News/research from teacher-journalist Robert J. Ballantyne

Canadian artist Frederick Varley on the horrors of World War I

Oil on canvas painting by F.H. Varley, ‘For What?’ Public domain. 1918

I’m mighty thankful I’ve left France — I never want to see it again. This last trip over has put the tin hat on it. To see the land half cultivated & people coming back to where their homes were is too much for my make up. You’ll never know dear anything of what it means. I’m going to paint a picture of it, but heavens, it can’t say a thousandth part of a story. We’d be healthier to forget, & that we never can. We are forever tainted with its abortiveness & its cruel drama — and for the life of me I don’t know how that can help progression. It is foul and smelly — and heartbreaking. Sometimes I could weep my eyes out when I get despondent… To be normal, to be as those silly cows & sheep that do naught but graze & die, well, it’s forgetfulness.

F.H. Varley, as written in a letter to his wife Maud, about his painting ‘For What?’, 1919


Canadian War Museum. (n.d.). Painting, For What? Retrieved from

Robertson, H., Robert McLaughlin Gallery. (1977). A Terrible beauty: the art of Canada at war. Toronto: J. Lorimer, p. 93.

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