Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

reviewed by David Beer

by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney
Fantagraphics Books, 2013

WHAT'S THIS? A book on World War One that starts out with "There we were, under the scorching sun: France's little soldiers, trampling through fields of wheat, fields of glory on our minds, with a knot of fear in our guts and a load of shit in our pants." Well, I never! But then I'd never read a graphic novel or any graphic book before –  if you don't count the Boys' Own and Hotspur comics read as a lad in Devon. And that's why I found GODDAMN THIS WAR! so fascinating, refreshing, and yes, enlightening.

Graphic books, I discovered, are simply books presented in comic-strip format. They can be on any subject—fiction, fantasy, history, instructions, etc. They can be for adults or children. The graphic book has been popular for well over 50 years but goes back much further: you could say the cavemen were the first to use graphics. Just like today's graphic artists, they drew sequential images to tell a story or convey information. Thus, Jacques Tardi (b.1946), the French author/artist of this book, not only follows tradition but does so with such talent that he's considered one of the most important graphic artists of his time. His earlier1993 French book, It Was the War of the Trenches, (trans. 2010) established him as a powerful illustrator whose personal expressionist style is well suited to depicting the horrors of the Great War.

Although GODDAMN THIS WAR! is a sequel to Tardi's earlier book—in fact both books can be bought as a boxed pair—it stands independently as a graphic history of the Great War. And what a hard-hitting, grim ongoing picture it is. Six chapters, from 1914 to 1919, show us the war chronologically through the eyes of a French infantryman who somehow survives the war but takes part in all the worst battles. Each page contains three graphics which leave us in no doubt that this is an extremely antiwar book as our narrator depicts the darkest elements of the war and comments on them in rectangular "speech balloons."

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Right away the delusions of glory held by French troops as they march off to war are derided, and soon also the first casualties. "So much human meat was needed to satisfy the insatiable appetites of Europe's masters" is the caption for a drawing of dead men and horses (one with its guts spilling out). In the 1915 chapter a graphic in bright red shows a poilu's head being blown off while others around him are dismembered, and it's not long before we come to another graphic decapitation. A body hanging on barbed wired is commented on thus: "Poor guy, dead for nothing, rotting in a tangle of wire."

As we look/read through this book we come across numerous familiar details of the war. The British exploitation of "colonials," Italy's belated entry into the war, hunger, cold, wounds, food, zeppelins, ambulances, road jams, officers—all fleetingly and cynically touched on—plus of course the sudden, irrational deaths in the trenches: "The poor guy didn't even have time to sort out his thoughts. . . In that split second, he was turned into a slab of bloody meat." Rarely heard accusations crop up, such as stretcher bearers who "would ask the dying for money to bring their bodies back from no man's land." By the end of the 1918 chapter we're not surprisingly treated to two pages of very graphic drawings of 18 terribly disfigured faces—les mutilés.

And so it goes, without any mention of mitigating events that for some made the war more bearable. Comradeship, home leave, recreation, wine, occasional humor, courage, bravery, all might find some place in even the bleaker novels of the war, but not in Tardi's work. His anti-war stance is unflinching, which made him for me a fascinating author. To add to the irony, each chapter is headed by a couple of quotes from noted politicians and generals of the time that sound ridiculous in the context of the war depicted in the book.

Heaping it on after the final graphics, "The Song of Craonne" is presented as a two-page spread in white text on solid black background. The somber chorus is perfectly in keeping with Tardi's art and sentiment:

Farewell to life, farewell to love
Farewell, all you women
It's all over now, forever
This dreadful war
We're supposed to leave our bones
Up in Craonne on that plateau
'Cause we're all doomed
We've all been sacrificed

If you have ever visited the ossuary at Douaumont you will probably be able to empathize with not only these lines but also with Tardi's graphic message.

The second part of the book is a short but effective photographic history of the war from 1914 to 1919. This section is the contribution of Tardi's fellow author, Jean-Pierre Verney. Since all the photos are from the French Musée de la Grande Guerre, some may be new to American readers. In general, Verney presents a more well rounded picture of the war. But there is no doubt that this is ultimately Tardi's book, with only one purpose—to graphically and relentlessly show the living and dying hell of World War One.

David Beer


  1. Wow! I am really at a loss for words. Your review is as graphic as the subject matter. This could not have been an easy task but it was well met. Bravo.

  2. Very good review.
    _It Was the War of the Trenches_ is excellent.

  3. I was about 4 years old when I first saw the ossuary at Douaumont in 1955. I bent down and looked in thru the grate and there were piles of bones. I looked to the left and to the right and there was window, after window, after window... I couldn't comprehend why all the bones and no graves. What had god wrought in this place? It was my first battlefield visit.