Whilst on my recent trip to the Somme battlefields, I bought a copy of Paroles de Poilus, edited by Jean-Pierre Guéno. It’s a collection of letters or extracts from letters, from French soldiers in the First World War, to their loved ones. There are occasional extracts from German soldiers’ letters too. Each letter is accompanied by brief biographical details; the whole comes from a national project to preserve this form of personal history, and the archives are lodged in the excellent Historial museum at Péronne.
I’m becoming more aware. as I read more deeply, of how different the French experience of the war was from the British one, which is the one we are obviously familiar with. It’s very different when your country is invaded, large areas of it occupied, some for four years, and sizeable parts of it completely wrecked by warfare. There is the burning desire to drive out the invaders and restore the integrity of the country, and there are the appalling losses – forty percent of the 1.8 million French troops killed were lost in the first nine months of the war, and there are days of slaughter which dwarf the British casualties on 1 July 1917; none of this I knew about before. And I can understand – even if not approve – the French desire for revenge and compensation at the end, which drove the Versailles Treaty in such punitive directions…
The soldiers are very aware, from the start, that they are unlikely to survive, and accepting of their fate, by and large. They are supported by their religious faith as well as their patriotism; they try to console their loved ones with an eye to posterity and future generations who will survive them. Like their British counterparts, they describe the horrors of what they encounter; if anything their experience seems even more chaotic, with poor supplies and food, and also the readiness of the military authorities to summarily execute soldiers who seem not to have done their duty. The French executed about twice as many soldiers as we did.
One thing we should remember next year as we commemorate the centenary of this horrendous and disastrous conflict is the very different experience of other nations and peoples; it was a world war, after all.