‘The Great War’: A great, graphic book for a terrible day

Michael Chevy Castranova
Published: March 26 2014 | 10:09 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:10 am in

As battalions of books roll out this year to mark the 100th anniversary of what came to be known as “the war to end all wars,” it at first seemed as if Joe Sacco, the proponent of “cartoonist as journalist” who won acclaim for “Palestine” and “Safe Area Gorazde,” was going to take a pass.

After all, he’d seen the remarkable work French cartoonist Jacques Tardi had accomplished with his intense “It was the War of the Trenches,” among other work now out in English. But then he got this phone call from an editor friend, reminding him of his 15-year-old “simply brilliant” idea of drawing one, massive panorama of the Western Front.

And it was from there that Sacco came upon the notion of drawing a solitary day — July 1, 1916, the opening of the horrific Battle of Somme that pitted the British and French against the German Empire — as one, entire solitary image.

No text, no word balloons, no “Boom!” nor “Crash!” But instead what we have with “The Great War” (W.W. Norton & Co.) is an astonishing 24-foot-long black-and-white drawing, printed on heavyweight paper, that folds out — panel after panel, accordion-like — to relate the events of that awful clash, as told from the British perspective.

An accompanying essay by historian Adam Hochschild leads those unfamiliar with the battle through its dreadful events: How 57,000 British soldiers out of 120,000 died in that first day. How some 19,000 perished in the very first hour. Another 2,000 wounded would die in hospitals later.

What went wrong? Lots.

Hochschild tells us the British high command thought they’d figured every angle. The attack began with a weeklong air bombardment.

Yet “more than one out of four British shells were duds that buried themselves in the earth, exploding, if at all, only when struck by some unlucky French farmer’s plow years or decades later,” Hochschild explains. Mines that so cleverly had been planted under the German lines went off 10 minutes before the allied attack, as planned — and served as “a clear signal” to the Germans to get ready.

And ready they were. Some of the Germans’ sophisticated trenches — equipped with electricity, ventilation and water — were as deep as 40 feet below the surface. The German soldiers simply waited out the explosion, then, as the British foot soldiers advanced, took position and starting shooting.

British officers, with the aid of binoculars, could see the extensively planned softening-up from the aerial barrage and underground mines had not worked in the slightest. But the assault went ahead as planned.

In his author’s note, Sacco says he chose to illustrate that first day because, with it, “that is the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare.”

It is in the sweep of his drawing that Sacco demonstrates his truly inspired stroke — his depiction uses the revered Bayeux Tapestry as its inspiration. Just as that 11th century, 230-foot-long embroidery shows one interpretation of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings of 1066, Sacco, too, dispenses with “realistic perspective and proportion.”

“Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality,” he explains.

He shows us General Douglas Haig, British Expeditionary Force commander in chief, three times in the first plate, worshipping at church in the morning, then striding across the grounds.

We see the packed village streets bustling with horses pulling howitzers and supplies. Smiling soldiers happily tromp by a photographer and wave to his camera.

It’s all order, industry and precision, paraded out under a clear French sky.

But as panels advance, Royal Flying Corps planes start to dot the horizon, and the bombardment begins. The sky slowly fills with smoke, and night darkens pages.

Here, in so-called no man’s land, is where the true terror can be seen. Those black, skyward-reaching shafts of explosions — now coming from the enemy — pound their way downward through the drawings, scattering dirt and men into irretrievable bits.

Soon, many of the advancing soldiers are killed or wounded before they even can climb out of their holes.

By plates 16 and 17 — there are 24 plates in all — the silent, mesmerizing scenes are chaos and catastrophe. Pages are cluttered with bodies and parts of bodies, of hapless soldiers and horses.

As the drawings are wordless, we cannot “read” their screams. But the sound is abundantly obvious.

The final panels close with grim, tired burials of the dead at the casualty clearing station.

The most moving images in Sacco’s breathtaking book, though, probably are not the illustrations of soldiers missing legs and arms as they cry in anguish. More captivating are the ominous drawings of those explosions as they pack the heavens, then switch sides and move in for the kill.

Those, and that image of those eager young, cheery troops parading before the battle’s start, optimistically seeking what they had every reason to expect would be a grand adventure.

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