On what was probably a very ordinary day, illustrator Barroux happened upon a most extraordinary thing: a notebook; a firsthand account written by a French soldier about his experiences in the First World War. How serendipitous then that a talent like Barroux should be the one to find it, for he has transformed this account into a truly remarkable graphic novel.
Originally published in French as On les Aura!, Barroux chose to leave the text as it was; he chose not to embellish. In creating this English language version, Sarah Ardizzone has worked painstakingly to capture the soldier’s voice, and because such effort and care has been taken not alter the text or the content too much, what we are left with is a very humbling, at times naive, and honest account of the first days of war. It charts the everydayness of soldierly concerns, the boredom, and the lack of awareness at how bad things were to become. It is heart-warming to watch as locals bring fruit to the train and offer their hospitality, but heart-breaking to wonder how long that will last; how long will their homes stand? Line of Fire charts less than two months in a war that would span four years, and already we are witness to the waiting, the blistered feet and fatigue that is setting in. We watch as they quietly note the absence of wine, knowing that such luxuries will not be seen again for quite some time; we see two modest crosses on the road and know that there will be many more. It is devastating to know what will happen when our soldier does not.
Barroux begins his illustrated account by showing us his actual discovery of the book, a further reminder that what we are witnessing is not a work of fiction. The diary entires are dated and often mark the time, which keeps the personal nature of this account at the forefront of our minds. The graphic novel is the ideal format, the panelled structure reflecting perfectly the stilted, stop-start nature of the entries and breaks in the timeline. Barroux’s soft pencil drawings with their wood varnish tint are emotive and immediate; they are not laboured or false. They do not try to soften, glorify or glamorise the text, and they are not intrusive. The illustrations are only there to serve and enhance the text. At times they are reminiscent of aged sepia photographs, snapshots of faces and villages. Others seem like luxuriously drawn landscapes while our soldier whiled away his hours waiting, while others are like the furiously snatched moments of a reportage artist desperate to capture the chaos that surrounds them.
Our soldier is shot and wounded, and after a short stint in hospital the diary ends, as does the book. We do not know what happened to our soldier or why he stopped writing, we can only hope for him.
Line of Fire is a brilliant and devastating account of one man’s part in the war, all the more poignant because it is told in his own words.