Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas

Written by Louis Barthas, translated by Edward M. Strauss | March 25, 2014
Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, by Louis Barthas, Yale University Press, March 2014

Along with millions of other Frenchmen, Louis Barthas, a thirty-five-year-old barrelmaker from a small wine-growing town, was conscripted to fight the Germans in the opening days of World War I. Corporal Barthas spent the next four years in near-ceaseless combat, wherever the French army fought its fiercest battles: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne. Barthas’ riveting wartime narrative, first published in France in 1978, presents the vivid, immediate experiences of a frontline soldier.
 
This excellent new translation brings Barthas’ wartime writings to English-language readers for the first time. His notebooks and letters represent the quintessential memoir of a “poilu,” or “hairy one,” as the untidy, unshaven French infantryman of the fighting trenches was familiarly known. Upon Barthas’ return home in 1919, he painstakingly transcribed his day-to-day writings into nineteen notebooks, preserving not only his own story but also the larger story of the unnumbered soldiers who never returned. Recounting bloody battles and endless exhaustion, the deaths of comrades, the infuriating incompetence and tyranny of his own officers, Barthas also describes spontaneous acts of camaraderie between French poilus and their German foes in trenches just a few paces apart. An eloquent witness and keen observer, Barthas takes his readers directly into the heart of the Great War.

Edward M. Strauss is a fund-raising director in higher education and former publisher of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives in New York City.


Reviews

“Ah, the notebooks of Louis Barthas! This book has profound historic value. It is also a genuine work of literature.”—François Mitterrand, former president of France

“Louis Barthas’ stunningly honest, graphic and gripping narrative has rightly made Poilu a classic trench memoir.”—Douglas Porch, author of The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force

“This book shows clearly and viscerally what were the origins of French soldiers’ pacifism. . . . Barthas’s voice is unlike any other I know in the vast literature on the First World War.  The translation is excellent; the grittiness of the text is captured beautifully, and so is the humanity of the man who wrote it.”—Jay Winter, Yale University

"There is nothing like this for the French experience of WWI, almost nothing from equivalent British and German perspectives. . . . I believe this will be a major contribution to the study of Third-Republic France, the French army, and the First World War: regularly cited, regularly assigned.”—Dennis Showalter, Colorado College

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