It Was the War of the Trenches
Written & Illustrated by Jacques Tardi
Translated by Kim Thompson
Published by Fantagraphics
There are two types of war stories: war as the great human drama, man accomplishing amazing feats in the most horrible of circumstances, or war as the great human tragedy, the ultimate loss of life without any rhyme or reason. Tardi’s book fits very firmly into the latter category.
Published in France across a dozen years, It Was the War of the Trenches is not so much a story as a collection of scenes, segments of individual French soldiers’ lives in the World War I trenches. Trenches is a book devoid of any glory; its protagonists are simply poor young men who join the military, suffer and die. They’ve been caught up in a patriotic fervor or, bereft of other options, join to give their lives direction.
Showing the history and fears of its central character, each scene details how warfare runs contrary to man’s basic impetus for self-preservation. Nobody wants to fight these battles, and few of the soldiers bear any ill will toward their foes. Each is simply following orders, and failure to do so leads to – frequently in Trenches – the unfortunate end of the firing squad. Tardi is able to often contrast the simple hopes of the soldiers, marriage, family, a trade, against the dilemma of their soldiering life, which leads inevitably to the loss of all their modest dreams.
Despite the intense tragedy of the circumstances, It Was the War of the Trenches feels a little slight at times. Tardi makes good points, universal points, but several scenes feel clipped and others don’t drive as deeply into their protagonist as possible. Although you recognize the human emotion that drives a young man to retreat when under fire, Tardi offers a too matter-of-fact presentation in certain sequences, and the firing squad caps too many segments with redundancy.
Expressive and open, Tardi’s characters are excellent caricatures, dropped amid detailed and ink-spattered landscapes that have been torn apart by explosives, shovels and rains. The effect leaves the people, dirt-streaked and hunch-backed, expressively downtrodden, run down under anxiety and trauma. The opening 20 pages vary in layout, often using a design element to give the page an architectural appearance. Afterward, the sequences having been created at different times, Tardi sticks to a rock-solid three tier, page-wide layout, enabling him to show the wide, scarred vistas of France. Ink-soaked and gory, Tardi’s detailed renderings drive home the grotesquery of the war and the ordeal of the young men fighting in it.
While it doesn’t hit a home run in every section of its varied narratives, It Was the War of the Trenches creates an aura of loss, regret and terror. If none of the individual young men Tardi tells of sticks long in the mind, rest assured that the cumulative experience of death and crushed dreams will leave its mark on every reader.