Friday, August 1, 2014

‘Hoof Prints over the Western Front’: World War One letters of William Smithson Broadhead (1888 - 1960)

Monday 4 August 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the day Britain entered the First World War. A cache of strikingly visual First World War letters at Sheffield Archives reveal how the experiences of one Sheffield soldier, serving in a cavalry regiment, fuelled a life-long obsession with horses and helped steer him on the path to becoming a famous horse painter in the USA.

William Smithson Broadhead (1848 - 1924) was one of 12 children of Edward Broadhead and Mary Anne Broadhead (1856 - 1944). He grew up on Barnsley Road and later Firth Park Road, Fir Vale, Sheffield.  Demonstrating a flair for drawing and art in his youth, Broadhead graduated from the Sheffield School of Art and sailed to Canada as a young artist in January 1910. From there he travelled to New York, where he became an illustrator for the magazine 'Judge'. On the outbreak of the First World War, patriotic duty lured Broadhead back to Britain and he joined a cavalry regiment, the King Edward's Horse (which was part of the King's Overseas Regiment and was mobilised in London in 1914 and subsequently sent to France).

In a series of humorous and delightfully illustrated letters which Broadhead wrote from the Western Front and sent to his family in Sheffield at Firth Park Road, Broadhead demonstrates a tendency (like so many fellow First World War soldiers) to put on a brave face to loved ones back home, trying to make light of the situations in which he found himself and disguising the true horrors of war to which he was witness. Broadhead frequently depicts himself in the letters in caricature as a comically dishevelled figure. In one letter dated 1st April 1916, from ‘the Western Front’, which is addressed to ‘My Own Loving Parents’, Broadhead writes:

‘…there’s one thing I strongly object to & that is the plague of Rats here. At night they run about in Regiments. A night never passes without my being awakened by one either running across my head or jumping onto my body. They are such big bounders too…I think the plague is caused by the fact that there are hundred[s] of dead still unburied not many miles from here and another thing which encourages them is the habit of the French soldiers throwing their rubbish & refuge about! We always bury ours.’

Broadhead was eventually wounded and sent home. His time in the cavalry during the First World War evidently left an indelible impression on his imagination – horses became a recurrent theme of his work in his ensuing career as an artist.  After the war, Broadhead relocated to London, where his portraits of both people and horses were frequently exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1928, Broadhead married the American–born Edith Northrup (1899 - 1993) and the couple returned to live in the USA in 1934. During the Second World War, Broadhead served with the Home Guard back in England, but, after the war, returned to the USA where he lived with his wife and son. During his career in the USA, Broadhead worked as an illustrator for ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazines and later became a celebrated horse painter, painting many of the leading race horses of the USA and Canada. In 1951, he produced a pictorial history of the horse in the USA titled Hoof Prints over America.

Broadhead died in Winchester Memorial Hospital, Virginia on 17 June 1960 and was buried at the Ivy Hill Cemetery, Upperville, Fauquier County, Virginia.

Broadhead’s World War One letters (Ref. LD1980) are available to view at Sheffield Archives.  A selection of sketches have been scanned and added to Picture Sheffield:

The experiences of thousands of First World War servicemen from Sheffield can be discovered through the resources held at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library: