War, in Panorama
By Joe Sacco
W. W. Norton, 2013
At the beginning of January, the already unpopular British education secretary Michael Gove chose to kick off World War One’s 100th anniversary year in appropriately belligerent style, by railing in The Daily Mail against the “Blackadder myths” surrounding the teaching of the war. He suggested that the centenary celebrations would better honor the “noble” dead if they acknowledged that the war was provoked by German aggression, although how exactly this would work is unclear—would he make Angela Merkel stand outside in the rain while other dignitaries toast Our Boys?
By “Blackadder myths” Gove meant what the historian Samuel Hynes called “the myth of the war,” which holds that the soldiers were duped by propaganda into volunteering, then “slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals” for no very good or clear reason. Derived from left-wing history and filtered through comedy, Gove suggested, this myth has become entrenched in British culture and British schools. The trouble for the right honorable minister came when he was challenged, immediately and on several fronts, to present a convincing alternative view.
For those unfamiliar with Eighties British sitcoms, Blackadder Goes Forth, written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, was the fourth and final season of the beloved show, in which Rowan Atkinson’s history-hopping misanthrope tries to outwit the systems of power that are established and run by such venal idiots as Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson), the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie), and, in WWI, Stephen Fry’s General Melchett. Almost every episode turns on the thwarting of Blackadder’s schemes, and every season ends with the death of all the participants, but it is only the fourth season that turns that death into a visual elegy: freezing the action as everyone goes “over the top” and dissolving the scene of carnage to a silent tableau of waving red poppies. The ending of that last episode, “Goodbyee,” has been celebrated as one of the defining television moments of the twentieth century, for suddenly taking that loss seriously and turning comedy into tragedy. By pivoting from absurdist comedy to express the futility and yet nobility of mass death in the war, Blackadder joined the longstanding Anglo-American response to the war, which has tended to judge it a hopeless tragedy.
And so, awkwardly enough, I find that Gove isn’t entirely wrong to call out the Blackadder myth, although it’s not because I agree with him that WWI was a “just war.” It’s because simply to dismiss the generals as either idiotic or murderous, and to see the soldiers purely as their victims, fails to engage with the reasons why the war was thought necessary and why its tactics were believed to be effective—and why, despite all the pain of experience, there was no mutiny in the British ranks (unlike the French). A reading of the war that positions the generals as malicious gods unleashing unstoppable disaster on the ranks does not help explain why British men continued to enlist and fight in terrible conditions (that were widely reported as such) for nearly five years.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, for example, the general in command of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to the end of the war, has gone down in history as some combination of butcher and blockhead. Yet he was still loved and respected by many ex-combatants long after the war: his funeral, in January 1928, was a day of national mourning; his equestrian statue was unveiled in 1937, and throughout the Twenties his name was affixed to streets and schools in Britain and overseas (he lent his name to an Argentine football club in 1918 and to Earl Haig secondary school in Toronto in 1928.)
Haig appears at the beginning of Joe Sacco’s long, wordless, monochrome panorama, The Great War, which is concertina-folded between hard covers, and unfolds to 24 foot-long plates. Before the panorama begins, on the inside front cover, we’re faced with the stern mustachioed face of Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener, from the famous recruitment poster “Your Country Needs YOU,” but it’s Haig who begins the story, seen pacing in the first plate in the gardens of the Château de Beaurepaire in Montreuil, safely removed from the action he’s planning. The Great War may be silent, but it is still a part of the cultural understanding of the British experience in World War One, in which the Battle of the Somme—specifically its first day, 1 July 1916—stands out as the war’s nadir, nearly 60,000 men lost on that one day, a third of them killed. For Australian-born Sacco, as for generations of schoolchildren, this day is “the Great War,” encapsulated in all its brutal inhumanity.
It’s hard, physically, to figure out how best to “read” the panorama, when you slip it out of its binding case: whether to turn the folded pages or spread it out on the floor. Its thick leaves encourage reverence. As he writes in the accompanying author’s note, Sacco was inspired by the Bayeux tapestry, the medieval tradition of conveying a narrative, a war story, through the unfurling of an image. The men are small and rounded, like the saints and peasants crowding the edges of a Giotto altarpiece. Even as line drawings they have weight and presence—resting on an ammunition supply cart, preparing vegetables in a mess tent, lifting, carrying, marching, hauling stretchers. Only a few faces turn to the viewer—we’re looking from above, out of their sightline, as they move in their columns and crowds. It’s a similar perspective to the one taken by the cameras in the partly staged propaganda film “The Battle of the Somme,” which played to millions across the country in the summer of 1916. In one famous still, a young soldier with a comrade draped across his back happens to look up at the camera and lock eyes with us. He looks too tired to be angry.
On the outskirts, at the beginning, there is a calm, fairly organized kind of bustle, in which soldiers take a moment to eat or sit down. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front begins in a similar way: “We are at rest, somewhere behind the lines,” and things are, for the moment, bucolic. But the blank white sky shows what is to come: past fat cozy smoke plumes, we start to spot tiny biplanes and plump, ungainly zeppelins. On one side of a tree there are two swallows in flight; a plane buzzes out the other side. A little way ahead, on the horizon line, is the famous basilica in the little ruined town of Albert, with its golden statue of the Virgin Mary bent over at right angles to the tower, as if (the troops debated) in supplication, terror, defeat, or tenacity. They said the war would end when she finally fell loose.
The panorama darkens as we move from storage and behind-the-lines activity to the actual combat zone, and from preparations to attack: a subtle dark-grey wash marks nightfall, with small white patches picking out candlelit dugouts and distant explosions. In a maze of support trenches men are armed with shovels, and their tin hats make them look like an army of robots. The pre-dawn barrage lights up the horizon and slowly, carefully, without fanfare, the men climb out of the trench, lending each other a hand, and they start to walk. Without noise or movement or color, the image makes us pause, at the sheer absurdity of little human figures walking through a firestorm, walking forward over piled bodies, under a rain of hot metal, just walking forward. They shelter in holes, but the holes get bigger and deeper, and the blasts bigger and closer, and it gets harder to recognize human beings in the waves of smoke. Men struggle to lift stretchers up to the surface, and the indistinguishable faces and figures underline the randomness of who is hit and who is missed.
Unlike other drawings of the war, like Otto Dix’s Der Krieg cycle, the horror isn’t etched on the faces of men in pain; few expressions are visible, and we never get closer. Nor is it in the depiction of the explosions, which are delicately rendered, pointilliste swirls: artillery bombardment by Hokusai or Seurat. You just keep folding over the accordion pages, and gradually the battlefield becomes a casualty clearing station, the Red Cross wagons waiting, a white flag waving from a broken tree branch. And further on, past the walking wounded and the hospital tents and the lines of men on stretchers, there’s the end of the line—new trenches being dug, for bodies this time, and crosses nailed in. One gravedigger pauses with his arm across his face, exhausted by the heat or the horror. In the background a column of ants: innumerable new troops marching to the line in a loop that leads back to the beginning.
The literary critic Terry Castle, in a fascinating, self-flagellating essay from 2002 in the London Review of Books, tries to understand her own lifelong obsession with World War One. It’s a piece that has always stuck with me, another woman fascinated by the war from an early age, especially by the romantically damaged figure of Rupert Brooke, whose college at Cambridge I went to, and whose mythology and much-misunderstood poetry I studied and wrote about extensively—reading his letters in the college archive and perhaps proving his biographer Christopher Hassall right, when he wrote that those who have “recovered from an adolescent ‘phase’ of Brooke” are doomed to live “ever afterwards in a state of resentful convalescence.” Perhaps it’s doom that fascinates us: Castle suggests that what is so horrifying about that first, sunny day of the Somme battle, the sky breaking open with artillery fire, the waves upon waves going over the top: it’s the walking. “Walking, paradoxically, is one of the great leitmotifs of the First World War,” she notes—a paradox because we think of trench warfare as immobile. Especially for a woman, given “the near-total exclusion of your own sex from such primal dramas of unflinching physical courage,” the idea of walking into machine-gun fire, a slow and obvious target, is unthinkable. How could they do it, these men and boys, with no reason to be there, and every reason to live?
Of course, modern warfare in the developed West has moved so far beyond mass volunteerism that it’s unthinkable to most people, and women are no longer excluded everywhere from front-line combat. But war divides the genders so completely that essentialist thinking lingers when we contemplate the front lines. There are no women anywhere in Sacco’s vast panorama, no camp followers, no innkeepers, no farmers’ wives, no nurses—they would rarely be up this close to the action; the zone of makeshift hospitals and behind the lines, Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone. The transition of the whole area into a war zone is total; from the chateau requisitioned as Haig’s domain to the more and more ruined buildings, to the woods, and the wires, and no man’s land.
The Great War is a subtly transfixing interpretation of a familiar story. Adam Hochschild’s accompanying essay, excerpted from his book To End All Wars, is a straightforward account of the battle, drawing on British and German soldiers’ reports, which together testify to how traumatic the battle was, and how efficiently machine guns can kill men who walk straight into their fire (the German responses are particularly stunned by the fact that the British just kept walking into their fire.) The details of the panorama invite interaction, imagination—they encourage us to lace stories around these figures we barely glimpse, in an effect not unlike our reaction to the battlefield cemeteries and memorials, with what Sassoon called their “intolerably nameless names.” It’s overwhelming, because you can’t make up a story about everyone—just this one soldier looking up, who catches your eye, or this one name on a headstone that is shared by somebody you know.
Everywhere, the panorama displays the size of the machine that works together to make the war and the effort that goes into blowing up a little corner of the world. It’s this labor that’s so breathtaking—so much planning, so much organization, so much physical work, so much movement, undertaken by so many hundreds of thousands of people, just in the interest of destroying each other. It makes political arguments about the centenary feel pointless, not because the thing was a natural disaster or a cosmic tragedy, but because it’s a machine, and it takes all of these people—not just little Haig in his château garden—to put it in motion and keep it working. Despite what Conservative politicians might believe, is not disrespectful to the dead to suggest that their government-mandated “sacrifice” was in vain; quite the opposite. To suggest that there’s anything remotely transcendent about the sheer scale and waste of this day—those uncountable tiny bodies, the massive labor that ends in a row of freshly dug graves—is the real disgrace.
Joanna Scutts is a literary critic and cultural historian based in Astoria, New York. She has written for publications including The Washington Post, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and she holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where her research focused on World War One commemoration and literature. She teaches writing at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.