Tuesday, 12 January 2016

War Stories Book 1 (#1-4)

"I think soldiers're always gonna be judged by folk don't know what they're talking about, sir. But it doesn't make a picka difference, we've a job to do an' that's all there is to it" - Sergeant Major Dunn [D-Day Dodgers]

Something a little different from Garth Ennis this month, the first volume in his 2001-2003 series of eight one-shots, War Stories.  One thing that has always impressed me about his writing is his level of research into armed conflict tackling everything from "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, to The Vietnam War and Iraq and here we have four stories set during the war he is most schooled in, World War 2.  Teaming up with some fantastic artistic talent, including Dave Gibbons and David Lloyd we get some haunting tales, two set amongst the British military, "D-Day Dodgers" taking place during the Italian campaign and "Nightingale" about the war at sea. One involving a renegade German tank crew, "Johann's Tiger" and one involving the remnants of a US company who have been gradually whittled away since they landed at Normandy - "Screaming Eagles". Ennis grew up avidly consuming British war comics and his deep interest in the Second World War especially goes someway to explaining why his ersatz Captain America suffered to many indignities during his series, "The Boys".  He said of Captain America that he found him "borderline offensive, because to me the reality of World War II was very human people, ordinary flesh-and-blood guys who slogged it out in miserable, flooded foxholes. So adding some fantasy superhero narrative, that has always annoyed me a little bit."  Well there are no superheroes on display here, just ordinary soldiers trying to survive best they can in stories told with passion and care and of course meticulous attention to detail.

JOHANN'S TIGER - The premise of this first story pencilled by Chris Weston and inked by Gary Erskine is that a Nazi officer Johann Kleist and his four German "orphan" soldiers, Fat Bob, Dolfo, Seigbert and Nicolas have gone AWOL in their tank "Max" the story's titular Tiger.  Johann is exhausted and no longer believes Germany can win the war nor does he believe it deserves to.  They are secretly travelling westwards back through Russia to find some American soldiers to safely surrender to knowing the Russians aren't going to look to kindly upon them.  Although Johann does not think he deserves to survive the war and once his charges are safe he intends to go out in a suicidal attack.
Johann contemplates "Max"
As the team take a break, eating cold rat and erstaz coffee, Johann thinks, "I would die for them."  He contemplates Big Max, "we have been together through two long years and Max has eaten well."  Two days ago they were in a tank battle with the "Ivan" (the Russians) which they and Max came out of alive.  Back in the present Johann notes how the Russians would send ten for every one of them killed.  "But we deserve it all.  We asked for it." So now they are on the run, although by rights they should be dead or prisoners of the Russians by now.

Johann: "I am their commander and I have been entrusted with their welfare.  We are comrades; we have saved each other a thousand times.  And I woud go to hell to stand and fight beside these men.  And they are mine."

He thinks about how he will deliver them safely to the Americans, but he is a "different story."  He remembers how he ordered the burning to the ground of whole villages, and the deaths of women and children there.  He recalls murdering P.O.W's, but then how "I woke up and realised my life was an atrocity."
Johann's guilt.
The guilt now stalks him and he believes the war can have him in the place of his orphans.  "The thought of it is bliss to me."  They arrive in a deserted village and hide Max in a barn.  Nicolas asks Johann if he remembers the crazy man in Stalingrad who said with glee at them that Berlin would suffer the same fate, before Johann shot him.

Then checking around further they find three German soldiers strung up in a tree, the work of "Fepos", the Field Police who "maintain the cohesion of the front by any means neccesary".  They were probably stragglers or deserters like us thinks Johann as he sits alone and contemplates events.

Then he hears an engine rev and he runs back into the village to find his four men with nooses round their necks about to be hanged when the truck they are on the back of drives off.  The Fepos have them.  An enraged Johann mows down the Fepos with a machine gun and they decide things are getting too "lively" around here and they take Max and leave.
Johann rescues his men from the Fepos.
Soon though they run into a column of Russian tanks and although they fight valiantly they are soon surrounded. Suddenly Dolfo grabs Johann and throws him clear.

Dolfo: "Not you, herr Oberstleutant.  We decided not you."

Johann hits the ground and ends up out cold.  When he revives, the Russians are gone and the burnt remains of his men have been laid out on the ground.  He staggers away and loses track of time, looking for anyone he can get to kill him.  He finally sees some Allied soldiers, Americans and pulls his gun.  He charges them but exhaustion makes him trip and fall at their feet.  One of them offers him a cigarette.  Sadly Johann reflects that his boys thought they were saving him, but they have "damned him to endless torment."

Johann: "And with poison churning in my belly.  With horror in my heart.  I face the future.  Every single day, I live with it."
The cruelty of mercy.
And that brings the story to an end.  It is a powerful reminder that the bonds of brotherhood and loyalty didn't just exist on the side of the "good guys" and that not every Nazi was evil beyond redemption. Johann facing the punishment of mercy is an ironic end to the tale when mercy was something he didn't show himself. 

D-DAY DODGERS -  Drawn by John Higgins, the setting for this tale is the Italian campaign.  A motly bunch of various nationalities make up the British led forces as they push the fascists back up and up the country.  The name of the story comes from a statement made by Lady Astor that implied those involved in the battle for Italy had it easy compared to those fighting from D-Day onwards in France and Germany.  A satirical song was composed by an unknown soldier because of this and closes out this story in devastating style.
Captain Lovatt.
It's september 1944.  A young Second Lieutenant called Ross arrives at the Italian front.  He finds their commander, a gruff man called Captain Lovatt in a ruined church taking potshots at the altar.  Ross introduces himself and Lovatt asks where he went to school.  "Harrow" says Ross, he was to go to Oxford but the war got in the way.  Lovatt says that in 1933 the Oxford union passed a motion that they wouldn't support a war for King and COuntry.

Lovatt: "That the sort of sneering, peacenik bollocks you got in for Ross?"

Ross protests he'd have been eight then.  Lovatt then asks if he is comfortable with the idea of command.  Ross says it makes him feel awkward and silly.  Lovatt says he should see how he feels after spending years sending men to their deaths.  Then he sends Ross away.

Ross joins the rest of the men, they aren't going to be in reserve much longer they are returning to the line the next day.  Ross asks Sergeant major Dunn about Lovatt, Dunn says he's the finest officer he has ever served under.

Later at night Lovatt decides to send out a patrol to see if the can "scare up a prisoner." Dunn is to lead, Ross is to go with him and learn.  The patrol sneaks out and they come across a nest of Nazis.  There is a short and bloody scuffle which the patrol wins and they keep one of the Nazis alive as ordered.  As they get ready to return, another German pops up and Ross shoots him on instinct, his first kill.
Ross's first kill.
They return and hand the German over to intelligence.  Later there is a meeting where the Colonel in charge shows them the battle plans they will be part of.  It will be a daylight attack so their air support can see who they are bombing.  He also decides to promote Captain Lovatt.  The meeting breaks up and Lovatt tells Ross this attack is taking place to placate the press back home, and make a substantial advance before Italy becomes a mudslide, "which means no advance, which means no progress, which means no headlines."

Because the Italian campaign is such a slog it "doesn't exactly make for riveting reading". They don't have enough support to properly mount the planned offensive which is being mounted to convince the powers that be to give them more resources.  "Can you spot the fatal error in all this, or am I going to fast for you?" says Lovatt to Ross.

Later that day news of Lady Astor's comments have reached the men.  Ross is told that some of them are feeling resentful towards him because he has the same background as Astor.  But "sure we're all dodging D-Day together."  Ross wonders if Lovatt has heard the comments.  "That stupid fucking BITCH!!" roars Lovatt as if on cue. That night Ross finds Lovatt drinking in another ruined church.

Lovatt: "How can I ask those men to follow me to war, when some silly bitch back home says things like that?"
Lovatt on those who would judge him.
He says for the people back home if they do too well they are butchers, if they mess up they are cowards.  As he gets drunker he rails against Jesus on the cross saying he doesn't want to face the nightmare, "so I don't have to lead those poor uncomplaining bastards into battle."

Lovatt: "But he just sits up there and watches and judges"

Ross: "I think that's sort of the point sir."

Lovatt and Ross stagger away from the church, Lovatt saying, "I bloody well knew you were in there somewhere".
And they all fall in battle...
Next day they get ready for the advance.  Ross forgot to draw himself a machine gun and Lovatt says he can't go into battle with just a revolver and forces his machine gun on Ross saying "it doesn't matter."  Ross realises Lovatt knows they are all going to die.  The advance begins and the story closes out with images of all the men dead or dying as the Ballad Of The D-Day Dodgers is captioned underneath.

The story ends with a note that over one hundred thousand Allied troops died in Italy and that Lady Astor denied ever making the comments.  Thus ends another wrenching tale of a neglected part of World War 2 and the heroism of the soldiers just doing what needed to be done in the face of dismissive attitudes by the people they are fighting for.
...every one of them.
SCREAMING EAGLES -  Drawn by Dave Gibbons, this takes a look at a fictious company of US soldiers in the 101st Airbourne Division.  All that are left of the one hundred and forty odd who parachuted in the day before D-Day are four men, and when they are sent to check out a building that might be usable as a base for the local US army, they find a virtual palace and spend two days living it up while the story is interpersed with pages showing how so many of their comrades met their deaths.

At a US army camp a Sergeant Brewer us sent with his remnants, More Liefeld and Engstrom, who are all that are left of who jumped in before Normandy, to investigate a nearby German country house called Grafrau, which should make a good headquarters for the soon to arrive General Bleddings.

After failing to get more food supplies, Brewer and his men set off.  On the way they nearly crash into a German officer fleeing in the opposite direction.  His car overturns and the Americans take him prisoner.  They arrive a Grafau to be greeted by a veritable palace. They check inside and find, food, treasure and lots and lots of wine.
Nice house.
They question the German and he says the place was used by High Command to stash loot.  He has arranged that if things went bad, he would meet his friend here and they'd take the stuff and leave.  But he is all that left so he took what he could and fled, hoping to get to Switzerland. "So near and yet so far" says Brewer laconically.

Brewer immediately decides they will spend a couple of days there.  He says they'll pretend they lost the jeep and shoots it's radio out for good measure.  They imprison the German, who is called Marcus Lench in the wine cellar and start cooking up some decent food.  Liebfield wants to smuggle out some of the treasure but his friends point out he'd have nowhere to hide it and no way of moving it.  They should just live like kings for two days and then go back to the war thankful for the break they had.
A brief taste of the good life.
Liebfeld keeps at it, saying luck like this doesn't come along more than once in a lifetime.

Brewer: "Sure it does.  You been with Easy of the six fifty fifth all the way from Normandy to here.  You ain't been wounded and you ain't been crippled.  You're the luckiest man on earth."

Liefeld gets the point.  They keep on boozing and Moore spots through a telescope a comely German wench.  He goes and introduces himself as the "official... army of occupation" at the big house.  She says her name is Heidi and she has three friends who would like to meet them.  They all return to Grafau and sexy times ensue.

Brewer: "Moore my friend.  I am gonna recommend you for promotion to General."

Down in the cellar Marcus is incredibly distressed at how they are treating the wine.  "We have been conquered by barbarians" he mutters as they open yet another bottle that should have been left to mature.  Liebfeld and Moore get an idea about the vintage cars outside which they manage to crash in a race against each other.
A little of Ennis's more slapstick humour gets a look in.
Brewer is in the bath with Heidi who is happy they are not Russians.  Then one of the men shouts up that they bet Engstrom he wouldn't run across the field naked, but he is actually doing it.  However it's a minefield and to add to his problems as he tries to get out is a large bull.  But the bull steps on a mine and is blasted to bits.  The others contemplate a barbecue.

Later that night, Moore finds Brewer alone in the kitchen.  He notes that Brewer looks beat.

Brewer: "I don't mind the war.  But I hate the fucking army, Tommy."

He hates all the petty rules and regulations.  He hates the officers who treat them like garbage.  He hates the fact the likes of General Bleddings "ain't shy about spending lives" but come nowhere near to risking their own.

He reflects on how they are the last remnants of the original Easy company and he remembers the deaths and injruies of all one hundred and thirty six they have lost.  He asks Moore why he joined the Airbourne.  More says because he wanted to be with the best and with people he could depend on.  Brewer says before the way he worked at a timber yard and spent most of his time "solving peoples stupid fucking problems."  And now in the military he is doing the same thing.

Brewer: "Because it's sergeants run the army.  Generals give the orders, but sergeants keep the fucking thing going."

His reverie is interrupted by the others coming in with the women.  Liefeld says he's going to get married.  Next day Moore wakes them up in a panic.  The general and his men have arrived early.  Brewer tells Heidi to take the other girls and slip out back when they can.
Sergeant Brewer has had enough.
Outside Brewer claims full responsibility for everything that happened.  The general chews Brewer out, asking him what gave him the right to ignore the authority of the military.

Brewer: "General, I don't think I can tell you anything. So why don't you stick your authority up your ass?"

Which brings this story to an end.  It's an interesting tale, the almost comedic antics of the men partying juxtaposed with the deaths of all their comrades keeps the story grounded in seriousness as well as showing just why they wanted to let of steam when given the opportunity.  Sergent Brewer also acts as a mouthpiece to Ennis's common military theme, that it's the common soldier that should be celebrated not the men who send them to their deaths from the comfort of a well defended base.

NIGHTINGALE -  This is a story about the British destroyer the Nightingale.  Operating in the Artic area protecting convoys to Russia David Lloyds's moody artwork suits the dark nature of the story perfectly.  You can almost feel the cold emnating from the pages.  The story begins with the thoughts of a dying crew member reflecting on how the Nightingale came to be sunk, so immediately we know that the ship and her crew are the dead walking as the story plays out in flashback.  The narrator is the ships Number One.

Narrator: "The sun was shining brightly on the day that I died.  It blazed from the heavens.  It sang from the skies. One a day the world seemed born again, H.M.S Nightingale met her end."
Stunning image of the Nightingale.
We then flashback to the Nightingale escorting merchant ships with supplies for the starving Russians.  There are many other ships protecting them too.  Christmas dawns as the crew keep busy breaking the ice forming on the decks.

The narrator notes that the Nightingale had kept them safe so far and "of course we loved her.  She was ours."

The convoy fends off a German U-boat attack, but later one of the other destroyers is sunk and another torpedoed.  The narrator notes that he "loathed the U-boats".

Narrator: "It was war.  They had a job to do.  The men who crewed them were in possession of bravery beyond description.  But still I despised them."

After a pitched battle, a U-boat surfaces and the Nightingale blasts it to pieces before i can fire on them.  They go on about their duties and "at six o'clock the gates of hell swung open."

A message is sent out to each ship in the convoy that they are to disperse.  A super U-boat called "The Tirpitz" is thought to be out and by scattering the convey they stand the most chance of getting the majority to the Russian ports.  The Nightingale is tasked with joining the cruiser squadron and it's job is to hunt the Tirpitz.
The massacre starts and they can do nothing about it.
So the normal U-boats start torpedoing the ships.  In the morning the German airforce join in.  So many boats are sunk.  Frustrated beyond all measure the captain of the Nightingale says:

Captain: "I'd have fought the bloody Tirpitz.  I'd have sunk her with torpedoes.  I'd have rammed the bitch before I let her touch those ships."

The narrator comforts the youthful Number Two who is crying.  The narrator says there was nothing they could do.  Number Two says "what d'you mean?  We're the Royal Navy...!"

When the Nightingale finally reaches port back in Glasgow they are told that the Tirpitz never put to sea.  It was a panicked decision and it ended up destroying relations between the Navy and the Nightingale in particular and the merchant seamen.  With morale gone to hell a man is killed on board when a steel cable snaps and bisects him.  The captain took full responsibility but on his two weeks leave "the kid" went home and hanged himself.

The narrator himself, also on leave has nightmares and when he returns to duty he finds the Nightingale's crew being shunned, not as cowards "but as the damned."  They join another convoy in the Mediterranean, harried by Stukas all the way to Malta.

Another ship is bombed and the Nightingale is goven orders to rescue the crew.  The tanker is vaporised and the sea set ablaze but there are still men in the water to save.  The Nightingale goes through the flames, "a tacit understanding.  A debt to be paid."  Things seem to be going well, but the narrator wonders if "some debts can only be paid in blood."

A huge Italian cruiser appears on the horizon.  They can't let it sneak up on the convoy's now unprotected flank.  It opens fire on them and the captain is badly wounded.  He orders them to retaliate.  They chase down the cruiser and fire at it, the men still in the water cheer them on, "that shout redeemed us.  I took it to my grave."

They keep chasing the cruiser and firing on it.  It turns away from the convoy and they briefly celebrate scaring off a ship twice their size.  Then the Nightingale is blasted to smithereens.  "All debts paid" muses the narrator as he drowns, briefly he wonders if he'll survive, "but it was not to be" and he dies sinking under what is left of the Nightingale.
Death of the Nightingale
This is definitely the darkest tale in the book.  The doom laden atmosphere brought forth by Lloyds thick dark linework.  He also captures beautifully the slow inevitability of the loss of the Nightingale as written by Ennis. Sea battles by their nature are slower and more ponderous than battles in the air or on dry land but Lloyd portrays them excitingly and Ennis captures the superstitious nature of sailors and the desperate need to pay for a sin that was not of their making extremely effectively.

Overall this is a wonderful set of stories.  This is Ennis at his most passionate, proving he is not just about comedy sodomy, sociopaths and buckets of foul language. He emphasises the bonds that form between men in the military, even the Germans have those same bonds. There are notes at the back of the collected volume describing some of the research he did and a bibliography of further reading for those interested.  The artists are all working at the top of their respective games and knowing Ennis he'd have made sure all the hardware and uniforms were drawn correctly so the whole thing has a powerful feeling of verisimilitude.  There are four more in this series, collected in a second volume and this led to his more story led war series Battlefields.  I shall be covering both in the months to come, but for now this is a superb set of storys that I think would appeal to anyone not usually taken by Ennis's style, that humanises the war without taking away the bravery and heroism of those that fought. Excellent stuff.

7 comments:

  1. that mr. Ennis sure does knows how to craft a great military story. Ive read some of Battlefields but not these, will have to check them out now!

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  2. You definitely should, and handily they have just been reissued in the UK so the prices aren't ridiculous for the two volumes anymore like they were a while back.

    I still have some Battlefields to read, I am vaguely annoyed I can't find vol.1 in paperback, I hate mixing hardcovers and paperbacks in one run. Makes my OCDness spark.

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  3. Yeah it is. But I like that Ennis never romanticises war. I have real issues with videogames set during 20th and 21st century wars that make them seem "cool" and "fun". The only shooting games I feel I can enjoy on a moral level are sci-fi ones.

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  4. Yeah, me too. All that 'Call/Medal/Badge of Duty/Honour/Warfare' stuff is such transparently fake propaganda.

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  5. Definitely. Propaganda is the right word, I hate that they are so popular. I much prefer Halo, Doom and Gears Of War. Future wars against aliens and demons are a lot more enjoyable.

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