On 1st August 1914, the day of the general mobilisation, Méheut was in Japan, a stopping point on a world tour offered by the Albert Kahn Foundation. Recalled urgently to France, sergeant Mathurin Méheut reached the frontline near Arras on 5th October 1914 and would not be demobbed until February 1919.
Between 1914 and 1918, Méheut fought on almost all the fronts. From 1914 until the beginning of 1916 in Artois and Argonne, he took part in violent trench warfare. In 1916, his talents as an observer and draughtsman combined with the quality of his map drawing led him to the Topographical Service of the army in Sainte-Ménehoud in the Marne.
Between each assault, the artist devoted his free time to sketching the ‘brave squaddies'. Daily and in all weathers, on the front line, in the trenches and in camp, he sketched, painted gouaches and watercolours. He paid attention to detail, to little unimportant things that told things as they really were. Of his visions of hell, Méheut recreated the familiar scenes without elaboration. His work is a rare accurate record of the daily life at the front.
Mathurin Méheut, les brancardiers de la croix rouge, musée Mathurin Méheut
In four years, Méheut would send almost a thousand letters to his wife, an average of five letters each day. The scale of this correspondence is not exceptional in itself, each soldier sent nearly a letter each day to his family during periods of calm, the originality of these letters lies in their illustrations since, as he said, “writing is terrible, it is not quick enough”. Like him, many artists like Camille Godet and Jean-Julien Lemordant preferred to paint the war rather than to describe it in words.
Certain of these drawings would illustrate the article by Armand Dayot on Méheut, Un artiste combatant (An Artist at War), in the edition of 28th August 1916 of L'Illustration. In 1917 for Jeunes ruines (Young ruins), he drew twelve drawings made ‘while on active service' to accompany the poems of André Selthic. In 1918, his Croquis de guerre (war sketches) were published by Devambez. Finally, in 1947, L'ancien combatant (ex-soldier) agreed to relive these dramatic moments in Le Croix de bois by Roland Dorgelès. He illustrated this book with old sketches made thirty years earlier to which he gave a more tragic meaning.
Returning to civilian life in 1919, Méheut produced some more engravings for greetings cards for the Ist Army. He then ceased to paint the war to devote himself to his career. Méheut was not an artiste engagé (politically committed artist) unlike other artists like Jean-Julien Lemordant who, scarred by the war, became a painter driven by the idea of ‘never again'.
Mathurin Méheut, Un guetteur, Bois de la Gruerie, Argonne, septembre 1915, musée Mathurin Méheut
Mathurin Méheut, L'entrée d'une tranchée de luxe, musée Mathurin Méheut