A New History of The Great War: WWI Gets a “Graphic” Treatment

August 21, 2014

Editor’s note: This is another entry in the WOTR series, Art of War. To submit to Art of War, email Kathleen.McInnis@warontherocks.com with “SUBMISSION” in the subject line.

 

Jonathan Clode & John Stuart Clark, eds, To End All Wars (Soaring Penguin Press, 2014).

 

As WOTR readers are well aware, this month marks the centenary of World War I. Yet with the passing of our veterans of that Great War, preserving the memory and the lessons learned from that horrible conflict is both a challenge and absolutely essential. With that in mind, Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark collaborated with dozens of their colleagues in the graphic novel world to create “To End All Wars” (TEAW). The result: a series of 27 short narratives, each depicting various facets of WWI—to include actual events, characters, circumstances, myths or consequences of the war. The editors aimed to be comprehensive, as well: the stories in the anthology span four continents and features air, sea, land and home front aspects of the war.

As I am not a WWI historian, I cannot personally speak to the historical accuracy of each particular story. That said, the editor’s unabashed focus on the impact of the war on everyday, ordinary people is both noteworthy and heartbreaking. Indeed, as John Stuart Clark recently told The Independent, the anthology “focused on the personal stories of men, women and animals caught up in the horrific cataclysm…[O]ur selection is principally focused on the psychological impact of this most extraordinary and unique conflict.” Thus, in a brilliantly creative, accessible way, the anthology challenges its readers to grapple with the horrors of a war that accidentally overtook Europe and killed millions. Scholars of Strategic Studies might do well to pick up their own copy, and it strikes me that the anthology could also prove a useful tool for teachers seeking to find ways to engage students on the subject.

It’s not very often that graphic novelists tackle subjects directly relevant to Strategic Studies, so I asked the editors of the volume, a few questions about TEAW and how the anthology shaped their perspective on WWI as well as contemporary events. Their answers follow below.

Why did you choose to use a graphic novel to explore World War I? What does a graphic novel afford that other media do not?

Jonathan Clode: We were driven to see our medium contribute something to the centenary, but also to ensure it offered an alternative to the revised view of WWI that the British government and large portions of our media are projecting. With the exception of Charley’s War by Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun, and White Death by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard, there have been very few British comics about the First World War.

Comics offer a unique way of interpreting stories as they ask the reader to digest words and images simultaneously. Almost like narrative photographs, a writer and artist can craft particular images that encompass a series of emotions and use them to challenge their readership. As Pat Mills comments in the introduction to TEAW, there is still a common presumption that comics are not a valid art form, and this gives creators working in the medium a lot of freedom to express themselves where others might become victim to censorship or subjective interpretations.

What stories made the biggest impression on you? Why?

Clode: I think we were very conscious of wanting to show aspects of WWI that were unfamiliar to people. All of our stories had to be based in truth. With that in mind we looked for incidents and individuals that would show WWI was a global conflict. Learning about the war in Africa and the Middle East, the reality of military discipline, the restrictions placed on the press, the death toll versus the gains made in particular battles, all of these facts made a big impression. Because they are designed to give a specific insight into a particular facet of the war, I think each story makes its own distinct impression.

As you put the anthology together, did you see any parallels or themes between WWI and more recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on? If so, what were they?

Clode: Not really. We weren’t looking to current affairs as any kind of comparison or allegory for our book. We were focused solely on telling stories about WWI. I think we are inclined to draw parallels because we are conscious of history repeating itself, but the actual circumstances that led to WWI are quite different to the situation in the Middle East. The fact that our leaders act—or fail to act—out of their own self interests is nothing new, nor is it specific to WWI or the instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Stuart Clark: Our collection generally steers clear of stories about the lords and masters who plunged Europe into such a pointless holocaust in 1914, but we felt some attempt to explain the causes of the war was important, if only to set the tone from the get-go.

The simmering demand for ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair to answer charges at The Hague for taking Britain into the Iraq conflict on a lie gave me the idea for “The Iron Dice” [Editor’s note: “The Iron Dice” is a fictionalized story about key actors in World War I being placed on trial at The Hague for war crimes]. Steering a course through the criminal proceedings of war crimes against each protagonist laid bare the farce that became an unstoppable juggernaut.

While writing the story, the Eurozone crisis was at its height, and it seemed to me the diplomatic shenanigans between member states did have parallels with 1913-14, except, of course, the modern hubris was about economic power rather than military power. Between 1914 and 1918 it was the little man, represented in “The Iron Dice” by The Good Soldier Svejk, who paid the price again and again. Although not the ultimate price, so it has been since 2008 as a consequence of the financial crisis. It is always us, not them, who foot the bill, Svejk so rightly observes.

WWI was the beginning of industrialized warfare—a method of locking horns that guarantees civilians, non-combatants and by-standers will also be victims (in their millions, in the case of WWI and WWII). While working on the book, it struck me that the modus operandi of modern warfare in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine hasn’t greatly progressed since the beginning of the last century. No matter how sophisticated we like to think the technology is, the toll on the innocent remains of equal unconcern to modern aggressors.

What, in your view, was the most important thing you learned over the course of putting the anthology together?

Clode: As we came to the end of the book I visited Ypres to see the impact of the war for myself. While we were all very conscious that we wanted to show WWI as an enormous tragedy, it’s not until you see the scale of that tragedy first hand that you realise how much history has chosen to repackage it. The British establishment likes to sell the notion of stoic self-sacrifice and heroism in the face of alleged imperial barbarism. Fortunately for them there are no combatants left alive who can argue otherwise. The most important thing we could do was to offer an alternate perspective that challenged the accepted version of events.

Clark: That the most important stories are those the official histories avoid telling, and why it is that they avoid telling them! I too visited the Ypres salient towards the end of this project and the biggest untold history that seemed to concern all the different nationalities I spoke to was: what happened to the hundreds of thousands of young Germans who sacrificed their lives? Where are they remembered; where is their Menin Gate? The Germans I spoke to had no answer and were seemingly baffled by all the memorials to our Commonwealth troops they had encountered. The level of censorship or simple omission surrounding WWI surprised me, most particularly that it is still gong on, be it at the BBC, in our schools or, it would seem, through every level of German society.

What are the primary takeaways you hope readers, particularly those interested in Strategic Studies, gain from the anthology?

Clode: It was our hope from the outset that the book would ignite people’s interest in the First World War and compel them to learn a little more. We were careful to make sure our book was non-partisan, so I’d hope people would read it and consider that perhaps wars are won in name only. The soldiers who fight them and the civilians that endure them are the price our leaders are always far too willing to pay. We also hope that any readers we have gained who don’t consider themselves comic book fans per se, will look at comics and graphic novels with a more open mind. It would be wonderful if To End All Wars inspired some other comic writers or artists to tell a story about WWI.

To End All Wars is available in the UK now, and will be made available in the USA in September. A portion of the proceeds from each book is donated to Doctors Without Borders.

 

Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009.  She is the editor of the WOTR series, Art of War.