This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. The full title of this particular memoir is Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. “Poilu” is a term for a French foot soldier, in use since the days of Napoleon.
As soon as I started reading Barthas’ notebooks, I understood what had been missing in my other recent WWI readings: sarcasm.
Not a harsh, meanspirited sarcasm, but an earthy, unblinking recognition of the absurdities of the situation. And no one could have expressed these absurdities better than the unique individual Louis Barthas, a working-class fellow who at the advanced age of 35 left his village of Peyriac-Minervois in southwest France, near Carcassone, to enter the war in early August, 1914. Incredibly, he survived until his discharge February 14, 1919. He served in battles of the Artois, Verdun, Champagne, the Somme, and the Argonne.
The other personal accounts I have read about the war all came from officers, members of the better-educated, wealthier classes. With my current “Words of endurance” series on this blog, I am reading or re-reading these accounts. Some are well-known, such as Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and the (almost too obvious) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Some don’t have such wide readership, such as Hans Carossa’s Roumanian Diary or Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality. Or Vladimir Littauer’s Russian Hussar.** I haven’t by any means completed all of these books yet, but I will. Happily, I find them fascinating.
Among these authors, Junger is fierce, lyrical, and controversial. Remarque’s words are a watercolor of battle, lovely but blurred, Carossa and Chapman are introspective and meticulous. Littauer’s style comes across as urbane and anecdotal.
And then… I run smack up against Barthas, whose style is, to say the least, a bit grittier. He can say of an inept new commandant, “The poor guy read his map like a carp reading a prayer book.” In a newly made narrow trench, “An errant shell could come bouncing down the staircase and make a bloody grenadier omelet.” After a narrow miss from a shell, “Jalabert rushed off like a madman, but Sabatier, shaking himself off like a wet dog, declares in a cheerful voice, ‘What do you know? My pipe is busted!’ …Sabatier’s pipe was stuck in his mouth eleven hours out of twelve. The commission evaluating reparations for wartime damages will have to include Sabatier’s pipe.”
Barthas was not afraid to describe the abominable conditions in the trenches, especially in the early stages of the war, when—compared with the German engineering efforts—the French dug trenches that seemed almost childlike, like what ten-years olds would dig to play in. Describing a dugout with a plank floor, Barthas admitted this was better than their usual accomodations on the damp earth. But… “For those who envy this well-being, it needs to be said that legions of lice and fleas had already chosen this floor as their domicile. Furthermore, these rough planks, simply laid next to each other by a clumsy carpenter on uneven ground, were like piano keys, so that… when a comrade came into the shelter, you wouldn’t be surprised to have your shoulder, your head, or your flank be bounced up while your other shoulder or flank sank down.”
Barthas was a socialist. In his home winemaking region, he had participated before the war in forming an agricultural worker’s union. He participated in stubborn refusals to go along with the insane plans of his officers—basically the “strategy” of throwing thousands of troops in suicidal rushes against enemy trenches. The thing that I like best is that his socialism was not at all abstract but came organically from his especially powerful sense of shared humanity.
Gifted with a sharp memory and keen perceptiveness, he had an instinct for intelligent action under fire. He was not afraid to go into the hellish combat on Cote 304 at Verdun, accepting a volunteer scouting assignment that left him highly exposed to enemy shellfire. His superiors made him a corporal, but when he annoyed too many of them with his antimilitaristic attitudes—extending even to fraternization with the odd German sentry or prisoner–he was demoted back to private. Then the higher-ups changed their minds, recognizing that he was the sort who really should have command of a squad. For him this was not such a privilege. He would rather have been a man of the ranks, not out of modesty but simply out of solidarity with the others.
Yet they gave him back his stripes, and from that point forward, he bluntly refused orders he considered would risk his men’s lives needlessly. Strangely enough, they generally retreated in silence: his will was stronger than theirs.
The men of his squad knew he was keeping a diary. Early in the war, one of them begged him, “You who are writing about the life we’re leading here, don’t hide anything. You’ve got to tell it all.” The others joined in. “Yes, yes, everything, everything. We’ll be there as your witnesses. Maybe we won’t all die here.” But another added cynically, “They won’t believe us, or maybe they won’t even give a damn.”
After the war he developed it, with much work, into a continuous narrative. In this sense he honored his comrades. He never thought of publication—the barrier between himself and a Parisian publishing house seemed insurmountable. Thus the notebook he’d toiled over languished twenty years after his death in a disused cupboard in his house. But when it saw the light of day, its discoverers understood they had come into possession of a unique document, a story of the Great War that could only have been told by Barthas himself. Some have said it is one of the greatest memoirs of that conflict, and I have a sense that assessment is correct.
* I used this photo because it is free of copyright. There is another photo of Barthas that shows him much more clearly, down to the points of his moustache. It is not in the public domain in the U.S. and I will not use it, but you can find it fairly easily with a little googling.
** The Littauer book was suggested to me by Pat Holscher, a reader of this blog. Thank you, Pat.