This striking graphic novel came about in an interesting way. Author-illustrator Barroux rescued the notebook of an unknown French soldier of the First World War from rubbish cleared from the basement of a house in Paris. The jottings in the notebook relate the soldier’s experience of the first two months of the war, August and September 1914. The text is the soldier’s own but the illustrations are Barroux’s.
The diary reflects what must have been the day to day experience of tens if not hundreds of thousands of men. Here we have the experience of one soldier, written in a straightforward manner with, as Michael Morpugo puts it in his introduction, ‘no high flown poetry or prose’. His account begins with him leaving his wife and family to join his unit just before war is declared. We follow him on long marches through France; we read about the painful blisters on his feet, the endless digging of trenches, the many marches to the next village and about finding somewhere, anywhere, to sleep and march again. And the sights, sounds and smell of conflict – the wounded, the gunfire and the smell of smoking shells – pervade the writing, communicating the brutal, relentless and wearying reality of war. When a serious engagement begins, many men are lost and the French force is routed. The retreat continues under shell fire. Eventually the diarist is hit by shrapnel in the arm and taken to hospital where he is surrounded by dying and wounded comrades. His account ends abruptly with him in hospital recovering from a fever and reflecting on whether he would rather still be fighting. But there is some relief in the account and he never loses his human ability to feel, fear and suffer on account of others as well as himself. He often mentions his friend, Fernand, who proves to be a faithful companion. He is joyful when letters from home arrive and a tear comes to his eye when he finds his wife has hidden a lucky charm in his bag. When no-one can get to sleep in the barn at Ancemony ‘the jokes fly back and forth’ .
Barroux’s spare but distinctive black and white illustrations bring another dimension to the account while remaining true to the soldier’s words. A strong line and effective use of shading using crayon and pencil bring into sharp focus the rural landscapes, the abandoned villages and the suffering soldiers and civilians. Some of the images linger in the mind. For me two stand out: the picture of a dying man in hospital breathing his last and with his spirit rising up; the bleak picture showing a soldier’s leg hanging from a tree after a ‘powerful shell landed on a platform of the 6th company’. An unsettling element in these illustrations is Barroux’s drawing of noses with top, bottom and side firmly outlined. Does this link all those suffering in a brutal war? Or is this feature simply a trademark signature of someone who is a cartoonist as well as an illustrator?
Many wartime books tell of the decisions and actions of politicians and generals and about the big issues in war. Here we have the riveting account of an ordinary soldier which will inform and move readers from about age nine upwards.