Courage, Sacrifice, and Honour
Although courage had little to do with survival, as indiscriminate shelling and bullets brought death to hero and coward alike, historian Leonard V. Smith feels that the bravest soldiers were not those who were aggressive or disregarded danger, but those who “conserved an integrated and self-conscious, embattled self that persisted to the last moment of life.” Smith’s proposition of an “integrated and self-conscious embattled self” expanded on the distinction between “courage” and “heroism” forwarded by the French writer, Jean Norton Cru. Lecturing at Williams College in 1922, he described “heroism” as a fundamentally irrational state of mindâ¦characterised by a total disregard for personal dangerâ¦ a fit that is generally attended by death.” “Courage” on the other hand for Cru was a more daily, rational struggle against fear, “an inner strife between body and soul, a breathless wrangle between the rearing, snorting animal that shrank from suffering and destruction – and the mind that listened to the duty, or stuck blindly to self-respect.”
While Verdun was already a place of historical significance for the French before 1916, it only assumed its place “in the pantheon of national symbolism” because of the battle fought there during World War I. Verdun has since become synonymous with death and sacrifice, while the soldier’s own descriptions, “Hell,” “Furnace,” “Calvary” as well as their letters provide a greater understanding of the immense sacrifice these men made to protect their homeland.
The final chapter of Guy HallÃ©’s “LÃ¡ bas avec ceux qui souffrent, entitled “A Beautiful Memory,” recounts a medal awarding ceremony in June 1916 for his own unit after they had just been rotated out of the front lines after eight days of intense fighting at Verdun. Where previously these soldiers would have viewed medal-awarding ceremonies as an example of military snobbishness, these once robust soldiers who had arrived at Verdun full of life, following their experience there, which had left them “wracked with fever and the slow weary walk of old men,” now stood to attention, while their thoughts drifted back to the slopes of Douaumont.