First day of the Somme in a 24-foot cartoon

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.

6 thoughts on “First day of the Somme in a 24-foot cartoon

  1. The Great War has always been the most terrible, to me, which opinion has nothing to do with numbers killed, or statistics of any kind … It is was this war that saw foolish, horribly egotistical, selfish, inept, cowardly, arrogant, self-satisfied and class-ridden men “planning” how it was to be fought – without their direct participation.
    The problem with this marvellous cartoon is that it doesn’t seem to show what writers like Barker, Faulks, Graves, et al. were able to do in words. I don’t see horror.

  2. I did. The faces of each one of those soldiers added to the sense of naive ignorance, growing awareness, fear, shock, horror, and in the face of it all, incredible courage and dedication to their comrades. The temptation when looking at something like this is to try to follow the whole story rather than look at the details that make up that story. When I was young, I participated in a project interviewing and filming WWI vets about their experiences. They were old men, but when they told their stories, their voices and expressions were those of young men in the midst of horror and betrayal. Sacco caught it: just look at the faces.

  3. There is, in all fairness, nothing wrong with historizing cartoons, but taking the 95th anniversary of the WWI armistice day into account, the ‘journalistic documentation’ in that ‘Detail’ from only the FIRST day of the Somme Battle in this cartoon looks a bit like some sort of summer camp, which, as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, it definitely was not. For sketches from somebody who actually took part in e.g. the Somme Battle, do a picturesearch for something like ‘Otto Dix War’, and you might finally notice the difference.

  4. I bought the book and I intend to colour it in.
    My grandfather was there (awarded the MM) and something in me wants to do this as a form of recognition to those who gave everything.
    You hear the comment “it was a long time ago and time to move on”
    I agree but for both sides on that day and all the other days on both the World Wars try to imagine the scale of all that pain and horror and learn from it so we
    don’t have to put our children through a World War 3.
    Yes protect ourselves but not be lead to an early grave not knowing why!
    Fine piece of work by Joe Sacco. I take my hat off to you :hattip:

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