Friday, February 1, 2013

Jacques Tardi: It Was the War of the Trenches - C'était la guerre des tranchées (2010)

(As always, click on images to embiggen.)

My brother-in-law gave me this book for Christmas. I finished it yesterday, and now it's begging for a blog post.

It Was the War of the Trenches is a collection of fictional episodes describing the experiences of French soldiers on the Western Front in World War I (1914-1918). Written and drawn by WWI-aficionado Jacques Tardi, it was published in the original French in 1993. The full English translation came out in 2010.

The book is a tour de force of storytelling, with compelling characters and big ideas set against the infathomable destruction and suffering of the First World War.

It Was the War in the Trenches is very different from the more action-oriented American war comics I used to read as a kid. Tardi focuses more on the individual soldier's internal and external struggle than on gunfights and artillery barrages.

Using an HBO analogy, you could say that this book has more of the bleak cynicism of The Pacific than the peppy camaraderie of Band of Brothers. The book shines the brightest in moments where the balance between these two is just right.

A dying soldier contemplates the paradoxes of war (p. 91).

The comic does have plenty of jarring action sequences, reminiscent of what we've seen in old movies but completely stripped of heroism and glory.

Tardi's extensive research is evident in how he adapts vintage photographs into his panels. Without knowing it, I incorporated one of these photographs in an earlier post on the battles of Passchendaele. Here's an above-and-below comparison:

British soldiers blinded by tear gas near Ypres, 1918.

Tardi's 1993 version.

The book also deals briefly with the Rape of Belgium, a propaganda term for atrocities committed by the Germans during the invasion and occupation of neutral Belgium. One of the scenes in the book depicts German soldiers chasing off Belgian soldiers by using their own women and children as human shields.

The French soldiers are less troubled by the prospect of firing at the Belgians, and soon open fire. 

Use of human shields by Germans in It Was the War of the Trenches.

This event was originally illustrated by Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956), a Dutch cartoonist who created some of the most striking propaganda images of the war.

The Shields of Rösselaere by Louis Raemaekers.

In a café, lower down, near the canal, I saw a number of German soldiers, and was successful in having a chat with the inn-keeper, at the farthest corner of the bar. I asked, of course, what they meant by burning the village, and he told me that the Germans had made a number of successful attacks on Fort Pontisse, until at last they had reduced it to silence. They were now so near that they could open the final assault. They were afraid, however, of some ambush, or underground mine, and the Friday before they had collected the population, whom they forced to march in front of them. When they had got quite near they dared not enter it yet, and drove the priest and twelve of the principal villagers before them.
- L. Mokveld: The German Fury in Belgium (1917)

Most of the individual events in the book are fictional, but this does not diminish the fact that similar things happened, again and again, to thousands of young men during the war. Tardi's meticulous research has allowed him to tell his own stories while staying true to the era, the people who inhabited it, and the ideas that governed them. Well-researched, well-drawn and well-told, It Was the War of the Trenches is perhaps the best comic book on a historical subject I have read so far.

The Western Front claimed fifteen million casualties between 1914 and 1918, in as many gruesome ways as man could have invented up to that point. As harrowing as this book may be, it can never fully communicate the horrors that took place in this little corner of the world nearly a hundred years ago.

You can find another great review of this book at Forbidden Planet International.


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