Unintended Battles of the Great War

By Emily Dawson

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Through mud and rain, Louis Barthas maintained notebooks of journals regarding his time spent as a French soldier in World War I. The Great War was a series of tragedies and terror, and Barthas lived through it all during 1914 to 1918. Visiting the different sites that Barthas saw allowed me to recreate the battle that Barthas experienced. After reading Poilu, learning about the sites, and seeing them for myself, I believe there were several unintended battles created by The Great War. Those accidental battles were against intense weather conditions, the struggle with authority, and within Louis Barthas himself, being the pacifist that he was.

Louis Barthas spent time at many battles including Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, and the Argonne. Based on his readings, Barthas paid more attention to, and was most bothered by the weather than anything else at each place. Throughout his notebooks he used phrases such as “horrible weather” and “terrible cold.” This element was something that had a large effect on Barthas and definitely played a role on his job as a soldier. While at Verdun, Barthas mentions, “To do battle with the cold…” (page 163) where he discusses how his captain found ways for them to stay alive in spite of the snowy weather. We learned about Trench Foot, a disease resulting from the war, where soldier’s feet would dissipate and rub dry from intense conditions of the trenches. Barthas was lucky not to have this, but he writes about the ways in which they dealt with the cold. Having to deal with the weather was only a small part of the war, however. Overcoming the conditions of cold could at times seem unimportant when there are shell explosions and attacks happening around as well. In some ways the weather also set the tone of a setting, making it hard for soldiers to maintain positivity and energy. Barthas writes, “The weather, which had started to improve during the day, turned bad that evening, and we were greeted with some very nasty downpours on our trip to the trenches” (page 161). After visiting and walking through trenches in Verdun and Ypres, Belgium, rainfall is the only weather that seems fitting there. Visiting such a solemn place, only rainfall could equal the feeling of fear and distraught that the soldier must have felt. At this place and more, the weather of the Great War was a constant struggle that was unanticipated by both sides of the war.

Through these weather conditions as well as daily activities, the struggle between authority figures and regular soldiers created a battle within the French army that seemed to have lasted throughout the entirety of the war. Soldiers experienced horrendous living conditions for months and years on end. Barthas writes in his journals how authority figures will tell them to do something that is unpleasant, then write that it doesn’t matter to the authority because they have nicer, safe shelters to go back to. At Verdun, Barthas became ill with a bellyache and went to the sick call. The medical officer, or major, told him to take an opium pill and not return. Barthas describes how he was still not healed but the medical officer did not seem to be interested. He states, “At the eve of each carnage, they tried using lies to counter the depressed morale of the soldier” (page 191). It seemed, from the notebooks, the authorities’ only purpose was to keep morale up, which the soldiers recognized as lies and made it even more difficult to respect their authority and continue respect of their instructions. Without the soldiers or authorities realizing, they were creating a battle of a class system within the army that the regular soldiers understood and often times rebelled against.

The final unintended battle of the Great War was within Louis Barthas himself. Throughout his notebooks, Barthas struggles with his pacifism against one of the most bloodiest wars of all time. It’s not until the end of the journal, in the 19th Notebook, that he most clearly states his opinion on war. He begins by comparing his duty as a soldier to that of slavery and being freed from “claws of militarism” (page 383). Barthas is very blunt about his views of the ‘lies’ that were told to them throughout the entire war. This struggle of trying to believe the lies of hope and inspiration said by the authorities created an inner battle within most soldiers, especially Barthas. Even if they wanted to believe it, how can they when the soldiers know it is untrue? He states, “To keep up morale… to justify it, they lied cynically, saying we were fighting just for the triumph of Right and Justice, they were not guided by ambition, destined to mask what is frighteningly horrible, ugly and cruel about war” (page 383). Here, he is capturing how the war is seen today and how most people tried to hide what was really happening on both sides of the war. It is important to include that he makes the conclusion that the victory of the war is only hiding what really happened, allowing to for people to not remember it correctly. This inner battle of sacrifice and ‘slavery’ follows Barthas after the war, even when he returns home when the war is over.

Upon visiting the sites of Verdun and memorials of those fallen because of the war, I have begun to understand the greatest tragedies of the Great War seen through the eyes of Barthas and so many other like him. The soldiers of the war did not expect to face battles of weather, authority and internal conflict, however that was what the war created. Verdun was a chilling place that I imagined Barthas fighting for and sitting in one of the trenches. After visiting on a cold, rainy day, I could not imagine it with sunshine because the battle of weather created a lurking sense of despair similar to what the soldiers struggled with. Battles between authority could only be solved by internal cruelty and neglect of soldiers. And finally, the battle Barthas was least expecting was that with himself and his ideas of war while being a slave to the greatest one.

About Stephen Norris