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Dr. Robert S. Kurtz
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle
The republication in a new edition from Yale University Press in 2014 of the trench notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas provides a strong counter to the extant interpretation of the meaning of WWI as opposed to the view of those who fought the war. The centennial of the start of the war has already resulted in studies by major historians of the how the conflict began, such as "The Sleepwalkers" by Christopher Clark, "July 1914 Countdown to War" by Sean McMeekin, and "The War that Ended Peace" by Margaret MacMillan. Over the next four years no doubt accounts of the various battles of the war will also be published. For approximately four decades after the end of the war, the western historical impression was that it was a futlile, pointless, bloody slaughter, a war in Churchill's phrase of "lions led by donkeys", worst among whom was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the BEF at the Somme, Passchendaele, etc. Historiography began to change in the late 50's and early 60's, with the principal provocateur the late John Terraine, a non academic but prolific historian. His study of Haig, "The Educated Soldier", shifted at least the opinion of conservative historians away from viewing Haig as the butcher of the Somme, and a callous uncaring man, to thinking of him as brilliant and tenacious enough to keep trying to pry open the German lines until at last in September 1918 he succeeded and shortly thereafter ended the war with Germany by an Armistice. However, we now have in a form accessible to American and British readers the hair raising concurrent war notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, who, incredibly, survived four years in and out of combat in the French Army on the Western Front, often in close contact with, replacing and replaced by English troops. Obviously he did not serve under Field Marshal Haig, though he did serve under formidable French commanders including Joffre, who were equally important as Haig and shared his mentalite.
In contrast with the Terrain type portrait of the ministrations of Haig, and his French analogs as commanders, the picture of war as it evolves in Barthas' notebooks is hair raisingly horrible. Constant exposure to heat, rain, freezing ice snow and cold, living in the open, or in filthy verminous manure-filled shelters, for four years, while being shelled, gassed, and shot, was the lot of frontline French and English troops. The cruelty, utter callousness, tyranny, crude disrespect, unwillingness to share revolting conditions in the front lines or usually to lead attacks, were all characteristics of the overwhelming majority of officers with whom the troops contended. Medical care by the "major", the French equivalent of a battalion surgeon, was sadistic, incompetent and brutal. Barthas apparently by the end of the war had contracted tuberculosis, based on "suspicious rattling in the right upper lung", as picked up by one of the rare good physicians attending him, and marasmus and weakness accompanying his chest symptoms. All this to say that all these manifestations of extremely disgusting conditions in the front lines happened on the watch of Joffre, Haig, and analogous leaders on the Allied (and undoubtedly the German) side, all through the war. Haig and his cohorts then had responsibility for the conditions under which their men froze, starved, sickened, and died, and with poor medical care. They also bore responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of lives wasted in minor combats, with no change in outcome. Their failure to meet these responsibilities counts very heavily in the balance against them. That Barthas is a militant socialist adds zing to his accounts. He hated to have to shoot at German working men, who in his opinion were no more interested in carrying on the war than he or his comrades from Provence were. That his fellow Occitan speakers, and even the Bretons with whom he later served, and who in those far off days seemed initially as if they were from another planet, all saw the war the same way, and had contempt and even hatred for most of their leaders, in direct proportion to the elevation and distance of the leaders from the battle, should prompt us, and concerned historians, to reevaluate the role of the victorious British and French commanders. These men permitted their men to suffer horribly, and as Barthas explains, they could have done better, even as they pursued victory.
This review can just begin to do justice to this densely detailed, beautifully written, and at times, considering its subject matter, even humorous book, based on the weary and often cynical observations of the author. Barthas though through poverty having only finished the 7th grade, won a first prize for excellence in his studies, coming first in his district of France. He is sharp enough to point out that his leaders had stumbled into a war with no clear idea how they got in or how to get out of it. His notion on this account is amazingly close to Clarks idea in "The Sleepwalkers", an historical study written 100 years later. In other circumstances he could have been a professor, rather than a barrel maker.
HIs writing, and the piquant nature of his observations and the importance of the subject make this a very special book, fascinating to read, and important enough to prompt a a historical re-evalution of the role of Marshal Joffre, Marshal Haig and various other French and English worthies among the general officers commanding in World War 1.