Thursday, August 4, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Joe Sacco

Title: The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
Writer and Artist: Joe Sacco
via Amazon
One evening this summer, on July 1st, to be exact, my wife pulled this book off our shelves and made a startling discovery.  It was exactly 100 years to the day after the date chronicled in the book.  She expressed regret over not having realized it sooner but I thought the unexpected coincidence was pretty darn cool.

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.


  1. Very interesting. I like the format and have used that on one of my books.
    WW1 was the starting point to both sons history majors. I will have to mention this book to them.
    There is a movie out now that is based in Poland called "The Innocents" I probably will not see it but I have always wanted to visit Poland and see if any of my family did survive the war. I don't think they did as no one ever spoke about any family left.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

    1. There's a lot of WWI stuff out these days with the 100 year interval. The American part of the story was so short that I don't think the history resonates the way it does in Europe and Canada. It's too bad. There are important historical lessons to be learned.

  2. You can trace nearly all of the problems in the Middle East back to WWI and its aftermath, too.