Monday, 17 October 2016

The French Army in the First World War

The French army of the First World War withstood the main force of the German onslaught on the Western Front, but often it is neglected in English histories of the conflict. Now, though, keen interest in the war in general and in the part the French played in it has prompted a fresh appreciation of their army and the men who served in it. Ian Sumner’s wide-ranging photographic history is an important contribution in this growing field. Using a selection of over 150 rare wartime photographs, he provides a graphic overview of every aspect of a French soldier’s service during the struggle. But while the photographs create a fascinating all-round portrait of the French poilu at war, they also give an insight into the army as a whole, and offer a rare French perspective on the Great War.

'There's not much out on the French Army in the Great War so was pleased to see many photos I hadn't seen before. A few period tank photos are were new and armored car shots. For the price its a great reference for the arm chair historian and modeler. The captions are very well detailed giving locations, divisions, individuals, etc.' Charles Duckworth on

Thursday, 29 September 2016

From the Marne to Verdun: the war diary of Captain Charles Delvert, 101st Infantry, 1914-16

Charles Delvert’s diary records his career as a front-line officer in the French army fighting the Germans during the First World War. It is one of the classic accounts of the war in French or indeed in any other language, and it has not been translated into English before. In precise, graphic detail he sets down his wartime experiences and those of his men. He describes the relentless emotional and physical strain of active service and the extraordinary courage and endurance required in battle. His account is essential reading for anyone who is keen to gain a direct insight into the Great War from the French soldier's point of view, and it bears comparison with the best-known English and German memoirs and journals of the Great War.

This classic account of World War One from a French officer’s perspective has not previously been translated for the original French. Highly Recommended. This book is particularly valuable because it is a translation of a diary kept by a French offer from 1914 to 1918. There is no traditional photo plate section to illustrate the text, but there is no sense of loss at that. This speaks for the vivid writing of the very personal account of life in the French Army one hundred years ago during a terrible war of attrition. A Captain is a mid rank officer, between the juniors and the field ranks, having command of a Company in the French Army structure of the time. This provides a particular perspective with some knowledge of the wider field but still a common view from the lines. The author traced the opening battles of 1914 in what was a war of movement, through the increasingly static and bloody warfare that cost so many young lives on both sides. The most famous part of his diary covers the period when he commanded the 8th Company of the 101st Infantry in the defence of Fort Vaux at Verdun. This is considered one of the most revealing records of the Battle of Verdun, when his small band held off a series of German attacks. Firetrench 

Delvert was an educated man and brave soldier, wounded several times in action. More important for the reader, he was an astute observer with a keen eye for character, detail, the ironies of command, the stupidities and horror of war, and proud of his ‘splendid poilus’ and ‘their wonderful good cheer’ in adversity. Ian Sumner’s translation, the first into English, must catch Delvert’s own spirit. This classic account ends in the horrific fighting of Verdun, when his front-line service ended. (This book should properly appear on Ian Sumner's page.) Kandahar80 on

There are hundreds of books about front-line activities during the first world war, but not that many first-hand accounts. Although this book by Charles Delvert is the memoir of a French officer, the premise is the same as if it had been an Englishman. It is the writing of someone who got caught up in an horrific set of circumstances that led to the needless and meaningless killing of countless millions in a conflict that stretched out over five years. Harrowing and illuminating. Paul Norman in Books Monthly, November 2016
Books about French soldiers serving during the First World War are not particularly common in this country and this example, straight from the horse’s mouth was no exception. First published in 1966 and again in 1981, 2003, 2008 and 2013, this outstanding personal account of life at the front from a French soldier’s perspective has finally been translated into English for the first time in 2016. It is interesting to note that earlier versions of this book had watered down Delvert’s account of life on the Western Front while this version is literally warts without the influence of post-war novelists and romanticises of war. The diary entries begin on Friday 7 August 1914 at Saint-Cloud and ends on Wednesday 16 August 1916 at Maisons-le-Champagne when the author is seriously injured by ‘Minnie’ (a trench mortar). To quote that incident, ‘A Minnie had just exploded on the parapet of the boyau. In the quarter second of consciousness remaining to me, it felt as if my head, limbs, chest – every part of my body – was being pierced by a thousand jets of intangible, vaporizing gas. I was thrown 5 or 6 metres before hitting the ground.’ This book is a must for anyone who wants a direct insight into life on the Western Front from the French soldier’s point of view. An outstanding account superbly translated. Military Modelling

As some of you may know, there is a new addition to the body English translations of French soldier testimonies. The latest is that of Captain Charles Delvert (101st Infantry) whose war diaries have now been published for the first time in English under the title "From the Marne to Verdun: The War Diary of Captain Charles Delvert, 101st Infantry, 1914–1916." Delvert's diaries cover the early fighting of 1914, the Champagne front in winter of 1915, and the savage fighting around Fort Vaux (Verdun) in June 1916. The translation, done lucidly and faithfully by Mr. Ian Sumner provide an indispensable account to any student of the French army or enthusiast of the Great War in general.

The value of Delvert's testimony comes not just in the subjects he covers but also the methods he employs to describe them. Delvert was a diarist in the true sense of the word, and he possessed a rare ability to capture the essence of scenes and characters, documenting the small details that help the reader to really feel like they are "there" with the author.

Delvert gives just as much attention to a scene in 1914 of soldiers laying down in their red trousers enjoying the soft summer breeze in a forested glen as he does the horrendous flooded and filthy trenches of Champagne, where the only way to tell the difference between the corpse of a Frenchman from that of a German is from the hobnails of the dead man's boots that just out of the trench wall. Delvert's account ends with terrifying fighting at one of the outer works of Fort Vaux during the violent German assault in June 1916. Even for those familiar with accounts of the combat and daily hardships at Verdun, Delvert's description is horrifying in the extreme.

The 151st can't recommend enough this excellent translation of a junior officer's view of the war, whose level-headed but empathetic perspective captures what life in a French infantry company was like in the Great War. 
Facebook page of 151ème Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne 

The excellent and highly recommended From the Marne to Verdun: The War Diary of Captain Charles Delvert, 101st Infantry, 1914-1916, day to day in the trenches with an erudite French infantry officer with a wry sense of humor. Full of insightful observations on the military bureaucracy, nature, and life in general. Ammianus on