With the 100th anniversary of World War I looming on the horizon, the number of new books on the subject would make one think it had never been covered before. That volume makes it hard to pick and choose among many great titles. Two of my top choices are visual considerations of the event.
By Joe Sacco, W.W. Norton & Company, $35.00
This is a book that is a stunning achievment on any level. It's a panoramic look at one day of the war that unfolds in thick acordian pages covered with black and white drawings of soldiers, animals, buildings, weapons. The story of the war is captured in one vast 24-foot-long panorama. When you take the "book" out of its protective slipcase and begin to open it, the experience is both chilling and thrilling. I can't remember ever seeing anything quite like it in concept, scale or detail.
There's an acompanying booklet with an essay about the battle by Adam Hochschild along with Sacco's annotations of his drawing. Even if you don't read everything, this is one of the few books that manages to give us a sense of the vastness of the battle. This video The Great War by Joe Sacco from WW Norton on Vimeo lets the artist talk about his book.
By Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts (Imperial War Museums), Alfred A. Knopf, $100.00
A mammoth book (almost 11 and 1/2 inches square and 2 inches thick) with 380 photos from the Imperial War Museums in London, so the pictures are all nice and big. I had been looking forward to this book for weeks but found it less satisfying in some ways than both Sacco's book (above) and the Met's history of photography seen through the lens of the Civil War.
My response was due to the fact that I realized I've already seen a huge number of images of the war and also the sheer number of images in this book became dulling after a while. What was most noteworthy is this book looks at a much broader canvas, so we see the war as it was played out in Palestine, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire/Gallipoli, as well as many photos of the air and sea war. There are also images of Indian and Zulu soldiers among the many ethinic groups who fought in the war.
The book has time lines for each year of the war and the chapters open with full color close-ups of uniforms, including the one that Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was asssassinated at Sarajevo. I also discovered a number of facts that were new to me; for example, there was a strict ban on soldiers using personal cameras on the Western Front, though many of these photos are a testament to the fact that the ban was not rigidly enforced elsewhere.
There were still plenty of amazing pictures I'd never seen like an aerial view of the village of Passchendale after the battle that looks like the surface of the moon; vast mountains of spent shell cases, and the officers of the No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Flying Corps putting floral wreaths on the grave of the "Red Baron," the German flying ace, in a bit of photographic respect/news/propaganda. While the book is heavy on British photos, there are images from all sides; apparently many German archives were destroyed in WWII.
And despite all the pictures I've seen of the Western Front with its blasted mucky landscape, I was still taken aback at a picture of stretcher bearers carrying a wounded soldier through a sea of mud that reached their knees and above in the Ypres Salient in 1917. As well as a heartrending image of a "Pals Battalion" from East Yorkshire, all the men turning toward the camera and broadly smiling as they march down the road at the Somme.
Very near the end of the book, there's a photo noting that when the Armistice brought fighting to an end at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11th, 1918, the Allied line was located at Mons, Belgium, the scene of the first encounter between British and German troops in 1914. A sad bit of irony reminscent of the American Civil War that began and ended at Wilmer McLean's home. Plus ca change.
Both books are available through Wisconsin's South Central Library System.