I’m a huge admirer of the work of Jacques Tardi – I consider him to be one of the finest creators in the comics medium in Europe, with a diverse body of work and styles, from the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to his hard-edged adaptations of Manchette’s crime stories, or the Jules Verne homage of Arctic Marauder. His award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches is a remarkable entry in his oeuvre, even by his high standards, a blisteringly angry look at World War One. I was so impressed with it I struggled through it with my rather poor French skills until our friends at Fantagraphics announced their English language translation as part of their very welcome series of works by Tardi. Now, years after C’était la guerre des tranchées (as it was called in the original French language edition) Tardi has returned to The War to End All Wars. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for quite some time – Trenches was on my Best of the Year list when it came out, an immensely emotional, powerful piece of work; Goddam This War had much to live up to.
Structurally Tardi takes a different approach this time – where Trenches was a collection of short slices of life at the Front with different characters, Goddam This War is chronological, a chapter dedicated to each year of the Great War from 1914 through to the 1918 Armistice and the aftermath in 1919, plus a text section by historian Verney giving a potted chronology of the war as the appendix. This time we mostly follow the war from the perspective of one French soldier, with some digressions to show other areas of battle – in the air (a brand new development) and at sea, as well as taking in others, away from our French soldier’s unit, the British Tommies, the Australians, Canadians, the colonial troops from French North Africa or Indian soldiers from the British Empire, and, late on, the arrival of the American doughboys, and he takes in life, and death, in the German trenches. There’s no jingoistic nationalism being waved here, Tardi has nothing but sympathy for the soldiers caught in this industrial carnage, his ire – actually his virulent rage – is saved to direct against the generals and the politicians. You know, those well-dressed, usually older gentlemen who direct the war efforts of entire nations and empires, who send millions repeatedly into the meat-grinder, order the shooting for ‘cowardice’ of those who refuse or who eventually break under the relentless strain, talk of ‘doing their duty’ for their country, but of course their duty doesn’t involve living in mud with rats with a view of what had been your friend rotting away on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and wondering when it will be your turn, if it will be quick, or if you will linger in mutilated agony.
Yes, you can probably surmise from my tone that I am with Tardi on that score. In one scene our little French soldier wonder which is worse, the French generals, the British generals or the German generals, but surmises there is probably little difference between them.
We start, as you would imagine, with 1914: it’s the very early days of what will become a four year slaughter on a scale never before imagined. Unlike Trenches we begin not only in colour, but in bright, primary colours – vibrant blue, glowing red, the verdant greens and golds of summer fields through which our French troops march off to a war they are convinced will be finished so soon they are, as the narrator puts it, already imagining drinking a well-earned beer on the Alexanderplatz after they beat the Germans and march into Berlin. Despite this being 1914 the scene, at first, resembles the old-fashioned, large formation battles of previous centuries, and you can understand why the generals brought up in that mindset struggled to deal with the muddy, bloody deadlock of mechanised trench warfare that things would soon degenerate into (although the fact they could not or would not try to think on another strategy over the next four years as battle after battle revealed the futility of their approach is rather less excusable). Even the French troops look like something from the 18th or 19th century, in blue coats and caps with bright red trousers, uniforms more suited for drilling on a parade ground than fighting a modern battle. There are still the aristocratic cavalry units galloping around in their lordly manner as the brightly-garbed troops march towards the enemy through villages (where they are cheered) and fields.
“Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”
Our narrator, however is not convinced even at this early stage where most are optimistic – he already has the horrible feeling many are being cheered on by the civilians they pass to their certain doom. In one frame French troops are packed aboard freight wagons on the railways, all seemingly cheerful, sure they are off to deliver a quick knock-out blow and return as heroes while elderly grandparents look on admiringly and the mothers and wives carrying young children smile bravely for the soldiers, but there is fear behind their smiles: “Only the mothers really knew. They knew the babies in their arms were tomorrow’s war orphans, and the cattle cars (8 horse, 40 men) were noting but rail-mounted coffins joined end to end and headed for military cemeteries.” The page with this scene is mirrored opposite, with three large, broad frames showing the French preparing for a ‘quick’ battle and marching off to war, the opposite page in the exact same format but from the German point of view; military madness and rampant jingoism running rampant over common-sense on both sides, as Tardi shows, most caught up in it, not questioning, the few, like our narrator, who do realise they are powerless to change things, that no-one would even listen to them.
It’s not long before their illusions about the ‘glory’ of battling for one’s country – “the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country – are rudely, brutally shattered for all the armies on all sides of this massive, continent-crossing alliance of nations determined to march on one another. The peace of summer fields erupts into shocking violence and suddenly there are dead men lying on the ground, others screaming in agony from their wounds; the corn still sways, it is the men who have been reaped. The cavalry on both sides charge in a scene that could have come from the high age of heroic chivalry… Until misplaced artillery rains down blowing men and horses from both sides into butcher’s meat. It’s shocking and brutal to the reader, one panel graceful horses and riders, lances and swords drawn like knights, galloping across the frame, the next panel is a pure horror of explosions and pieces of animals and humans. The notions of grace and noble heroism vanish, and in a darkly humorous moment Tardi finishes off that misguided notion of honourable death in battle by having one poor German going behind a tree to relieve himself during a lull, suddenly finding himself face to face with a French soldier and is killed while his trousers are still around his ankles. So much for noble martyrdom for one’s country…
As we move on through that first year and into 1915 the palette slowly starts to fade, the world shrinking down for our narrator and his comrades (and those around them on both sides, for Tardi takes pains to show the universal suffering of all the troops regardless of nation), bleached of colour until it becomes almost monochromatic, the style here also making use of watercolours which, despite the subject matter, often give a softer feel than the art in Trenches, although it also helps convey the murky, muddy world of churned up earth and water-logged shell-holes and gas-misted trenches very effectively. The early mobility of those bright scenes of 1914 give way to digging in, then to serious entrenching, and the start of what we’ve all seen from the history books and early newsreels, the hell of trench warfare, where literally thousands of men could be slain in an afternoon for the gain of a few yards of mud. And it isn’t just the horrible ways the men can die, Tardi carefully articulates the mental anguish and suffering; the lice, the rats, the constant fear of a gas attack, the sight, day after day, of what had once been your comrade and friend, dead, caught on the wire in No-Man’s Land, rotting away, none of you able to pull him down without being killed yourselves, the body hanging there constantly to remind you of what happened to him and what you in turn may be by the day’s end too, a rotting cadaver flapping like a broken puppet in the wind between the lines, where even your mangled body will never know the peace of a simple burial. No wonder then that some break, succumb to shell shock, desert, try to get themselves wounded so they can be sent home, or simply kill themselves because they can endure this hell no longer.
Moving into the final years of the war, then the aftermath Tardi switches mostly from following his French soldier narrator to individual scenes, three frames per page (much like his earliest pages of the book, a circular return to the layout of the beginning) in broad landscape form, each a window into a different part of the war, from the German observer leaping from a flaming balloon to the disaster of Gallipoli, sailors clinging to wreckage in the cold sea after their ship has vanished below the icy waters taking most of their comrades with it, the poor horses forced to drag equipment through the shattered landscapes humans have made of the world, the nurse struggling to be professional, to stay strong and care for the hideously wounded while she worries about her own husband on the front line, looking at the wounded, thinking on her own son, wondering if some day he will go through this sort of hell too, if it ever ends.
The parades of the victors after the Treaty of Versailles is signed, the blind veteran who lost his eyes to a gas attack standing unseeing as they march past with flags and finery, the funeral parade of a French officer in a defeated, occupied Germany, the French soldiers beating any German civilian who refused to take his hat off as the funeral carriage went past, but as the dialogue points out, how hard it is for that German father to remove his hat out of respect when the French had killed his son in the trenches, and so the hatred is further sown in both sides (as with several scenes in the book Tardi has lifted this from an actual event, the picture matches remarkably closely a short piece of early film footage of this very scene which still survives to this day), or, in an ominous foreshadowing another of these scenes shows the chaos in post-war Germany as nationalistic right-wingers and far left socialist groups clash in the streets, a problem that would be there throughout the Weimar Republic and help sow the seeds for the rise of the Nazis to power and the war which would follow the War To End All Wars… A few pages towards the end are effectively a horror-show gallery of the maimed and wounded, the men with no limbs, other with large parts of their faces gone, masks to cover what remains of their visage. It’s horribly reminiscent of scenes we’ve all seen on the news of injured troops brought back from Afghanistan; the years advance, the number of casualties may be far smaller, but still in it’s fashion history repeats itself and men mangle other men with machinery, again and again, nothing learned…
There are the odd touches of humour here and there – the French looking at the Scottish regiments and wondering if they have pants on under the kilts or if they go into battle with everything bouncing around like something from Carry on up the Khyber – and a few other places, but mostly it is of the barrack-room mentality or else of the gallows-variety, two strands of black humour that have served soldiers to help them get through probably every war in human history. But mostly this, like the earlier Trenches, burns with anger for the futility, the sheer, vast waste of human life, the treatment of the rank and file, who the powers that be never cared about in peace time but come a war their political manoeuvres and treaties had created, expect to come forth and ‘do their duty’ by a country that previously didn’t care if those same men lived in slums. His fury pours off the page, mixed with huge empathy and sympathy for the suffering of those forced into those awful events, and there in lies the key which makes this such an affecting, powerful, emotional read: Tardi takes the vast scale of the war, the unbelievable casualty rate and he humanises it, puts it on a personal level the reader can comprehend, understand, sympathise with. When the fallen run into millions we are horrified, but at the same time the numbers go beyond our individual comprehension – add in the distance of years and with the best will in the world it is hard to see more than awful statistics. But when presented at the human scale we too can bear witness, and Tardi presents this in a wars-and-all human level. It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, and you too are likely to find yourself with mounting anger at what was perpetrated on so many, so needlessly, and you should feel that anger. That’s the anger that makes us question each time a new generation of leaders try to promote war as the ‘honourable’ thing for a nation to do, it reminds us of the individual cost behind the grand rhetoric of political leaders and why we should never take them at their word, why we should consider the consequences behind such plans. The last of the old veterans of that slaughter have finally left us, next year marks a century since the start of the Great War, but the hard-learned lessons from that conflict are still relevant, even now as the various powers posture and rattle sabres once more, each claiming to be with the forces of right. Tardi reinforces the old lesson, “never forget”.