If Any Question Why We Died; Tell Them, Because Our Fathers Lied

— Rudyard Kipling[1]

IN JANUARY 2014, as Europe entered the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War, the then British Education Secretary, Michael Gove condemned “left-wing myths” about World War I, which “belittled Britain and cleared Germany of blame.” He went on to criticize historians and TV programs that denigrated patriotism and courage by depicting the war as a “misbegotten shambles.” Gove’s comments, which caused considerable controversy, indirectly touched on two of the many questions that have preoccupied historians and laymen alike since the “guns fell silent” in November 1918. Where did the responsibility lie for starting a war that killed millions, brought Europe to its knees, and laid the foundation for the mayhem that has characterized the world since? And, was the “misbegotten shambles” and slaughter the responsibility of reckless politicians and inept military leaders, who could have brought the war to an end earlier, but didn’t?

The flood of monographs, re-edited novels and memoirs, and new analyses that have been published in the build-up to the centenary (and which will, no doubt, continue to appear well after 2018) revisit these questions, confirming the sustained interest in the war. Whether or not one adheres to the opinion — presented by the historian Christopher Clark — that due to a series of diplomatic mishaps and misunderstandings Europe sleepwalked into the war or — as the military historian Max Hastings would have it — that the diplomatic breakdown causing the war was essentially the fault of the leaders and politicians of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that European hubris was a key factor that led to and sustained the maelstrom.[2]

In reality, there were two wars: that of the politicians and military leaders, and that of the men and women in the trenches and near the battlefront. Historians of the former will continue to debate the reasons Europe went to war, and why the belligerents kept on fighting in the face of horrendous conditions and unimaginable losses. For the men and women at the front, who were obliged to follow rather than lead, and whose options were therefore limited, the best way they could register their sentiments was through poems, novels, and memoirs. While many of the poems and some of the novels that emerged in the aftermath of the war were threaded through with patriotism and glossed over the hideousness of the experience at the front, the ones that have stood the test of time have been those that have presented the war for what it was: one of filth, unimagined horror, and savagery, interspersed with periods of extreme boredom. Social and cultural historians and literary scholars, particularly those wary of the deleterious aspects of nationalism, have preferred to explore the experiences and plight of these men and women, creating the scholarship that can, and often does, undermine the national “blame game,” and sheds an altogether different light on the significance of patriotism.

The 19 war notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, published in English as Poilu (the French sobriquet for their soldiersmeaning hairy, reflecting their indifference to shaving)are not only remarkable in their scope, but also unique in that Barthas survived the war, finally discharged in February 1919. He was thus a witness to, or involved in, all the major events, from the Marne to Verdun and on to the Argonne. Barthas kept his journal throughout the war, taking home the notebooks he filled whenever he was on leave. He soon became the spokesman for his comrades-in-arms. As one of them stated; he “is writing about the life we are leading”, and continued by urging him to “be sure not to hide anything.” It was a role he took seriously. Not only did he record the trajectory of the war in all its rawness, but he also wrote to local and national dignitaries expressing the needs of the soldiers, demanding increased food rations and better conditions. That his requests were unanswered added to his cynicism. After the war he augmented his wartime record by incorporating passages from the letters and postcards he exchanged while at the front and adding the occasional post facto opinion. He thus created an invaluable testimony of the infantrymen’s war, which has not gone out of print since its posthumous publication in 1978.

Barthas was a cooper, or barrel-maker, by profession, who was born and lived in a village in southwestern France, until he joined up in 1914, at the age of 35. His descriptions and observations of the events he experienced show a reflectiveness and acuity of mind that belie his humble origins. The volume comprises the 19 notebooks, each with an evocative title covering two or three months of the war. The tone of the work is set on the opening page, where Barthas describes the events of August 2, 1914. The town clerk “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.” The first notebook, from August 2 to November 1, describes garrison duty where, still relatively distant from the war, the men formed friendships, which for some — the lucky ones — would last throughout the four years of conflict. The shock of what was waiting for them came with the arrival of the first trainload of casualties. Barthas describes “high officials, who signed up as porters” to circumvent the restricted access to the platforms in order to be the first to see the wounded as they were unloaded from the trains. “Twenty thousand people” had gathered in expectation, and when they caught sight of the first stretcher “there was mass delirium. The crowd applauded, wept, and stamped their feet, all to get a closer look.” These unexpected details make his testimony compelling, and may trouble those who insist on a simple and seamless story of the war.

The second notebook, “To the Killing Fields,” covers the period of November through December 14, 1914, and thrusts the reader into the landscape of fear and horror that the men encountered when they arrived at the front. The real interest of these early entries lies in the fact that so few memoirs cover this period of the war in such detail. Anyone familiar with the literature on the war, whatever the genre, knows about the atrocity of the battles at Ypres, Verdun, the Marne, the Somme, and on and on, but how many know that for the soldiers the first visions of the war were equally appalling in an altogether different way? Barthas looked on in “horror” as “three trench dwellers” approached him. “They were covered in mud from the tip of their shoes to the peaks of their képis as if they had just waded through a sea of muck.” These “refugees from the age of the cavemen,” as Barthas puts it, totally unrecognizable, turned out to be three of his close friends. Similarly, the first encounter with German prisoners, who “acted like good little children”, the witnessing of the first death, the terror of having to go “over the top,” are as faithfully recorded as are the “lies” of the officers who were reluctant to admit where their men were being sent when they ordered them out on a mission. “[W]hy this ridiculous comedy, why this loathsome trick? What did they fear? A revolt perhaps? They gave us too much credit if they thought we would protest on the way to the slaughterhouse.” The poilus may not have been ready to protest so early in the war, but by 1917 initial reticence gave way to action, and a string of mutinies followed the catastrophic Chemin des Dames offensive, with the mutineers crying “Revolution or Peace,” reflecting both their disillusionment and the reverberations of events in Russia. That the men’s early faith in the word of their officers had been replaced by cynicism and disgust is made clear in the trajectory of Barthas’ chronicle. Although he praises the officers who were mindful of their men and whose courage set an example, the inhumanity of the trenches did not bring out the best in most of Barthas’ commanders, and his account of the relationship between officers and men is largely negative. His portrait of them ranges from those who were indifferent to perverse or, at worst, sadistic. The best leader, Barthas opined, “wasn’t the cleverest tactician, but rather the one who knew best how to keep his men alive.”

Even in the trenches traditional class distinctions persisted, along with the lice, rats, and mud. These distinctions, tellingly, carried over into incidents of spontaneous fraternization that occurred between the French and German soldiers. The Christmas truce of 1914 is well known, thanks in part to the 2005 feature film Joyeux Noël (The Christmas Truce). So too is the fact that the generals were furious and attempted to stamp out further such associations, without total success as Barthas’ account makes clear. One such fraternization occurred as late as December 10, 1916. Following an unusually fierce storm that flooded the trenches, both French and Germans were obliged to clamber out so as not to drown. They “looked at each other and saw that […] they were no different one from another. They smiled, exchanged comments; hands reached out and grasped […] If only we spoke the same language!” On another occasion a huge “German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand […] but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it into two in a gesture of anger. Applause broke out on both sides, and the ‘Internationale’ was sung.”

The Somme offensive, which took place between July and October 1916, is mostly remembered as the event that killed or wounded 1,000,000 men. It represents for the British what Verdun does for the French: it was at the Somme, according to one of the mantras of WWI memory, that Britain lost the “flower of her youth.” For the poilus present, it was “just like Verdun,” but with the added horror of “cold, rain and mud.” Why did the men march to their deaths “with the docility of a troop of slaves in ancient Rome heading to some unexpected slaughter,” a fact even the “top brass” failed to understand, according to Barthas? It was not patriotism that “inspired the spirit of sacrifice,” he declares, but more personal reasons: “a sense of bravado, not to seem more cowardly than one’s neighbor […] the presumptuous faith in one’s own star […] the secret and futile ambition for a medal [… or merely] the uselessness of protesting against an implacable fate.” Passages like this, which occur at intervals throughout the text, emphasize the stark contrast between the attitudes and experiences of the men and their high-level superiors, and underscore the dual nature of the war that has marked its historiography.

The richness of Barthas’ testimony is difficult to capture in its totality. Whether the focus is on actual battles; the propaganda distributed at both the battle and home fronts; the medical care, or lack of it; the injustices behind who was or was not decorated; the admiration of the colonial troops; or even the civilian reactions to the poilus — the irony of the tone in many of the passages underscores the futility of war, a tone which the historian Paul Fussell remarked was born in the trenches of World War I.[3] The two introductions (to the original French and to the English translation) and the afterward, all by the historian Rémy Cazals, contain useful information about Barthas and his experiences, with the afterward including scholars’ responses to and use of Barthas’ text, demonstrating how consequential it has been. Barthas’ testimony, which exemplifies the title of this review and demonstrates the shared experiences of all the belligerents, is a superb addition to the many moving reminders of man’s bravery in the face of the futility of war.

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[1] Rudyard Kipling was a fervent supporter of the war until the death of his son when he wrote this couplet.

[2] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper, 2013); Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914 : Europe Goes to War, 1st American ed. (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2013).

[3] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1975

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Patricia Lorcin is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.