What do we know about our soldier?
We may never know the identity of our soldier, but the diary does provide clues in form of dates and places named in the diary, for those who have attempted to trace the man. For example, we know the name of his regiment and platoon, and his diary records his platoon’s locations on particular dates. It is entirely possibly and very likely, however, that the diary was subject to at least some human error in recording dates and places. A time line of the key dates and places is available on the Resources page.
The diary also provides clues about our soldier’s life in and out of the French army. We know our soldier was a ‘poilu’ (literally meaning ‘hairy’), the common nickname given to French infantrymen because of their unshaven, unwashed appearance. Poilus were the French equivalent of English ‘Tommys’ – our soldier wasn’t an officer or anyone of ranking. We know our soldier wasn’t a young man or a first time soldier because he refers to having served in the army before and remembers people and places from his former army days. We know for certain that our soldier had a wife and he refers to leaving behind ‘family’, which some may infer as meaning children. We know our soldier was a reasonably educated man; the original diary is full of immaculate handwriting with no spelling or grammatical mistakes.
Life and loss
The first two months of the war described in Line of Fire, whilst playing witness to some pretty gruesome and terrifying experiences, were still naïve to the loss of life on such a colossal scale that only became evident further into the war. The soldiers wrote ‘On Les Aura!’ (‘We’ll get them!’) in chalk on the walks of their train compartments at the start of the war, full of optimism and hope. Just like in Britain, people thought the war would be over by Christmas.
When war was first declared, France quickly introduced conscription for all men up to the age of 45 and by the end of the war had called up nearly 8.3 million men. The French army was, in a large part, made up of conscription peasants from the countryside. These ordinary soldiers fighting in the ‘Great War’ maintained the line of the Western Front in the mud and horrors of the trenches that war become known for. Despite very serious mutinies in the French army during 1917, the French forces remained the second largest all allied forces after Russia, including Britain and later America.
The First War World saw huge loss of human life across all countries and nationalities involved in the conflict. The French, who were fighting on their own soil against Germany who had invaded and overran large parts of their own country, suffered the third worst casualties in the war, after Germany and Russia. France’s biggest losses on the battlefield occurred stopping the Germans on the Marne, defending Verdun between February and December 1916, and the failed offensive on the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917. These battles could be seen as the French equivalent of the British experience in Loos in 1915, the Battle of Somme in 1916, and Passchendaele in 1917.
By the end of 1914 alone, France had lost 300,000 men and by the end of the war 1.36 million were dead, which was the equivalent of 20% of the male population of France.
Further reading, links and information
Imperial War Museum: First World War Centenary: http://www.iwm.org.uk/centenary
BBC Schools: World War One: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/0/ww1/
BBC History: World War One: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww1
Mission Centenaire 14 -18: http://centenaire.org/fr
Guerre de 1914 - 1918: http://www.premiere-guerre-mondiale-1914-1918.com
WWI from a French perspective
There are many different and complex historical reasons and interpretations surrounding the causes and events leading up to the start of the First World War. This section aims to give a basic account of the key events from a French context.
France had a large empire, reaching across the globe, and was an incredibly influential country within Europe and the world for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this influence was partially brought to an end with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. In this war, France lost a large amount of land – a territory known as the Alsace-Lorraine - to the German empire (who had recently formed the country we know as modern day Germany). Getting this land back became one of France’s key aims by the end of the 19th century.
Many historians have argued that imperialism was the underlying cause of the First World War, though before the First War World became a ‘World’ war, the conflict initially started as a diplomatic crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which escalated rapidly and internationally allegiances were formed on both sides. On June 28th 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, was assassinated by a Yugoslavian while on a visit to Sarajevo. By late July that year, Austria-Hungary prepared to invade Serbia and their ally, Germany, invaded Belgium and Luxemburg, two countries that were neutral in the conflict, before marching towards France.
While the diplomatic crisis was brewing and before full-scale war broke out, Germany had asked that France remain neutral, and the French initially moved their army back six miles away from the French-German border to avoid conflict. However, when Germany invaded Belgium on August 4th 1914, France declared war. France’s initial war plan, known as ‘Plan XVII’, involved moving most of their troops (more than a million in total), along the Eastern frontier between France and Belgium. France launched the Battle of the Frontiers, which involved five different offensives at the same time, at Mulhouse, Lorraine, Charleroi and Mons. But Plan XVII failed.
Meanwhile, Germany was enacting their Schlieffen Plan, the aim being to defeat France quickly in order to concentrate on the fight against Russia. The plan was to enter France through Belgium and move southwards, trapping the French army on the German border. Germany needed to capture Paris quickly to stop the Britain from being able to help from across the English Channel. Marching from Belgium, the Germans reached the French border by 23rd August, taking the town of Mauberge, a major railway junction. However, the German advance was stopped just east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne from 5th - 12th September, and the German troops were pushed back 50 km to the river Aisne. This battle is often referred to as ‘The Miracle of the Marne’. However, the Germans were now in a very good defensive position and a deadlock set in, with neither side able to push back the other. This area became the Western Front, and the postion of the Western Front didn’t move much for the rest of the war. So whilst the German invasion of France was brought to a hault just a month into the war, fighting continued along the Western Front for the next four years.
The longest battle of the war was the Battle of Verdun, which lasted from 21st February 1916 until 18th December, 1916. Many military historians have referred to it as the greatest battle in history. Whilst many men died and were injured, Verdun was considered a tactical victory for France and demonstrated the strength of the French army.