The Great War-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
An Illustrated Panorama
With an essay by Adam Hochschild
Norton, 2013, 24 foot accordion fold out
Joe Sacco’s The Great Way-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a 24 foot long drawing of the first day of the battle of the Somme (for fastidious it is really the 12 hours before and the first 18 hours of July 1st) that attempts to capture the essence of the whole battle in one massive image. The scope of the battle ranges from General Haig shown walking, riding and otherwise planing the battle from his headquarters in a chateau well back of the front, to the detailed horror of the men going over the top. Sacco chose the first day of the Somme offensive because it offered a chance to capture the whole of the battle, complete with its almost naivete, even two years in, to the realities of modern war. Despite all the two years of stalemate it wasn’t until these battles that the British first could see the futile horror of the war.
In choosing to the first day of the battle as is topic, Sacco wanted to have a narrative. While this is a wordless book, he would still have a story to tell. The story is of the great effort made for so much waste: 20,000 killed and another 40,000 wounded on the first day out of a force of 120,000. To show the immensity of the battle he has created a very detailed bird’s eye view of the battle. Starting at Haig’s GQ and moving through the staging areas with their men and material, you move past the artillery which has fired for a full week (to little effect), and on into the trenches where the men prepare, which includes receiving their ration of rum. Once over the top Sacco shows the men in all manner of devastation as they slowly march into German machine gun fire. His depictions of human bodies after amongst shell fire are gruesome. Finally, he moves to rear echelons of hospitals and cemeteries. In all this you can see the unfolding of one of the great military disasters of the war. So many dead for so little gained.
Sacco’s work has always been marked by detail, and this work is no different–it was made for it. Sacco has said that he tried to draw each soldier as an individual. When drawing soldiers that is probably a little difficult since soldiers by their nature are fairly uniform, but if you study the drawings close enough you can see the care he gave to each which makes this a very rich work.
As a single piece of graphic art I think this is his best work, just in its sheer size. As a work of journalism or history, in other words narrative, it is not as good as some of his other works, but it is fascinating and a real refreshing stretch of form. As the centenary of the Great War approaches, this will probably be one of the better attempts to capture it.