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[BOOK] Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918



I recently finished reading Poilu by Louis Barthas. It is the memoir of a French infantryman who fought almost the entire duration of the Great War. Barthas was a 35 year old cooper from a small town in southern France who had already completed his mandatory service when his reserve unit was called up at the beginning of the war. He spent the the first few months of the war guarding prisoners of war near the Spanish border and not expecting to be sent to the front. After the incredible losses of the Battle of the Frontiers however, Barthas' regiment was sent to the front.

Barthas saw action at nearly all the major battles the French army was involved in. He was at Artois, Verdun, the Somme, Champagne, Argonne, as well as spending time on less active sections of the front. His account of the war drips with sarcasm. Although he describes countless horrors and deprivations caused by the war I have never read a more humorous war memoir. For example: this is Barthas' descriptions of the aftermath of one shelling “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.”

The man was an avowed socialist and his work is full of exhortations to international socialist brotherhood. It's an interesting look into the mindset of an early 20th century socialist before the ideology was poisoned by autocratic regimes around the world. Barthas didn't hate the Boche. He sympathized with them as men just caught up in the madness of war and forced to fight just like he was. Several times in the book Barthas describes fraternizing with German prisoners or German soldiers in an OP just across no-mans land.

His real hatred was reserved for his officers. Dripping with venom, in one passage he describes marching all day to some village behind the front where the officers immediately claimed the sole undamaged building while "graciously allowing us the privilege of sleeping in a muddy field." The men in placed in command are almost uniformly stupid, vicious, or incompetent. One Lieutenant orders Barthas' squad to dig a latrine trench in full view of a German machine gun. In fact, Barthas was demoted to private for insubordination in the middle of the war but was shortly given back his corporal's stripes because his commanders knew that he was the best man for the job. After getting his stripes back Barthas routinely disobeyed orders he considered stupid with very little pushback from higher ups.

I highly recommend this book. It is a glimpse into the life of the French Army that is so rare for English speakers.