Writing in Wartime
The centenary of the First World War has revived interest in the writing done during the 1914–1918 years, on the one hand, and in postwar fiction and non-fiction dealing with the war on the other. In the first case, this had led to the re-editing and publication of war diaries, memoirs, collections of letters, works that have entered the literary canon such as Ceux de 14 by French combatant Maurice Genevoix and Storm of Steel by German writer Ernst Jünger, as well as books such as Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison, an American brought up in Montreal who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Although “the combination of writing and the combat experience was not new (but) the First World War introduced a new aspect to it, as it did in many other domains. (Thus) the involvement of writers in the war brought about new practices: bearing witness while still using the tools of their trade.” This war transformed the literary milieu and created the “phenomenon of the writer-combatant (writers who became combatants, combatants who became writers, and writers on the home front).”
Writing during the action of the First World War belonged to several genres, such as letters, diaries, and memoirs, but also newspaper articles. It played a political, strategic, and military role, but was also of major importance from the human, psychological point of view.
Articles in the press
During the First World War, the print media was an essential source of news. From the point of view of the authorities, it needed to be strictly controlled to maintain army and civilian morale, as well as military secrecy. In France, freedom of the press was suspended on August 2, 1914, when a state of siege was decreed (the equivalent of a war measures act). Newspapers were censored, with blank spaces frequently replacing withdrawn articles and columns (see accompanying document No. 3).
The press became a propaganda machine in the service of the state, with the accounts of battles published in official newspapers differing radically from what emerged from the testimony of witnesses, officers’ war logs, and trench diaries. In print propaganda, the French army was evoked in glowing terms, made to seem invincible in comparison to the Germans, who were belittled and ridiculed. The enemy was particularly derided for the ineffectiveness of their weapons, as seen in an excerpt from the Paris daily L’Intransigeant of August 17, 1914: “The poor performance of the enemy’s shells is the subject of much comment here. The shrapnel explodes weakly and comes down in a harmless rain. As for German bullets, they are not dangerous: they pass clean through the flesh without tearing it.” A letter purportedly from a French soldier published in Le Petit Parisien of January 19, 1915, stated that: “German shells are not as bad as they seem,” and another letter from the front, appearing in Le Matin on January 15, 1915, claimed that exploding shells caused “no more than bruises.” The German soldier was described either as clumsy and a poor shot, therefore, not to be feared (L’Intransigeant, 17/08/1914), or as unimaginably savage, as in this quote, also from Le Matin: “According to the Corriere della Sera, received via London and Cologne, it has been confirmed that the barbaric conquerors of Antwerp tortured the unfortunate Belgian priests who had heroically refused to ring the church-bells in celebration by hanging them upside-down as human clappers.” French soldiers were made out to always behave heroically in the most daunting circumstances, fighting among themselves to be the first to advance to the front line (Le Matin, 15/11/1914) and bearing their wounds proudly and lightheartedly (L’Intransigeant, 17/08/1914). The bayonet, often personified, was said to allow “epic, knightly combat” (L’Echo de Paris, 10/07/1915). An exalted lyrical tone was used to report on the French army, as shown by this excerpt from an article in Le Journal (1915): “I have come back from the front and am still trembling from having seen (the soldiers) there. What I have returned to tell you is that the cult of man has reached the zenith of the moral beauty to which a race can aspire. I return from an ideal world where I witnessed the golden age. When I went, I felt sorry for them, but coming back, I envy them!” Some reporters even wrote of the “beauty,” and occasionally, the “picturesque” side of a battlefield. Among the accounts of the Canadian war experience, we have the writings of Paul Caron, a Montreal journalist who joined the French Foreign Legion in 1917 and was killed in action that same year.
Certain journalists began to criticize the print propaganda and its stance of blind patriotism towards the war. In France, censorship was represented as “Anastasie,” a woman in white wielding huge scissors. In 1914, Albert Londres, war correspondent for Le Matin, popularized the expression “brain-stuffing.” The satirical Paris daily, Le Canard enchaîné, founded in 1915, challenged official propaganda by using a language of “anti-phrases”: denials that were actually confirmations, sentences written backwards, and sarcasm. Here is an example, published on September 10, 1915:
“Le Canard enchaîné has taken an oath not to yield, in any circumstance whatsoever, to the deplorable current tendency. It is enough to say that it will not publish, under any pretext, a strategic, diplomatic, or economic article of any type (…) The public wants false news…for a change. It will have it. To obtain that edifying result, the administration of Le Canard enchaîné, not backing down in the face of any sacrifice, has unhesitatingly signed a one-year contract with the celebrated Wolff agency, which, every week from Berlin, will transmit all the false news in the world via a special barbed-wire service.”
Mail delivery was difficult in the First World War, slowed not only by the saturation of distribution centres but also by censorship. However, as communication between the soldiers and their families was essential to maintain troop morale, on August 3, 1914, free postal service was inaugurated for letters between the front and the rear. To hasten the process and get past the censors, the military administration created printed cards with set messages printed on them, and the soldiers would scratch out the ones that didn’t apply. The censorship of soldiers’ letters is a subject of a novel by French author Bénédicte des Mazery, La Vie tranchée, in which several excerpts of authentic letters are reproduced.
Soldiers’ letters can be found in Paroles de poilus: Lettres et carnets du front, 1914–1918, an anthology of valuable accounts of life at the front in the Great War. Historian Michel Litalien has gathered a comprehensive compendium of writings by French-Canadian soldiers at the front, published as Écrire sa guerre: Témoignages de soldats canadiens-français (1914–1919). In spite of censorship, the soldiers of the belligerent countries revealed the excruciating conditions they faced, writing about their suffering in the mud of the trenches, the lack of food, the cold, attacks by the enemy and their fear of death, yet all the while trying to reassure their loved ones. Some very poignant letters are written by soldiers about to be shot by firing squads drawn from their own units, often unjustly, for mutiny, cowardice, or desertion. In the matter of French soldiers executed by their own army, we have the letter that Corporal Henri Floch wrote to his wife before going before a firing squad in 1914 (see accompanying document No. 1).
The families in the rear, essentially mothers, wives, and young girls, sent news of their doings to the men at the front, frequently accompanied by much-awaited parcels. Their letters testify to the extent to which their daily lives had been disrupted by the men’s absence, especially when they were obliged to perform heavy farm work.
In France, the First World War also saw the appearance of the “war godmothers” in 1915. This movement began as a patriotic initiative: women and girls corresponded with soldiers who had no one at home to write to them. These men suffered when they saw their comrades receiving affectionate letters and packages, especially when trench warfare had caused a period of deadlock. Later, the godmothers’ support was transformed into more of a “lonely-hearts” channel between women in the rear and unattached men at the front, deviating from the original intention of offering maternal comfort.
Many soldiers at the front kept diaries. They committed their thoughts to paper during calm periods at the front, at night, and at moments of rest behind the lines. Some described the slightest details of their daily lives, illustrating them with sketches and expressing a wide range of feelings and thoughts: the enthusiasm and excitement of volunteers who enlisted at the beginning of the war, the panic and horror of some conscripted men, and the resignation and stoicism of veterans. Many of these diaries have come down to us through the combatants’ families, who conserved them. Some war chronicles are considered true literary works. Three of the best known are Under Fire written by French combatant Henri Barbusse and published as a series in a daily newspaper, L’Œuvre, beginning on August 3, 1916; the collection of war stories by Maurice Genevoix entitled Ceux de 14, and in Germany, Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, written and published in 1920, inspired by the author’s war diaries.
Unlike retrospective narratives and memoirs, diary writing holds an immediacy that eliminates distance and occasionally, objectivity or analysis. It is a privileged form for the expression of a wide variety of feelings (excitement, fear, anger, incomprehension, fascination, resignation, suffering, etc.) that are brought into relief by stylistic devices such as enumeration and repetition, or exclamatory and interrogative sentences. It is interesting to note that even authors who published war memoirs after the conflict had ended wrote in a diary-like style, notably by using the present tense. Examples include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (published in 1929), and Jean Giono’s “Recherche de la pureté.”
Diaries written during the war by people in the rear are less known today than war accounts. However, this genre has been used in fiction to give voice to women who faced difficult times on the home front or who were involved in war activities.
In Canada, several novels were written by women who stayed at home, including suffragist Nellie McClung (The Next of Kin: Those Who Wait and Wonder, 1917) and Lucy Maude Montgomery (Rilla of Ingleside, 1920). The first of these reflected a change in McClung’s position towards war: from being a pacifist, she switched to expressing her support for the war effort, perhaps due to the fact that her son had enlisted. Moreover, most of the feminists in Canada adopted this position to a greater or lesser degree once war was declared and their country was fully engaged in the conflict.
Document 1. Letter from Corporal Henri Floch to his wife
Like 24 other French infantrymen unjustly accused of cowardice or desertion, Corporal Henry Floch was summarily tried and convicted with five soldiers from his unit at Vingré on December 4, 1914. Here is his farewell letter to his wife:
My darling Lucie,
When you receive this letter, I will have been shot dead.
This is why:
On November 27, at about 5 o’clock in the evening, after two hours of violent bombardment, we were in a front-line trench finishing our soup when the Germans overran the trench and took me and two other soldiers prisoner. Later, in a moment of struggle and confusion, I managed to get away from the Germans. I followed my comrades, and because of that, I was accused of abandoning my position when facing the enemy.
Last evening, 24 of us passed before the Conseil de Guerre. Six were condemned to death, including me. I am no more guilty than the others are, but they want to use us as examples.
You will receive my wallet with all its contents.
I bid you my last farewell in haste, tears in my eyes and sorrow in my heart. On bended knee, I humbly beg your forgiveness for all the pain I’m causing you and all the trouble you’ll face because of me.
My little Lucie, once again, forgive me!
I’ll take confession in a few minutes and pray that I’ll see you again in a better world. I die innocent of the crime I’m convicted for, of abandoning my position. Instead of escaping from the Germans, if I’d remained a prisoner, my life would have been saved.
My last thoughts are with you until the end.
Letter by Henry Floch in Paroles de Poilus, Lettres et carnets du front (1914–1918), edited by Jean-Pierre Guéno. © J’ai Lu, coll. Librio, 1998.
Document 2. Letter from Gaston Biron to his mother
Gaston was 29 years old in 1914. Wounded on September 8, 1916, he died a few days later.
Saturday, March 25, 1916
(…) By what miracle did I escape that Hell? I still continually ask myself how it is that I’m alive. Imagine: 1,200 of us went up and 300 of us came down again. Why I am one of the 300 who were lucky enough to get through, I have no idea. But I should have been killed a hundred times, and I thought every minute was my last during those eight long days. Yes, dear mother, we suffered terribly. Added to the moral suffering of thinking that death would surprise us at every instant, there was the physical suffering of long nights without sleep, eight days without drinking and almost without eating, eight days in the middle of a mass grave, lying among corpses, walking on friends killed the day before. I thought of you so much during those horrifying hours, and I suffered most from the idea that I would never see you again. We aged a lot, dear mother. For many, greying hair will be the eternal mark of the suffering endured, and I am one of these. There is no more laughter or lightheartedness in the battalion. In our souls, we bear the grief for those comrades who fell at Verdun from the 5th of March to the 12th. Can it be happiness to have escaped that fate?
Letter by Gaston Biron in Paroles de Poilus, Lettres et carnets du front (1914–1918), edited by Jean-Pierre Guéno. © J’ai Lu, coll. Librio, 1998.
Document 3. The “gutted” (censored) front page of Le Canard Enchainé
Document 4. The film Entre les lignes
Front Lines (32:32)
A tribute to the combatants in the First World War, this film traces the conflict through the war diary and private letters of five Canadian soldiers and a nurse. Hearing them, the listener detects between the lines an unspoken horror censored by war and propriety.
Produced by Tim Wilson, Frank Spiller
Directed by Claude Guilmain, produced by Anne-Marie Rocher
© National Film Board of Canada, 2008
Document 5. Open letter from the members of the (French) Fédération nationale de la libre pensée (National Federation of Free Thinkers)
The following document is an open letter, like a letter to the editor, written to the public. It is intended for publication in a newspaper (or the Internet) in the hopes that the public, once made aware of its contents, would react.
To the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Presidents of the National Assembly, the Senate, and the members of the parliamentary committees of the National Assembly and the Senate:
On the occasion of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918, the Prime Minister declared that the soldiers convicted of mutiny in 1917 “should be fully reintegrated into our national collective remembrance.” Was this simply an opportunistic statement? Nearly four years later, nothing has been done. Yet who today would oppose this measure of elementary justice, while the authors of this sad fate have never been troubled over the matter?
Those who mutinied in 1917 were not deserters. They did not abandon their positions. In May 1917, after the murderous offensives of Chemin des Dames and the Craonne Ridge, these soldiers expressed their refusal of the useless sacrifice, the bloody, monstrous, and limitless vehemence that was forced upon them. Other soldiers should be included, in particular, those shot for cowardice without proof or with medical certificates wrongly stating that their injuries were self-inflicted for the purpose of avoiding combat.
Whatever numbers we have today, it is generally agreed that this repression was draconian. The soldiers shot as examples have become symbols of summary justice and arbitrariness. It is true that some isolated measures were taken after the conflict: new trials, rehabilitation, etc. However, the Republic has never officially acknowledged the criminal injustice of which they, collectively, were the victims. Nothing has been done to erase the opprobrium into which history has relegated them.
(…) The Republic would become greater by having the courage to face up to its past. In other circumstances, it has acted to reaffirm its duty of remembrance. There is therefore no reason to continue to keep the soldiers executed as examples from the rehabilitation that they have been deprived of until now. Didn’t England recently take that decisive step?
This is why, Mr President, our association, supported in its initiative by the Fédération Nationale Laïque des Associations des Amis des Monuments Pacifistes, would like to know your position on this case of crying injustice, and what you intend to do to end it.
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