Life in the trenches of World War I were horrific all round, and the French had as bad a time as anyone. Their generals were more than happy to send them on suicide missions to attempt to capture unnecessary enemy territory against overwhelming odds. Little wonder, then, that the French soldiers were prone to rebelling and dreaming up new ways to try and avoid the slaughter.
This story is a fictionalised account, based in some truth, of a petition that was passed along the trenches. The idea was that, with enough signatories, it could be taken to Paris and used to persuade the French parliament to sack its army commanders and install officers with better strategies.
By the time the petition arrives at Lieutenant Kazinsky’s platoon, it has gathered enough signatures to have made a bit of a name for itself, so the soldiers discuss taking it to Paris. Things run somewhat out of hand as a commanding officer gets wind of the manuscript, and a group of soldiers end up on a frantic, daring mission to deliver the petition to a trusted French politician.
It’s a great story, obviously set during World War I, but only really featuring trench warfare in the initial scene-setting. The focus then shifts sharply onto French infighting. The antagonist of the tale is a dastardly, disfigured military policeman, nicknamed The Puzzle, who revels in punishing soldiers he sees as cowardly deserters. He’s cunning and devious, but not quite as resourceful as the fleeing soldiers, as they chase across the French countryside, trying to outwit each other.
Cédric Babouche’s art is a beautiful mix, with caricatured characters but beautiful watercolour backdrops that capture the beauty of France and the muddy horror of the trenches. The colours are limited to a natural palette and it works brilliantly, summoning a warm spring in the French countryside, but scarring it with the cruelty and destruction of war.
This is the first of two books so it’s tricky to judge in its entirety but it’s certainly a rip-roaring grown-up adventure story, brimming with intelligence and slightly different in tone than most World War I stories we’ve read. Well worth a look if you’re interested in this particularly brutal period of modern history.