that ‘God is light’, but ‘whoever hates his brother…walks around in the darkness.’ However if we reject hatred and choose to ‘walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son purifies us from all sin.’ (1 John 1v 7)
The young men in Sargent’s picture have a profound fellowship through their suffering. While they have been blinded, they are trusting the kindness of their guides, walking in their light, supporting one another as they do so.
We are invited to trust in Jesus, Who Himself suffered to rescue us from sin. Walking in the light of His love, we discover healing for our wounds, fellowship in walking together and the assurance we’re on our way home.
(This reflection features in this week's 'the Peoples' Friend' magazine.)