Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd – A Review

Through the Wheat
Thomas Boyd
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927

Thomas Boyd’s 1923 WWI novel is relatively forgotten work in the literature of the war. Although, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a work of art in his review, it does not quite rise to that status. Overshadowed by the likes of Hemingway and the Europeans who had more to say on the subject, Through the Wheat does have a place when looking reading the war.

Through the Wheat follows a Marine, Hicks and his company as they go from green Marines to experienced combatants. The conventionality of the narrative is more implicit, than explicit: there are none of the traditional scenes of boot camp. Nevertheless, even implicitly stated it slows the book at the beginning. One problem is Boyd attempts to capture the voices of all the men, show their boredom, excitement, the emotions that drive them. Unfortunately, he is not quite able to capture it. There is no real sense of who the characters are and the novel seems conventional, overly dramatic, and plodding. As the novel develops and more and more of Hicks’ comrades die, he becomes the focus and Boyd gives a deeper sense of the internal life. But even then, Boyd keep Hicks at a distance. This is a both a feature and a defect. Hicks is not a thinker; he is an average Marine and before he joined he was an average man more concerned with food and women. That approach cuts off a rich vein of experience and makes the book, especially in the open pages, a popular novel more interested in adventure.

As the book progresses and the American campaign in the Muse-Argonne becomes bloodier and most of Hick’s comrades die, the light tone disappears. Boyd describes the horrors Hicks endures in a mater of fact tone, one that drops horrifying images so quickly that the reader has no time to reflect on what has just happened. It is a reflection of Hicks’ inner life. Hicks slowly becomes numb to these images, but he hardly reflects on them. There is the momentary disgust, but all he cares about is getting relieved and getting a good meal. In this sense, Through the Wheat might most closely resemble All Quiet on the Western Front. The descriptions of the battlefield are certainly similar.

The sights of the dead in all of their postures of horror, the loss of those whom he had known and felt affection for, the odor of stinking canned meant and of dead bodies made alive again by the head of the day, the infuriating explosion of artillery; the kaleidoscopic stir of light and color, had bludgeoned his senses. Now he lay, incapable of introspection or of retrospection, impervious to the demands of the dead and the living.

Hard, cold, and unfriendly dawn broke over the earth like a thin coating of ice shattering in a washbasin. In the eerie light the tangles masses of wire, the weather-beaten posts from which the wire was strung, the articles of equipment and clothing once worn by men looked unreal. The woods ahead, a grayish black, lay against the sky like a spiked wall.

Through the Wheat is probably one of the best fictional descriptions of the WWI by an American of the era. Hemingway, Dos Pasos, ee cummings, all wrote novels about the war, but they were concerned with art, with a politics that at first glance seems missing. One could read the book as both as an anti-war book, as well as a testament to the Marines. When I was reading the first section I couldn’t help wonder if the reprint was driven by the 1926 release of What Price Glory, a successful film that made the Marines seem like a lot of fun. It is the lack of a heavy revulsion at the war, the use of Hicks, the dispassionate observer, that certainly places the work outside the canon. It took me quite a while to appreciate some of its elements. It is certainly not a great novel (a few less adverbs would’ve helped), but it is more reflective of the war than any of his contemporaries.

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun) by Gerorges Blond – A Review

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Gerorges Blond
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Language: Spanish

Gerorges Blond’s 1962 The Battle of Verdun, or in French simply Verdun, is a strange kind of history, at once more interested in the dramatic value of the story and yet an apparent exploration of the first hand experiences of the soldiers who lived France’s iconic battle of World War I. What makes the book a compelling read (it won the Richelieu prize), is his detailed focus on the experience of the soldier in battle. He is quite clear in his interest: what actual combat was like. Reading Verdun you’ll have a general sense of the battles movement of troops, but even that will be incomplete—he doesn’t even recount large sections of the final stages of the battle. Instead, one will understand the fatigue and exhaustion that overtook the soldiers outside Fluery as they drank putrid water from shell craters that gave them dysentery, while the shells landed around them and the fighting was hand to hand. His descriptions of the battle for Fort Vaux is particularly detailed (perhaps graphic is the right word). The men could hardly breathe and the stink of the dead permeated everything. The French held out on the lower sections of the fort while the Germans slowly worked their way in, loosing great numbers to the determined resistance. He’s at his best when he is describing these almost novelist encounters. One has the impression that he had researched the encounters, and his comments towards the end of the book about his conversations with the veterans of the war, all lend credence to his descriptions. Those close in details follow his general style of narration which places heavy emphasis on characters and personalities, even in the abstract or the aggregate. For Blond, the strategic implications of the battle are only important in how they influence the daily life of the participants. In other words, he likes his characters. It is that focus that brings him to write about the men of the Sacred Way, the only supply line into Verdun, or the pilots battling in horrendous situations. In each case he finds in them a heroism that is both stoic and noble, men who are doing what they have to, many who know they’ll never return. It can be a jarring approach at times. His coverage of the air war is particularly odd since he seems to care little about other strategic elements of the war, and he is certainly not trying to do a survey of all the various factors in the battle. He might have done well to stick to the ground war. His search for character also detracts in the liberties he takes that no academic historian would. In the initial parts of the book he was recording thoughts and conversations that Joffre and other generals were having, yet it was unclear how he knew these statements. There was no sourcing and it felt too complete. It wasn’t until late in the book that he remarked that he didn’t have the details of a conversation, I think with Petain, but it must have gone something like this. For one, such as myself, who wants a little more concrete detail it can be a little discerning. Despite those lapses, Blond’s ability to describe the experience of the front line troops was impressive and given what I know of the battles, I would say on target. While not the most rigorous history, it has some impressive passages. In some ways, the best part were the last pages when he began making more references to the soldiers and the evenings he spent with them at campgrounds outside Verdun, reliving the war. In those moments you see a writer full of respect and admiration for the Poilu. It brought his writing into a fuller, less narrative driven, style that served the pointless of the battle.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christoper Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christoper Clark
Harper 2012, pg 562

Christoper Clark’s origins of World War I is a remarkable work of history, especially, diplomatic. Although the term Sleepwalker has been criticized in a few cases (namely Hastings), his thesis is compelling and his analysis of the political currents of the major parties is  richly detailed. It is it is one of the best analysis written of the subject.

Sleepwalkers starts with a lengthy analysis of Serbia and Hungry, each receiving a chapter. The two chapters are unlike any others in the book and it shows not only the importance of the two countries in the start of the war, something perhaps obvious, but how Clark views each country’s leadership. In the case of Serbia, Clark is extremely critical, seeing the country as mass of violence, intrigue, and outsized ambitions to become the leader of the Balkan Slavs. It is that ambition, one that was unable to get beyond its own nativism, that led to most of the problems. While the war was not Serbia’s fault per say, their ambitions to become the regional power, a self selected protector of Slav culture, despite what the Croats or other peoples in the region might think, made the region very unstable. It is easy to see in his analysis a criticism of Serbia in the 1990’s too.

In the case of Hungry, he showed not so much as a weak nation, but an unwieldy one. The dual monarchy meant that major decisions to  like going to war had to go through both the Austrian parliament and the Hungarian. The motive of each group was not necessarily in line with the other, and Hungarian nationalism often played a key in how each side would decide to enter a political decision. He does note that Austria was less divided than one might think and although the an observer of the Austrian parliament might hear multiple languages during a debate, the frictions for independence were not as decisive as one might expect. Like all great powers of the era, it did believe that it had a sphere of influence that it could operate in and it was their right to do it.

After those two chapters he moves into a more chronological history. In this part 6 points are come out: the weak control over institutions within countries, France’s  bellicose attitude and financial aide to the Serbs, the growing fear that Russia would be able to mobilize faster than Germany, the British and Russian relationship might come to an end, Italian ambitions, the collapse of the Ottomans, and most importantly, no side thought they had an option but go to war.

Clark notes in several chapters that the prime ministers and presidents of several countries, particularly France and Great Brittan, but also Russia and Germany, often did not have direct control over their foreign ministries. Instead, the leadership that came and went with some regularity, was unable to control the bureaucracy of the ministries. Often the ministers worked against what the heads of state wanted. France and Britain had paralytically bellicose ministries that often planed for wars and were in a constant state of panic about the central powers. Even when a head of state wanted to reign in a ministry in an attempt to deescalate a situation it was difficult to do, and they would find themselves without allies within the government to control the situation. France was especially susceptible to this.

The far greater problem, though, was empire. For Britain and Russia it was the contest for regions along their borders, particularly India. the two countries had accords to limit competition, but as they grew closer to 1914, there was some question as to how they would work together in the future or if they would become adversaries again. The issue made the need to bind Britain to Russia and France critical and would in the run up complicate planning for each party in the war.

More important, though, and what Clark sees as a key element to the crises was Italy’s 1911 invasion of Libya. Until then there was a balance of power between the Ottomans, the Austrians and other regional powers. With the loss of Libya, it was now obvious that Turkey was a weak state and its possessions could be wrest from it. In 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and Montenegro began the First Balkan war to take land that had been Ottoman, though inhabited by Slavs. The war was  a success and the nations expanded in size. The destabilization of the region and the growth of Serbian power led to a bellicose situation in the region, where Serbian and Austrian ambitions were in conflict. France made things worse by guaranteeing Serbia large loans. The loans were given with the condition that Serbia spend the money in France. They bought large amounts of arms, further escalating tensions. France disregarded any council that their actions could lead to an escalation.

Finally, he lays out his key thesis: when the crisis came, every country thought of itself as a victim. Worse, instead of viewing themselves as an actor who could control the situation, they thought they could only react to the situation. The interlocking treaties, fears, and military plans all gave each side the sense that they were a victim and had to do something. It is this idea that most clearly illustrates the idea of the Sleepwalkers. Even for Clark it is difficult to believe that they could all find themselves without options. The obsession with mobilization and military time tables, amongst other things, made it difficult for any actor to slow the rush to war.

Sleepwalkers is a complex and nuanced work whose analytic depth makes this an impressive work of scholarship.


Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski – A Review

9780199316892_450Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Paul Jankowski
2014, pg 336

The more I read military history the more I’m convinced that most books divide into two types: the narrative of action; and the analysis of events. The former reads like a novel, full of action and sweeps the reader along—an exciting read, the stuff of adventure. The latter eschews narrative and picks apart elements of a battle or war, often returning over and again to a moment to look at it from a different angle. The former is easy to read, the latter feels more honest to scholarship asking questions that narrative sweep can obscure. Paul Jankowski’s Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War definitely falls into the latter camp and for that is an excellent account of the events and participants that made Verdun a byword for futility and waste.

Jankowski begins with an investigation of motives for the attack. In particular, he shows the Erich von Falkenhayn’s goal to bleed France white was really something he came up with after the war to justify his attack and his persistence. Jankowski notes that it is hard to know for sure these details because the German archives were destroyed in World War II, and both the French and German official histories have elements of propaganda in them. Given that Falkenhayn was not truthful, what were his reasons for continuing with the attack? And for that mater what were those of the French to hold on to a system of forts they had decided were useless and had virtually abandoned? In each case it seems as if there was a momentum that made it impossible to withdraw. The Germans couldn’t withdraw after committing so much, the French couldn’t afford to loose any more land. For the French, Verdun, as the battle dragged on, became a point of pride and instead of withdrawing to safer and more strategic zone they chose to fight.

Jankowski the battle itself was not as legend has led us to believe. The initial losses of the forts was as much luck on the German side as disinterest on the French side. But once lost they became focal points of the battle. The French were not prepared to fight the battle either. They were short of guns, especially heavy ones, but they did advantages when it came to supplying the troops. He spends considerable time looking at what made the troops continue to fight. On the French side it is a critical question because the next year the French army would see mutinies. He points out, though, that the commitment to the battle was stronger than later events would have us believe. It was when the futility of the battles of 1917 became apparent, the men lost their will to fight. His analysis is a complex picture of competing motives and pressures that kept the men at the front.

Ultimately, the brilliance of Jankowski’s book comes from the way he shows there are no easy answers to why the battle lasted so long, why the men fought it, and how the two sides were able to maintain the intensity. I think anyone reading this will come away from it with the impression that what kept it all going so long was simple momentum. And though it did help sap the French of their will to fight, the post war analysis and legends only served to obscure what really was happening and what the participants thought. Jankowski has added new light to those times.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War by Max Hastings

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War
Max Hastings
Knopf 2013, pg 628

Max Hastings’ history of 1914 is a magnificent account of the events leading up to World War I and the first months there after. Catastrophe is the appropriate title for the book, because in every stage of the outbreak of war the participants made so many horrendously bad decisions. It is too easy to say war is always a waste, disaster or insert your description, without understanding the full disaster that one the size of World War I was. A hundred years on there are many ideas held, if held at all, about the war that obscure the reality of what went on. Hastings is not a revisionist but he is interested in looking at the first year of the war with freshness. Of course, when discussing the start of the war the eternal question must be answered: who was responsible for the start. While Hastings suggests all sides had some blame given the alliances system. However, he squarely believes that Germany was the chief culprit in letting the war get going. Austria was a greedy bully living in its splendid imperial decay and had no business trying to control the Balkans, but Germany with the blank check given to Austria if it were to suffer a Russian attack is really the central player. He also criticizes Russia for its rush to war. Ultimately, though he points out that it may have been hard to avoid the conflict given that many of the countries involved were looking to start a war. The Austrians had an outsized view of their power and thought they could easily take on Russia. Germany was paranoid that they would soon be strangled by the growing economic power of Russia and with the growing size of the Russian rail roads they soon would be unable to fight a two front war. Hastings is also dismissive of the idea that the any one country could have avoided the war or negotiated their way out of it. The Central Powers were too tied to a militaristic stance and underestimated the ability of other countries to defend themselves. Moreover, the German plan required a quick advance into France to knock them out of the war in what is commonly referred to as the Schlieffen plan, before the Russians could mobilize. Moreover, once the armies were mobilized they were difficult to stop. On the Entie side, fast mobilization, too, was required to prevent surprise. In other words, all sides were on hair triggers and once committed, felt their was no way to stop otherwise their battle plans, ones the various armies had worked on for years, would fail. The British experience is a little different since they were not in the immediate path of invasion, but Hastings argues that Great Brittan could not let Germany become the sole power in Europe because their position would become tenuous, and given that Germany was committed to attacking their was nothing they could do. For Britain it is an ironic outcome because they believed Austria had good standing and were the victims, not the Serbs.

Hastings devotes 3/4 of the book to the actual war. Given that we are only talking about a six month period, Hastings is quite detailed in his analysis of the war. As any one who reads about the war will now, much of the combat in WWI was a disaster of old strategies and new technologies. In the opening moments of the war that was never more apparent. Amongst the great jubilation of each nation, most assuming this would be a quick war over by Christmas, millions of men were led to the front with ideas and tactics out of the 19th century. The most egregious, perhaps were the French and their red pants, but all countries went to war unaware of how destructive the new armaments had become. Yet despite technological advances in armaments, those of transportation had not matched pace and the German plan which required quick movement would ultimately fail because once the armies reached the end of their rail networks, they were on foot and at a disadvantage to the defending French who could make use of their rail lines. For Hastings, and many others, it was this single fact that made it impossible for the Germans to succeed. Not that they didn’t come close, and Hastings is critical of all the generals. Joffre’s, and France’s, commitment to attack was bad and the battle of the Frontiers, the plan to take back Alsac Lorianine, a disaster that if Joffre had not succeed in transferring armies to the west in September, he would have gone down as one of the worst generals of the war. The British were poorly led and though useful, were not particularly important. The last point is contrary to may histories and popular lore in England that says they were critical to the defense. Ultimately, what Hastings is at pains to point out is that the first months of the war were the most deadly of the war. Massive armies, often with ill trained reservists and new recruits, were launched at each other without an understanding of what the new weapons would do. The staggering loses are hard to imagine. For the British the greatest single day loss of life was in 1914, not during the Somme. Hastings defends the generals to some degree, noting that their callousness in the face of such losses is part of the role of the commander. However, there catastrophe that was the opening months was still inexcusable.

His coverage of the eastern front is as equally detailed. Though the war would always be decided on the western front, the disaster that happened on the east was just as large. The Austrian army collapsed almost completely and was no match for either the Russians or the Serbians. And if the war in the west was brutal, especially with bad training and horrendous care for the wounded and civilian populations, the east was even worse. The wounded often had little care and many of the deaths were due to wounds. The east was more savage in another way: the Austrian atrocities. They had a policy of preemptive and demonstrative executions to keep the local population under control.

Ultimately, for Hastings the Entie powers had no choice to fight the war and what they represented was a better outcome of the war. He particularly points out the German behavior in occupied zones. While no where near that of World War II it was still known for arbitrary and brutal punishment for any opposition to their rule. He notes this was partly in response to what happened in the Franco Prussian war when franco-saboteurs harassed the Germans. But in no way does it excuse the atrocities they committed. He also notes that due to the sensitization of the atrocities in propaganda it has been easy to dismiss them and say both sides were equally to blame and a victory either way would have been the same. I think most English speaking readers will agree. Catastrophe is an excellent history and one that is best at describing the pointless brutality of the opening battles.


Goddamn This War! by Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney – A review

Goddamn This War!
Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney
Helge Dascher, trans
Fantagraphis Books, 2013

e4a0b604e5e23a2777988cfd2b4a1efcJust in time for the 100th anniversary of World War I is Goddamn This War! by Tardi with chronology by Jean-Pierre Verney (translated by Helge Dascher). The book is a brief history of World War I that eschews plot or characterization and instead dwells on the massive incompetence and horrid logic of the war, using mounting barbarities as an indictment of the war. The book seems as if it is narrated by a soldier and in a way it is: the voice of the nameless, a kind of chorus, recounting pointless act after another. Told in little short vignettes that relate everyday life of the war, Tardi shows the pointless of it all. From relating the death of a man while doing his business to showing the graphic moment results of a shell landing in a trench to showing a snow covered field with blood leaking through. No moment of the grotesque escapes his vituperation and sarcasm. If you’re squeamish this is not a book for you; however, there is more here than just war porn. Tardi is reasonably effective in showing the low points of the war (mostly that’s what they were). The basic chronology and graphic depiction of it will give anyone reading this an excellent insight into the war. He does narrate the major events, such as when Italy enters the war or the Battle of Verdun is taking place, what interests him, though, is not the movement of troops or the political implications, but how little it matters. In addition to Tardi’s narrative there is a fine chronology of the war written by Jean-Pierre Verney. Like Tardi’s work it show’s just how badly run the war was and how unprepared the French and British were. The chronology and Tardi’s work make this anything but a typical work of military history. It seems more like the work of the German anarchist Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege (War against War!), published in 1924 and filled with images what really happens in war, the maiming, deaths, etc. It is in this focus on what happened, what the aftermath was like for those with facial wounds, what little support the disabled were given, that his book takes on its real power: the reminder that war is more than just movement of little ticks on a map.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – A Review

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War is the history of World War I told from the perspective of 20 average participants. Combing the diaries, letters, and published memoirs of soldiers and civilians alike, he eschews a military history that focuses on generals, or even those in command  and lets these usually unheard voices speak. For good and for bad, this is not exactly an oral history, but history focused on the participants. I was actually a little disappointed by the lack of quotes. Englund will take short quotes from the participants, but he prefers to summarize the participant’s experience and place it within the larger context of the battle or event they were participating in. It makes for a very readable history, but looses some of the character that might have come if he’d given us larger quotes. This is especially true with the lives of the soldiers on the eastern front who are seldom heard from. In his defense, I once read the journal of Dr. Harvey Cushing (From A Surgeon’s Journal) one of the participants he follows and it was a little dull in parts. That said, The Beauty and the Sorrow offers a different, and much need, way to look at the experience of World War I. Englund is adept at blending the big picture with the personal narratives of the participants. What is paramount in any history in this style is if the writer can capture some of the motivations of the participants. In this he has succeed quite well. The motivations are often quite conflicted. The young Dane Andersen who is conscripted by the Germans is not really interested in the war and would like to miss the whole thing. Whereas the young sailor in the German navy is completely frustrated by the lack of action and the great class divide between the officers and the men. What might strike one is that only there of these participants die, but more to the point, few fight in the famous battles of any of the fronts. Perhaps it’s because not as many survived or they did not present enough of a rounded account. Englund’s focus is the breadth of the war, from France to Italy to Russia to Africa to the Ottoman Empire he wants to show that it is more than a war of the trenches. Ultimately, a reader will come away not with the full horror of the war, but an understanding of the personal costs, in both life, property, and most importantly, optimism, that they paid. No one leaves the war untouched, even the Venezuelan adventure seeker who witnesses the anti-christian killing in Turkey nor the British Victory Cross winner who Englund paints as someone who actually likes the war. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first look at the war, but it is certainly a solid addendum to other histories, especially if they only focus on strategy and the trenches.

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front – A Review

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
Winston Groom

I never imagined I would read a book by the author of Forest Gump, let alone liking it, but Winston Groom’s history of the Ypres Salient in World War I is a good readable account of the battles in Flanders. I’m not going to spend much time detailing the history, but briefly, the Ypres Salient was a battle field in Flanders, Belgium near the Flemish city of Ypres, now called Iper. There were three battles there of the course of the war, the third and most famous also known as Passchendaele. The second battle gave us the first use of poison gas in battle, a lamentable first. It is also where Adolph Hitler served. As a reader of military history I’m not particularly interested in tactics and evaluations of strategy. Yes, that is part of military history and I’m aware of the importance, but it is the experience of the soldiers and what it was really like that interests me most. In this regard, Groom does an excellent job in describing what it was like there. I think his novelist’s eye helps him as he describes in great detail the mud, the battle conditions, especially how the dead and parts of the dead, were left everywhere. How the constant shelling made for several hundred casualties per day. This is during the calm times. His descriptions of the warfare that happened amongst the tunneling squads that were digging under the German lines to lay mines is particularly horrific. There were whole companies below ground digging huge tunnels all the while the Germans were listening for them, hoping to find them, breakthrough the tunnel and start fighting. The mines that were laid at Ypres were perhaps the most emblematic of the war and had the greatest success in immobilizing the German lines. Putting a million pounds of explosives under the German lines is an impressive and terrifying feat. When it comes to describing the generalship, he is definitely impressed with Plummer and not Haig. Since I find Haig wanting, I don’t have much to quibble with here, and as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t an area I’m particularly interested in. While the book is very good at describing the overall shape of the battles and the experience of the soldiers, he does leave the battle to occasionally give context. While these aren’t bad digressions, I’m not sure he really needed to to that. My only other real issue is the lack of end notes. However, since this isn’t aiming to be a scholarly work, I’m not going to hold it against him.

The Great War An Illustrated Panorama by Joe Sacco – A Review

greatwar1Joe Sacco
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.

Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 by Tammy M Proctor – A Review

Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918
Tammy M. Proctor
New York University Press, 2010, pg 363

When it comes to the great number of books on war the portion given over to non combatants and the social aspects of war are a small fraction. War is too often a series of maneuvers and counter maneuvers that give geographic and material sense of war, but leave the what took place apart from the battle field unexamined. This is especially true with World War I, Tammy M. Proctor, argues. When describing the war in the west, the relatively narrow stretch of battle field in France and Belgium are the main focus, and for good reason with its legendary stalemate and destruction it is hard to ignore. Other fronts, such as those of eastern Europe, Italy, Turkey, or eastern Africa, are less well known, but surveys of the literature would probably bare out the same finding. Perhaps some of that perception comes the idea that unlike World War II, the First World War was not a very mobile war, the eastern European and east African campaigns aside. However, as Proctor shows, the world of the non combatant was more perilous and central than is usually represented and was a harbinger to what was to come in World War II.

She opens the book with the concept of the citizen soldier, perhaps the weakest part of the book in part because it has been covered in depth in other books. Nonetheless, she provides a good introduction to the need to create soldiers from what, until then, were non combatants. As is not uncommon, her first person material about the reactions of soldiers to their new lives in the armed forces, is the strongest when discussing the western front and helps show the initial call up as of almost joyous confidence (there are scarce records for soldiers who fought on the eastern front). What is most illustrative, though, is the lengths the waring nations went to call men up and how long the plans had been in existence. In the initial call ups you can almost see the course of the war: the Russians chaotic, a paper army in some ways; the Germans efficient and organized; to a lesser extent the same for the French; and the British relied on their professional Imperial volunteers to fight the beginning of the war.

Once she moves away from combatant the book is much more focused and the one take away from the book is that war requires man power, not just at the front, but in support, too. That need drove the use of masses of hired and conscripted labor throughout the war. The British hired men from around the empire, as did the French. Although nominally civilians, dressing in civilian clothing and expected to stay away from the front lines, the men were often quite near combat especially with the advent of aviation and long range artillery. The workers for the allies continued to come in part to show their worth as suggest to the imperial powers and to earn much needed wages. Given that many of the laborers were non European there was racism and smug behavior from the colonial officials that attempted to make sure that the laborers, once exposed to the distractions of France, would be controllable. The same cannot be said for workers for the central powers who used conscription to raise labor battalions. The conscript labor ran the same danger and in a replay of what would happen in World War II as the armies moved back and forth over the same contested terrain, the civilians who had been forced into labor were accused of collaboration.

The chapter on refugees and civilians in occupied areas was also quite good. The difficulty faced by civilians who were caught behind enemy lines could be quite high as neither side really understood how to handle large numbers of refugees or what to do with civilians of an occupied country. The Germans, for example, took hostages in Belgium and obligated countries to provide workers for the war effort. All sides began to use concentration camps to gather contain suspect groups of people. Often the camps were over crowded and badly designed. It is obvious from what she writes, that the civilian encounter with war was much larger than is commonly pictured. Not only were civilians forced to relocate, work, and otherwise help the enemy war effort, with the shifting movement of the front lines in the early days on the western front, throughout the war in the east and in East Africa, civilians were in peril in a greater numbers than any time before.

Proctor is quite good in showing the total mobilization that each country did of its civilian populations. Whether it was women joining the work force or serving as nurses on the fronts, or volunteers joining ambulance units or the YMCA, there was a commitment to seeing the war as something everyone had to take part in in some way. The commitment come from mixed motivations: munitions workers, she notes, coming from working class background, found the work a step up from their typical factory work. The introduction of rationing and the draft on a scale never before seen, also blurred the lines between civilians and soldiers, bringing the war closer to home. Even though some civilians experienced air raids that truly brought the war to a new level, it was total focus on war in all of its aspects that made non combatants something other than civilians.

Civilians in a World at War is successful at showing that World War I had more civilian impact than is generally thought of. She is correct in arguing that World War I redefined the role of the civilian during war. If I have one complaint it was need at the end of every chapter to reargue that she had made her point and that civilians were not people who did not fight, but part of the war and who played critical roles in keeping it sustained.

Xingu and Other Stories by Edith Wharton – A Review

Xingu and Other Stories
Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner’s Sons, October 1916, 436 pg

Xingu and Other Stories is an uneven collection of stories from a writer in the midst of her most fertile work. The good stories show similar concerns of her more famous novels such as the house of Mirth. When she is examining the lives of couples or more commonly the lives of women she is a powerful writer that doesn’t write polemics, but creates heroines that self aware and willing to try to size what should be theirs. They may not get it, but they’ll try. Interspersed among those stories, though, are less than convincing ghost stories, atrocity stories from World War I, and tales of revenge. Nevertheless, Xingu has some gems in it.

The eponymous story Xingu  is a funny send up of conformity and phony intellectualism. A group of women get together regularly and invite a writer to talk to the group about their book. The writers quickly bore of the  morally bland middle class women and their pedantic questions. Nor are the women are capable of  having their own opinions about the works. They all seek a kind of respectable consensus on what each book means and it makes for a conservative and unimaginative group. One day when they are trying to entertain a pompous writer one of the members mentions begins to talk about a place called Xingu. Everyone at the lunch fakes knowledge of Xingu, but none of them have heard of it. As the story builds, they begin to get more and more extravagant in their claims. Finally, the woman who first mentions Xingu , turns the table on them all and tells them what Xingu means, deflating the pedantic women of the group. It is a funny story although the punch line is a little long. Wharton can occasionally draw a story out a little too far.

Autres Temps… is classic Wharton with its subtle and nuanced look at women in society. In the story, a woman returns to New York after her divorce, a scandalous idea in during the late 1800’s, forced her to flee to Europe and a new life. She returns because her daughter has just divorced, too, and is going to remarry and she wants to be there to help her, because she remembers what a disaster it was for her. When she arrives, though, her daughter reminds her everything is alright. No one seems upset, even the women of her generation, the women she was friends with at one time. She begins to think that her exile is over, but slowly her daughter begins to suggest, perhaps she is too tired to come to dinner with everyone. Maybe she should stay in her rooms. It is a brilliant moment, both in the coldness of her daughter who should have been grateful for her help, and the identification of that all too common trait where mores change for the young, but those of the older generation still remember the past sins. It doesn’t so much as mater what she did, just that she did something at some point and should return to her exile.

The Long Run is perhaps the most cutting of all the stories and reminiscent of The House of Mirth. It it, a single man and a married woman are friends and lovers. They have been friends for years and the desire between them is strong. One night she comes to him and says she can be his. She is ready to give everything up for him and will run away that very evening. Although he says he wants it and would love to leave the factory he owns and write again with as his muse, he won’t do it. He says it wouldn’t be good for her. He is not the free thinker he is, but now the respectable factory owner more concerned about what people will think about him. Yet he is aware of his situation:

…she had married that pompous stick Phillip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

But she is too independent for this and refuses his half measures that are more interested in respectability than love. She also sees that the winner if they do things his way is him. She won’t have any power. She wisely says no in the best line of the book:

…one way of finding out whether a risk is worth taking is not to take it, and then to see what one becomes in the long run, and draw one’s inferences.

The novella The Bunner Sisters is a strange tale about drug addiction, or as the drug addict is called in the book, drug fiends. The drug in question is opium and though Wharton never shows anyone taking it, it is the axis of the story. Even in the opening pages of the book there is a sense of danger and squalor populated by drunks and it sets the tone for the book. Describing the neighboorhood the Bunner Sisters live in she says,

These three house fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, with an increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors that softly shot or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls with broken jugs.

In other words, saloons, the so called scourge of preprohibition America. The story is about two lonely sisters who have a small millinery shop. They live a solitary life until one buys the other a clock for her birthday. The man they bought it from has a little shop and both women hold out hopes of marring him, but it is the younger sister finally marries him. Unfortunately, he is an opium addict and the older sister worries constantly about what happened to her sister who went to St. Louis wither her husband. Finally, the sister returns and tells a tale of addiction, poverty, violence, that finally ends in a still born baby and death by tuberculosis. It is a frightful tale of what can happen when you have no one and you are dependent on a man. The younger sister renounces her freedom in the little shop, although it isn’t much freedom, and chooses unwisely. It is a story that is only one step away from Dickens. It is hard to say, though without knowing more about drug usage in her works and in general (I do know in her novel Custom or the Country there is an overdose), whether this falls under prescient or after school special. That said, it is in the general tenor of the social realist problem novel. At the same time, it is well drawn picture of the two spinsters, ones you can imagine she probably met at one time or anther. And Wharton does capture the loneliness well.

As for the rest of the stories, we have Coming Home which is purported to be a story from American ambulance drivers in France during World War I. It is a story of a Frenchwoman who is caught behind enemy lines. She has no other option than put up with the Germans, letting them stay in her house, eat her food, and though it is not said, rape her. When the French take the town back her brother learns the truth and when finding the German officer who raped her he murders him, leaving as if he had been mortally wounded. It isn’t a bad story as they go, but it fits right in there with German atrocity stories and is as much propaganda as anything else. Wharton was quite committed to the war and had already written Fighting France and had helped set up hospitals, and would later write the novel, A Son at the Front. It was also the only story written for the collection and shows a hurried rush to write something relevant.

The rest of the stories are so-so. One is a ghost story with a tiresome ending that has little suspense and another is a mysterious murder that really isn’t that mysterious.

Xingu has some great Wharton and it has some less than stellar work, but the good ones are excellent. Now if only publishers would pay $2000 for stories like these as they did in her time.

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi – A Review

It Was the War of the Trenches
Jacques Tardi
Fantagraphics Books

10pg excerpt from Fantagraphics.

Some books about war want to shock you, throw every image and arbitrary decision at you, and hope somehow that you’ll remember at least just a moment of savageness the next time you think war is interesting or good for something. The literature of World War I produced many books like that whose primary goal was to show the brutality and pointless of it all. From All Quiet on the Western Front’s body parts hanging in trees to A Farewell to Arm’s fatalism, the image of World War I was one of brutality repeated over and over again. During the war photos from the front were suppressed, and even now the images that are readily available from the war are relatively benign. But there have been exceptions over the years, such as 1924’s War Against War by Ernst Friedrich (a graphic excerpt) with its graphic images of death on the battlefield and the disfigured survivors. His book, though, was not a best seller and was eventually suppressed by the Nazis. It is hard to create lasting art with that goal in mind, which is not to say All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arm have other merits (I doubt Friedrich thought he was creating art, he had another goal), but so much detail, so much brutality, does not so much as overwhelm you, but inure you to what is coming. There is only so much you need before you get the point.

I mention all this because It Was the War of the Trenches is not for everyone, which is a shame in some ways, but also because in reading it I couldn’t decide if I was honoring the men, or going for a lark through the trenches. It’s not my war, and almost a 100 years latter why did an artist create a book that is surely in the War Against War mold. For It Was the War of the Trenches is a tough read occasionally: cartoon entrails can still seem disgusting. And the endless stories that end with the absurd death of the protagonist who never really seems that different from the last one and who you didn’t really get to know, leaves you with a sense of repetitive futility. I’ve read enough first hand accounts of World War I and II to know how it manifests itself. It is not a pleasant experience, and nor should it be, the anarchist Friedrich might say. However, he was a survivor of the war, Tardi only the grandson of one. It shouldn’t matter, but the book for all its good qualities, the research and the drawings, makes me wonder why, still this story? The story of a war this big should not be forgotten, or left solely to history books that are more about marching men than the quality of the ground after months of fighting, but the way Tardi approaches it the book feels desperate as if not enough people are listening to something that should have been told earlier.

Ultimately, It Was the War of the Trenches is what the title says. A book about the trenches of World War I, as illustrated by a cartoonist. I use cartoonist intentionally, and perhaps this is the strange feeling I get when reading the book, because at times the skulls and corpses that appear every few pages, seem straight out of the pages of late 50s EC comics and it is a little hard to take it seriously, which is a shame. That aside, if you need to be reminded of the futility of war, in general, and the specific futility of World War I, in particular, it is worth the read.

The White Ribbon – A Review

The White Ribbon is Michael Haneke’s austere look at a German village on the eve of World War I. The austerity is not only in the composition, but the lives of the villagers, a place ruled by fear, strict obedience, piety and corruption. The village is a symbol of all that is to come in the twentieth century, a place where the inhabitants are the cowed participants of orders that lead them to their own destruction.

As the White Ribbon opens the village doctor is coming home from riding his horse and he suddenly felled by a thin wire that is strung across his path. It is a suspicious event because he has ridden that same path time daily. When it is investigated, the wires are suddenly missing. The accident is one of many mysterious events that occurs in the village and gives the movie a fearful sensibility.

While the mysterious events occur, the film examines the lives of the villagers. There is the baron, a man who thinks nothing of firing a family from his farm if one member is disobedient. In one particular example, the wife of a farm worker dies in an accident in the Barron’s mill. The oldest son of a family destroys the Barron’s cabbage patch as revenge and as punishment the father is let go. All this time the father, instead of blaming the Barron for not keeping his mill working, he accepts what comes to him as a matter of course.

The village minister is the embodiment of austerity and discipline whose sense of righteousness is unshakable. He believes in tying white ribbons to his children to remind them of the goodness that they should strive for. His punishments are strict, a moral discipline he expects from everyone.

As the incidents continue, it becomes more and more obvious that the village is filled with secrets that show the powerful can get away with anything and the weak have no way to resist and go along with the whatever they are told. Only the school teacher and the Baroness can see these problems. The Baroness tries to leave the village, saying that she is tired of the brutality that is everywhere in the village. The school teacher, as an outsider, has not been worn down by fear and is willing, within the limits the German society allowed, to investigate and not let things lay as they are. But then the war comes. The last scene is of the village gathering in the church after Austria and German have declared war. It is a kind of righteous farewell to a world that is about to change.

The White Ribbon is a dark film with cruel mysteries that indite a certain way of life with its obedience and brutality. The movie is not a hopeful one, except, perhaps, in that the world of the village no longer exists. Haneke does not spare anyone from his indictment and White Ribbon is sure to leave one wondering how the people could endure such things, but just watch how the inhabitants keep their heads bowed in fear and you will know.

The Trailer:

The Admiral – A Review

Picking a movie because it was the most expensive Russian film ever made may not be the best way to go. While the Admiral is full of epic battles, the mixing of the love story which seemed wooden and more foreordained than an element of discovery made the movie an epic cliché.

The Admiral is about Admiral Alexander Kolchak who was a Russian Admiral during World War I and after the revolution the supreme leader of the White army. Kolchak is a brave man and an expert naval officer whose prowess leads him to command the Baltic Fleet in the last days of World War I. He is a tough religious man who doesn’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way. He is also a ladies man and the movie also follows his love affair with the wife of one of his junior officers. The mercurial romance is interspersed throughout the battle scenes and in time they can’t live without each other and she follows him to his eventual execution in 1920.

While the combat scenes were put together well and the opening naval battle is impressive, the film is more concerned with the epic than the characters. It seemed as if the film makers had a series of known historical moments they needed to show but didn’t understand how to create characters to make those moments flow together. History didn’t move the characters against a back drop of action; instead, history moved action against a backdrop of characters. If there were less battles and more scenes between the characters, the story might have held together better. Considering how much time the film makers spent following a Cossack army that was going to save the Admiral, it is obvious that the epic was more important. It is even more obvious when they had his lover read letters out loud while showing combat scenes, making a perverse and clichéd mix of love and war.

Looking at the film as a product of Russia and not just an epic, it becomes obvious that there is a certain amount of hagiography at work in the film. Kolchak is a fervent nationalist and a man who believes in a strong hand on government. When offered the command of navy from Kerensky he says only if he can have strict discipline. In combat he fearlessly leads his men putting himself where he could be killed and leading them in prayer before each battle. He is the perfect mix of the ideal non Soviet Russian: brave, religious, and strict. What is even more interesting is what is missing from the movie: his insistence on exterminating rebellious groups; his execution of 25,000 Russians who rebelled against him; his inability to keep his allies, the Checs and the Poles on his side. Instead of a complicated picture of yet another Russian dictator, the film makers have created a hero of the lost cause. In Putin’s Russia, perhaps this is the model of the new Russian hero.

While the Admiral is steeped in clichés, it is certainly put together well and is an interesting look into what Russia thinks of its past.