A few weeks ago I took a photo of an old ship which was being readied for a new paint job down in the harbour at Leith, half covered already with a fresh coat of primer, the floating scaffolding for painters moored next to the hull:

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I looked up the ship, MV Finagal, and found it was an old lighthouse tender for the northern lighthouses, long retired. And it wasn’t just getting a new paint job as such, it was being primed for Edinburgh based artist Ciara Phillips to work on, with a modern interpretation of the WWI dazzle camouflage as part of ongoing events around the UK for the 14-18 Now campaign marking a century since the Great War.

Dazzled 01

Since you can’t camouflage a ship on the high seas the way you can a tank or an infantry position on the land, the idea, developed by Norman Wilkinson, was to use vivid colours and abstract patterns (informed by then modern art) to break up the outline of vessels. Imagine looking at this through the periscope of a U-Boat as it heaved up and down on the open seas, struggling to make out what type of ship it actually was, its size, direction, bearing, distance… I’ve only ever seen dazzle camouflage in old photographs, quite remarkable to see it on an actual vessel with my own eyes. Part war memorial, part art installation, this is also a part of the Edinburgh Art Festival and will be moored in Leith for several weeks.

Dazzled 04

Praise for To End All Wars…

Possibly the most moving piece is the final one of the book, Joe Gordon’s impassioned prose ‘Memorial to the Mothers‘ illustrated by Kate Charlesworth. A simple reminder that for every male name we see on a war memorial there was at least one other wounded person, the mothers and wives who bore the terrible brunt of the criminal throwing away of their loved ones’ lives. Apart from this there was nothing in the volume that quite reached the heights of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, or Jacques Tardi’s It was the War of the Trenches for me.”

Eamonn Clarke writing about World War One comics anthology To End All Wars in Everything Comes Back to 2000 AD, and, in the above quote, more specifically on my own story in that collection, edited by Jonathan Clode and Brick. I’ve fiddled with stories pretty much all my life, on and off, but after we lost my mum so suddenly several years ago I lost any urge to write narratives. I was still writing professionally with articles, interviews and reviews, but the spark that made me want to write stories, even if they never went anywhere other than my own blog, had gone out. Two years ago Brick asked me if I would put out a call on the Forbidden Planet Blog that they were looking for writers and artists to submit stories for consideration for a charity anthology they were compiling, as an antidote to some of the bollocks we all knew we would be said in relation to the centenary of the start of the Great War. During this Brick saw one of my many photos I snap around town, this one of an unusual war grave, just moments from my flat in Edinburgh, a father and son, father fallen in the War to End All Wars, his lad in the world war that followed it…

Brick commented there was a story behind that and maybe I should try my hand at submitting something for consideration myself. At first all that sprang to mind were fairly cliched stories, and I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted something different and above all I wanted emotion. If I couldn’t make at least some of the readers feel chocked up reading it then I wasn’t inteersting in writing it. What good is a story that doesn’t evoke an emotional response? All art should create emotion. And given I was using real people and their loss as inspiration, it had to evoke emotion or it simply wouldn’t be right. An idea came to me, that apart from the father and son there was another name that should be on there, as much a casualty as any soldier: the wife and mother. Her husband then her boy taken from her by this insatiable beast of War that even supposedly “civilised” nations consider an adequate way to conduct themselves. And from that, by extension, every war memorial in the world with their engraved names also should have behind them the names of the mothers of the fallen.

memorial to the mothers joe gordon kate charlesworth to end all wars

And there was my emotional ‘in’ to the story. I started writing, for the first time since we lost mum I started writing a story and I think I poured my own sense of loss and grief into it. But to be honest I wasn’t sure if it would mean much to anyone other than me, but Brick and Jonathan liked the emotion in it (in fact among their editorial notes they said don’t hold back, pour it all in, so I did). The collection was published this summer by Indy comics folks Soaring Penguin Press, with £2 from each sale going to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity (currently dealing with victims of war zones and Ebola, so let’s face it, they need every pound they can get) and I have been pleased at its reception. Also as someone who has been involved with the Edinburgh International Book Festival for years it was pleasing to be there chairing talks and see, for the first time, a book I had a part in being on sale in their bookstore. And I loved the art my partner in crime Kate Charlesworth came up with for the story (Kate also did the art for one of my favourite books of 2014 with Mary and Bryan Talbot, Sally Heathcote, Suffragette). Have seen some nice mentions for the collection but have to say I’m pretty damned happy at Eamonn’s comments on mine and Kate’s piece in the collection. It’s not why we do these things, but it’s still pretty nice to see we reached someone. Several moths ago Pat Mills commented to me that he enjoyed the emotional depth of the story, and since I have been reading Pat’s stories since I was a kid that pretty much made my week, and now seeing it compared to the emotional impact of Pat’s astonishing Charley’s War and Tardi (another of my comics gods) and his WWI stories is pretty damned pleasing.


To End All Wars

This month sees the publication of To End All Wars, a graphic anthology of twenty six tales by over fifty writers and artists from thirteen countries, all marking the centenary of the start of the First World War – the ‘war to end all wars’ – this year, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick). With this centenary year, while there have been some good documentaries and personal histories we all feared there would also be those who overlook the mud, the blood, the millions slaughtered and mutilated in mind and body on a scale of warfare no-one could have imagined before… So the brief was for stories that would take in all sides, different fields of conflict and service, from the early U-Boats to the trenches to the nurses who travelled all the way to Russia to give aid to the animals who were used in the war. Linking all of them was a desire to avoid those monsters, jingoism and nationalism, which have fueled (and still fuel) so much bloodshed, to, as the poet said, show our contempt for “the old lie – dulce est decorum est, pro patri mori” (how sweet it is to die for one’s country). Yes, Mr Gove, with your ill-informed public views on history and the Great War, we are looking at you and your ilk…

(end papers by Bern Campbell)

(Between the Darkness by Patri Hanninen and Neil McClements)

The subjects are diverse, taking in all sorts of fields of conflict from the First World War and all sides, even the role of animals, and there’s a wonderfully satirical piece by Brick which imagines all the leaders of the nations in that war on trial at the Hague for their war crimes, being cross examined by the Good Soldier Svejk, but all are inspired in one way or another by actual characters or events.

(Above: Il Gatto by Stuart Richardssees a curious feline running between the lines in the Alpine war between the Austrian and Italian lines in the frozen mountains; below: Dead in the Water by Ian Douglas and SM shows the chill brutality of a new form of warfare, the U-Boat campaign, from above and below the cold, dark seas)

My own story is the only prose piece rather than comic, but Memorial to the Mothers boasts some gorgeous, touching illustrations by Kate Charlesworth (who recently created the art for Mary and Bryan Talbot’s superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette), and it closes the collection. Memorial to the Mothers was inspired by one of my own photographs, which I took of an unusual war grave in Dalry Cemetery near Haymarket in Edinburgh, one which remembers a father and a son, both the same regiment, eerily both the same age at death, the father killed in the First World War, the son in the Second World War. I often wondered if the father consoled himself during his trials by thinking at least his wee boy, when he grew up, would never have to endure the mud, the blood, the screaming of young men dying on the wire in No Man’s Land, because how could anyone ever, ever think about starting another war after this slaughter of nations? And yet here is a memorial to both of them, the son killed only a couple of decades later in the war which came after the “war to end all wars…”

Brick had seen that photo after I had put a call out for contributors for the book over a year back, and he commented there was a story in there and perhaps I should think about doing one myself instead of just spreading the word about for contributors to try out. And looking at it I suddenly realised there was another casualty who wasn’t on this memorial, the mother and wife. And by extension all of those war memorials in counties all over the world which list the names of the fallen too, behind each of them a veriable regiment, a division, an entire corps of mothers, wounded in soul and spirit and heart, casualties as surely as their loved ones who were mown down on the battlefields. That gave me the angle I needed to tell a story, not so much of this sad father and son memorial, but for all the mothers of all the fallen, from that war and all others, and I poured as much emotion into it as I could, drawing, I suspect, without thinking, on my own ever-present sense of loss and grief and trying to channel it into empathy (something our world needs more of), for those legions of mothers, and Kate created some wonderful illustrations, from little items mothers keep, like baby boots, to some haunting images of the mothers left behind, with their loss etched into their hearts eternally, feeling the pain of loss of their young lads as surely as the maimed soldier feels phantom pain from a limb long since left in the mud of the battlefield. Hopefully readers find it as emotional.

(the father and son war grave in Dalry Cemetery, Edinburgh, which inspired my story Memorial to the Mothers)

To End All Wars is published this month in the UK by Soaring Penguin Press and money from each sale is going to help Medecins Sans Frontiers, who offer medical help in many countries, in war zones, disaster hit areas and more, and goodness knows they could use all the donations they can get to continue their work, so I hope that we raise some money for them and that readers find our stories interesting. Jonathan and Brick have accomplished a great feat in herding the cats that are numerous writers and artists (from many countries) to bring this book from idea to actual finished work, and I’m proud of the work of my fellow contributors and myself. We weren’t there, none are left now after the death of Harry Patch a couple of years ago, who served in that dreadful, industrial slaughter, but I think I can say we all approached this with a sense of respect and deep emotional empathy. And with the last veteran now gone to well-earned rest it is all the more important we remember, that we never allow politicians and others to glorify war, because that makes it far, far too easy to for those same so-called leaders – different century, but same sorts of people seemingly in charge, always, too quick to find excuses for war but themselves never in the line of fire, always other people’s sons and daughters, all too often sacrificed to propaganda and political or economic reasons, not the principles they tell the soldiers they are fighting for. Never trust the bastard who speaks of glory in war, never let a leader try to drag us into another conflict without questioning them (yes, Mr Blair, we mean you, you two-faced Judas with your blood-soaked hands).

On the BBC

To End All Wars, the World War One comics anthology I have a short story in, has a nice, big feature on the BBC site today, and yours truly’s contribution, alongside that of Kate Charlesworth who created the wonderful art for the story, is about two thirds of the way down the article. The book itself, edited by Jonathan Clode and and Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick), is published by Soaring Penguin Press towards the end of this month (so I’ll have my copy in time to ‘casually’ tuck under my arm as I stroll around the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, where I am chairing a couple of author talks again this year). Two pounds from the sale of each book will got to benefit Médecins Sans Frontières medical charity, so I hope folks will give it some support.


The stories take in a large number of creators from different countries, with many tales inspired by real events or people and telling stories from all sides of that awful conflict which, even in this centenary year of it’s commencement, still echoes down to us, even after the last of the elderly veterans from that war have faded into history and gone to their rest, and takes in the war in the trenches, the seas, the mountains and the air, the humans and the animals who were used in the war effort, the front line and the home. I strongly suspect Michael Gove will not appreciate the sentiment of most of the stories and also suspect that most of my fellow contributors would be quite happy that he would hate it (I certainly would be). My own story is inspired by one of my photographs, of a war memorial in a cemetery just a few moments walk from my flat, a father and son war grave, the father killed in the Great War, his son in the fall of France in 1940. You can also read a special guest post by the editors talking about how the book came together over on the Forbidden Planet blog.

The poetry of war

The very fine wordsmith and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy approached several contemporary bards to write a piece of poetry inspired by some of the poems which came out of the Great War, to mark the impending centenary of the start of that awful carnage which has scarred the collective psyche for generations now. The poets in the Guardian piece include the late Seamus Heaney, his poem appearing for the first time, posthumously, and Duffy herself, whose lines, written in response to The Send Off by Wilfred Owen, I found especially moving, as I have always found Owen’s.

I think on Owen and his friend and fellow wartime poet Sassoon sometimes as I walk near my home, strolling along the Union Canal and seeing just a short walk further away the stone facade of Craiglockhart, now part of Napier University, but back then pressed into service as a place to treat shell-shocked officers (the regular ranks of ordinary men had somewhat rougher ‘treatment’ to deal with this new psychological injury caused by the intensity of prolonged mechanised warfare), where he and Sassoon were treated (a fictionalised account can be seen in Pat Barker’s novel – and the film adaptation of it – Regeneration)..

Remembering the fallen 02
(a night-time photograph of the Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens I shot last year, serried ranks of tiny crosses and poppies in the cold, dark, winter night, only a few feet from busy rush-hour Princes Street, a small, quiet spot to contemplate loss, sacrifice and not to forget hard-learned lessons)

“An Unseen”, Carol Ann Duffy

I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
depart, return;
late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new.
Love was here; not; missing, love was there;
each look, first, last.

Down the quiet road, away, away, towards
the dying time,
love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;
walked to the edge of absence; all moments going,
gone; bells through rain

to fall on the carved names of the lost.
I saw love’s child uttered,
unborn, only by rain, then and now, all future
past, an unseen. Has forever been then? Yes,
forever has been.

Goddam This War! – Jacques Tardi returns to the trenches

Goddam This War! (buy from Forbidden Planet/ Goddamn This War! (buy from Amazon)
Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney,

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics cover

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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”.

“They shall not grow old…”

For Armistice Day, one of Edinburgh’s smaller memorials, a little plaque in Edinburgh’s Waverley Stations, probably passed by and largely ignored by thousands of people every day as they go around their busy journeys, a tiny reminder of the past, of maimed and injured soldiers coming home from the War to End All Wars, resting here on their way, hopefully cadging a brew-up and a fag from some Red Cross volunteers. A little corner of history, if you care to look for the echoes of the past that still sound in the present.

Great War memorial, Waverley Station

As they at last comprehend all their sacrifice, all their pain,
All their sorrow, all their suffering, all the death,
Did not change or alter a thing, was not a lesson learned
Nor an experience not to be repeated..
Realizing their friend’s painful, brutal, ultimate sacrifice
Was only a necessary evil of Mankind’s political process
Which has never changed, and never will,
For each generation brings anew to the world
Its own self-styled madness of universal death, tragedy and suffering,
In wars to be fought by the young, bright-eyed children of the world
Unknowingly raised as sacrificial lambs of slaughter,
To be killed and gone forever, for nothing.
That is why, all Veterans cry.

In this hallowed place of the dead
The lonely graves of war’s youthful victims
Who died for a thought,
an idea, for a cause
Promulgated by selfish, insane men in power
These war graves and cemeteries are Harbingers
Of the eternal, mindless death cycle of war.
Young men killed by politicians’ words and mindless acts,
Their promise and existence forever ended too soon.
Now, forever sleep beneath the green muffled grass
Sharing the earth with the youth and victims of past wars,
Too numerous to count, to numbing to contemplate,
The dead, as powerless and impotent as the now living
To change or alter, or detour the inexorable course of madmen,
They patiently wait for the next generation to join them

a fragment from Harbingers, a poem on the occassion of the Normandy landings anniversary by Curtis D. Bennett

It Was the War of the Trenches: Jacques Tardi’s WWI masterpiece

It Was the War of the Trenches

By Jacques Tardi

Published by Fantagraphics

I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.

Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.

(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.

And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…

(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.

(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).

(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, — The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

Probably the best known of the poets of the Great War, Owen was treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart, just a few moments from where I live in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (events fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration and the film adaptation of the book). Owen was killed on November 4th, 1918, just a week before the Armistice. He was 25 years old; much of his poetry was published posthumously.

(the eternal flame and the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe; the legend reads “ici repose un soldat Francais, mort pour la patrie, 1914-1918. It stands in stark contrast to the more bombastic militarism of the Arc de Triomphe above it and the triumphant, processional way of the Champs Elyssee in front of it; the larger version is on my Flickr)