For the Republic: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier by Barroux
Great War cemeteries are sobering places, but there is something particularly mournful in encountering the grave of an ‘Unknown Soldier.’ Most such tombs contain fragments of clothing or faint skeletal remains; ‘a chit of bone,’ as Owen Sheers writes in his poem ‘Mametz Wood.’ The anonymous soldier of Line of Fire is known only through his moving and tantalising month-long diary from the very beginning of the First World War. Incredibly, this vital link to the past was nearly lost. Four years ago, French illustrator Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he saw some men clearing out a house. Amid the clutter was a mouldy old journal from 1914 — ‘La Frontière.’ Armed with this extraordinary relic Barroux used his special talent to bring the soldier’s brief but powerful story to life.
The French title of this beautiful book is On Les Aura! Carnet de Guerre d’un Poilu. Sarah Ardizzone’s translation is excellent, but I feel ‘Line of fire’ does not quite do the soldier justice. On les aura! We’ve got them! — such optimism, such naïvety. Our unknown soldier is guilty of it early on: ‘Thursday 20 August . The same again: exercises in the morning, inspection in the afternoon. I didn’t expect to see this in wartime. It’s becoming tedious.’ Such quietude will soon seem heavenly.
The subtitle, Carnet de Guerre d’un Poilu, is more telling still. ‘War diary of a Poilu‘ would I think have worked very well; certainly anyone who claims to be a World War I expert would grasp it. Perhaps the publishers felt it would deter younger readers. Poilu is a French word for a soldier of the Great War fighting for the French Republic. Poil in French means ‘hair.’ Poilu is meant to indicate virility and ruggedness: with no time to shave, soldiers would return from the front line with wild beards growing from their weary faces. Young readers may well be put off by a word that is, as it were, unknown, but it would have served as a fitting tip o’ the hat to our Gallic neighbours who suffered so greatly during this appalling conflict.
Amongst the Allies, only the Russian Empire lost more men than France during World War I, though France’s toll of 1.4 million is proportionally much higher. Further, it was into France that the German army first swept and on French soil that many of the most terrible battles were fought. Like all of his fellow soldiers and compatriots during the first bewildering days of the war our poilu is quietly terrified that his country is about to be overrun: ‘Monday 4 September : I locate a medical officer who changes my bandage. To my great astonishment, he informs me that the Germans are at Compiègne and getting closer to Paris every day.’
Sometimes, our poilu almost consciously conforms to stereotype: ‘Supper is equally pleasant, although wine is getting hard to find.’ Mostly, though, like all soldiers his life consists of digging, looking for a comfortable bed and, above all, marching. ‘Anyone who has been a soldier understands the value of boots,’ writes a soldier in Gallipoli in Louis De Bernières’ novel Birds Without Wings. Our poilu would agree: his most common phrase is, ‘I’m all done in’; his most touching, ‘I hope I get up tomorrow.’ We don’t know when this soldier failed to see another tomorrow. What we do have is a stirring shard of front-line life, one that ought to sit in every classroom.