A Poilu at Verdun

By Victoria Cooke


The Great War, now more widely known as the First World War, has been greatly overlooked in American history classes and almost “written off” as just the precursor to Adolf Hitler’s Second World War. Those bodies that remain in the lands scarred by the Great War, however, honor the memory of the fallen and study the lessons of their sacrifice. Perhaps we overlook this war because it is too challenging for us, to focus on such horrific carnage and sacrifice, and still struggle to understand what it was all for. Countless academic analyses have been published regarding the strategic and political elements of the conflict; however, it is all too easy to string together these statistics and illustrate a story that omits the essential human perspective of this epic bloodbath.

Louis Barthas’ memoir is an honest and straightforward depiction of his time at the front. Barthas’ notebooks provide the necessary link to depict genuine emotion and enlighten the reader to the true horrors of the Great War. His everyday accounts allow readers to better understand the hardships and pain each of these soldiers had to endure, and allows modern readers to realize the true atrocities of this conflict. Barthas, a married man with children, had no ulterior motive for his writings. He is a barrel maker by trade and is not informed of any overall strategies during the war. He is simply a solider, living at the front, and following the orders given by those whose accounts typically fill our history books.

Only after visiting Verdun, France, and seeing the damage still visible a century later, have I been able to realize the true significance Barthas’ account and understand the severity of the conflict as a whole. Upon reaching the front lines at Verdun, Barthas writes,

“As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remained. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation” (p. 192).

Barthas’ description presents the reader with the tragic irony that was ever-present at the battle of Verdun. What was their sacrifice for? What is the purpose of fighting over this hill? The harsh reality of this battle was magnified by the seemingly constant struggle for minimal gains, and devastating losses.

Upon witnessing such mass carnage, it is must be near impossible to comprehend such a waste of human life, sent to the front like livestock to slaughter, with little to no consideration taken by those in command for those lost between the trenches. At the beginning of his memoir, Barthas writes,

“Henceforth we were destined for sacrifice. We were going to follow the Stations of the Cross, on painful marches along which our dead bodies would litter the path. A ray of sunlight would have diminished our melancholy, our sadness, but this storm which shrouded the surrounding mountains in fog dampened our flagging spirits” (p. 16).

Today, accounts of the war are littered with patriotic jargon and try to illustrate a clear purpose for the conflict. Barthas does not agree with those who write such positive accounts and is highly critical of the oversimplification false depiction of the lessons learned from war,

“Yes, war is a moralizer. It inspires noble sentiments and lofty virtues. There are people who have dared to write about and to talk about this monstrosity” (p. 25).

He seems to imply that by creating patriotic account of the war, it disrespects the true sacrifice of those who were lost. By not acknowledging the horrors of war, and the devastation, it takes away from honoring those who perished.

Another major element of Barthas’ memoir that is particularly striking, is the animalistic nature of war, and how even the most civilized individuals, were forced to live and fight like primitive creatures and lose all sense of humanity. Barthas writes,

“That’s the way that war, with the reprisals it provokes, annihilates every sentiment of generosity in the heart of man, taking him back to a primitive state. (p. 44)…“Looking ahead to the next war-to-end-all-wars, they should train the school-kids, every day, to crawl on their bellies. Some day, or some night, the knowledge might come in handy” (p. 199).

What was the purpose of such carnage? A century later, historians are still struggling to understand the origins of this conflict, and what lessons can be learned. It is human nature to illustrate a magnificent purpose for such horrific sacrifice. It is too hard for us to understand loss in any other way. It is far easier to think of our loved ones as heroes who died for a glorious purpose; however, the reality of this war depicts the truth. Thousands of soldiers were annihilated for no great purpose. The war ended in an armistice, with no real winners or losers, no great resources gained, just so much lost.




About Stephen Norris