Executed circa 1919, The Wiring Party depicts the dangerous missions in the First World War that took place in no man’s land to either build and repair the barbed wire defences, or alternatively, to cut gaps in the enemy’s wire in order to make it easier for the allied troops to advance and attack the German lines. These precarious missions would take place under the cover of darkness and Roberts’s simple pared back palette in the present work reflects this. The monochromatic, earthy brown figures emerge in a tense angularity, infused with an energy as they feverishly attempt to repair the damaged barbed wire defences before dissolving back into the night. These sombre tones also reflect a deeper sense of melancholy. This work does not depict the heroic bravery of these men but rather the violent act that they are involved in. The angular zig zagging of the foreshortened background emphasises this powerful feeling of menace and impending violence.
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 he was called up for active service, joining the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. First located in 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 feeling 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’, (A. Heard, exhibition catalogue, William Roberts 1895-1980, Newcastle, Hatton Gallery, 2004, p. 42) soon turned to despair. 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, 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 very explicit 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 commissions by artists such as Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and John Singer Sargent.
Despite the success of this commission, it is the smaller watercolour and chalk drawings, such as the present work, that are his most original and visceral contributions to the recording of the First World War. These works still show the influence of Cubism and the Italian Futurists, however, the celebration of modernity through abstracted forms is supplanted by a grittier reality. The menace of power replaces the pre-war optimistic universalism that the Vorticists strived towards. In works such as The Wiring Party, Roberts reflects on the human consequence of mechanical progress while still respecting the bravery and dignity of the men who fought and died for their country.