A war diary by a French railwayman; this is a rare bird indeed. Although Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire and Anthony Clayton’s Paths of Glory spring to mind, unless one reads French fluently (which I sadly do not) we in the English speaking world do not often get an insight into the French Army during the Great War. Those of us who read around the Great War are used to descriptions of the front and the trenches, the routine and the rhythm of the war. To have a French perspective is a treat. First published in France in 1971 and published in Britain in 1975 it has now been re-printed by Pen & Sword.
Desagneaux had been an office bound railwayman on the Eastern Railway and as such had been mobilised as an officer in the French Railway Transport Service. He describes how at first, in August 1914, all was orderly as the regular soldiers travelled through the rail system, then things fell apart. When the wounded started coming back from the fighting the mood altered. There were no more flowers, no patriotic singing and slogans, morale fell rapidly, all in a matter of two weeks. He tells us how ill-disciplined the French reservists and territorial troops were, not a patch on the regulars. He records in horror the wounded and in sadness the hordes of terrified refugees pouring through the rail network. Quite naturally it is so different to the accounts that we read about Britain’s entry to the war, the jingoism and the enthusiasm lasted longer there. Britain had not been invaded and it was not on the front line. A French perspective on this period is a grim but welcome change.
Because of serious officer casualties Desagneaux was posted from the Railway Transport Service to a front line battalion. He rapidly became a company commander and rose to the rank of major, becoming Chief Assistant Officer of the battalion by the war’s end. The transformation from rear echelon officer to decorated front line trench fighter is stark. Some British and Commonwealth diaries and memoirs have a tendency to be stoic and for want of a better word, chirpy. One often has the feeling that they are holding something back. Desagneaux on the other hand has a tendency to tell you how it was and rams the point home. He describes being in the line at Verdun with the relentless predictability of a 5.9-inch howitzer barrage. It was loud, it was devastating and it looked like everyone was going to die.
I was struck by how badly the French troops were treated by their high command. Desagneaux notes how he and his company were left under shell fire with no cover for hours, just sitting waiting as the shells rained down. He tells us how bad the food was, how the Generals rarely appeared at the front, how organisation often broke down and how dislocated the French soldiers became from their leaders. His unit retained its discipline during the mutiny and it was deployed from the front to deal with the mutineers on the railway system. He and his men did their duty but it did not stop them understanding the causes of the mutiny and having some sympathy with the mutineers.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this diary. Let Desagneaux’s record speak for him, “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre avec Palme … Mentioned five times in dispatches.” I recommend this book, it is worth reading.
Review by Dr Wayne Osborne for War History Online.
You can read Wayne’s superb blogs at GREAT WAR IN WORDS, part of Chris Baker’s much admired
THE LONG, LONG TRAIL website. Visit www.1914-1918.org
A FRENCH SOLDIER’S WAR DIARY 1914 – 1918.
By Henri Desagneaux.
Pen & Sword Ltd, 2014.
Hardback, 112 pages.
ISBN 978 1 47382 298 6