Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918
By Louis Barthas
Why this book?
The notebooks kept by a French barrelmaker and father sent off to the horrors of the Western Front had an underground presence for many decades. However, Poilu, the word means hairy one and became the apt term for the French infantryman in the war, did not reach a wide audience until its publication in France in 1978. It became an antiwar classic and a bestseller, only recently published in an English translation. “Cheating death,” he writes, was both a matter of luck amidst “this monstrous avalanche of metal,” this “veritable curtain of steel and fire,” “the disagreeable tic-tac of machine guns,” that pounded men “into marmalade,” and what Barthas described as “a mysterious intuition, an instinct about the imminence of danger” that told him “it was time to flee.” Yet he ventured as close to death and the dead as one can be without joining them. The barrelmaker closes his war notebooks in 1919 on sincere and tender yet bitter note. Although he “returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years,” he often thought about his fallen comrades. “I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole beings against their tragic fate, against their murder.” One hundred years on, Barthas’ Poilu continues that revolt.
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