The Battle of the Somme

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.

“The assault troops advance in waves, at the rate of one per minute.”

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.

Leaving the trenches

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).

Horses and wagons on the battlefield

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.

People on the moving sidewalk, with the fresco on the right

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.

7 thoughts on “The Battle of the Somme”

  1. I am not sure if you will get it there, but I recommend Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” which has used actual footage supplied by the Imperial War Museum, coloured and slowed down to real-time (no more jerky “Charlie Chaplain figures” to quote Jackson). It includes footage of the Somme first-day attack, as well as the artillery barrages of the previous days.

    You may know that Australia sent more than 130,000 horses to WW1? Because of our stringent quarantine laws – or more likely because there was a greater willingness to pay the cost of sending them to war than there was to bring them home – only one was ever brought back. “Sandy” belonged to Major General Sir William Bridges, who was killed at Gallipoli. Under the care of Captain Leslie Whitfield, Sandy was ultimately sent to France in 1916.

    Many of the owners of the horses, predominantly Walers, were members of the Australian Light Horse brigade (a mounted infantry) and came off the land. They were heart-broken to leave their horses behind, and many of them shot their “mate” rather than allow them to be sold to people they did not trust to treat them well.

    1. I think these were enlarged copies of originals. In any event, the entire thing has been published in book form, or rather as “a twenty-four-foot-long panorama that folds like an accordion”.

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