The Battle of the Somme began at 7:30 AM on July 1, 1916. At the end of that first day, 20,000 British troops were dead and 40,000 injured, the worst day in British Army history. The French, their numbers weakened by Verdun, had 1,590 casualties, the Germans 10,000-12,000. These horrific figures didn’t stop the battle. It would continue for another 140 days, finally ending on November 18th, 1916, by which time more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded.
The opening day of what would become a months-long slaughter has been captured in a new way, as a single great panorama of chaotic action by cartoonist Joe Sacco.
In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going “over the top” and getting cut down in no-man’s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco’s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.
I think cartoon is an outstanding and sorely underestimated medium for history. Larry Gonick’s works have pride of place on my bookshelves and those of many friends and family who have received his cartoon histories as gifts from me. The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme takes a different approach because there are no dialogue or thought bubbles, no quips or goofy visuals. All 24 feet of this masterpiece are wordless views of people and actions depicted in the most historically accurate manner possible, in keeping with Sacco’s journalistic documentation of current conflicts in cartoon form.
Sacco studied uniforms, artillery, troop positions, even learned how to draw horses and lots of them to make the first day of the Somme come to life. He used a magnifying glass to get the most minute details of the background figures right. It took him eight months to finish this one drawing, double what he expected it take.
To get a small glimpse of the richness and breadth of what Sacco has accomplished here, see this annotated tour of a small section on Slate. Publishers WW Norton have also put together a brief documentary video about the book and author. I can’t embed it, sadly, but it’s very much worth viewing so please do click through.