REVIEW: The English G.I. – World War II Graphic Memoir of a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe (2022)

A Graphic Novel by Jonathan Sandler and Brian Bicknell

As my readers will know, I am a sucker for an interesting war story, and was given the opportunity to read a new graphic novel that definitely piqued my interest. The English G.I. – World War II Graphic Memoir of a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe is a labor of love from author Jonathan Sandler and artist Brian Bicknell. Created using a real-life memoir written by Jonathan’s grandfather, Bernard Sandler, this graphic novel recounts a fairly interesting war story involving a Jewish boy born in the United Kingdom being trapped in The United States at the start of World War II, and eventually being drafted to fight in the U.S. Army. Something like this must have been amazing undertaking, and with the unique vantage point of being a story of a Brit being enlisted in the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division, it’s not your typical war memoir. Being able to share your family history with the outside world has got to be a great feeling, and this is very well done, and an interesting story for sure.

“In September 1939, Britain declares war on Germany. Bernard Sandler, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Yorkshire, is on a school trip to the United States and consequently finds himself unable to return home, separated from his close-knit Jewish family in Britain. Stranded in cosmopolitan New York for an unknown duration, he must grow up quickly. He discovers the pleasures and excitement of Broadway theatre and jazz while developing his own social circle at New York University. But just as he finds his independence, the United States declares war in December 1941, which changes his life once again. Bernard is drafted into the United States Army, joining the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division. Eventually, he returns to Europe, serving on the front lines alongside General Patton’s Third Army during the brutal Lorraine Campaign in Northern France in the fall of 1944.”

Bernard’s life is told from that ill-fated vacation in 1939 to his wartime years and beyond. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be separated from my own family for the entire duration of World War II simply due to the threat of submarine warfare making a boat trip impossible. While not impossible, this was also a time when foreign telephone calls were a luxury his family could not afford, and the military almost never allowed, so written correspondence was a necessity despite uncertainty that letters would even be read. At first, it was a great experience for the boy, being able to temporarily live in one of the world’s most prosperous big cities as opposed to his quiet pastoral life in Leeds. He saw all the sights in New York, attending Broadway shows, Louis Armstrong performances, and even did some work in a popular New York hotel until everything was upended. Bernard often wondered about his family in Latvia, with war being the entire reason his family moved to the U.K. considering pretty much everyone faced a draft into the Russian Army during World War I, and that simply was not something Bernard’s grandparents wanted to endure. Life has a funny way of coming full circle sometimes, and it ended up being Bernard facing a draft into a foreign army, as the U.S. Army came calling in 1942. Bernard has a fairly peaceful life up until that point, and even found love, but that was all about to change.

Bernard was trained to be an engineer in the Army, but was eventually shipped off to rural France in 1944 to participate in The Lorraine Campaign as a machine-gunner. This was a lesser-known campaign that was conducted by the U.S. Third Army from September 1st through December 18th, 1944, which continued the attempt to utterly wipe the Germans from the French villages they were occupying just after D-Day. It was at this time that his Jewish faith and heritage began to weigh on him considering his status as an enemy of the German regime simply by his blood and his potential of becoming a German prisoner of war, and all that would entail. Without me detailing every aspect of the book, as I hope my readers will check this out, Bernard’s tenure in the military was cut short by an injury that was thankfully not very serious. His fear about what could have happened to him was relived and he was able to go home.

The story is peppered with little accents that fill the narrative out quite well including newspaper clippings, family photographs, pieces of text from Bernard’s diary, and even artwork from some of his squad mates that made it into the Library of Congress. One example of this material being used very well was an instance where the book detailed the death of one of his close friends, after the chapter an actual photograph and burial details were presented to the reader. This addition definitely helps the reader anchor this story into reality and feel some of the pain Bernard must have felt as the horrors of war affected him personally. There is also a fairly extensive essay that acts as an epilogue after the main portion of the graphic novel that I enjoyed quite a bit. This included more detailed descriptions of the background of many of the events portrayed in the book, as well as information of the fate of his extended family and Latvia during the war. One thing that was pretty interesting to me, due to my work being part of the immigration process in the U.S., was the information of Bernard’s status as a dual-holding U.S. and U.K. citizen due to his unlikely status during the war. The fact that Congress would even adopt a measure like what they did, basically forcing everyone to escalate Naturalization due to war need, is a far cry from the bureaucratic quagmire the process is today.

This was an excellent book, and a quite interesting perspective I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read of in any war memoir prior. The structure of the book is good, and there is a lot of information packed into the extra materials in the back to help somebody have a “jumping off point” for any additional research anyone might be interested in doing. The artwork is black and white, but well-composed with dynamic layouts giving action scenes a real sense of urgency when it is needed. Everything was easy to read and understand, and I was never at a loss for what was happening. More than anything, I think an initiative like this is awesome, and would like to see more similar books if the authors ever want to branch out and do more stories in this vein. I’m sure there are more memoirs out there that are ripe for a new medium, and this idea is a solid attempt at moving the genre to a new market and help us to never forget heroes of the past. If you are a fan of military stories, I would definitely check this out as it definitely surprised me. It also taught me that going on vacation during a war is probably not the greatest idea!

For information on where this book can be purchased Click HERE

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