Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 (Hardcover) By Louis Barthas, Edward M. Strauss
A century after the guns of August first boomed, World War I has lost none of its power to boggle the mind. The numbers are simply too big: 65 million men under arms, 37 million casualties, 12,000 miles of trenches on the Western Front, 1.45 billion shells fired. Rather than a human event, it often seems like an immeasurable abstraction, like negative infinity.
Louis Barthas, an enlisted man from southwestern France, managed to reduce the conflict to human scale with a pen and 19 notebooks that he filled with observations and comments from his more than four years of service in the army, most of it spent in combat on the Western Front. With Edward M. Strauss’s translation of “Poilu,” English-language readers now have access to a classic account of the war, a day-to-day chronicle of life in the trenches and a richly detailed answer to the seemingly unanswerable question: What was it like?
“Poilu” was first published in France in 1978 after attracting the attention of a history teacher at a lycée where one of Barthas’s grandsons was employed. The title, whose literal meaning is “hairy one,” is the French equivalent of “grunt” or “dogface.”
French historians and critics immediately put the book in the top rank of wartime memoirs. They praised it for its richly detailed, unvarnished account of life in the trenches as experienced by an ordinary soldier — a barrel maker from the wine region of Minervois whose service in the trenches took him from Artois to the Argonne, a trail that included horrific stops at Verdun and the Somme.
Barthas was in his 30s when war broke out. As a trade-union activist, socialist and pacifist, he made a reluctant conscript. He entered the war already disillusioned, a state of mind reflected in the bracingly acidic tone of the journals, which challenge the official version of the war on every page.
“If we suffered so stoically, without raising useless complaints, don’t let anyone tell you that it was because of patriotism, or to defend the rights of peoples to live their own lives, or to end all wars, or other nonsense,” he writes in a characteristic entry. “It was simply by force, because, as victims of an implacable fate we had to undergo our destiny.”
That destiny was a nightmare slog through endless miles of mud, with shoulders hunched against an unending rain of steel from German guns. Barthas, who employs an unadorned, straightforward style sprinkled with slang — he refers to the Élysée Palace as the cagna, or “hangout,” of President Raymond Poincaré — dryly notes that “combat meant mostly being a target for shells.”
The small details make these notebooks come alive. A soldier crouching in a freezing marsh for hours later discovers a fish in his pocket. To ward off the stench of rotting corpses, French soldiers wear a strip of cloth with a small sack of camphor dangling under their noses. While fighting in Flanders in the early months of the war, Barthas throws himself on an embankment and catches a glimpse of a fellow soldier taking a bullet in the back: “I’ll never forget the sight of that hole, like it was made with a drill — a little whiff of smoke from burnt cloth, the man’s violent somersault, a groan, and then the stillness of death.”
Barthas describes lice and exploding 105-millimeter shells in the same matter-of-fact voice, although the shells do cause him to raise an eyebrow from time to time. During a heavy bombardment, a trench mate disappears under a mountain of earth. Before Barthas can dig him out, a second shell falls, displacing the dirt pile and restoring the status quo, like a film sequence run in reverse. The bewildered soldier suffers nothing worse than a crack in his clay pipe.
Barthas has a keen interest in the power struggles between top officers and the lower echelons, which are more complicated than one might think. It was not unusual to see spirited resistance to orders from on high. Enlisted men connived to thwart impossible commands, and midlevel commanders occasionally refused to send their men into impossible situations. Barthas himself loses a stripe by refusing to obey a captain’s orders to have two men dig a trench within machine-gun range of the Germans.
Pushed to the limit, French soldiers sometimes turned on their superiors. At Verdun, Barthas was making his way to the rear after being relieved when a young lieutenant, waving a gun in his face, ordered him to halt. “Outraged by this highly impolite way of stopping people,” Barthas writes, “I hoisted my Lebel rifle and replied to him, ‘You’ve got your revolver, I’ve got my rifle, so what do you want to do now?’ ” The lieutenant backs off.
Through tacit collaboration, the men on the front lines subvert the military code. French and Germans work out unspoken truces so that both sides can carry out work details, rescue the wounded or, at forward observation posts, fraternize.
When a corporal in Barthas’s company is badly wounded while rummaging through the pockets of the newly dead, a common nighttime activity on the front lines, the company captain pretends that he suffered his wound in the line of duty when a general makes inquiries. Bamboozled, the general says, “He will be commended, and will get the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire.” This tickles Barthas, who writes, “And that’s how Corporal Cathala became a hero.”
Any kick against authority pleased Barthas, up to and including surrender, an increasingly common dodge in the final stages of the war. “ ‘What cowards!’ say the patriots in the rear,” he writes. “But if all the soldiers, on both sides, had done the same thing, wouldn’t that have been sublime? The generals would have had to fight each other. Poincaré could have gone a couple of rounds in the boxing ring with the Kaiser. That would have been hilarious.”
The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918
Translated by Edward M. Strauss
Illustrated. 426 pages. Yale University Press/New Haven & London. $35.
What passing-bells for those who die like cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling them from sad shires.
During the First World War, Harold Owen was an officer on board the British cruiser, HMS Astraea. In the weeks following the armistice whilst the ship was at anchor of the coast of Cameroons, Owen fell ill withmalaria. it was during this time that Owen claims he had “an extraordinary and inexplicable experience”:
I had gone down to my cabin thinking to write some letters. I drew aside the door curtain and stepped inside and to my amazement I saw Wilfred sitting in my chair. I felt shock run through me with appalling force and with it I could feel the blood draining away from my face. I did not rush towards him but walked jerkily into the cabin–all my limbs stiff and slow to respond. I did not sit down but looking at him I spoke quietly: “Wilfred, how did you get here?”
He did not rise and I saw that he was involuntarily immobile, but his eyes which had never left mine were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand; when I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile. I felt not fear–I had none when I first drew my door curtain and saw him there–only exquisite mental pleasure at thus beholding him. He was in uniform and I remember thinking how out of place the khaki looked amongst the cabin furnishings. With this thought I must have turned my eyes away from him; when I looked back my cabin chair was empty . . .
I wondered if I had been dreaming but looking down I saw that I was still standing. Suddenly I felt terribly tired and moving to my bunk I lay down; instantly I went into a deep oblivious sleep. When I woke up I knew with absolute certainty that Wilfred was dead.
Harold learned only later that his brother had been killed a week before this experience occurred.
Uploaded but not written by Louis Sheehan