4/13/14

On the 100th Anniversary of World War I

World War I was the unfortunate result of mixing modern technology with traditional warfare.  Applying the assembly line mentality to the battlefield meant that thousands of new recruits and untried weapons could be quickly fed into the trenches, often with disastrous results.  Uniforms, and protective headgear were not made for modern warfare -- they were usually more of a liability than an asset.  And although planes, tanks and guns were changing almost daily, those so-called advances only made the weapons more unpredictable.  Meanwhile, medical treatment was the same as the previous century. Antibiotics and sterile environments were simply not available, and even a simple wound was often fatal. 

This year marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I.  Obviously, one hundred years means that hardly anyone alive today was there, and of those few, probably none of them remember it. So, it is up to the historians and researchers to keep the memories and experiences alive.  

Since 1991, and CNN's reporting on the first Gulf War, Americans have been used to immediate, and often sanitized, images of warfare.  Going backward in time, TV and newsreel footage of Vietnam, the Korean War, and World War II are also commonly available. But photos and movies from World War I are much less common. So, it is interesting to see two recent graphic novels covering World War I.

The Great War: July 1, 1916 by Joe Sacco is an epic accordion book focusing on one day during World War I: July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme.  The battle was supposed to be the turning point in the war, the Big Push, that would break the German line and morale.

The Great War is a 24-page long epic scroll of the battle.  It starts with a scene of British General Douglas Haig strolling the grounds of the Scottish Churches' Hut on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer in France. As the scene shifts we see the rear lines, new recruits, polished cavalry soldiers, and neatly packaged Howitzers alongside stacks of rations and supplies.

The scroll continues into the night before the battle, showing soldiers packed into trenches so tightly that most slept standing up, if at all.  And then, with a bang, the battle begins at 7 am as scheduled by the regimented British commanders.

Sacco says that one of his influences was the Bayeux Tapestry.  The reference is immediately obvious, although, the Normans were more successful in their attack than the British were at the Somme.  Of the 120,000 British troops in the battle, nearly half of them were dead by the end of the day.  The basic assumptions for the attack were horribly inaccurate, but once the machine of war was put into motion it was almost impossible to stop.  To call off any part of the attack would have branded the generals and captains as cowards. Additionally, military policemen were placed among the troops to stop any stragglers from retreating and turn them toward the front.

A detail of one page of the panorama of the Western Front in Joe Sacco's The Great War.
Accompanying the scroll is a separate book "On The Great War," with notes by Joe Sacco, and an essay by Adam Hochschild providing some historical context for the battle.

In Sacco's notes he mentions Goddamn This War! by Jacques Tardi & Jean-Pierre Verney.  Originally published in French in 1993, Fantagraphics has recently printed it in English.

Jacques Tardi has been a renowned comics artist in France since the 70s, but a lack of translation into English has limited distribution of his work in the US.  In the past couple years Fantagraphics, especially the late Kim Thompson, has been translating his books.  

   
Goddamn This War! is a punch-in-the-gut recounting of a French soldier's experience during World War One. The story is told from a first-person point of view, but it seems like we could be jumping from any soldier to another.  The narrative is disjointed, and most characters only appear briefly before they die in a trench, or are blown up, or are shot before a firing squad.  The only recurring character is a German soldier who appears from time to time as the opposing army's version of our unreliable narrator.


Simply put, war is hell.  Soldiers are shot, blown up, caught in barb wire, buried as trenches cave in, and die in myriad miserable ways.  Even when there's hope there's death. Men brought back from the front have simple wounds and are expected to recover, but then die from gangrene. One reason, is that the wounded are transported in 8-horse, 40 man rail-cars that are still soiled by horse manure, adding to the infection.

Goddamn This War! has a lot more narrative than The Great War. One interesting commentary includes the story of Maggi Kub stores.  These were Swiss stores that sold soup bouillon and other groceries, but because of the name the French thought they were German stores, and fronts for spies. In a fit of paranoia, their billboards were thought to be directions for the invading Germans, so a French minister ordered destruction of any sign near railways.



The story is tough, and the artwork holds up its end of the work.  While it starts full of color, after the first year of war the drawings are mostly shades of grey punctuated with red. After the war ends, some colors return, but not many.

As living memory of World War I fades, both Sacco in The Great War, and Tardi and Verney in Goddamn This War! provide a "you are there" perspective on events of the war. They do this with cartoons, but the artwork provides enough immediacy that you feel for the drawings on the page.  This is important. As Sacco mentions, it is not for him to indict anyone, it is enough to present the images to make one realize the futility of war.

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