A kind of visual time capsule, The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War, by Rex Passion, provides an extraordinary and previously unknown window into the experiences of an American Doughboy in the First World War. For some 90 years, the original wartime drawings and watercolors of artist and illustrator Edward Shenton, who went to France as a soldier in the 28th Infantry Division in 1918, had been locked away; recently rediscovered, they form the basis of this rich portrait of American participation in “The War to End All Wars.”
Harry Edward Shenton, Jr., was born in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in 1895 and later grew up in Philadelphia. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he showed extraordinary talent as a sketch artist, and by the time he graduated from West Philadelphia High School in 1916, Ed, as he was known, had served as the art editor, and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper The Western while enrolling in studies independently at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Joining the Pennsylvania National Guard after high school graduation, he found himself a member of 28th Division’s 103rd Engineers at the time of America’s entry into the war.
Mobilization for war saw the 103rd Engineers engaged in training at both Camp Meade, Maryland, and Camp Hancock, Georgia, until sailing to Europe in the late spring of 1918. Before shipping out for training, Ed Shenton stocked up on sketchbooks and art supplies which he carried with him through his entire wartime experience through his return home in 1919. Throughout his service, he continually documented what he and those around him witnessed, producing hundreds of sketches and watercolor paintings which captured the life of the American Doughboy in all its facets – from the routine and humorous, to scenes depicting the shock and pity of war.
Once in France, Ed Shenton and the 103rd Engineers went into the front line in July 1918 at St. Agnan when the last phase of Ludendorff’s spring offensive was halted. Later that summer, Ed and his fellow Engineers operated in and around the frontline town of Fismes, building or repairing while under fire some 14 bridges that allowed troops, equipment and ambulances to access the front line. In the fall of 1918, they advanced with the American 1st Army in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive building and repairing roads and railways, and maintaining and camouflaging key positions in the American drive. After the guns fell silent on November 11, the 28th Division remained in France until the following spring. Throughout the first months of 1919, Ed drew scenes of local color showing rebuilding and recovery in war torn France, and reflecting the attitudes and experiences of the Doughboys waiting to return home.
After the war Ed Shenton’s remarkable collection of Doughboy art was of little interest as post-war Americans sought to forget The World War and the political turmoil generated at home in its aftermath. His sketchbooks – some cut in half so that he had been able to carry them in a uniform pocket in France – were carefully packed away, and Ed went on to a distinguished career that spanned some 50 years as an illustrator and author of numerous books and magazines. Through a fortunate connection with Ed Shenton’s son, Ned, author Rex Passion has been able bring to the light of publication, after more than 90 years, the remarkable drawings and paintings created by this soldier-artist during World War I. Carefully researching the history and of the 103rd Engineers, Passion was pieced together Ed Shenton’s Doughboy journey, writing a compelling narrative context for the selected artwork. The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War is a genuine gift to Americans of today as they strive to connect with and understand the meaning and impact of America’s experience in World War I.
For more information, visit the book’s website here.