When two specks in the distance start shooting at Ferdinand Bardamu on the first page of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, he quickly comes to the unshakable conclusion that it is all a big mistake. His only viable option is to get out of that situation as soon as possible. The colonel overseeing his fate, a man with no use for fear, is deemed a “monster” and “worse than a dog”, but absolutely typical of the army as a whole:
“…I realized that there must be plenty of brave men like him in our army, and just as many no doubt in the army facing us. How many, I wondered. One or two million, say several million in all? The thought turned my fear to panic. With such people this infernal lunacy could go on forever….Why would they stop? Never had the world seemed so implacably doomed.”
Bardamu’s attitude is one of absolute revulsion for his commanding officers. The report that his sergeant has been blown up while going to meet a bread wagon is an occasion for celebration (“that makes one less stinker in the regiment!…In that respect you can’t deny it, the war seemed to serve a purpose now and then!”). The countryside? Even on the best of days “dreary” and godforsaken, “if to all that you add a war, it’s completely unbearable.”
If a reader wants to understand the driving force behind Jacques Tardi’s It was the War of the Trenches, that person need look no further than Céline and his famous novel. Here bravery is seen as the enemy of logic. The heroes of Tardi’s comic are hate, fear and cowardice, the only sensible reactions to being asked to perform the impossible under insane conditions. This is not a wholly truthful or complete picture of the Great War and it is one which is unlikely to be recognized as such by any surviving veterans. So much the better as far as Tardi is concerned:
“This is not the history of the first World War told in comics form, but a non-chronological sequence of situations, lived by men who have been jerked around and dragged through the mud, clearly unhappy to find themselves in this place, whose only wish is to stay alive for just one more hour…”
“It was not my goal to create a catalogue of weapons and uniforms…I avoided any and all “historical” events that have long ago been analyzed and filed away by historians, or better yet, related by witnesses…The only thing that interests me is man and his suffering, and it fills me with rage.”
There are no great deeds in Tardi’s comic. No Légion d’honneurs, no Croix de guerres, no Victoria or Iron Crosses. No suggestion that only the brave and courageous have the right to cry out in protest. No sense of fellowship, no pitched battles to gratify our base senses and desires, and certainly nothing of that most typical of war time sensations, boredom. There is certainly truth in most of these presentations of war, all ably presented by those who seek to find meaning in adversity (a very human predilection), those who seek to honor the fallen, those who seek to relate personal truth and, yes, even those whose jobs are to fill the ranks of our modern armies for reasons of national defense. But Tardi’s purpose is not commemoration or exaltation but to elucidate what he feels is the most important and “banal” lesson of this and any war: the absolute horror of it. Or to be more precise:
“What retained my attention is the man – whatever his color or his nationality – who is considered disposable, whose life is worth nothing in his master’s hands..a banal observation that remains valid to this day.”
The purpose of this is indeterminate. Is it so we should not too willingly enter into such ventures or as Count Otto von Bismarck once said in a speech to the Reichstag in 1867:
“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.”
Is it an antidote to the means and “phrases” used in recruitment and channeled through society with techniques both obvious and subtle (and the gradual washing down of our resistance to the same)? Perhaps, these are the most obvious and mundane answers. It is sufficient to note that Tardi’s polemic is firmly anti-war though not strictly pacifist.
[See commentary on use of living shields from Belgium in War Time]
All of this seems to be conveyed with the cynical understanding that those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway. The force of intent, the relentless focus on everything that is hateful about war over shadow the intermittently dry and clumsy narration, the sometimes innocuous expressionistic terror (something which does not come as easily to Tardi as it does to, say, Alberto Breccia for example) and the overly familiar tales (such as the use of Decimation as a form of punishment for cowardice).
The soldiers who populate Tardi’s story are umbral figures who elbow past us in this subterranean inferno; ciphers and strangers with unknown histories, known to us only by rumor and anecdote before they meet their ends within a few terse pages. They have names but we can barely remember them. There are only the images: the man with his guts in his hands; the soldier with his half his face annulled by shrapnel; the nameless penitents who line the amputee’s sanatorium; the grands mutiles provided with “secluded rural settlements…where they [can] holiday together.” (The First World War, John Keegan)
The effect of this curt catalog of pain is not individual remembrance and is the opposite of the propaganda which once emanated from pens and brushes of Allied writers and artists during the war; that which led the British war artist, Paul Nash, to famously remark that,
“I am not allowed to put dead men into my pictures because apparently they don’t exist.”
But it is a kind of propaganda nonetheless, and it finds expression and feeling in one of Nash’s letter from Passchendaele:
“I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle, and can conjure up with the aid of some of the more inspired war correspondents and the pictures in the Daily Mirror some vision of a battlefield; but no pen or drawing can convey this country…Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man…The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease…It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist, interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
The object here is not to elicit pity but to portray the unrelenting dehumanization and madness of armed conflict. It is, of course, not a first hand account though some of these memoirs are mentioned favorably by Tardi in his introduction (Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel for instance). The other difference between these books and Tardi’s comic is apparent but seldom highlighted – they were frequently written from the viewpoint of officers. Two of the most celebrated accounts of the Great War are written from this perspective, the aforementioned account by Jünger and Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That.
The horrors are ever present in Jünger’s memoir: a leg hangs loosely from a tattered body; an artery is struck and packets of lint exhausted soaking up the mess as the man bleeds to death; the dead are sprawled across no man’s land in various stages of decay, the corpses left to rot unburied, in eternal rest yet in visual and olfactory communion with the living. There is little time for lengthy contemplation as one might expect from a work derived from a war time diary. Instead what we get are straight descriptions of foreboding and fear. The war – its horror, its excitement – moves ever forward. The tension here is not between good and evil or even war and peace (though this occasionally rears its head) but between simple adventure and patriotic sacrifice – a terrible portrait of resignation, accommodation and the acceptance of murderous intent:
“We were up for it, in the best and most cheerful condition, and expressions like ‘avoid contact with the enemy’ were not in our vocabulary. Anyone seeing the men round this jolly table would have to tell themselves that positions entrusted to them would only be lost when the last defender had fallen. And that indeed proved to be the case.”
And later of a steel helmeted infantry man…
“Nothing was left in this voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting.”
It is very far from the ideas surrounding anti-war fiction and the reader will find it quite easy to understand why the novel was embraced by the Third Reich. The whispered shout above the morass of detail is not “beware”, “avoid” but we sacrificed, we overcame, we looked into the abyss and became men.
Written several years after the close of the war, Graves’ memoir is a different kettle of fish. In the biographical essay which accompanies the Berghahn Books edition of Good-bye to All That, Richard Perceval Graves writes (quoting Grave’s essay “P.S. to Good-bye to All That”):
“From the first Graves intended the Good-bye to All That should be a popular success; and later wrote that he had: ‘more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed in other popular books…murder…mothers…T.E. Lawrence…the Prince of Wales…But the best of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones…So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody.’”
Paul Fussell adds a further twist to this in his reading of Graves’ book in The Great War and Modern Memory:
“Of all memoirs of the war, the “stagiest” is Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That…working up his memories into a mode of theater, Graves eschewed tragedy and melodrama in favor of farce and comedy…And what is a Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is ‘facts’….His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention…If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely re-readable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way. “
Graves’ was scarred by his war time experiences, yet much of his memoir suggests a man who still wants to keep up appearances. There is everywhere the feeling of camaraderie, a sense of duty tinged with irony and admiration. There is a certain pride taken in the proper running of the infantry battalions as well as the discipline required thereof; an interest in the proper conduct of trench warfare, the niceties of military drills, the maintenance of boundaries between officers and enlisted men and the perfection of communal action in combat.
[Two facing images from Tardi's comic]
Tardi will have nothing to do with this. The soldiers of It Was the War of the Trenches are the laggards and liabilities so despised by Graves and Jünger. They are unpatriotic, poorly trained, lacking in initiative, misanthropic, cowardly and completely lacking in esprit de corps. They are in every sense bad soldiers and in almost every instance dead soldiers.
Such is the case with Binet, the bloated corpse we see at the start of Tardi’s comic, mocking and hateful in all his ruminations.
The portraits of his trench mates are lined up like the half-remembered prisoners of a death camp: the put-on artists, the kiss-asses, the morons – Binet “loathes them all”. It is the only way he knows how to survive. And it is because Binet cannot forget that he finally dies, rushing into no man’s land in search of the long forgotten corpse of a “friend”.
Tardi’s tale is crammed with these obliterated figures: carcasses tossed into trees at the behest of artillery shells…
…an infantry man destroyed by shrapnel even as he remembers his fear when faced with the order for mobilization…
…the black market trader caught in a bear trap whose body becomes a shelter for rodents…
…mad men, cowards, murderers, thieves; all of them anonymous, all of them looked upon with disapproval in times of war, all of them remembered in this book because of what war has made of them; an echo of Ferdinand’s conversation with Lola in Céline’s novel:
“But it’s not possible to reject the war, Ferdinand! Only crazy people and cowards reject the war when their country is in danger…”
“If that’s the case, hurrah for crazy people! Look, Lola, do you remember a single name, for instance, of any of the soldiers killed in the Hundred Years War?…Did you ever try to find out who any of them were?…As far as you’re concerned they’re as anonymous, as indifferent, as the last atom of that paperweight…Get it into your head, Lola, that they died for nothing! For absolutely nothing, the idiots!”
Tardi’s story has “idiots” to spare. One of the more effective vignettes occurs over two pages where a solider introduces a filthy needle into his arm in order to escape the front via a suppurative wound; here juxtaposed with images of a Renault FT-17 ploughing relentlessly through fragile defenses, leaving crumpled and masticated bodies in its wake.
Tardi offers a modest amount of this kind of artistic reinforcement throughout. The French tricolore is brought up for ridicule in the placement of these atrocities within the confines of three uniform rectangular panels per page (Art Spiegelman sees a relentless beat in this repetition; Sean T Collins identifies them as “miniature trenches”). The litany is taken up by the recurrent imagery. Men are strung up like scarecrows, some hanging from trees, others draped on barbed wire like flaccid dolls. Corpulent military policemen are dangled like fresh meat outside a butcher shop by the sheep they were suppose to guard; …
…a barely recognizable horse – a disemboweled half-human thing – is seen peering curiously from a tree.
[The Disasters of War No. 37 "This is Worse"]
But there is little time for such meditations on these Stygian fields. Time and death wait for no man. The artillery shells are laid out in neat rows awaiting direction, the hospital theater is a strangely sterile and unmuddy trench, the zombies laid out for inspection.
One solider is worried about lice, another about digging a trench in a cemetery. Now nameless and dead on the day of armistice.
(1) Preview, blurbs and publishing history of It Was the War of the Trenches
(2) Kim Thompson on translating Tardi
(3) Tardi’s illustrations for Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night
Tardi’s comic is a complex work which can be approached in a number of ways. I’ve simply chosen the most obvious one in this instance.
There is of course the question of whether Tardi’s comic brings anything new to the table with regards the Great War. We should first dispense with the idea that the work is notable simply for being executed in the form of comics. Such a notion might be acceptable for people who have a particular investment in comics but is of little use to vast majority of readers.
Having said this, there are elements inherent to comics which do enhance the experience of reading Tardi’s book. Some of the reviews above address Tardi’s comic from this viewpoint. The short episodes that comprise It was the War of the Trenches work quite well when thrown together to form this impassioned collage of black ink. The lack of overt markers signaling the end of one story and the start of another allow these tales and characters to meld into one another in a way which I suspect would not have been as satisfying if filmed or as visceral if conveyed in prose. Much popular fiction relating to the Great War (actually war in general) has an overriding narrative enforced over the proceedings. Tardi eschews this and what we are presented with seems closer to the experience of viewing a series of paintings or photographs elaborated upon for context and emotional resonance. This abbreviated, staccato-like approach is something which grew out of the album’s serialized roots. The reader dictated pace at which these static, forceful and occasionally multi-layered images unfold adds to the comic’s power; that ability to set aside, reread and to dwell inherent in narratives transmitted in the form of physical “books” accentuates our experience of these war time accounts.
Some might say that the Tardi’s comic has limitations in terms of its conceptual strength but I often find that an overzealous sheen of “artistry” hampers truth when it comes to the subject of war. That act of elevating some formal aspect or literary quality often has the effect of diluting and obscuring the essential truth of conflict. Tardi provides just enough of this to keep us engaged but his focus on a very particular and one-sided truth is steady and unrelenting; that “truth” being that war is unmitigated suffering and devoid of value. I imagine that such an unnuanced view of war isn’t the whole of Tardi’s conception of it but it is the undeniable thrust of this comic. It is an unusual artistic object in that sense, especially if one considers the vast majority of depictions of war in film and comics where there is often some light or redemption.
A quick note on one of these reviews. The writer at Joe’s Reviews suggests that Abel Gances’ J’accuse was “obviously an influence on Tardi”. I have no firm knowledge of this and perhaps the reviewer cites Gance’s film only for its imagery (especially in its third act). But lest there be any confusion, let me just say that Gance’s film is considerably more romantic and theatrical than Tardi’s comic. It is truly a product of its time filled with a surplus of strained caricatures, varied acts of heroism and camaraderie, awkward anti-German propaganda and a profusion of gothic and poetic elements. The almost ridiculous chivalry and melodrama found in this important and seminal film seems to me to be the very anti-thesis of Tardi’s comic.