The Poilu and His War
The French played a central role in the First World War (1914-1918), known at the time as the Great War, with roughly 8.5 million men mobilized during the war. Over half of all French soldiers became casualties: more than 1.5 million killed and 3 million wounded. This number represents more than the total number of American, British, Canadian and Commonwealth forces combined. In only the first three months of the war, the French suffered 350,000 dead alone. The infantry, being the most exposed branch, suffered a death rate of roughly 25% with the wounded adding another 40% on top of this -- a 65% total casualty rate.
Initially beset by antiquated armaments, systemic disorganization and poor leadership by the top command, the French army continued to fight on despite hardships and death unparalleled in the annals of war. Battles often dragged on for months, resulting in only minimal gains with losses for both sides in the hundreds of thousands. The Marne, Artois, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme and the Aisne: these rank among the bloodiest battles in history. Yet after 52 months of war, the French army had become the most modern fighting force of its time, well equipped, expertly trained and successfully lead.
The soldiers of the Great War had to endure one of history's most brutal and unrelenting wars. In cataclysmic offensives, hundreds of thousands of men were cut down by machine-gun fire and artillery shells, where gains were often measured in meters not miles. Included among the horrors in the trenches were poison gas, mine warfare, and massive artillery bombardments lasting for days on end, ravaging the land with millions of shells. Tens of thousands were mutilated, turned into pulp or buried alive by these onslaughts that transformed the earth into a vast quagmire, a lunar-landscape of crates and mud. Death was a daily part of life that took tangible form at the front, always hovering over the combatants with its crushing presence. In the face of such devastating weaponry, such tremendous violence, soldiers had never felt so utterly defenseless or so utterly cut-off. The alienation of life at the front only added to the soldiers' miseries. So too did the sheer brutalization of the war. They were not simply witnesses who saw their comrades suffer horrible deaths and woundings. They were also participants who took an active part in the killing. They shot, bombed and stabbed the enemy, often times in close-quarter combat. This was the first true modern war; a "total" war that changed the very foundation of the world.
The front became a world radically different from that of the civilian one less than 50 miles away. Death was a daily part of life that took tangible form at the front, always hovering over the combatants with a crushing presence. In the trenches, corpses often went unburied or were re-interred from the constant shelling. Putrefying human flesh mixed with defecation and urine in trenches often flooded knee or even waist-deep in water. Rats and blow-flies feasted on these by the thousands. Mud was a constant nuisance for the men and could be quite dangerous, as an untold number were swallowed up in the morass, disappearing without a trace in some unknown corner of the battlefield. Shelter from the elements was meager and sometimes nonexistent. The men lived in underground bunkers like troglodytes. Even the more substantial bunkers were cramped and rat-infested, and the men lived with the constant knowledge that roof could suddenly collapse upon them burying them alive with the detonation of a large shell.
Nothing like it had ever been seen before. For the vast majority of French soldiers, the war was far from being glorious and heroic; it was a common experience of suffering. It is no wonder then why la Grande Guerre was referred to at the time as "la der des ders" by the French -- "the last of the last."
Here are some other quick facts about the French army of 14-18…
For more information about the French army and its experience in the Great War, please see the "History" section