In the summer of 2014, just in time for the centenary of the Great War, a huge black-and-white fresco was installed in a long tunnel in the Métro station Montparnasse-Bienvenüe in Paris. The fresco was 132 meters long and 4.70 meters tall. It consisted of thousands of detailed drawings by the Maltese-American journalist and cartoonist Joe Sacco (born 1960).
The fresco was on display for two months, July and August 2014, in a tunnel usually devoted to lucrative advertising.
If you looked at the fresco from left to right (which I didn’t, because I was coming from the Montparnasse train station and going to catch my Métro train on line 4), the fresco tells the story of just one day in the First World War, the first of July 1916, when British and French troops launched a huge offensive to begin the Battle of the Somme. At the end of the day, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were dead and hardly anything had been gained.
Joe Sacco has written that his interest in the First World War began when he was a child in Australia, and he has been reading about it ever since. He said his inspiration for this fresco was the medieval Tapestry of Bayeux, which recounts the history of the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066. His style is of course very different, but as in the Tapestry of Bayeux he deliberately ignored realistic perspectives and proportions. “Thus, one or two centimeters in my drawing might correspond to a hundred meters or several kilometers in reality.”
But he did go to great lengths to get the details right, by doing extensive research at the Imperial War Museum in London and by getting advice from historians.
Here British soldiers are leaving the trenches and advancing into no-man’s land. Hardly any of the attackers survived, because they were mowed down by the German machine guns.
This fresco was especially moving to me because I had just finished reading one of the classic British books on trench warfare in the First World War, Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1895-1985).
We (or at least I) tend to forget that huge numbers of horses were still used in the First World War. There were even mounted cavalry units who made supposedly heroic charges against the German positions and of course got wiped out by the machine guns. The rule about horses was that any injured horse had to be shot immediately.
This long tunnel was made in the 1930s to allow passengers to change from one Métro line to another without having to use a second ticket. Until then, Montparnasse and Bienvenüe had been two separate Métro stations, but this tunnel made them into one.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the Montparnasse district of Paris.