On July 1, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces suffered almost 60,000 casualties, including 21,000 fatalities. “The first day of the Somme epitomizes the larger picture of war,” says Australian illustrator and journalist Joe Sacco. “It stands out, even in terms of the carnage.”
Sacco’s latest project is a work of historical journalism in pictures. The Great War is a 24-foot-long illustration, packaged as a book. There are no captions, simply a chronological rendering of events, from the early morning before the battle, into the trenches and through the bloody aftermath. Like the chaos of battle, Sacco’s 24 panels are visually overwhelming, so much so, that the effect can be numbing.
“I try to capture every soldier I draw,” he says, “but I’m thinking more in terms of people as a mass, and how as mass, people have a certain momentum about them.” In this case, he wanted to show how the call of Queen and Country created such an enthusiastic attitude toward the most tragic of endeavors. When he draws, he doesn’t plan; he simply dives. And so, he jumped headlong into the illustration, just as England dove headlong into the war.
For Sacco, only illustration allows him to think about history writ large. “I spent 20 years as a reporter and at some point, you begin to ask yourself questions, not about specific conflicts, but about the species as a whole,” he says.
And yet, Sacco was able to find humanity in the carnage by focusing on the details of military life. He scoured photographs at the Imperial War Museum in London, read first-person accounts of soldiers, and had an on-going email exchange with a war historian over the accuracy of incredibly minute details: the faucet fixtures, the shape of water canisters, the soldiers’ caps.
“People might be more interested in the machinery than the humans,” Sacco says. But for him, it’s the opposite. If you look closely, you might be surprised by what you find. “There are German prisoners mixed in with the wounded,” he says. “And sometimes British and German casualties even helped each other.”