Sketchbook reveals the horror of war

Laura White
Laura White

When Captain Herbert Lake left for the front in October 1915 to join the 5th Lancers he carried with him a small 6 by 4-inch sketch book and a few pencils and sketched what he saw and experienced during that terrible war a hundred years ago.

Dr Herbert Arnold Lake was born in 1883 in Dorset and trained as a vet, with an overriding passion for horses.

At the front at Arras he detailed life on the front line in his little book, many of these sketches Herbert Lake would use in the paintings he did on his return from The Great War. Including ‘Dawn in France 1917’ a sequence of sketches as men and horses waited for the order to charge in the last futile cavalry charge at the battle for Arras.During the war 8 million horses died and this saddened him greatly.

Not only did he sketch the lead up to battles but the battles themselves and their outcome, the weary exhausted men, the injured, the dying and the dead. By begging for cardboard, he used a tiny paint box and managed to record these events while on the front line.

Captain H A Lake of the Army Medical Corp was mentioned in dispatches to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig for his gallant and distinguished service, this was signed by the secretary of State for War Winston Churchill.

After the war Captain Lake returned and retrained as a country medical doctor before the days of the National Health Service, when doctors charged for their time and expertise. However Dr Lake would never charge you if you attended his surgery by horse, he loved horses.

Known as ‘The Flying Doctor’ Dr Lake was the last GP to provide a horseback service, galloping around the countryside dispensing medical wisdom and humour. His son the late John Lake said: “He saw some awful things in the First World War as a doctor on the front line of a field dressing station. He never wanted to talk about things, but his feelings come through in his paintings. He did tell me one thing, about a Brigadier coming around before the great battle of the Somme checking that everybody had aspirins, the officer was worried about his men having headaches. There were 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme and my father like other soldiers, was exasperated at the attitude of the generals.”

His great granddaughter Julia Roberts, who lives on Dartmoor, recently appeared on The Antiques Road Show in a BBC television First World War special, filmed in France, near Arras with Dr Lake’s painting and sketches. Julia said: “My grandfather never spoke about his time at the front, I think his paintings and sketches told their own story, I think drawing and painting kept him sane during terrible days.” Dr Herbert Arnold Lake died in 1969. One of Dr Lake’s painting is in the Imperial War Museum in London.

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