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

Translated by Edward M. Strauss
Foreword by Robert Cowley
Introductions and Afterword by Rémy Cazals
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Along with millions of other Frenchmen, Louis Barthas, a thirty-five-year-old barrelmaker from a small wine-growing town, was conscripted to fight the Germans in the opening days of World War I. Corporal Barthas spent the next four years in near-ceaseless combat, wherever the French army fought its fiercest battles: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne. Barthas' riveting wartime narrative, first published in France in 1978, presents the vivid, immediate experiences of a frontline soldier.This excellent new translation brings Barthas' wartime writings to English-language readers for the first time. His notebooks and letters represent the quintessential memoir of a "poilu," or "hairy one," as the untidy, unshaven French infantryman of the fighting trenches was familiarly known. Upon Barthas' return home in 1919, he painstakingly transcribed his day-to-day writings into nineteen notebooks, preserving not only his own story but also the larger story of the unnumbered soldiers who never returned. Recounting bloody battles and endless exhaustion, the deaths of comrades, the infuriating incompetence and tyranny of his own officers, Barthas also describes spontaneous acts of camaraderie between French poilus and their German foes in trenches just a few paces apart. An eloquent witness and keen observer, Barthas takes his readers directly into the heart of the Great War.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20695-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword: “You’ve Got To Tell It All”
    (pp. vii-xvi)
    Robert Cowley

    Few documents from the Great War are as remarkable as the war notebooks of Louis Barthas, published in English for the first time in Edward M. Strauss’s fine translation. They are special for a number of reasons. Their author left a record of four years of service at the front, an unusual span of survival. He was not an officer but a common soldier, a corporal, a man approaching middle age who in civilian life had been a barrelmaker from the Languedoc region of France, a wine-growing center.

    Men in the ranks were not ordinarily chroniclers, and we’ll never know...

  4. Translator’s Note
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction to the English Translation (2014)
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
    Rémy Cazals

    Louis Barthas does not belong to the category of history’s “Great Men,” whether civilian or military. A simple barrelmaker (in French,tonnelier) by trade, in a village of the Audedépartementin the Languedoc region of France, he never sought promotion above his rank of corporal in the army. He accomplished no earth-shattering deed which would have brought him great renown. All he did was write about his experiences in the First World War—1,732 manuscript pages, resulting in a big book which has now become a classic:Les carnets de guerre de Louis Barthas, tonnelier, 1914–1918.This book...

  6. Introduction (1978)
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
    Rémy Cazals

    Documents, even written documents, that can constitute popular memory are perhaps more numerous than we might think. A small organization in thedépartementof Aude, [southwestern] France, theFédération audoise des oeuvres laïques,has taken on, among its many missions, seeking out such documents and making them known. In the course of two years it has brought out, from the cupboards where they slept, some remarkable documents, notably the written accounts, day by day, of schoolchildren in a village in the Corbières [mountain range] under the Occupation, and then the war notebooks of Louis Barthas, socialist militant of a village...

  7. Maps
    (pp. xxix-xxxiv)
  8. 1st Notebook Garrison Duty: August 2–November 1, 1914
    (pp. 1-18)

    August 2, 1914. A broiling hot August afternoon. The streets of the village all but deserted. Suddenly, a drumroll. Probably a traveling merchant setting up shop on the main square, or maybe some acrobats announcing their evening performance.

    But no, it’s not that. When the drum falls silent, we hear the voice of the town clerk, thecommissaireas we call this unique embodiment of local authority. So we lend our ears, expecting to hear the reading of a new decree about rabies or keeping the streets clean.

    Alas! This fellow proceeded to announce the most frightful cataclysm to afflict...

  9. 2nd Notebook To the Killing Fields: November 4–December 14, 1914
    (pp. 19-37)

    Our departure from Narbonne was set for Wednesday, November 4th. I was part of a detachment of fifty men going to reinforce the 280th Infantry Regiment, which was operating near Béthune and La Bassée in northern France.

    As sad as that journey was, if I live a thousand years I will never forget the tiniest memories, the smallest details.

    My wife was determined to come to Narbonne and to stay by my side until the very last minute, bringing with her my youngest son, six years old, my dear little André. Out of pity they allowed wives whose husbands were...

  10. 3rd Notebook Massacres: December 15, 1914–May 4, 1915
    (pp. 38-50)

    But alas, we hadn’t gained anything by waiting.

    By the next evening at 8 o’clock, many of us had already bedded down, some were writing letters or playing cards by candlelight, others were singing, when an orderly appeared and cried out in a voice that immediately got our attention: “Here are the orders. The regiment is relieved. You’re going to have some rest at Mazingarbe. Departure at 4 in the morning. Blankets rolled up horseshoe-style on your knapsacks.”

    That brought an explosion of joy. We cried, we applauded, we laughed. So as not to be late, the eager ones rolled...

  11. 4th Notebook Toward the Lorette Charnel House: May 4–June 2, 1915
    (pp. 51-71)

    On December 23¹ they led us up to trenches where the occupants who had preceded us had the bright idea of setting up shelters for two or three men each. There was even a bed of straw in each one.

    We could finally stretch out, take our shoes off, and not be on constant alert. When you’re miserable, the slightest comfort and the tiniest well-being become a big deal, a stroke of good luck.

    During the night of December 23–24, ten unpatriotic Germans came to enlist as prisoners within our lines. In the 17th Company this was a big...

  12. 5th Notebook The Lorette Charnel House: June 2–July 2, 1915
    (pp. 72-93)

    Lorette—a sinister name, evoking scenes of horror, gloomy woods, sunken roads, plateaus and ravines taken and retaken twenty times, where for months, night after night, we cut each other’s throats, massacred each other incessantly. We made that little corner of the earth a human charnel house, by the criminal obstinacy of our top brass, who knew quite well that nothing decisive would come from this petty style of fighting a war, these nasty little attacks. But they imagined that in this war of attrition, this cruel game, the Germans would be the first ones to be worn down.


  13. 6th Notebook The Accursed War, the Charnel House of Lorette, the Slaughter of September 25, 1915: July 1–September 27, 1915
    (pp. 94-113)

    That night, July 1–2, the 13th Squad was supposed to take its turn up front, at the firing trench, from midnight until daybreak. The 14th Squad had the shift before us, but at about 9 p.m. their corporal, Marty, from Narbonne, said he wasn’t feeling well and asked if he and I could switch places. I was happy to oblige.

    At midnight, the 13th Squad took its post on the firing line. Our three newcomers were awestruck. They couldn’t believe that they were only fifty meters from the Germans. They didn’t dare raise their heads above the parapet. We...

  14. 7th Notebook The Bloody and Futile Offensive of September 25, 1915: September 27–November 15, 1915
    (pp. 114-135)

    Neuville-Saint-Vaast was nothing but a pile of ruins. Our section was lodged in the cellar of a lawyer’s house which everyone who passed through Neuville knew well. This dark and humid cellar was filled with all kinds of unspeakable waste and gave off a sickening odor. With our entrenching tools, each one of us cleared a spot to lie down and rest after our little stroll of more than twelve hours in the trenches.

    In the afternoon, my friend Gayraud, the colonel’s barber, the pride of the 13th Squad to which he still nominally belonged, paid me a visit. The...

  15. 8th Notebook The Neuville-Saint-Vaast Sector: November 15, 1915–February 29, 1916
    (pp. 136-160)

    That evening of revolt, I had been assigned to guard duty at the police station, so I had not been able to take an active part in this movement. But I was suspected of being one of the instigators of it, and they were looking for the first opportunity to get rid of me.

    The next day Private X was hauled before the battalion’s two dictators, our captain and Commandant Quinze-Grammes, who told him that they were going to make a good example of him and introduce him to the court-martial judges of our corps.

    But the recalcitrant patient responded...

  16. 9th Notebook Toward the Hell of Verdun: February 29–April 26, 1916
    (pp. 161-185)

    Each morning they brought a few dead bodies up there from the field hospitals in nearby sectors.

    There was nothing sadder than watching a raw-boned nag hauling an old tumbrel upon which two, three, or four cadavers were trundled along, hastily wrapped in grubby tent cloth, with their legs, still in mud-splattered boots and puttees, hanging off the back of the stubby wagon.

    A chaplain in his cloak, accompanied by a soldier-seminarian, followed behind, and made up the funeral party with three or four old Territorials transformed into grave diggers, with picks and shovels on their shoulders.

    So went to...

  17. 10th Notebook The Verdun Charnel House: April 26–May 19, 1916
    (pp. 186-208)

    Hardly had we unloaded our packs in the big threshing barn where our whole company was billeted when, by order of our unsympathetic capitaine-adjutant-major, a thorough roll call was carried out in each squad. Those who were missing, which meant those whom fatigue had forced to fall out en route, had to be called to medical inspection by the sergeant on duty, as soon as they staggered into camp.

    Those who weren’t deemed to be sick had to be hauled off, without delay, to the jail which our battalion’scapitaine-adjutant-flic[flicmeans “cop”] had set up next to the police...

  18. Photo gallery
    (pp. None)
  19. 11th Notebook The 296th Regiment in Champagne: May 19–July 12, 1916
    (pp. 209-229)

    By a happy stroke of luck, these field kitchens belonged to the 142nd Territorial Regiment. A long-standing friendship united this regiment to our own, further strengthened by a winter of great danger and suffering (1914–1915) shared in the plains and the swamps of Vermelles and Givenchy, in Artois, when we were side by side.

    They welcomed us like brothers and offered us as much food and drink as we wanted. As for me, I wolfed down a plateful of codfish and salad, the plat du jour. These Territorials definitely didn’t deprive themselves of anything. While we were savoring a...

  20. 12th Notebook The 296th Regiment in Champagne: July 13–August 29, 1916
    (pp. 230-252)

    Nevertheless you could tell that the Slavic soldiers I met in the streets of Bouy had had something other than tea, their customary beverage, to drink. They zigzagged in a manner which was dangerous to their equilibrium, and some of them, gesticulating, singing, stopped women and girls in the streets, kneeling comically before them to give them what was no doubt an elaborate declaration of love, in the form of raucous sounds interrupted with hiccups.

    Indulgent and amused, the men and women of Bouy formed circles around these harmless drunkards.

    I’ll pass over without comment the next day, July 14...

  21. 13th Notebook The Somme Offensive: In the Blood-Soaked Mud: August 29–November 1, 1916
    (pp. 253-273)

    No one dared to rest, or even to lie down, outside of the appointed hours, for fear of being observed, because this odious character was always worming his way into the midst of groups, mixing in quietly, suspiciously looking to pick up a few shameful statements or opinions.

    The daily reading-out of orders took at least a full hour. He would pick three or four squads at random for roll call, just to make sure nobody was absent.

    If he heard someone whispering, he’d form the company into a square and make the guilty party stand in the middle and...

  22. 14th Notebook In the Blood-Soaked Mud of the Somme: November 1, 1916–January 30, 1917
    (pp. 274-293)

    Seeing that they were being outflanked by the 125th Regiment, the Germans came out of their holes with arms raised, calling out “Comrades! Comrades!” This word is now known in all languages.

    Their obliging machine gunners carried their murderous machines across their shoulders.

    Some comical scenes occurred. There was rivalry between the 125th and the 296th Regiments over who could gather up the most prisoners. Pulled and tugged first one way, then the other, the prisoners didn’t know whom to follow. Dazed, they understood nothing about the animated discussions among ourselves, which sometimes degenerated into quarrels and came close to...

  23. 15th Notebook The 296th Regiment from Béziers in Champagne: January 30–April 26, 1917
    (pp. 294-315)

    From morning to night, our stove and grill were busy transforming the choice cuts of these poor beasts into delicious and savory steaks, which were stuffed into Fraïssé’s bottomless belly and expanded his rotundity by several centimeters, enhancing the jowls of his ruddy face.

    His belly satisfied, Fraïssé grew more jovial, and by his jokes and colorful and picturesque expressions he cheered up those whose minds were most afflicted byle cafard[anxiety].

    For variety, he tried to hunt down some harmless sparrows, but all he caught was a scrawny little owl, which he summarily executed and plucked. Alas, it...

  24. 16th Notebook The Killing Ground of Mont Cornillet, the 296th Regiment in the Argonne: April 26–July 1, 1917
    (pp. 316-336)

    We were just about resigned to swallowing our eggs raw. But a woman who happened to be at the bistro offered to take us to her place, where—an alluring prospect—we’d be well received and taken care of.

    It wouldn’t have taken us too much to give this woman a kiss on both cheeks, despite her uncertain age. From the rear she appeared to be around twenty-five; in profile, about thirty; and face to face, at least three dozen. Her hair was a mess—the early morning hour was an excuse, to be sure—and her blouse was far...

  25. 17th Notebook The End of the 296th Infantry Regiment: July 1, 1917–January 28, 1918
    (pp. 337-356)

    The situation was very serious, as you will see. Afourrier[quartermaster-sergeant] was leading us. He was slapped with eight days of probation; his home leave was suspended, and he could say good-bye to the sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve.

    The unlucky fourrier tried to explain that he had authorized the man to stop, simply exercising his rights as squad leader.

    But the strongest always wins every argument, and the commandant stuck to the punishment he had handed out, calmly warning the non-com not to risk making things worse by protesting further.

    This damned commandant accompanied us to the barracks,...

  26. 18th Notebook The Last Year of Martyrdom: January 29–August 11, 1918
    (pp. 357-376)

    Of course, for anyone else but us, the show would have been worth watching: white, red, and green rockets lighting up the night sky, blending together, giving to the heavens unexpected colors and reflections, accented with the flashes of cannon fire and explosions of projectiles which seemed to burst out of the very earth. It was terrifying, hallucinating, phantasmagorical.

    And along with it a racket which would cover the noise of ten simultaneous thunderbolts. Blasé as we were, we hardly paid any attention to it, but waited impatiently for the calm to return so that we could reclaim our hole...

  27. 19th Notebook The End of the Nightmare: August 11, 1918–February 14, 1919
    (pp. 377-384)

    After signing in on the official register—the true cogwheel of militarism—I went to the garrison, which was the headquarters of the three regiments of infantrymen of which the city of Guingamp was so proud.

    The barracks was reserved for the future heroes of the conscript class of 1920, which was finishing up its apprenticeship in the noble profession of arms. As for us, the graybeards, the leather-skins, the tough old guys of every shade and hue, we had to be content being housed in what had been the stables for remounts. There were no more than a half-dozen...

  28. Afterword to the 1997 Edition
    (pp. 385-392)
    Rémy Cazals

    When a work speaks for itself, you should let it speak. [In the present edition] I have not touched my very brief introduction to the 1978 edition. It was sufficient to situate the author and to describe the conditions in which the work was written. But a reader wrote to the publisher: “Do you know a work on the life of Louis Barthas? The preface written by Rémy Cazals seems to me—no offense to Rémy Cazals—insufficient. If, in my first letter, I called theCarnets de guerre[War Notebooks] of Louis Barthas ‘moving,’ now I have to say...

  29. Notes
    (pp. 393-410)
  30. Index
    (pp. 411-426)