Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"There we were, under the scorching sun: France's little soldiers, trampling through fields of wheat, fields of glory in our minds, with a knot of fear in our guts and a load of shit in our pants.
"We were utterly cocksure, though. The moment we left Paris, we'd already taken Berlin in our minds. This was our shot at getting even for 1870, now that those pain-in-the-ass Huns were at it again.
"But this time we were ready. We were gonna stuff their boiled leather helmets down their throats, spikes and all."
"They carved up old Colin good. They fixed him as best they could, but his hands and legs were gone. So much for fishing.
"They pinned a medal on him, right there is that putrid recovery room.
"And later still, they explained to him about gangrene and bandages packed with larvae that feed on dead tissue. He owed them his life. From one amputation and operation to the next - thirty-eight in all - the docs finally got him 'back up on his feet'. But by then, the war was long over."
Phew. Not an easy read, but what a powerful one. As far as anti-war comics material goes, this is pretty much as hard-hitting as it gets, painting a very graphic picture of the horrors of World War I, a particular personal bête noire of Tardi's. Perhaps bête noire isn't exactly the correct term to use, given his obsessive interest of WWI, but you can certainly see his hatred of the damage war causes to the common man, so maybe it is. Substantially different in narrative construction and artistic composition than the Eisner-winning IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES, and indeed superior in both respects, this material is arranged chronological year by year from 1914 to 1919 (dealing with the aftermath of coming home post-1918 and the end of the war).
The book begins in the beautiful countryside of France, in vivid watercolours, during the heady early days of the conflict when most of the participants, on both sides, assumed the war would last a matter of weeks, maybe months at the most. No one was predicting at that point that advances in technology of war machinery and armaments - made ever more rapidly possible by the profiteering fatcats of industry -coupled with unbelievably poor strategic decision-making from incompetent leaders would ensure a bloody stalemate would ensue for years to come.
There is so much to admire in this work. Rather than taking the nationalistic route and deigning to hate the Germans and their Triple Alliance comrades-in arms for their part in 'beginning' the conflict, Tardi instead simply focuses on the outrage of war itself. That the common man should be forced to take up arms against someone no different from himself, separated only by a handful of kilometres geographically, murder them or be murdered, at the whims of the great and good, playing their geopolitical game of brag and bluster purely to satisfy their own egos under the auspices of national security and advancement.
Looking at things after the fact for a moment, it is no wonder that the Russian Revolution took place immediately after this brutal conflict, as increasingly the frontline forces on all sides realised their status was little more than that of pawns, to be used as utterly dispensable cannon fodder, sometimes sacrificed on a whim. In retrospect, it's perhaps more of a surprise that other governments were not overthrown in the turmoil following the war. Certainly, it's now not particularly well known that even countries such as Portugal and Belgium were subject to failed attempts at Bolshevik revolution.
The entire work is told from the perspective of an unnamed French infantryman, whom as the conflict progresses goes through such a personal realisation regarding the conflict, but with the ever-present military police ready to execute anyone attempting to flee, or indeed just fail to obey a suicidal command to go over the top, he realises there is little choice but to fulfil his 'duty' to his country. As the war progresses, much like the skull device he employed in IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES, Tardi gradually tones down the colour content until we are left in a virtually monochrome sea of mud. Afterwards the colour gradually begins to return and I was particularly moved by a sequence at a flag-waving victory parade where a bitter, blinded veteran holding a begging cup is oblivious to the spectacle around him.
There are myriad such powerful and uncomfortable scenes throughout, both of the war itself, and its human consequences. I defy anyone to read this and not be forced to seriously think about how insane war is. With that said, in some ways, despite the counter-intuitive idea that more powerful weapons are a good idea, you have to question whether or not the concept of mutually assured destruction in the nuclear age is what finally persuaded more developed nations that talking through conflict might be a more sensible way of going about things. You've only got to look at any number of civil conflicts globally and also regional wars in Africa currently, to realise that as long as a military stalemate can be maintained, irrespective of whether anyone believes a decisive military victory can actually be achieved, neither side's leadership is going to move an inch ideologically or politically. Particularly if they're not stood in the front line...
It's possibly a tad surprising, therefore, to say this work is not without humour. Indeed there is a far amount of the gallows variety, which I'm sure perfectly captures the mood of the enlisted man at the time. They know they're probably doomed, but there is literally nothing they can do about it. If they fight, they probably die; if they don't fight, then they're certain to die, either at the hands of their foes or the military police. There is a song which was sung by Frenchmen at the time, author unknown, that perfectly sums the situation up, and their disgust at the powers in charge. The Generals became so concerned about its mutinous potential, that even to sing it was made an act of sedition, punishable of course, by execution. But despite a then truly eye-watering award of one million francs plus an immediate honourable discharge from the army being offered to anyone revealing its author, the men stood firm and never gave up its creator. It's called the The Song Of Craonne, and is reproduced in full at the end of the book, followed by an excellent essay on the chronology of WWI, again year by year, extending into 1919 once more, by Jean-Pierre Verney (a renowned French historian), peppered liberally with some astonishing and horrific photographs of the time from his personal collection.
For anyone interested in WWI, or just in trying to understand what it must have been like to be to be on those battlefields and go what those gallant men went through, this is essential reading. It is very simple to understand why people who went through conflicts such as WWI were - indeed are - reluctant to talk about it afterwards, but it is extremely important that we remember their sacrifice so hopefully, one day, war can be consigned to the history books forever.