Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme Review (Joe Sacco)

Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme isn’t a comic per se - it’s a staggering 24 foot long wordless panorama depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Folded numerous times to fit into book format, it can be “read” like a book and looks a bit like an accordion in profile. It shows in jaw-dropping detail countless soldiers from the first page of a troubled General Douglas Haig well behind the lines to the gravediggers and dead bodies on the last. 

The Battle of the Somme remains one of the worst battles in human history with over a million dead between July and November 1916. Sacco shows the first day from the Allied perspective which saw a staggering total of 57,000 British soldiers dead or wounded by day’s end, making it the worst loss in British military history. In comparison, the Germans lost an estimated 8,000. 

How could such a catastrophe occur? Ineffective bombing. After a week of Allied bombing, the British expected to go in with their 120,000 troops and storm through the lines but, as soon as they entered no man’s land, they realised how much the bombs had missed the Germans’ lines when they saw line after line of barbed wire and machine gun nests intact. 

In the style of the Bayeux tapestry 1000 years ago which depicted the Battle of Hastings, Sacco’s panoramic view of the battle takes in everything from the soldiers on their way to the front, arriving and eating breakfast, getting prepared and heading into the trenches, to the distant bombings getting closer, to the trenches themselves, and the beginnings of the attack which sees explosions and bullets tearing apart soldiers in the most horrific ways. It builds in pitch, starting slowly to becoming more and more frenzied until the final cold silence. 

It’s such an impressive accomplishment by Sacco, especially when you look closely and see how he’s drawn every single soldier on the page - their faces, their correct uniforms and weapons - and amidst the grandiose scenes of bloodshed, moments captured: the sobbing expressions of stretcher bearers carrying dying soldiers, men cowering behind trenches, the lone survivor in no man’s land frozen in place as he looks around him to where his comrades were. There are so many in the panorama that you find yourself studying every inch of the page as you go. It’s simply a visually breathtaking, stunning and deeply moving work - a career highlight for sure by this incredible cartoonist. 

Accompanying the panorama is a short introduction by Sacco (which leaves out how long it took him to create, a detail I would’ve liked to have known) and an illuminating essay by historian Adam Hochschild for context and perspective. There’s also a breakdown of the 24 plates, pointing out and explaining specific scenes.

Though Sacco is best known for his superb comics journalism like Footnotes in Gaza and Palestine, The Great War is not a comic but is an astonishing work of art not to be missed.

The Great War

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