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Midway through World War I, British and Allied forces launched an unprecedented assault on German troops at the Battle of the Somme. Combat raged for four months, resulting in more than a million casualties, many sustained on the first day of fighting. In his latest work, graphic novelist Joe Sacco uses a single page that spans 24 feet to tell the story of the Somme’s beginning without words. He joins us to discuss “The Great War” and his award-winning work, which blends journalism and cartoons.
- Joe Sacco Author, "The Great War" (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Images From “The Great War” By Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco’s “The Great War” is a 24-foot-long, accordion-fold panorama of the Battle of the Somme.
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. July 1, 1916 was supposed to be a turning point in World War I. After months of planning, British forces converged on the River Somme in France preparing to deliver a swift blow to their German counterparts on the other side of the trenches. But that optimism quickly faded after the troops climbed over the top, out of the trenches at 7:30 that morning. The Battle of the Somme ultimately stretched across four brutal months, claiming a million casualties on both sides, a scale of destruction so great that it's still difficult to full comprehend a century later.
MR. MARC FISHERSo in his latest book, author and cartoonist Joe Sacco chose to focus on one day of battle. In the Great War Sacco uses one panoramic page that stretches out 24' to tell the story of the war to end all wars without words or captions. He joins us today. Joe Sacco is the author of "The Great War" and his previous books that include "Palestine" and "The Fixer" about Bosnia. Welcome.
MR. JOE SACCOIt's a pleasure to be here.
FISHERSo this book from the outside looks like an ordinary book with a binding. But then when you open it, it literally pages out over foot after foot. Is that a format you've seen before or was this entirely new? What was the ovation of this?
SACCOWell, my editor, who is an old friend of mine, he was much taken with a book called "Manhattan Unfurled" by Matteo Pericoli. And that is a foldout illustration of the Manhattan skyline. And he suggested I draw a panorama of the western front many, many years ago when we were roommates. And when he became an editor at WW Norton he called me up and said, do you remember that idea? Do you want to go ahead?
SACCOAnd I thought about it. At first I thought, I don't know if I want to draw a static image. But then I remembered the Bayou tapestry. And that was sort of my -- that's what I looked at and thought about. Because the Bayou tapestry has the same sort of format where you read it basically from left to right and it tells a story.
FISHERNow do you expect that people will look at this page by page, image by image or that they -- do you expect that they will literally unfurl it and scan across the entire spectrum?
SACCOWell, it's hard to unfurl unless you have a relatively large room.
FISHERWe have about a 12' wide studio table here and it doesn't begin to hold this book.
SACCORight. But you can sort of page through it page by page. And you can unfurl some of it or all of it. And I imagine people will look at it in multiple ways.
FISHERAnd it does have the look of a tableau of sorts. It's finally drawn, black and white images of everything from the European village, the preparations for war, the massing of troops and on into very extreme battle. What -- talk a little bit about the style of drawing here and the content of these battles. This is extremely vicious hand-to-hand trench warfare and yet you've rendered it in a very crisp clean style.
SACCOWell, that's the style I've sort of learned how to, you know, pull off, I guess. I come out of doing journalism. And with journalism I'm interested in detail. So that aesthetic carries over in that I wanted to very cleanly show what things looked like. What the equipment looked like, how the horses were harnessed, all that sort of detail that sort of gives it a bit of verisimilitude.
FISHERYou can join our conversation with cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, by calling 1-800-433-8850, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send tweets to @kojoshow. And Joe Sacco, why World War I? You've covered a lot of different conflicts around the world from Bosnia to Palestine. Why go back to World War I and this particular day?
SACCOWell, my childhood was spent in Australia, and like a lot of commonwealth countries, World War I figures very -- looms very large in the national psyche. It's sort of where Gallipoli and World War I is where Australia sort of became of age. So when I was a little boy in school, I remember the commemoration of that landing, and how every year classes would stop and we'd hear about World War I. We'd hear about some of the stories of Australian soldiers. So World War I has always been in my consciousness.
FISHERIs that still true in Australia? Is it that palpable a presence?
SACCOYes, it is. I mean, as it in Britain where World War I saw more British casualties than in World War II, same is true of Australia. So there was that, and also I've just been reading about it for such a long time because as a boy I was very impressed by the whole notion of trench warfare, this notion of a stalemate where huge armies basically pounded each other for very little gain.
FISHERIt's interesting in a lot of American historical works about World War I, what's distinctive about that war is it's portrayed as the first mass mechanized war. The first war where it was easy to use machines to kill lots of people. And yet the way you portray this, and the importance of World War I, it's more a sense of being drenched in that sort of hand-to-hand, intimate physical combat.
SACCOWell, actually, I don't really show the British making it to the German trenches because what impressed me about World War I is that distant type of killing where the soldiers went over the top thinking -- often being told that no one would have survived the preliminary bombardment in the German trenches, and they were mown down from a great distance by German machine guns and then artillery.
FISHERAnd so let's got to this one day that you depict. What happened in the Battle of the Somme and what was the importance of that battle?
SACCOOkay. Well, basically the Somme battle was fought to relieve pressure off the French who were fighting in Verdun against the Germans. The idea -- the architect of the battle Douglas Haig -- General Douglas Haig. His idea was to capture German trenches after a very heavy bombardment and then the cavalry. He was obsessed with cavalry. He was an old cavalry officer. The cavalry was supposed to ride through the gap, roll up the German flanks, and the stalemate of the western front would be finished.
FISHERAnd the scale of destruction that you depict, I mean, it's panorama after panorama of bombs exploding and dirt flying into the air and so on. Is -- it's just an enormous scale, and the numbers of dead and injured are so high that I guess that leads to this sort of sweeping approach that you took artistically.
SACCORight. Well, I mean, it's staggering. And it's -- when I think about it, it boggles my mind. On the first day of the battle, there were 57,000 British casualties. Almost every other man who went over the top was a casualty. Twenty-one thousand of those casualties were fatalities in the first day. And it's estimated in the first hour 10,000 were killed.
SACCOWhich, you know, that's more than the entire amount of American servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
FISHERAnd so how did you research what this battle actually looked like? I mean, is this an accurate historical depiction, or is this an artistic reach for truth?
SACCOWell, I think it's accurate in the sense that the details, I think, are right. The way I researched it, I -- through osmosis I've just read so much about World War I that some of that prose comes out as images on the page, but I went to the Imperial War Museum in London to their photo archive, and spent some days going through their photo records to find the details to draw things right. Like I said, I come out of a journalistic background, so detail matters.
FISHERLet's hear from Tesfa in Arlington. Tesfa, you're on the air.
TESFAThe First World War was really a real world war not only of the counties who fought, but also the soldiers that came from West Africa, from Senegal, Nigeria and other West African countries, and from India, and my -- and did you show this detail? My second question is the state of the current war was set during the First World War even (word?) and the Wahhabi movement creating an alliance where they told Hussein, grandfather of the King of Jordan -- the current King of Jordan while the stage was set for extremist sects, Wahhabi movement and the terrorism in the war direct and the killing of innocent immigrant Ethiopian and other Africans...
TESFA...in Saudi Arabia.
TESFAThe stage was set during the First World War.
FISHERGreat. Tesfa, let's have Joe Sacco respond.
SACCOWell, it's true that a lot of what's happening in the Middle East today can be traced to the First World War. But as to the combatants and who was at the Battle of the Somme, I do show an Indian cavalry regiment, one of the cavalry regiments that was due to go through this gap. But the interesting thing about the first day of the Battle of the Somme, it was mostly a British affair There were hardly any troops, or as far as I know, no units from any commonwealth nation. There was some from Newfoundland, which at the time was not part of Canada.
FISHERAnd your interest, as you said earlier, in World War I goes back to your childhood and whether in Australia or in this country, the idea that World War I was the war to end all wars, the great war, I mean, these are terms that may seem quaint or even false in a sense looking back over the century, but the impact of that war, I mean, is obviously still with us in many ways.
SACCOWell, yes. I mean, you can trace a lot of what happened in the last century to the First World War including the rise of fascism. As you know, Germany had to pay very large reparations and was made to take on the war guilt. So there was that resentment that helped Hitler. Of course there was the Bolshevik revolution. You know, empires were swept away. The Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, the German empire and the Romanovs.
FISHERAnd you've covered a number of wars as you mentioned in southeastern Europe, in the Middle East, and now looking back at World War I, do we ever really learn anything new about war?
SACCOI'm not sure. You know, it's funny, because as I was drawing soldiers going up to the front, you know, what I've read is that they were very enthusiastic for the most part. This was a volunteer army for the most part. And, you know, drawing those soldiers, you do wonder about it because of course you have the generals that have come up with these plans that are ill-conceived, and you have the politicians that have put their societies into these situations, but then you have the populace that gets behind wars like this. So sometimes I wonder what lessons we've learned.
FISHERAnd, you know, paging through your book, there is this overwhelming sense of just the -- the mass of humanity involved in these battles, and the artistic depictions of war that we're accustomed to in contemporary works is often about very small groups, you know, a lot of wars mechanized drones and all of that, and, you know, some guy sitting at a computer screen is a modern picture of war. But the picture of war that you draw in World War I is -- involves these enormous numbers of people, and it really does bring to mind Brueghel and the sense of crowds and the humanity within crowds. Did you have that in mind?
SACCOThat's kind of you to say. Brueghel is actually a very large influence on my work. I wanted to show humanity as a whole as a mass. A lot of my journalism work has really focused on individuals and how they were affected by political historical situations. But in this case, I wanted to draw it bit back and think of the enormous undertaking of something like war, and how when we cooperate as a human species, it's often for this sort of ends. You know, you're talking about a half a million young men basically cooperating, but to what ends?
FISHERAnd the numbers you suggested earlier of the casualties are just so large as to be unimaginable. I mean, 57,000 people is just not something -- it's a stadium full of people.
FISHERAnd Kevin in Washington, I think, wants to follow up on that. Kevin, it's your turn.
KEVINHi, thanks for taking my call. I was wondering if Mr. Sacco could tell your listeners a bit about the Pals Battalions that were sent over the top at the Battle of the Somme, and the impact the losses of those units had on villages and towns throughout Britain. I was in Northern Ireland once some years ago and people in Ulster lost a huge number of soldiers, and even in the nineties it was still a major commemoration on the first of July to remember the losses of that battle.
SACCOWell, the listener makes a really good point. The Pals Battalions were sort of -- a way of getting recruits in was to say you could join with your friends. And so that's Pals, literally they were pals.
FISHEROh, and these were British units?
SACCOThey were British units. And so often, whole classes would join together. They were even units sort of built around professional classes like clerks, or there was an artist battalion. So you joined with your friends and you died with your friends. And so what you'll see on these inscriptions on these World War I monuments in villages and towns in Great Britain are the names of friends really.
SACCOAnd that obviously had a devastating impact on those communities.
FISHERIt sounds a bit like the legacy of the Civil War in this country where you see entire villages and monuments across the south or where people, you know, fought and died together.
FISHERWe're talking with Joe Sacco. He is the author of "The Great War." His previous books blending journalism and cartoons include "Palestine," " Safe Area Gorazde" -- how do you say that?
FISHERGorazde. And "The Fixer," about Bosnia. And this book you chose to tell the story without words. In past works you've combined words with images. What's behind that decision?
SACCOWell, basically I thought it would interesting to sort of think of myself as an Alien looking at humanity going about its business on July 1, 1916. What would a disinterested being see? And that's how I -- that's how I how chose to tell the story. For example, I show General Douglas Haig, a figure much reviled and sort of rehabilitated, depending on which historian you read about, but I wanted to have sort of a neutral image or images of him. And like I said, I wanted more of disinterested look at what people do.
FISHERAnd do you think there's a different emotional impact from telling the story without words?
SACCOIn some ways. I think there's a very visceral -- there's a very visceral feeling when you don't -- when you're just seeing an image and the image has to contain all the words in a way. So I think there is an impact with that definitely.
FISHERAnd along with the book, there is an accompanying volume that does tell the story in words.
SACCORight. There's a very nice introduction to this, the context by a great historian named Adam Hochschild.
FISHERYour past work has dealt with some very different conflicts, and it also involved reporting and research that has taken you to war zones and interviewing people in the midst of those conflicts. Is there a different in what results from that kind of first-hand reporting versus the kind of historical research that you did in this World War I book?
SACCOWell you know, it's funny because with my journalistic work, I've learned, I think, how to explain why things happen on a local level, why one people and another people are fighting over a certain land or over some issue. Those things can be explained. But as I was -- as my journalistic career advanced, I kept thinking that wait a minute, at some point someone has to pull the trigger, and sometimes in cold blood. And those are questions I think sometimes journalism doesn't really answer.
SACCOSo by drawing something like this helps me at least think about some of the broader questions about humanity as a whole, as opposed to very certain specific political questions.
FISHERAnd so now that you've written about contemporary wars and wars going back a century, are you done with wars or is...
SACCOI'd like to be done with wars. I sort of promised myself I wouldn't be doing this sort of thing, but, you know, here we are again.
FISHERHere you are again. And why are you drawn to that? Is there -- are there lessons or moral questions that you think you're able to answer in this work?
SACCOOh, boy. I don't know if I -- this work sort of gives me more questions in a way.
SACCOYou know, the reason I'm drawn to it, I think partly it's because of my parents. They grew up in Malta in World War II, and it was an island very heavily bombed by the Germans and the Italians, and I heard their stories around the dinner table. And growing up in Australia, there are many European immigrants and you heard their stories from World War II around the dinner table. So the concept that war is something that can actually enter your life, you know, it's not a foreign concept to me.
FISHERWe were talking earlier about Brueghel as a source for this kind of drawing and this kind of approach, but Brueghel also had a reporter aspect to him as well. I mean, these were scenes of village life where he actually went out and looked at how people related to one another, what their functions were in the village. This was not sprung from his imagination. Is his reporting also an inspiration to you?
SACCOIt really is, because when I look at Brueghel painting, I feel like there's a window that's been opened up into another world, but it's another world but it's a very organic one in the sense that I feel a relationship to his figures. They seem like real human beings, and I can sort of relate to what they're doing. And that is an inspiration to me. I mean, a lot of my work, say in Palestine or in Bosnia, was about showing how people live. And I remember getting Gorazde, this sort of town that was under siege and had very few moving vehicles and thinking, oh, I get to draw like Brueghel because I'm showing people chopping wood and doing those sorts of activities.
FISHERNow, you started out as a more conventional reporter and made the transition into doing cartoons and this kind of drawing. What -- how did that transition occur?
SACCOWell, I found no journalism job that remotely interested me. I was actually so disappointed by the experiences I had after I got my degree in journalism that at some point I abandoned it to do comics which I had been doing since I was a kid, not knowing that at some point organically those two things would come together, comics and journalism.
FISHERAnd are -- do you have another work in progress?
SACCORight now I'm working on a book -- talk about history, I'm doing a book about Mesopotamia -- Ancient Mesopotamia, first civilizations.
FISHERAnd will it unfurl in the manner of this one?
SACCOPerhaps not. Perhaps it will more of a standard, so-called graphic novel.
FISHERAnd so with this experiment in a sort of wordless storytelling, is that something you want to pursue as well in the future?
SACCOYeah. Parts of books I think. This was really interesting to me, and I have to say, I do like drawing panoramas.
FISHERWe're talking about "The Great War" by Joe Sacco. His past books include "Palestine" and "The Fixer" about Bosnia, and he will be appearing tonight and discussing his book "The Great War," at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Northwest Washington at 7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and for information you can call 202-364-1919. That's at Politics and Prose tonight at seven o'clock. And in the short time we have available at this point, is there anything about World War I that you think instructs us about the ways in which we go to war now? Is there something that tells us how to get out some of the funks we find ourselves in?
SACCOWell, perhaps we are doomed to repeat history in a way. But the thing that -- the question mark that I have is about the enthusiasm of the populace, the obedience of people, the way they join these sort of enterprises with great gusto, and then it meets reality, and I think that's something we've learned recently in Iraq for example.
FISHERJoe Sacco is the author of "The Great War," and it's an extraordinary book. Take a look at it, and he's available tonight at seven o'clock at Politics and Prose. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. Thanks so very much for joining us. This is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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