The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme – An Illustrated Panorama.
This is one piece of war art you won’t want to miss. Sweeping from the General to the grave, Sacco’s keen eye and steady hand render the battle with a fidelity that defies the book’s compact size and simple medium. I’ve seen the Gettysburg Cyclorama three times, and while Phillippoteaux took 42 x 377 feet to portray Pickett’s Charge and its environs in oil on canvas, Sacco captures even more action in only 8 x 264 inches of line drawings on paper.
The viewpoint hovers somewhere between tossing treetop and tiled rooftop, enabling the perspective to effortlessly expand or contract, as it follows the activity overrunning a recognizably French village in the rear area, to the tumultuously busy support trenches, and then to the claustrophobically crowded front line. The space the troops occupy is too small to permit much facial detail, but Sacco portrays their individuality by other means, so that the overall effect is similar to that of the soldiers in the Terracotta Army.
After observing Douglas Haig taking his morning constitutional in the tranquil garden of his HQ chateau, you trundle along with artillery and other materiel, march beside kilted kneecaps or ride horseback among turbaned heads, attend to the call of nature against stuccoed walls or in realistically rendered latrines, receive the ration party with their biscuit bags and bully beef tins, and then take your tot of rum before going over the top. Having survived the mangling mayhem of No Man’s Land and the forward trenches, you take the laborious trail of the wounded to a Casualty Clearing Station, and finally accompany the padre presiding with grim compassion over the dismal duties of the burial detail.
The accompanying booklet includes a brief introduction by the artist, and an essay condensed from one of the works of Adam Hochschild. A final section of miniaturized plates annotated by the artist guides you through the scenes in a Where’s Waldo? sort of way, but once you’ve become oriented to the drawing, you can take your time to appreciate the myriad of fine points that pull you inexorably into the picture. Armchair generals and Great War authors alike will return often to this stunning interpretation of July 1, 1916.