Carnage on the Somme — ‘The Great War’ by Joe Sacco
In a 24-foot panorama turned into his book “The Great War,” illustrator Joe Sacco depicts the events of July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Assistant Features editor
The author and illustrator of “The Great War” will discuss his book in conversation with KUOW’s Steve Scher, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., townhallseattle.org/joe-saccothe-great-war/. Tickets are $5: 206-652-4255, townhallseattle.org or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
The carnage at the Battle of the Somme is well documented, but the numbers never cease to stupefy. On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British soldiers climbed over the top of their trenches. By day’s end, more than 60,000 of them were casualties, 19,000 of those dead (along with 8,000 killed on the German side). That was the first day; the battle lasted more than four months. In all, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.
A challenging subject to capture in a drawing — even a vast, detailed drawing 24 feet in length — but with “The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme” (W.W. Norton, 54 pp.,$35), Portland graphic journalist Joe Sacco has tried.
Accompanied by an essay by historian Adam Hochschild, the book is constructed in an accordionlike manner, a continuous image, beginning with the rear command, extending up through the supply chain of munitions trucks and field kitchens, to the wretched trenches. As the reader progresses through the pages, time also passes, and so the day’s infamous events unfold with the book — the massive pre-battle shelling, the initial charge, the sickening realization that the German machine-gun defenses were more than up to their task — ending with the survivors burying their dead in battlefield graves.
In an author’s note, Sacco writes that he drew inspiration from the 230-foot Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England. “I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways,” he explains, “namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus, a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality.”
This foreshortening carries a deep irony, considering the time and human life expended in taking sometimes only a few hundred feet of ground.
And it was all about ground. World War I was the most terrestrial of wars, with men literally living in the earth, trench-bound for months at a time and sometimes literally being swallowed by the mud. “There died a myriad ... Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,” as Ezra Pound described it. But it was also the first war to see airplanes used as weapons.
Sacco deftly renders the intertwining of the industrial and the pastoral that characterized the war: tractors and tanks, horses and hay.
Only one actual person is depicted, commander of the British Expeditionary Force Douglas Haig. In the opening frame, the general is shown pacing the yard in front of his field headquarters 10 miles behind the front lines. With good reason, historians have not been kind to Haig. John Keegan, in his comprehensive book “The First World War,” wrote that the Somme “marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered” — and he hangs much of the blame for that on Haig.
Sacco is similarly condemning. “All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave,” he writes, “and hope that after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.”
Of course, the long, bloody tragedy of the battle was more than the sum of the strategic blunders of one man — and that is why it has lasted in the common memory so vividly.
In his minor masterpiece “The Missing of the Somme,” Geoff Dyer writes, “There had been military disasters before the Battle of the Somme, but these — the Charge of the Light Brigade, for example — served only as indictments of individual strategy, not of the larger purpose of which they were a part. For the first time in history the Great War resulted in a sense of the utter waste and futility of war.”
There is breadth to Sacco’s renderings, and the detailing is marvelous, but the book lacks the heft of its subject. It is a gorgeous object and a pleasure to take in, though perhaps too static and soothing for the horrors of the Somme.
Brian Thomas Gallagher: firstname.lastname@example.org