Acclaimed comics artists publish powerful anthology of stories to combat Michael Gove's 'jingoistic' interpretation of WW1
The architects of the First World War are put on trial in the Hague and deserting soldiers celebrated in a graphic novel produced by Britain’s leading comic artists designed to undermine “jingoistic” commemorations of the conflict’s centenary.
To End All Wars, which includes 27 short stories based on real incidents, many told from a soldier’s perspective, is intended as a corrective to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s insistence that the conflict should be taught as a “just war” fought to halt German expansionism.
The anthology, illustrated in classic “war comic” style, includes The Coward’s War, the story of Thomas Highgate, the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during the First World War. It concludes with the posthumous pardon awarded in 2006.
“Mud, Lice and Vice” depicts the devastation in the ranks caused by sexually transmitted diseases picked up by young British soldiers taking advantage of French brothels.
In “The Iron Dice,” Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war, is placed on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague at a hearing which undermines the claim that war was “inevitable”.
In an introduction to the book, Pat Mills, creator of the acclaimed war comic Charley’s War and the magazines 2000AD and Battle, writes: “Currently, we are fed the spin-doctors’ version of legalized mass murder, legitimized as ‘heroic sacrifice’ with challenging, embarrassing or difficult facts whitewashed from the record."
“Michael Gove and his ilk dutifully talk about a noble sacrifice and a just war. I hope this collection will help to counteract their lies and commemorate the centenary as an opportunity for reconciliation and a search for the truth.”
Jonathan Clode, author of The Coward’s War and the anthology’s co-editor, hopes the book will be used as a teaching aid in schools. “Graphic novels are a great way of engaging young people in subjects which might be alien to them,” he said. “They are no different to film as a serious medium to convey ideas.”
“In The Coward’s War I wanted to take the sheen off the idea that the war was this grand, happy adventure which everyone signed up for. People didn’t know what they were buying into. Now that there are no living survivors we felt it was important to counteract the jingoistic message of a lot of the centenary coverage.”
Profits from the 300-page anthology, published in July by Soaring Penguin Press, will go to Medicine Sans Frontières. Utilising the work of 53 writers and illustrators from 13 countries, expletives abound in the stories, which include those told from French, German and Austro-Hungarian perspectives.
One titled “Live and Let Alive” explores the phenomenon of trench-weary British and German soldiers engaging in “mock attacks” rather than attempts to inflict real harm.
Mills argues that “comics are one of the few media voices the establishment has yet to muzzle, doubtless because they think they don’t matter. Mud, Lice and Vice is very brave to cover sexual disease. It’s also a valuable and cathartic image to see the leaders in the dock at The Hague.”
Political cartoonist John Stuart Clark, who penned The Iron Dice under his authorial pseudonym Brick, said the collection “focused on the personal stories of men, women and animals caught up in the horrific cataclysm… our selection is principally focused on the psychological impact of this most extraordinary and unique conflict”.
While World War Two has been the subject of numerous comic books and graphic novels, its predecessor, perhaps less easily offering up heroes and villains, has been overlooked, the authors say.
“Maybe a few years from now, the shelves in your comic shop won’t seem so bereft of this fascinating and horrifying subject,” suggests Clark, who hopes the anthology will be “our small but hopefully significant contribution to the commemoration of an unnecessary conflict that proved anything but the war to end all wars.”
Earlier this year, Michael Gove provoked a row when he accused “left-wing academics” of perpetuating the “myth” that the First World War was merely a “series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.” David Cameron backed Gove, saying the war was fought “in a just cause”.
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