Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918
- Louis Barthas
- Yale University Press
- 472 pp.
- Reviewed by Andrew Imbrie Dayton
- May 19, 2014
Life in the trenches of World War I, recorded by one who endured four years there.
If you’re searching for a read to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, look no further than Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, translated from the original French by Edward M. Strauss.
In 1914, Louis Barthas was a 35-year-old barrelmaker with a wife and two children, enjoying a pastoral life in a southern winemaking region of France, not far from the Pyrenees. Activation of his infantry reserve unit at the outset of World War I cast him into four years of service as a “poilu,” or “hairy one,” a derisive name for the common foot soldiers. During this tour he fought in the fiercest battles of the war. Their names alone will make you cringe: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne. To our great good fortune, Barthas kept extensive diaries, which he assembled into 19 notebooks. Through happenstance these remained unknown and unpublished until 1978 (some 26 years after Barthas’ death), whereupon they were published in France to great acclaim. Now they appear in English for the first time and promise a repetition in this language of their success in French.
The material here is raw and unvarnished — not just primary, but primal. This is not the grand stuff of geopolitics and strategy, nor of literary arcs and historical perspective, nor even of battlefield tactics and logistics. It is the day-to-day life of a foot soldier in the trenches. And what a horrible life it was: You already know about relentless, random death, the internecine crossfire of machine guns and artillery bombardments, rapacious orders from above demanding human wave attacks that poilus knew were suicidal – 100,000 Frenchmen lost in the Chemin des Dames offensive alone. Besides the deaths were the months of gray skies and immersion in trenches flooded with sewage and the wash of battlefield corpses (attended, ironically, by ravaging thirst, for potable water had to be brought to the trenches on the backs of soldiers under fire); months of blistering heat and the stench of rotting bodies; months of freezing sleet and snow; cratered landscapes a marmalade of body parts, barbed wire, broken weapons and blasted earth; rest days in filthy pigsties; everywhere rats and vermin and lice. The moral privations rivaled the physical. Some army doctors refused to acknowledge even serious illness so they could keep the troops at the front. Even God seemed to have abandoned the poilus. To have suffered so for four long years is unfathomable.
Much of the material is less familiar than the horrors of the trenches. At times, soldiers on both sides, flushed from their trenches by weeks of rainfall and thus completely exposed, simply didn’t bother to shoot at one another even though separated by less than the length of a football field, burying their misery in camaraderie and exchanges of gifts. At one point in Champagne, sentries occupied opposing barricades separated by less than two car lengths — yet it was the safest point on the front! The opposing French and German soldiers were simply too close to fight. They read and smoked and traded gossip and complaints and tobacco and newspapers and bread — until, that is, a French officer, to prove his mettle and discourage fraternization, lured a German sentry into conversation and then shot him through the head. Only after three and a half years of war did oilskin jackets arrive to keep rain off of the troops — two jackets per squad. Ditto for rubber boots. But jackets and boots were waylaid by officers and orderlies, so what did it matter to the poilus, who needed them the most? The list of miseries goes on.
Despite the dearth of literary artifice, these memoirs portray narrative arcs of telling significance. You see the initial patriotic fervor of mobilization rapidly dissipate to indifference, as quick victory proves illusive. You see the celebrated sacrificial élan disappear shortly thereafter for the same reason. Later you see mutinous poilus overtly sympathize with the Russian revolutionaries, often singing “The Internationale” to shame their officers into skulking silence. Toward the end of the war you see even colonels, face to face with generals who are ordering them to attack, refuse to obey, insisting their troops are simply too exhausted — and generals who acquiesce. And finally, by the end you learn, almost as an aside, that Barthas himself is simply worn out. He started the war in his prime and ends it as an emaciated, sick, old man who has to walk with the aid of a stick, even as he still mans the trenches — a gripping personification of the entire war if ever there was one.
Why would anyone fight, given these circumstances, and fight four years if they lived that long? Barthas provides insight:
The top brass couldn’t comprehend how free men, who had been free right up
to the minute the war began, could submit without the slightest murmur, almost
voluntarily, to this sacrifice which they knew to be in vain, useless, with
more docility than a troop of slaves in ancient Rome heading to some unexpected
And our bosses weren’t mistaken. They knew quite well that it wasn’t the
flame of patriotism which inspired its 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.”
There is a wealth of insight and emotion in these memoirs, portrayed in countless — but gripping — details. Poilu is a deep read and an engaging one, a welcome rarity.
Andrew Imbrie Dayton
co-authored the novel The House That
War Minister Built and was a founding contributing editor for the
Washington Independent Review of Books. He lives and writes in the
Washington, DC, area.