The Embattled Self

The Embattled Self: French Soldiers' Testimony of the Great War

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Embattled Self
    Book Description:

    How did the soldiers in the trenches of the Great War understand and explain battlefield experience, and themselves through that experience? Situated at the intersection of military history and cultural history, The Embattled Self draws on the testimony of French combatants to explore how combatants came to terms with the war. In order to do so, they used a variety of narrative tools at hand-rites of passage, mastery, a character of the soldier as a consenting citizen of the Republic. None of the resulting versions of the story provided a completely consistent narrative, and all raised more questions about the "truth" of experience than they answered. Eventually, a story revolving around tragedy and the soldier as victim came to dominate-even to silence-other types of accounts. In thematic chapters, Leonard V. Smith explains why the novel structured by a specific notion of trauma prevailed by the 1930s.

    Smith canvasses the vast literature of nonfictional and fictional testimony from French soldiers to understand how and why the "embattled self" changed over time. In the process, he undermines the conventional understanding of the war as tragedy and its soldiers as victims, a view that has dominated both scholarly and popular opinion since the interwar period. The book is important reading not only for traditional historians of warfare but also for scholars in a variety of fields who think critically about trauma and the use of personal testimony in literary and historical studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7121-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    L. V. S.
    (pp. 1-19)

    This book turns a historical truism into a historical problem: we can understand the Great War of 1914–18 only as a tragedy and the soldier who fought it only as a victim. Historians have always been taught to uncover the problems they investigate by turning to the original sources. Here, these comprise a vast and poorly understood body of historical documentation—French soldiers’ published testimonies of the Great War. The increasing importance of visual media notwithstanding, published testimony remained the most important means through which experience in the trenches entered the public sphere. Testimony took many forms, such as...

  5. 1 Rites of Passage and the Initiation to Combat
    (pp. 20-59)

    In his first major statement on the Great War, Sigmund Freud lamented how the experience of less than one year of war had overwhelmed the existing means of understanding experience itself:

    Swept as we are into the vortex of this war-time, our information one-sided, ourselves too near to focus on the mighty transformations which have already taken place or are beginning to take place, and without a glimmering of the inchoate future, we are incapable of apprehending the significance of the thronging impressions, and know not what value to attach to the judgments we form.¹

    Time had gone out of...

  6. 2 The Mastery of Survival: DEATH, MUTILATION, AND KILLING
    (pp. 60-105)

    Freud’s dictum from early 1915, “If you would endure life, prepare for death,” can be read as a call to imagine survival in the context of omnipresent death. This chapter examines attempts to imagine survival through mastery. Mastery as a narrative device responds to questions left unanswered by rites of passage. Rites of passage were collective and conventionally demarcated a transition in which the various stages and their meanings were understood in advance by both the initiates and the broader society. But actual experience in 1914 afflicted individuals and invoked myriad internal and external transformations entirely understood by no one,...

  7. 3 The Genre of Consent
    (pp. 106-147)

    As we have seen, the mastery of survival as a set of narrative tools produced unstable narratives and narrators. Survival, simply put, had to be structured further, typically by some higher meaning that could provide a moral to the story. Survival had to figure in some broader narrative pattern making the war comprehensible. Consent provided such a framework and its own set of narrative tools. Observers have long noted that in the nineteenth century, stalemated war pointed the way to a compromise peace. But stalemate in the Great War pointed the way to the total mobilization of individuals and societies....

  8. 4 The Novel and the Search for Closure
    (pp. 148-194)

    A central problem of any kind of narration is closure, which pronounces experience “over,” at least to the extent that it can be fit into a narrative with a distinct position as to past, present, and future. As Hayden White put it, narrative requires “‘the sense of an ending,’ which links a terminus of a process with its origin in such a way as to endow whatever happened in between with a significance that can only be gained by ‘retrospection.’”¹ Of course, finding closure in the narration of experience in the Great War concerned diverse collective and individual temporalities. Blaise...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-202)

    It remains to situate the témoignage of French soldiers of the Great War into larger issues of testimony, such as the authority of the witness and the claims of experience. Témoignage, I have argued, results from the creation of narrator and narrative through the linguistic construction of experience. Broadly speaking, testimony can be thought of as having two components. The first is the succession of events or “nows” being emplotted in the narrative. Generally speaking, these events are subject to empirical investigation and being proven or disproven. A “river of blood” and a “mountain of corpses” either existed or it...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 203-210)
  11. Index
    (pp. 211-214)