Writer and Artist: Joe Sacco
Anyone who knows the work of Joe Sacco would know what to expect from this book. As much journalist as artist, Sacco specializes in documenting wars and their impact on civilians. His work has covered both the Balkans and Israel/Palestine extensively. His collection Journalism explores refugee camps in several war-torn regions. His examinations are brutal, detailed, uncompromising and deeply personal. Who better to tell the story of a catastrophic battle, the day of greatest bloodshed in British military history?
While the substance is familiar Sacco material, the format is not. Taking inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry - a 230-foot long embroidered rendering of the Norman conquest of England, dating from the 11th century - Sacco created a 24-panel drawing one could spread out across the room. Time advances from left to right, beginning with General Haig's leisurely morning on his chateau, ending with bodies buried in trenches.
The Great War includes a booklet with annotated notes for the drawings as well as an explanatory essay by Adam Hochschild. The Battle of the Somme was the largest battle on the Western Front in the First World War. It lasted a total of 141 days. Leaving 1,000,000 dead or wounded, it was one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The first day alone saw over 64,000 casualties on the Allied side, 8,000 for the Germans. Much of the damage was done in the first hour of the attack. The lopsided numbers were due to disastrous tactical errors on the British side.
As with all of his work, Sacco's message to the reader is crystal clear: war is Hell for everyone involved. To me, WWI has always seemed particularly pointless. The level of human slaughter was, to that point, unprecedented and absolutely nothing was satisfactorily resolved. If anything, the Treaty of Versailles left Europe in a worse state than before, laying the ground work for an even more horrific war two decades later. Plus, WWI introduced chemical warfare to the world. The war provided inspiration to a gifted generation of writers. Otherwise, the world gained nothing and lost plenty.
The Great War is a powerful work. In terms of text, it's a quick read but the essential lingering over the drawings may take some time. It's not quite as depressing as All Quiet on the Western Front but it is still plenty upsetting, as it should be.