A century ago this August, “the war to end all wars,” the Great War “over there,” exploded into four years of shattering conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since. The collapse of centuries-long royal lines and national empires, the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Germany, the creation of the national lines of conflict that plague the Middle East, and the surge of the United States to global superpower—all these things have their roots in World War I. With the possible exception of the American Civil War, no other major conflict—not even World War II—was fought with such ferocious violence or resulted in more casualties per warred-over territory. Roughly half of all who served in the war suffered injury, including more than 10 million military personnel who died, along with 7 million civilians. Much of the war’s carnage occurred along the ragged line of 12,000 miles of trenches snaking the length of northern and eastern France, the so-called Western Front, where the two warring armies stalled three months after the war began and then engaged in a four-year war of attrition that ultimately bled dry the great nations of the world.
Thousands of books have been written about the conflict. Dozens more will be published this year to mark the centennial of the war’s first guns. But almost none carries the power of a single French infantryman’s war memoirs scribbled out in 19 notebooks he kept over four years on the Western Front. Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 has now been published in English for the first time. Nothing ever written provides a more accurate, raw and close-in account of the beastly life of the common soldier caught in the vise between the warring empires where they were turned into raw meat.
Corporal Barthas was a barrelmaker from a hot, rocky, and dry wine-growing village in Languedoc, on the far opposite Mediterranean side of France from Germany. Apparently very bright, he nonetheless left school at age 13 to take up his father’s cooperage trade. Locally respected as a civic-minded, vocally left-leaning trade unionist, an irreverent, nonpracticing yet believing Catholic, and army reserve corporal, the 35-year-old Barthas led an apparently sunny life with his wife and two young sons before the Great War exploded in August 1914. By November he had taken his place in the forward lines at the Western Front. Except for brief respites at the rear and a few furloughs long enough to return to see his family, he remained in the army for the next 54 months, including 41 months fighting on the front lines. He fought the French army’s fiercest battles, places literally obliterated by artillery whose names on the map came to stand for churned moonscapes of desolation, destruction, and death: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne.
Along with their German counterpart, the French infantry bore the most severe hardships and suffered the worst losses of any army in the war, with 22 percent killed. Somehow—and the notebooks he kept in part reveal how—Barthas survived the worst of the worst of trench warfare, at the head of a squad of around 15 men spending weeks at a time smack up against the German lines.
“Cheating death,” he writes, was both a matter of luck amid “this monstrous avalanche of metal,” this “veritable curtain of steel and fire,” “the disagreeable tic-tac of machine guns,” that pounded men “into marmalade,” and what Barthas described as “a mysterious intuition, an instinct about the imminence of danger” that told him “it was time to flee.” Yet he ventured as close to death and the dead as one can be without joining them. Hunkering down in terror on a small rise against the enfilading fire coming from upper stories of a neighboring village, he noted, “I saw one of those guys who had already taken cover there get hit in the back with a bullet. 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.”
Rarely so personal, death was more often oceanic and everywhere. Barthas would look out on scenes of churned up earth filled with human remains and the debris of thousands of pulverized lives. In an overrun German trench, bought at immense cost, he wrote, “Where the connecting trench joined in, an unfortunate fellow was stretched out, decapitated by a shell, just as if he had been guillotined. Beside him, another was frightfully mutilated… I saw, as if hallucinating, a pile of corpses … they had started to bury right in the trench … ‘There’s no one here but the dead!’ I exclaimed.”
Barthas several times eluded death: “I was by myself, at the far end of our little stretch of [trench], crouched in a little hole, when a big shell landed like a thunderbolt just three or four meters in front of me. The violence of the blast tore away the tent cloth which I had arranged in front of my hole, to keep out the sun and the flies, and tossed it who knows where. As for me, I had the sense of being knocked flat, and for a few seconds I couldn’t get my breath. I had just felt the death wind. Some say it’s chilly; I found it hot and burning. It coursed through my whole body, from my rattled brain, to my heavy heart and lungs, all the way down to my rubbery legs.”
Much of his tale consists of endless marches, train rides from front to front, nights sleeping in the mud, endless slogs through the dark, terrifying human sewers of the frontline trenches, and hunkering down under crumbling earth walls against the cold, the soughing rain, and continuous artillery explosions and machine gun fire. The fear of being buried alive or lost in the blackness was a constant. On one nighttime march through a rain-filled trench, his squadron came across a soldier cemented into the mud and left behind by his own fellow infantrymen. “We made some vain efforts to pull him out,” Barthas recorded, “almost to the point of pulling his arms and legs out of their sockets. Seeing that we too were abandoning him, he begged us to put him out of his misery with a rifle shot …
“While we were trying to dig out this poor guy, our comrades in the squad ahead had disappeared. We called out to them, and got no answer. Were they already that far away, or had they all drowned?”
Eventually soldiers on all sides could not endure this hell. Part of survival ultimately depended on refusing to obey orders, even as their officers promised to shoot them on the spot should they not advance. Soon troops from both sides exited the trenches, met their enemies in peace and even agreed not to fire on one another. Barthas came upon “French and German sentries seated tranquilly on their parapets, smoking pipes and exchanging bits of conversation from time to time, like good neighbors taking some fresh air at their doorsteps.”
He shared his fellow poilus’ conviction that, while he had to fight, the true enemy was his own officers’ pigheadedness and the various national leaders’ arrogance and indifference to their armies’ unnecessary misery. One night as he moved away from an untenable front, he bumped into an officer who pointed a revolver at his face. He raised his rifle at the officer, who turned and ran.
Unwilling to kill, Barthas volunteered for deadly duties running messages between command posts. “I wasn’t ignorant of the dangers I would be running,” he states, “but if I had to be there I would a hundred times rather die with a dispatch in my hand than with a rifle which had just killed a fellow workingman like me, a brother in misery and suffering.” When he refused to send his men on a mission that would expose them unprotected into machine gun fire, not surprisingly, his superiors sought to put him up to a firing post despite his obvious valor and his men’s devotion to him. The officers didn’t succeed, but Barthas at one point lost his stripes.
Barthas’s notebooks had an underground and scholarly presence for many decades. However, Poilu (French slang since the age of Napoleon for an infantryman) did not reach a wide audience in France until its official publication in 1978. It became an antiwar classic and a bestseller. In Europe Poilu stands in some eyes equal to Siegfried Sassoon’s and Wilfred Owen’s antiwar poetry, the great antiwar novels such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and even Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and memoirs such as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Americans familiar with Sam Watkins’s irony-laced Confederate Civil War memoir, Company Aytch, will find the irreverent and colorful Watkins has a French cousin in Barthas.
The barrelmaker closes his war notebooks in 1919 on a sincere and tender yet bitter note. Although he “returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years,” he often thought about his fallen comrades. “I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole beings against their tragic fate, against their murder.” One hundred years on, Barthas’ Poilu continues that revolt.