Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Joe Sacco’s “The Great War”
By Matthew Price. The National, November 28, 2013

July 1, 1916 stands as one of the grimmest days in modern British history, a date that radiates with death and suffering. On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, which would rage for several months into the autumn, the British army launched one of the greatest offensives of the First World War, hoping to decisively break the stalemate on the Western Front. A massive, weeks-long artillery bombardment - 1.5 million shells were fired - had allegedly destroyed German lines. At 7.30am, whistles blew and groups of soldiers, at walking pace, trudged across no-man’s land and into slaughter. German troops, largely unscathed, unleashed machine guns and barrages of shellfire. At the end of the day, 21,000 soldiers from across the Empire lay dead; some 36,000 wounded littered the battlefield. It’s still the greatest disaster the British military has ever seen.

Countless books have been written on the Somme, which remains an open wound in British consciousness, but none like the new work from Joe Sacco. The renowned graphic artist and self-described “comics journalist” has now turned comics historian in The Great War. A beautifully printed and painstakingly wrought (it took eight months to complete) … what to call it? It’s not quite a book, but a black-and-white panorama, that unfolds, like an accordion, some seven metres wide. Taking his cue from the Bayeux Tapestry, Sacco shows different moments in time, before, during, and after - General Douglas Haig, on his morning walks; the preparation for the battle; men marching to the front; troops watering horses; an Indian cavalry unit moving to the line; the hellfire of shells raining down on blasted men cowering in shell holes; wounded soldiers being tended to by stretcher bearers.

“The First World War still clouds my vision of humanity,” Sacco writes in his author’s note. Unlike his previous works - Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, among his notable titles - which are animated by conversation, The Great War is wordless - a silent monument to a horrific day. It was a deliberate choice: “All I could do was show what happened between the generals and the grave, and hope that, even after a hundred years, the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.”

Talking from his home in Portland, Oregon, Sacco expresses passionate disgust and outrage with the day’s infamous carnage. “I wanted to take a step back and look at what we do to each other,” Sacco says. “Though, of course, the drawing has an anti-war sensibility, I hope readers will notice the enthusiasm of the soldiers going up to the front. War is a matter of politicians and generals, but it is also a matter of populations getting behind the effort.” David Stevenson, a leading historian of the war, has likened preparing a Western Front offensive to a major civil engineering project. Indeed, what Sacco’s drawings show is a collective endeavour, men building a vast infrastructure of death and destruction. “Humanity at its best, in a weird way,” Sacco says, “doing its worst.”


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Matthew Price, writer and book critic


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