10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I

John killerlane - November 18, 2017

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldiers in shell holes. pinterest

French soldier’s personal accounts of trench warfare

As the Battle of Verdun continued, soldiers arriving there encountered a landscape rivalling Dante’s description of Hell, where once linear trench lines were now little more than defended shell holes after the intense artillery bombardment. Fighting developed into more direct forms of combat between small groups of men battling from one shell hole to another without cover. Cases of “friendly” fire increased as infantry holding these shell holes and craters rather than trench lines , found it much more difficult to distinguish from a comrade from the enemy. To counter this the French sought to regain the initiative in the air by grouping fighter aircraft in squadrons to overwhelm German reconnaissance efforts.
An examination of contemporary private reports written by a postal censor on the 22nd and 28th July 1916 concerning soldier’s letters home provides an insight into the soldier’s morale immediately after fighting at Verdun, and morale six days later. The author speaks of his impression of “physical and moral weariness” inferred from the letters of the 22nd July 1916. Soldiers write of having “hardly any strength” and about the effects of phosgene gas inhalation, which “burns them in the stomach.”
The general sense of fear and horror toward Verdun is evident from the soldier’s own testimony, “Hell,” “Furnace,” “Calvary,” are some of the words used to describe the experience of battle there, (the author further informs us that the soldiers had christened it “Place of Death.”) One soldier describes the night of the 19-20 July 1916, as the best day of his life because his division was taken away from Verdun – “We came out from Hell,” he says, “so what if we get killed elsewhere, Verdun is a nightmare for all troops that have passed there.”
The author also notes the “consolation” of receiving letters from home, which came to mean “much more than the news it conveyed.” As the war progressed; “it was a physical, tangible link with the old life,” which “for a moment banished the surrounding realities of war and provided the incentive to struggle on.” The second survey of letters taken six days later on the 28th July shows the difference in morale after a week away from the Hell of Verdun. Soldier’s minds have turned to home and the plight of the women, to the haymaking and the harvest. Still, though, “they revisit the dark memories of the past week in Verdun” but now the “nightmare” had begun to blur, being replaced with a sense of “pride, accompanied even with honour.”
Memoirs and diaries written during the war provide further evidence of the horror that was Verdun. One anonymous French staff officer writing about the struggle for Fort Douaumont remarked, “Verdun has become a battle of madmen in the midst of a volcano” where “whole regiments melt away in a few minutes, and others take their places only to perish in the same way.” A similar account of the assaults on Fort Vaux describes the effects of a twelve-hour German artillery barrage on its author: “Never had I seen such horror, such hell. I felt that I would give everything if only this would stop long enough to clear my brain.”
An account of the German assault on Le Mort Homme (The Dead Man) written by an anonymous French veteran officer describes how the French Army captured prisoners “knocked down by the falling of the human wall of their killed and wounded neighbours.” According to the author these men “dazed by fear and alcohol” say very little, and that it takes several days for them to recover from their experience of battle.

10 Harsh Realities Of Trench Warfare For French Soldiers During World War I
French soldiers wearing military medals pose for photo. pinterest

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 mind…characterised by a total disregard for personal danger… 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 Hallé’s “Lá 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.