“Poilu,” by Louis Barthas is on the greatest accounts of the War To End All Wars, and one of the few from the perspective of a French Corporal constantly assigned to the trenches.
I’ve read quite a lot of books on The Great War, first hand accounts and some fail to convey the true horrors and hardships. This cannot be said of this book, for me the first reading of the vividness and detail resulted in my failing to initially comprehend what I had read because of the inhumanity and shock. I found myself re-reading to truly try to take in what the battles were like. Whilst Barthas mostly conveys in depth the actions involved in an attack, a defense or a counter attack, throughout the book the horrific death’s of soldiers are sometimes contained in single sentences. This is not a criticism, that’s capturing how the life of a fellow soldier was ended and death seems to have become so regular and so familiar that it seems to have lost any relevance other than brief mention. A true reflection of the impact of war on this and many soldiers in WW1.
In my experience, many of the first hand accounts I’ve read of The Great War are written from the perspective of an Officer, which comes with a bias that is even more true than in modern military conflicts. The enlisted men in WW1 had one of the most brutal existences of any soldiers in history across any conflict. Barthas details year by year his account in the trenches and leaves nothing to the imagination of the horrors of this war, whether it be from routine duties that endangered their lives, carrying out orders that certainly would result in heavy casualties or constant movement from the frontline trenches to some small village for rest and inevitably the villages would start getting shelled.
On the Fletcher Dilmore book review scale, this easily scores a 10/10 a a book I would put at the top of the list for anyone wanting to learn more about WW1 and the brutal daily realities of being a solider living through it all. This book will truly make you grateful to not have been the generation that endured the War to End All Wars.
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