Beasts of Burden

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By Connor Boland

The Great War and the industrialized brutality that it wrought had a transformative power over the people and places that it consumed. A man in wartime was not the same man he was just weeks ago, and most would never be the same again. Louis Barthas wrote first-hand about his experiences of brutality and how it transformed him and his comrades. Understanding the experience that Barthas describes may be difficult today, but with proper historical context and personally experiencing the places he and his comrades fought and died we can gain a powerful understanding of the man and the war.

The Poilu, in Barthas’ eyes, who had so recently been men of much pride if not wealth, were in many ways reduced to the level of domesticated beasts by the war and the officers who commanded the French army throughout it. The conflict was unlike any before it. The Allied and Central Powers waged war in a wholly industrial way. The lives of simple infantry men, like Barthas, became variables in a great equation, cogs in the emotionless war machine. Because of technology, the individual soldier was reduced to the sum of his parts. He could fire a gun, hold a trench, and absorb enemy fire. A man’s bravery and ability as a fighter became obsolete in the face of twentieth century artillery and massed machine guns; no skill in the world can save a man from falling shells. The French army especially suffered from 1914-1918; when combining soldiers killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner as a percent of the 8.4 million troops mobilized, the casualty rate is roughly 73.3% (PBS). This figure clearly indicates the level of anguish that the armies of France suffered at the hands of the Central Powers. In response to this new reality of mechanized war, the men Barthas fought with descended into a malaise of sorts. In many ways they became nearly passive participants. They followed orders into battle as cattle are herded to the slaughter.

“If we suffered so stoically, without raising useless complaints, don’t let anyone tell you that it was because of patriotism, or to defend the rights of people to live their own lives, or other nonsense. It was simply by force, as victims of an implacable fate we had to undergo our destiny… Having lost our dignity and our human conscience, we were nothing more than beasts of burden” (Barthas, pg 110-111)

This reduction of men into these primitive states is a key pillar in Barthas’ understanding of the great conflict that consumed many years of his life. Many factors inhibit modern students of the Great War from comprehending the experience of soldiers like Barthas. Modern wars in many ways do not reflect the all-consuming power of battles of the First World War. The modern American conflicts that we have grown familiar with are usually highly mobile conflicts against less well-armed forces or long-term policing actions. Battles that last months, butcher thousands of men, and transform the physical landscape can seem very alien. Then you see the battlefield in person. You see the craters where shells fell, and in all likelihood, killed men. You feel the wind lash against your face and suddenly you can imagine staying there for days at a time with the threat of death constantly present. All of the suffering and pain becomes more real. Barthas discusses the hell of Verdun and when you see the cratered landscape his words become infinitely more relatable.

The weather that we experienced during our visits to the battlefields that Barthas fought at were especially effective at helping me identify with the years Barthas spent without proper shelter. Barthas spent nearly every night for over four years in discomfort. Time and time again he spent nights in buildings with no roof to protect him from the elements. He also slept amongst the lice and the rats whose populations grew unchecked in ruined towns and muddy trenches. I could, for the first time, imagine the daily hell that the Poilu could not possibly escape. Under abysmal conditions, not to mention the other dangers of war like shellfire and enemy attacks, I can understand how men could be ground down into shells of who they once were. It’s incredible that any of “The Hairy Ones” that experienced the kind of stress Barthas describes could clutch and keep a shred of their sanity and humanity.

The experience of the social dehumanization by way of the officers is a bit more difficult to grasp. The social attitudes these men held appear altogether foreign in the context of modernity. Men in the army today fraternize with their officers regularly and there exists at least some mutual respect. We also hold every individual life in very high regard, each and every loss constituting a small tragedy. This mindset was an impossibility during 1914-1918. In order to go on fighting, extreme loss of life had to be viewed as a necessity and worthwhile. By experiencing the fields of battle and seeing the graves I could at least in some small way sympathize with Barthas.

To see the actual places where the suffering happened adds a unique perspective to study of the Great War. This might be especially true for this conflict because of its particular power to transform landscapes. The places we visited that were associated with World War I were still immersed in it. The landscapes were shaped by the war and the cemeteries of the dead seem to besiege the nearby towns. By being in the places where the Great War was fought, I came to a special understanding of the brutality of the conflict that Barthas recounts that other students simply can’t possess.

About Stephen Norris