Art by Harvey Kurtzman
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
– L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Among the most respected mainstream American comics ever produced are the war stories written and edited (and often drawn) by Harvey Kurtzman for the EC Comics titles Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat between 1950 and 1953.
EC publisher Bill Gaines (left) with Kurtzman
They were praised for their compact but thrilling storytelling (with superior art by such masters as Kurtzman himself, John Severin, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis), their usual focus on the “little people” caught up in the sweep of war, the diversity of their settings– from ancient Rome to the Indian Northwest Frontier to the American War of independance to the Korean conflict–, and their anti-war messages so much in contrast to the gung-ho belligerence of other war comics, such as those then published by Atlas (the future Marvel).
Kurtzman stated in 1980:
“When I thought of doing a war book, the business of what to say about war was very important to me and was uppermost in my mind, because I did then feel very strongly about not wanting to say anything glamorous about war, and everything that went before Two-Fisted Tales had glamorized war. Nobody had done anything on the depressing aspects of war, and this, to me, was such a dumb – it was a terrible disservice to the children.”
In this he was not always successful: there are many thrilling passages that do, in effect, glamorize war.
cover by Jack Davis
A more serious accusation, made notably by Ng Suat Tong in The Comics Journal # 250, is that the stories downplay the genuine horror of war:
“[...] an inability to transcend and communicate the horror and repugnance of stories drawn from first and second-hand accounts[...].”
I find his judgment over-harsh, but won’t debate its merits – the reader is referred to his (excellent) article.
What troubles me is another, admittedly infrequent, failing: examples of historical inaccuracy.
Now, Kurtzman did take accuracy very seriously, and thoroughly researched every one of his stories; consulting primary and secondary sources, interviewing historians. He had no hesitation in demanding redrawing from his artists, some of whom, such as John Severin and George Evans, were themselves passionate amateur historians.
However, as is the way with comics needed to be produced at a rate of a story a week, errors would creep in. These took mostly the form of inaccurate uniforms or anachronistic weaponry, and were by and large harmless.
More troubling are cases when error was introduced for dramatic purposes.
George Evans, an artist obsessed with aircraft, cited one script that called for dust being knocked off a WWI airplane by the impact of bullets.Good visual, bad history: planes were, in fact, hosed down before every flight to remove the dust’s weight.
George Evans, drawing a WWI aviation story for Kurtzman at E.C comics
This tendency to rewrite history to make a tidier story (and history is anything but tidy) finds a telling instance in Frontline Combat # 4’s tale “Light Brigade!”, by Kurtzman and artist Wallace Wood.
Artist Wallace Wood, in his E.C. days
It’s a retelling of the famous charge of the British cavalry’s Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, during the Crimean War: one of the most infamous screw-ups in military history.
The Crimean War of 1854 opposed an alliance of Britain, France and Turkey against Russia. The entire conflict was a hideous fiasco; indeed, it’s been said that the only reason the allies’ armies escaped annihilation was that their incompetence was matched by that of their enemy.
At Balaclava, the opposing armies found themselves facing each other at either end of a two-and-a- half mile long valley hemmed in by hills to the north and south. The Russians had artillery on both hills, and a main battery of 12 guns pointing down the valley on the third side. From a height, the commanding officer of the allied forces, Lord Raglan, observed the enemy starting to withdraw cannon (captured from the British).
Via his aide, Lord Airey, he sent a fatally ambiguous order to Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander:
‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front—follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left (Sgd) Airey’
‘Attack, sir? Attack what? What guns, sir?”
Instead of pointing at the guns on the south hills, Nolan waved at the end of the valley:
‘There, my Lord, is your enemy, there are your guns.’
And that was the doom of the Light Brigade.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
—Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade
Lord Cardigan, the general of the Light Brigade– a man as famous for extraordinary courage as he was for extraordinary stupidity– led the charge at a sedate trot. The onlookers, both Russian and allies, could scarcely believe their eyes. A frontal cavalry charge against entrenched artillery? Yes. Seven hundred men rode into the valley. One hundred and ninety-five returned.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
But this is not what happened.
The Light Brigade actually captured the guns and slaughtered their crews.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Obviously, they were quickly repulsed.
But this point is crucial:
They were repulsed by Russian cavalry.
Why did Kurtzman rewrite history?
One explanation is the aforementioned desire for narrative tidiness.
The complete annihilation of the Brigade before it even reached the guns is obviously more dramatic than the real, messy details of attack and counter-attack.
And the short length of the tale (7 pages) precluded any longer presentation, thus inviting over-simplification. (His best war tales are inevitably vignettes, focussing on a single protagonist.)
Ng Suat Tong suggested to me that Kurtzman was employing simple poetic licence to tell a simple tale of war’s horror. But I think there’s more to his shaping of the story than a mere editorial decision.
Error is interesting in that it can expose subconscious feelings and prejudices—think of speech errors such as the “Freudian slip”.
Kurtzman, like so many of his generation, was a technophile.
After all, he came of age at a time that saw the introduction of the atom bomb, radar, ballistic missiles, and so on; it must have seemed normal that newer and more modern military technology would invariably triumph over the old.
Thus, one moral of “Light Brigade” would be: “The time of the cavalry is over; artillery trumps it.”
Yet, as we’ve seen, in reality the Brigade actually did capture the guns, and only the enemy’s cavalry was able to drive it away. Moreover, at the same time a French cavalry regiment, the Chasseurs d’Afrique, succeeded in capturing and holding the artillery-defended redoubts on the southern hills.
And, in fact, cavalry would continue to play a part in warfare for decades; my own father served in an active cavalry regiment in the late nineteen-forties, the French Spahis.
Much the same technophilic ‘moral’ is advanced in a more subtle way in Kurtzman and Wood’s “Massacre at Agincourt!” from Two-Fisted Tales # 22. In 1415, Henry V of England invaded France, taking the port of Harfleur in Normandy. However, the siege went on too long; this allowed the French to levy a massive army.
Henry and his troops decided to seek refuge in the English-occupied town of Calais, but were cut off from this refuge by the French, near the village of Agincourt.
It is estimated that the French host comprised some 40 000 men, mostly men-at-arms, under the command of the constable Charles d’Abret; the hungry and exhausted English could muster no more than 5000 archers and 900 men-at-arms.
When his calls for truce were spurned, Henry resolved to fight. The English pitched their forces in a narrow field between two woods:
Order of battle at Agincourt: English forces in red, French in blue
The French charged. They were mowed down by English arrows shot from formidable longbows. The very size of the French army hampered it from fighting.
The rout of the French was total. They lost some 5000 men in the massacre, against English losses of around 450. (Kurtzman cites respective losses of 10 000 versus 1600; my numbers reflect current consensus.)
This time, no factual errors can be imputed to the comics story. But note the attitude expressed by the Frenchman on page 2, panel 2:
“Revolutionise warfare! Bah! Our weapons are the finest made and the finest that ever shall be made! How can the English “revolutionize” warfare?”
“No weapons are better or ever will be better than these! The British cannot surprise us NOW…or EVER!”
Once again, new technology trumps old, right?
The French actually had more archers than the English at the battle; they simply weren’t deployed.
As for weapon technology, while the longbow was a devastating speciality of the Welsh and English, the French had a large company armed with crossbows—arguably the equal or superior of the longbow.
Bill-hooks, glaives, mauls and axes had all been known for centuries; the French certainly had them too.
No, the English king’s victory at Agincourt can best be ascribed to his superb leadership, and to disastrously bad leadership on the French side.
Are such distortions of history harmful? They certainly can be.
The attitude that high-tech will always have an invincible edge over low-tech in battle is a dangerous one to adopt, and though it were natural in Harvey Kurtzman’s 1950s, in 2010 it seems perilously naïve.
We have only to look at conflicts such as Vietnam or Afghanistan to see low-tech stymie or stop high-tech. What is the leading killer of American and Coalition troops in Iraq ? The I.E.D., or Improvised Explosive Device: a decidedly crude but effective remote-controlled bomb. The U.S.A.’s futuristic drone planes can do little against them.
At the time of “Light Brigade”‘s publication (1951), in the Korean war, the Chinese low-tech “mass infiltration” had succeeded against the UN troops where the North Koreans, true to their Soviet training, had failed for all their modern tanks and MIG jet fighters.
The writer Neil Gaiman once remarked that each popular genre carries expectations that its works are expected to satisfy. (Thus, a murder mystery will be solved, a superhero comic will feature fights, pornography will stimulate one’s genitals, and so on.)
Gaiman went on to say that one of the expectations for a war story is that someone learns a lesson. I’d disagree that this requirement is universal to war comics– what does Sergeant Fury ever learn?–, but it certainly holds true for Kurtzman’s war stories: each one illustrates an implicit homily; sometimes different stories advance different conclusions.
‘He that fights and runs away shall live to fight another day’ (“Pell’s Point!” TFT#28) contrasts with the need to stand your ground in the face of the enemy (“Weak Link!” TFT#24); “civilians can’t stay aloof from fighting” (“Wake!” TFT#30) versus “civilians should stay uninvolved” (“Choose Sides!” FC#9)
It’s an ongoing dialectic, thesis and antithesis. The antithesis to Kurtzman’s excessive (to my mind) faith in technology can be found in a tale that many consider to be his dramatic masterwork, ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (TFT#25), written and drawn by himself: The young soldier in the above page muses on modern warfare:
“I guess hand-to-hand combat was strictly for the olden days when everyone fought with swords and knives! Now with all the long range weapons, we can kill pretty good by remote control! And we never get closer’n a mile to the enemy!”
Of course, in the bushes nearby, is a hunger-crazed enemy deserter who is going to give our soldier an instant education.
all artwork copyright EC
Many warm thanks to Ng Suat Tong for his practical help and wise advice, without which I could never have written this article.
A very readable non-fiction account of the charge at Balaclava– the events leading up to it, and the aftermath– is Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why.
For a superb fictional evocation of the charge of the Light Brigade, I recommend the novel Flashman at the Charge by George Macdonald Frasier.
The 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by Tony Richardson, is a superb and unflinching look at the horror and stupidity of war. A bonus for us cartooning fans are the jaw-dropping animations by Richard Williams that punctuate the film:
The text of Tennyson’s poem is here.
Jingoistic and war-glorifying, yes; but wow, what rhythmic power!
Agincourt, of course, was memorably the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry V. On film, one may prefer the Kenneth Branagh version of 1989 to Laurence Olivier’s earlier version– the Branagh movie conjures well the filth and horror of war.
Bernard Cornwell wrote a very good novel about the battle, Agincourt, told from the viewpoint of a common footsoldier.
I haven’t read it, but Noah Berlatsky recommends John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle, with a section on Agincourt.
And here is a link to the full artwork for “Massacre at Agincourt!”.
The map of the battle of Agincourt was released to the public domain by its author, “Andrei Nacu”, and published on en.wikipedia.org.