Skip to main content

JM's WWI Sketchbooks, 1917-1918, Image: From the World War I Sketchbook collection, SC325. Repository: UVic Archives & Special Collections

The unknown artist was stationed at the front near Ypres, where a series of First World War battles left more than 850,000 Allied and German casualties.

Amid the blood and horror, the soldier, known only as JM, carried a sketchbook recording images not only of the pathos and destruction, but also of the mundane daily lives of soldiers in the trenches. And somehow he kept his sense of humour, mixing in, along with his detailed pen and ink portraits, cartoons that mocked the pomposity of officers and the absurdity of war.

Now experts at the University of Victoria are on a mission to find out who JM was and how his remarkable two-volume visual record from the front lines ended up in their care. Lara Wilson, director of special collections at the UVic library, said the diaries were acquired in 1970, but there is no record of who sold or donated them.

"We have no provenance or purchase records," she said Tuesday, as the university went public with a plea for any information that could help identify JM. "What we think we know about JM is that he was British. A lot of the imagery is from Belgium and France, particularly Ypres and Menin, 1917 to 1918. And there is an image dated 1920, so he survived at least until that time."

The two volumes were dedicated to his daughter Adele M, and there is a regimental crest and motto in the books for the Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery units. Beyond that little is known, except the clues that can be gleaned from the 130 sketches and drawings.

"I think what is striking is the balance of the horror that he managed to convey and the chaos of the battlefront, with humour," Ms. Wilson said.

Marcus Milwright, of UVic's department of art history and visual studies, saw the diaries for the first time about six months ago while preparing an upcoming exhibit on the First World War. He has since been attempting to unravel the mystery of who JM was.

Poring through British Army records in England, he has come up with a list of about 30 soldiers with the initials JM. But identifying which one might be the artist is impossible without more information.

Dr. Milwright said he and colleagues are studying the sketches, trying to figure out from the visual clues just where JM was stationed.

"Essentially [we will] try and work out which brigade he might have been in and sort of pin it down that way," he said. "I think it might be possible to say more about exactly what he was doing from that material."

One detailed sketch shows his bunk, with photos and other personal items on the shelf next to his bed, and what looks like an artist's or map maker's folder leaning against a wall.

Dr. Milwright said he is guessing from the content of the sketches, which showed JM had contact both with high-ranking officers and soldiers in the trenches, that he was a junior officer. By identifying some of the senior officers he caricatures, the searchers might find clues as to where he was stationed.

"The other thing is to go through census records," Dr. Milwright said. "I've been going through the records in Britain trying to find an Adele M who was born in that time frame. As yet we haven't found a plausible candidate."

Dr. Milwright said it is unlikely UVic acquired the diaries from outside the city, so that could indicate Adele M, and perhaps her father, lived in Victoria at some time.

"It might be she is Canadian and the Adele M might be found through Canadian records but we haven't found her yet," he said.

Dr. Milwright said he hopes someone might call to say they know who Adele M was. The search, he said, is important because JM left behind a remarkable artistic war record that deserves more attention.

"He's got a beautiful, expressive hand with pen and ink," Dr. Milwright said, "and I think the thing that comes across when you see them in the real is the incisive way he has of getting to human character."

See a gallery of JM's images here.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe