University of Colorado, Boulder
Of the eight million French men who served in the Great War, approximately three million were mobilized in August 1914. They left fields of ripening grain, the factories of towns and cities, and the foyers of family life to face a formidable enemy and – the story goes – a heartless, draconian military institution that compelled their service, coerced their obedience, and condemned their misdeeds. From the ranks of these three million men, Jean Echenoz conjures five fictional characters, all residents of a nondescript commercial town in the Vendée, all destined to become victims of the Great War: Charles, the self-satisfied, successful plant manager of a prospering shoe factory; his younger (and jealous) brother, Anthime; and three local men of modest accomplishments and quite ordinary occupations: a butcher’s boy, a knacker, and a saddler. Two, including Charles who dies in an aerial duel, are killed in combat; two are seriously disabled: Anthime loses his right arm, the butcher’s boy, his eyesight. The fifth loses his life to a firing squad. That none of the principal characters of 1914 (published in France in 2012 as 14) survive the war intact is as important to Echenoz’s deceptively simple tale of the Great War as the fact that Arcenel fell afoul of the much-maligned system of French military justice. The novel thus reinforces a core belief of French (and, for that matter, British and German) collective memory of the war, captured most famously in the epigraph of All Quiet on the Western Front: that all who saw military service, “even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
1914 follows Anthime from the earliest moments of mobilization – when he ardently hoped that Blanche, the heiress of the shoe factory where he worked as an accountant, would smile as kindly on his uniformed self as she did on Charles – to the last day of the war. The unmarried Blanche, who finds herself pregnant with Charles’s child in 1914 and with Anthime’s in 1918, is as her name suggests something of a blank slate. She seems neither passionately in love with Charles nor especially enamored of Anthime; and it is unclear that her unconventional romantic habits would have elicited so little critical comment in the conservative confines of early twentieth-century Vendée. Yet she and the family firm she comes to symbolize both the affection and the avarice of the home front. By no means indifferent to the plight of men in uniform – to protect Charles from the dangers of the front-lines, Blanche worked to secure his transfer into the air force and she cared for the invalided Anthime when he returned home – she (and her parents) nonetheless grew rich from manufacturing substandard boots that offered wretched protection to men immersed in the mud of the frontlines.
Anthime is the protagonist of 1914, but from the point of view of an historian reflecting on what this novel can tell us and our students about the Great War and how it is remembered in contemporary France, he is not the most interesting character. That honor rightly belongs to Arcenel, a hapless, exhausted, and battle-weary innocent destroyed by heartless and unforgiving military justice. In early 1916, Arcenel wandered away from the rest camp where he and his comrades were lining up to receive their typhoid shots, only to be arrested by the much-despised gendarmes who patrolled the rear lines looking for malingerers, deserters, and other miscreants. Immediately placed before a court-martial and found guilty of desertion, Arcenel was executed within hours of his arrest. This episode is noteworthy both for how it reinforces the core themes of the novel and for how it (perhaps inadvertently) misrepresents the nature of military justice in 1916.
French military justice was notorious in 1914 and 1915 for its rigidity, its severity, and its willingness to sacrifice a few to intimidate the many. In March 1915, six corporals, along with eighteen privates chosen at random, were charged with refusal to obey an order to attack the enemy, a capital offense. The privates were acquitted but four of the six corporals, who would henceforth be memorialized as the “corporals of Souain,” were found guilty and executed almost immediately. This incident, which became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s riveting and yet controversial film, Paths of Glory (released in 1957 but not screened in France until 1975), has acquired a canonical status in French collective memory as a fitting indictment of the brutality of military justice in the early months of the war.
It is, however, highly unlikely that almost a year after the corporals of Souain were ignominiously shot Arcenel would have suffered the same fate. His offense was not sufficiently grave to warrant a capital sentence and his judges not sufficiently autonomous to allow for his immediate execution. As Guy Pedroncini reminds us, the draconian system responsible for the execution of the corporals of Souain did not survive the political furor generated by this and other egregious examples of military justice run amok. By the late spring of 1915, all capital cases had to be reviewed by the President of the Republic, who affirmed the courts’ judgments in most cases but did commute ten capital sentences. Furthermore, Pedroncini’s analysis indicates that even men placed on trial for the very serious offense of abandoning their post in the face of the enemy were more likely to be acquitted than executed: of 218 such cases, there were 102 acquittals and 50 capital sentences. In comparison, Arcenel’s offense was rare (or, at least, rarely prosecuted) and considerably less corrosive of combat readiness. From the beginning of the war until early 1916, when the system of military justice was fully overhauled, only twenty-eight men were charged with ‘desertion to the interior’ and it is most unlikely that they were dealt with more sternly than the men who had abandoned their front-line posts. Indeed, the account that Maurice Masson gave his wife of a court martial on which he served would seem to offer a more representative account of military justice as practiced in early 1916: none of the men brought before the court was sentenced to death, even though one habitual drunkard and unapologetic antimilitarist who had abandoned his front-line post did test the patience of at least one of his judges. Nonetheless, even this ne’er-do-well had been spared the firing squad, sentenced instead to five years in prison. Arcenel might well have run into the much-despised gendarmes; he might well have had to stand before a court martial; but it is doubtful that he would have been condemned to death or executed immediately.
1914 is, of course, a novel, and Echenoz is at liberty to define Arcenel’s fate as he sees fit. Clearly he places him in front of a firing squad for a reason. By presenting the courts martial of the French Army as cruelly indifferent to the plight of the benighted poilu, Echenoz embraces an understanding of the war that has long been etched into the popular memory of both Britain and France. That is, that the men who served in the frontlines were first and foremost victims: of history, of heartless military martinets, and, more generally, of an omnipresent system of overbearing authority, in the absence of which they would have been tempted to pack their bags and go home. And if all front-line troops were victims of a war that had neither purpose nor redeeming value, the ones most deserving of our sympathy – because they were the ones most ill-treated – were those who are now memorialized for having been ‘shot at dawn.’ Coerced obedience, rather than reasoned consent, was ultimately what kept the soldiers of the Great War under arms. Although this is how the Great War has persisted in popular memory, it is not how many scholars now understand the conflict and the men who endured it. Indeed, the war has become a site of deeply contested scholarly (and occasionally public) controversy, especially in France. On one side of the interpretative divide are the historians affiliated with the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne, most notably Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, who stress (in my judgment, correctly) that front-line French troops, in the main, believed that the cause they were fighting was just and defeat unacceptable. These men did not always agree with how the war was being waged, but they did believe that it had to be waged until victory. In short, they consented to the war. On the other side of the divide are those who argue that rank-and-file soldiers stayed in the frontlines out of solidarity with their comrades-in-arms and because the instruments of military discipline were too overbearing to make resistance possible or reasonable. Echenoz plants himself very firmly on the ‘coercion’ side of the ledger.
How, then, might one use 1914 as a way to understand the Great War? Imbued with the same dramatic pathos that characterizes French fiction of the Great War, from Barbusse’s Under Fire to Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement,1914 might appeal to students precisely because as a short read it would seem to be an easy read. This simplicity is, however, deceiving. Beneath the simple tale, simply told, of five victims of the war is a deeply roiling controversy about meaning and memory. For the contemporary history class the great merit of 1914 is not what it tells us about the war, but what it suggests about the meaning still ascribed to the war, and how it allows us to explore how the war continues to be remembered.
Jean Echenoz, 1914, trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: The New Press, 2014. (orig. published as 14, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2012).
- Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau offers a succinct account of the episode in chapter 4 of Cinq deuils de guerre, 1914- 1918 (Paris: Éditions Noesis, 2001), as does the translator in the notes that accompany 14.
- Guy Pedroncini, “Les Cours martiales pendant la Grande Guerre,” Revue historique, 252, 2 (Oct. – Dec. 1974): 393 – 408.
- Pierre Maurice Masson, Lettres de guerre, 1914 – 1916 (Paris: Hachette, 1917), 230. Letter to his wife, dated 10 March 1916.
- Pierre Purseigle offers a very useful overview and analysis of this historiographical controversy in, “A Very French Debate: the 1914-1918 ‘war culture’,” Journal of War and Culture Studies, 1, 1 (2008): 9 – 14.