War Celebrations, 1919 is a rarest and poignant example of Roberts' works of this period. Portraying the celebrations that erupted at the end of the First World War Roberts succeeds in capturing the energy of the festivities, depicting a hoard of soldiers who merrily dance and drink in the street; their arms affectionately looped over one other. There is a sense of dynamism and vivacity to the work, which is displayed in Roberts' energetic use of line and geometrical approach to form, which is reminiscent of the ‘tubular’ style of Fernand Léger. Works of this period, such as The Diners and The Dancers 1919, mark a return to a more Vorticist idiom, which was prevalent in Robert’s work before the war. Indeed during this time Roberts can be seen to take comfort in harking back to the days before the horrors of war, when the Cubist works of Picasso, Léger and Bomberg and the fervour of the Futurists offered a bright and exciting future. What is different now, to works such as The Toe Dancer, 1914, is that there is a tinge of war. This is displayed in War Celebrations not only in the subject but also in Roberts' melancholic choice of tone, which is expressed most pointedly in the red of his figures, which incites a sense of menace and perhaps a sense of loss. Andrew Heard reiterates, ‘The sombre tones employed reflect the colours of the trenches Roberts had occupied; it is these earthy colours that undermine the supposed gaiety on display’ (A. Heard, exhibition catalogue, William Roberts 1895-1980, Newcastle, Hatton Gallery, 2004, p. 52).
Roberts was to spend two long years at the front and was left weary by the miserable monotony and horror of warfare. In April 1916 Roberts was called-up for active service, joining the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. First located at barracks in Woolwich it was not long before Roberts embarked for France, where he was posted to the Vimy Ridge, later fighting at Arras and Ypres. The initial feelings of optimism he expressed in a letter to his wife Sarah, in which he naively wrote; ‘I suppose we shan’t get shot – and the war will be over in a month – and we shall leave the army healthy and fit’, soon turned to despair (quoted in ibid., p. 42). His later letters record the desperation of his tone, reflecting his desire to get home: ‘I believe I possess the average amount of hope and patience, but this existence beats me…I am feeling very bitter against life altogether just at present’, while in November 1917 he exclaimed; ‘If only I could get ill: trench feet, fever of some kind, and thus get back to England, I should be happy’ (quoted in A.G. Wilson, William Roberts an English Cubist, Aldershot, pp. 36 and 39).
The constant fighting and unbearable conditions at the front had made any artistic efforts during this period nearly impossible, except for a few rough sketches, such as In the Village of Fampoux (Filling in Shell Holes), 1917. It was not until 1918 that Roberts received a glimmer of hope, receiving a letter from his friend Guy Baker, who informed him that Wyndham Lewis had been appointed an official war artist by the Canadians and that he too might be able to achieve the same break. This break did indeed come and in April 1918 Roberts returned home to work on a commission depicting the first cloud gas attack launched by the Germans on the Canadians during the First Battle of Ypres. The result was received with mixed reviews with some claiming that he had abandoned his pre-war abstract idealism, although the Canadians had been rigid in their instructions that the work should be descriptive with nothing ‘Cubist’ about it, while others saw it as a triumph of conveying the noise and tumult of battle. The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918 was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919, alongside other Canadian commissioned war art by artists such as Augustus John, John Singer Sargent and Wyndham Lewis. Despite the success of his Canadian commission it is his smaller pen and ink drawings he drew up after the war, such as War Celebrations, that stand as his most original and significant contribution to British War Art.