Joe Sacco is a journalist and comic book artist. Born in Malta, he is now a citizen of the U.S. living in Portland, Oregon. He has gained a reputation for reporting on some of the world’s top hot spots in the manner of a comic book style. He has written books on the Bosnian War, the Gulf war and the Palestinian situation. This book, which I received a couple of weeks ago, is somewhat of a departure from his previous subjects. It is a continuous drawing of the battle as it develops from the evening of June 30th to the evening of July 1st, folded concertina style into 24 plates (or pages). Beginning with Haig leaving church that evening it then shows in the minutest detail how the preparations for the battle unfold. The initial bombardment by heavy guns, thousands of troops moving into position with horses, men, wagons and piles of munitions are all meticulously portrayed in line drawings. Night falls and leads to dawn as men take up their positions and prepare for the assault. When they start going over the top, Sacco correctly portrays the men with arms at the port as they expected little resistance. There then follow several pages of the battle … shells bursting … the men struggling to advance … falling, dying … dead. It ends with the return, the roll calls, advanced dressing stations and burial.
His research of the subject was extensive. Having spent fifteen years in Australia before he moved to the States in 1978, he became fascinated by the Great War, especially of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles and it apparently never left him. He has amassed a large library on the war and he states in the forward that his inspiration for the work was influenced by the authors Martin Middlebrook and Lynn MacDonald among others.
This is a fascinating work. Its approach is probably unlike anything we have seen in this field. Despite this, it must be taken for what it is. Without a proper understanding of the battle, the book can do little to inform one of the chaos and horror of that day. The depiction of the dead and dying soldiers cannot by definition be close to reality. One unfortunate note (for me) is that Sacco chose to include an extract from Adam Hochschild’s book "To End All Wars", which is a history of the pacifist/socialist movements during the First World War. Although he doesn’t distort the history, Hochschild trashes most of the British military hierarchy including, of course, Earl Haig. He dismisses the more recent reassessments of the Field Marshall and falls back on the old ‘butcher’ treatment. I would have thought an extract from Martin Middlebrook’s "First Day of the Somme" would have been more appropriate.
Having said that, there is no doubt that The Great War by Joe Sacco will become an important and unique addition to the literature and iconography of this terrible war with which we will undoubtedly be bombarded in the coming five years.