The Great War: July 1, 1916—The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. By Joe Sacco. W.W. Norton; 54 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
IT WAS at the battle of the Somme that ordinary soldiers lost their illusions about the nature of modern warfare. On the first day alone, July 1st 1916, more than 57,000 British troops were killed or wounded.
They were part of a 120,000-strong wave intended to break the stalemate on the western front. The attack was meticulously planned, generously supplied and, in the end, a disaster. The pre-attack artillery fire that was supposed to dislodge the Germans from their trenches failed: it was notable, Adam Hochschild writes in an accompanying essay to “The Great War”, “mainly for its noise”. The Germans simply waited out the attacks in deep bunkers, then used artillery that had been camouflaged to shred the advancing troops. It remains the single bloodiest day in British military history.
Joe Sacco’s book includes none of this. Indeed, aside from his essay and Mr Hochschild’s, printed together in a separate pamphlet, it includes no words at all. Instead, using the Bayeux tapestry—a 70-metre-long work that celebrates the Norman conquest of England—Mr Sacco tells the story of July 1st 1916 in a single 24-foot-long black-and-white drawing. Mr Sacco was raised in Australia and he hews to a British perspective, explaining that it has “seeped into my consciousness”.
Broken by accordion folds into 24 plates, Mr Sacco’s narrative—and despite its wordlessness it is nothing if not narrative, with the action, lines and motion of one plate leading seamlessly into the next—begins on the morning of the attack. General Haig, in full military dress, is walking the grounds of Château de Beaurepaire. It ends at a casualty station, with the wounded writhing on stretchers and a few able-bodied troops burying those beyond medical help. In between, men prepare, ride, march and, in vast numbers, die.
Mr Sacco eschews anything resembling realistic perspective and proportion. Yet his ability to cram in detail is extraordinary. And it is the details that linger: the smile on the face of a young French boy as he watches the troops saddle up and ride, bandages unravelling from a severed leg lying unclaimed on the battlefield, and the faces of the officers overseeing the gravediggers: stoic, weary and harrowed.
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The Longest Day Essay
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