As discussed in our March”WAR!” theme, it remains of the utmost importance to consider the individual experiences of soldiers. Those on the front lines provide a personal narrative – one that is often separate from political aims and general strategies.
Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 is Edward M. Strauss‘s excellent translation of one soldier’s wartime writings to English-language readers for the first time. Louis Barthas is a thirty-five-year-old French barrelmaker enlisted to fight the Germans from the very start of World War I. His journals of the next four years present a vivid account of life and war.
Below are some excerpts from Barthas’s writings, journal entries detailing the perceptions of the war, the discouragement of soldiers, and the treatment of the poilu – or “hairy one,” as French infantry men were often called. But perhaps most interesting are Barthas’s reflections at the end of World War I once he is returned home and given time to process his experiences.
Garrison Duty: August 2–November 1, 1914
General mobilization. Departure for Narbonne.
August 2, 1914. A broiling hot August afternoon. The streets of the village all but deserted. Suddenly, a drumroll. Probably a traveling merchant setting up shop on the main square, or maybe some acrobats announcing their evening performance.
But no, it’s not that. When the drum falls silent, we hear the voice of the town clerk, the commissaire as we call this unique embodiment of local authority. So we lend our ears, expecting to hear the reading of a new decree about rabies or keeping the streets clean.
Alas! This fellow proceeded to announce the most frightful cataclysm to afflict humanity since the Flood. He announced the greatest of all scourges, the source of all evils. He announced the general mobilization, prelude to the war— the accursed, infamous war, which forever dishonored our century and blighted the civilization of which we were so proud.
This announcement, to my great amazement, aroused more enthusiasm than sorrow. Unthinking people seemed proud to live in a time when something so magnificent was about to happen. Even the most indifferent didn’t doubt for an instant that victory would be prompt and decisive.
The Somme Offensive: In the Blood-Soaked Mud:
August 29–November 1, 1916
And our bosses weren’t mistaken. They knew quite well that it wasn’t the flame of patriotism which inspired this spirit of sacrifice. It was simply a sense of bravado, to not seem more cowardly than one’s neighbor. Then there was the presumptuous faith in one’s own star; for others it was the secret and futile ambition for a medal, or a sleeve stripe. Finally, for the great mass, it was the uselessness of protesting against an implacable fate.
1918. Convalescence. Paris. Guingamp. Garrison life.
At Valence we disembarked quietly. But just like at Lyon, as soon as the train started up again we made a dash for the gates. This time most of us were held back by the station crews repulsing the assailants.
I managed to fly through a gate which wasn’t guarded and plunked myself down quietly at the end of a railway-car corridor.
I was duly warned that I would be put off at Avignon and handed over to the station police there, which left me utterly cold. I offered to pay my way; they refused. Even paying poilus weren’t welcome on this train. It just would not do to have crude, dusty, muddy creatures like us offending the fine messieurs and their belles dames lounging on the soft banquette cushions.
You should have seen the disdain with which they looked at me, crouched in my corner. Several times the conductors swore at me, threatened me.
1918. Armistice! Liberation!
I was free, after fifty-four months of slavery! I was finally escaping from the claws of militarism, to which I swore such a ferocious hatred.
I have sought to inculcate this hatred in my children, my friends, my neighbors. I will tell them that the fatherland, glory, military honor, laurels—all are only vain words, destined to mask what is frighteningly horrible, ugly, and cruel about war.
To keep up morale during this war, to justify it, they lied cynically, saying that we were fighting just for the triumph of Right and Justice, that they were not guided by ambition, no colonial covetousness or financial or commercial interests.
They lied when they said that we had to push right to the end, so that this would be the last of all wars.
They lied when they said that we, the poilus, wanted to continue the war in order to avenge the dead, so that our sacrifices would not be useless.
The End of the Nightmare:
August 11, 1918–February 14, 1919
Returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years, I taste the joy of life, or rather of new life. I feel tender happiness about things which, before, I didn’t pay attention to: sitting at home, at my table, lying in my bed, putting off sleep so I can hear the wind hitting the shutters, rustling the nearby plane trees, hearing the rain strike the windows, looking at a starry, serene, silent night or, on a dark, moonless night, thinking about similar nights spent up there . . .
Often I think about my many comrades fallen by my side. I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole beings against their tragic fate, against their murder. And I, as a survivor, believe that I am inspired by their will to struggle without cease-fire nor mercy, to my last breath, for the idea of peace and human fraternity.