[25 August 2014]
Harry Patch, WWI’s last surviving British veteran, was asked what he would tell young people. Defining war as “organised murder”, he responded: “Don’t join the army.” In his introduction to To End All Wars , Pat Mills adds that this comment was scrubbed from the finished version of Patch’s interview.
This graphic collection opens with the greatest of such cover-ups; Brick’s “The Iron Dice” sketches how millions were sent to slaughter by imperial cabals protecting profits and peddling patriotism. This anthology’s website sums up the consequences: “The so-called ‘Great War’ was the first truly multinational war, the first heavily mechanised war, the first oil war, the first fought to the benefit of capitalists on both sides, the first to murder millions of civilians and the last orchestrated by kings, barons and lords as if it were a ripping game of polo.”
To End All Wars has 26 contributions by 53 artists and writers from 13 nations represent the global impact of WWI. Depicted over four continents are the four theaters of war: land, sea, air, and the home front. A century later, few graphic novels have depicted these early horrors (and heroics, deluded, desperate, or gallant as they may be judged in sober retrospect), compared with the media attention devoted to its successor, WWII. This stark, chiaroscuro, thick compilation begins to redress this deficit. It promotes a humanitarian view of the worldwide conflict as witnessed by not only famous and everyday men and women, but also by a diligent elephant, hounds, purported angels, and an Alpine cat. Notably, ashare of US and British profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders.
Familiar names such as Winston Churchill, Rasputin, Baron Von Richthofen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mata Hari appear, but most entries feature unheralded men and women. Mostly inspired by true accounts, those who volunteered talents to script and illustrate these boldly drawn or softly delineated stories share sympathy for the plight of those cajoled, conscripted or, as in Colm Regan’s “No More than Cattle”, among hundreds of thousands of Africans under German or British colonialism forced to participate as porters or combatants. While the full list of over two dozen selections cannot be covered in a brief review, a few examples reveal its range of concerns, biographies, and approaches.
Clode’s “The Coward’s War” takes up a topic which remains controversial today. “If an army is the reflection of the society for which it was created, Thomas Highgate was the first crack in its mirror.” Executed for desertion in 1914, he was one of over 300 Commonwealth soldiers who met that fate, in a time when very little was understood about stress, shell-shock, and fragility under fire. Clode’s dramatic shading (here as in his other inclusion, “The Black Chair” about the Welsh bardic poet Hedd Wyn) deepens the ambiguity of this tribute. It portrays uncertainty. Those leaders forced to order troops into battle, no matter their condition, were also victims of this era’s ignorance. Prejudice persists. Clode reports how Highgate’s hometown in 1999 refused to let his name be added to that feature of many towns, schools, and village squares among the Allies, its local war memorial.
“Il Gatto” saddened me. It follows an intrepid cat who crosses Italian to Austrian lines during the bitter war in the Alps. At one point, Stuart Richards places the feline facing the frozen front, its head above the icy trench, alongside a long line of helmeted soldiers, dug in with rifles drawn for assault.
Sean Michael Wilson’s “Live and Let Live” cheered me. It narrates the stand-offs arranged tacitly on the front, so neither German nor Allied troops would fire on each other, as long as no mortal threat was raised. This sensible compromise allowed many soldiers to survive, and affirms at least some common sense.
Yet, that solution could never be published during the war. The plight of journalists, whom the British would shoot as spies, meant that front-line, honest reporting would not emerge for those on the home front. “Truth Be Told” in Pippa Hennessy’s unsparing words and Danos Philopoulos’ scorching illustrations, claws at the page. These convey the quest of one bold correspondent who fought to live.
Survival, in Dan Hill’s take on solidarity, “Where Others Follow”, educates readers. It explains how sheep have evolved to protect their pacifism. Watch-sheep emerge to guard the flock. Although a single herd rallies against predators, the group recognizes individuals and remembers each one’s presence. If in a flock, as with troops, a single member is subsumed into a collective, an evolving balance endures which meets individual needs and demands of the group. It’s a clever lesson, or fable.
A U-Boat commander succumbs to the pressures of endless killing. After a series of Allied sinkings, he lets his submarine be rammed by a British destroyer. Similarly, elite aces in planes give in after one too many dogfight victories, once the cost to their psyche has been tallied. Tanks explode and bodies shatter across wastelands. Many German versions of testimonies wallow in mud and grime. Dark pages overwhelm the light in acrid, gloomy evocations of bomb craters and gray hell. “Poppies” depicts the artist Otto Dix, whose engravings acidly commemorate the searing visions he could not escape, as deftly rendered by Kate Houghton.
After such tales sink in, the reader reflects on the legacy left for us 100 years later. Growing up, I heard a few scattered memories from WWI veterans, rambling anecdotes passed down from two old men. Fewer seem to understand today (with few films let alone novels or testimonies taught in schools today) this fatal march to a war that wiped out, disproportionately, about ten million young men in uniform, along with seven million civilians who never signed up or resigned themselves to fight for empires. To End All Wars rouses readers to resist the seductive, sinister calls for yet more war.
While a few entries dithered about despite their brevity, dissipating their force by narratives revealing gaps or leaps in time or space, most succeed very well at teaching this persistent lesson of peace. “Perhaps the decision to go to war should never be decided by men in wood paneled offices of state, but by a committee of mothers on both sides, advised by those who have seen war and what it does to soft human bodies, to the fragile mind and very soul.”
So Joe Gordon concludes this collection with his “Memorial to the Mothers”. He reflects on a Royal Scots gravestone he passes often; the father buried beneath died on a 1918 battlefield. There, his son rests too, suffering the same fate in 1940. Gordon wonders about the unheralded mothers left to grieve. He speculates on these women’s sorrow and anger and loss, as our inheritance during every war erupting after WWI. “And then perhaps we might finally learn to stop, for what mother really, truly believes anything was worth her bonny boy?”