The sky filled with cannon explosions and artillery rounds pounded the ground, churning the battlefield earth and killing soldiers. Nearby, George Ostrom sketched the scene before him — the opening rounds of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which would bring the Germans to surrender on Nov. 11, 1918.
Far from his ranch home in Sheridan, Ostrom became a semi-official combat artist depicting scenes of battle and downtime through his service as a sergeant in the Wyoming National Guard in World War I.
Several of the drawings show Ostrom’s own bucking bronc logo his regiment adopted as its insignia and emblazoned on helmets, weapons and vehicles in his drawings. His design was the first version of a bucking horse officially used for the state of Wyoming, said John Goss, director of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum.
“Cannons and Cowboys: WWI Drawings from George Ostrom,” is the first gallery exhibition of Ostrom’s Word War I drawings, on display through Jan. 14 at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. A reception with Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum staff and George Ostrom Jr. is slated for Nov. 11.
“The detail is unparalleled in these, and when you see them up close, they’re incredible,” Goss said. “They depict instances on battlefields that are absolutely accurate in time and space and in their detail. These are images that were never captured in photographs; these were images that were never captured in other drawings.”
First Sgt. Ostrom of the 148th Field Artillery sketched during in his spare time in the war, documenting the details of his experiences. He inked the drawings when he came home, Nicolaysen Art Museum curator Eric Wimmer said. You can still see the original pencil marks he sketched under the ink.
The drawings feature accurate details of battles, uniforms and weapons amid war-ravaged scenery, Goss said.
“It’s interesting that you can drill down to the fine points of American history,” he added.
For example, the artillery barrages of World War I were never seen before or since, and the Meuse-Argonne scene Ostrom sketched was one of the most prolonged battles of the war, Goss said. The skulls, bones and rats below the gunfire and explosions Ostrom depicted weren’t an exaggeration.
“Artilley barrages would be nonstop for years, so it’s just a grind house, a charnel house, just a meat grinder, a mixing bowl of artillery and earth and poison gas and human remains and horse remains and war equipment — just being churned every day by artillery barrages,” Goss said. “It’s incredibly inhuman; it’s terrible.”
A second drawing Ostrom sketched on another day of the battle shows the same details from a different angle, proving he sketched it on site, Goss said. The soldiers expected it would be the last battle of winter before the spring offensive, and Ostrom diligently captured the opening cannon rounds of the battle, Goss said.
Ostrom also rendered airplanes swooping over troops firing anti-aircraft machine guns into the sky. One shows them blasting an aircraft — a successful takedown before the pilot could report the position of American artillery, Goss said. Another depicts soldiers fleeing aircraft fire and leaving their Chauchat, a French machine gun known for its power but also for jamming, Goss said.
Gas masks can be seen in many of the drawings. The soldiers didn’t go anywhere without them. When a gas alarm went off, it only took a couple of seconds to unsnap the masks and put them on, but that was all the time the poison needed to kill them, Goss said.
One post-battle scene shows soldiers walking around collecting souvenirs after a battle where they captured a German commander’s wagon. One man walks with an iron cross pinned to his gear with a dog toting a German spiked helmet, Goss noted.
Some scenes depict every day camp life, like a trio smoking as they peel potatoes in a playful, cartoonlike style seen in many of his works.
“He could catch personality,” Goss said. “You see it in the World War I drawings — funny soldiers with funny postures and interesting looks on their faces and interesting situations. It’s not classic combat art. He captured a lot of really interesting moments that defined his experience in that war.”
A Wyoming dough boy and his horse
The bucking horse design was merely an idea when Ostrom reported to headquarters to submit his emblem design for the 148th field artillery. The order had come for every unit to create an insignia, setting off a flurry of design drawing and contests, Goss said. Ostrom had no paper, but he looked around the dugout until he spotted the regimental drum. He asked permission and freehanded his idea.
The emblem was Ostrom’s beloved horse Redwing, which Ostram insisted on taking overseas with other U.S. Army remounts. Ostrom moved from Spencer, Iowa, to Wyoming with his family in 1913 and homesteaded east of Sheridan, according the Nicolaysen’s gallery guide.
“His horse was deemed a little too small, but it was a spirited and it was a good horse,” Goss said. “So he got an officer to take his horse over there.”
Many of his fellow Wyoming National Guard soldiers served in the unit, and his design was a hit with them as well as with other soldiers from western states.
“They loved it instantly, and it instantly became the insignia for the 148th Field Artillery,” Goss said.
Some say Ostrom’s insignia design was the inspiration for Wyoming’s state logo. Ostrom and his family have said that Secretary of State Lester Hunt first had Ostrom’s bucking horse design in mind for Wyoming’s license plates, but the two men couldn’t agree on terms, Goss said. Denver artist Allen True created the official bucking horse state logo used on license plates since 1936.
“Certainly this was the first time the bucking horse was used in official capacity for the state of Wyoming,” Goss said.
A Wyoming legacy
After the war, he spent his life in Wyoming as a rancher, hunter, banker, agricultural adviser and family man. The artist mainly sketched in ink, but he also created oil paintings and murals. He made jewelry, bolo ties and belt buckles from silver and elk ivory. Much of his art appears to be influenced by western artists Frederic Remington and C.M. Russell, while his caricature-like depictions of wolves, antelope and other wildlife show his unique style, Goss said.
“He was a renaissance man,” Goss said.
Wimmer was working as the curator for the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum when he and Goss came across Ostrom’s World War I drawings a few years ago in the Sheridan Army National Guard Armory. The two offered to professionally preserve and care for the artworks, and Ostrom’s family donated them to Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in honor of all Wyoming National Guard veterans, Goss said.
He anticipates Ostrom’s World War I drawings may receive national attention for their rarity and historical importance.
“When I saw them for the first time, I thought that they would make a great show at a museum,” Wimmer said. “These are very special for the state. These are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.”