Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Delvert's regiment - the barracks of the 101st

The regimental depot of the 101st Infantry was the Caserne de Billy in Dreux (Eure-et-Loir). Since it was quite close to Paris, Dreux had always been a garrison town. In 1736, a new barracks was built in the then rue d'Orisson (now the rue d'Orfeuil) to house the men of the brigade de corps du roi.

The building remained in use throughout the Napoleonic wars, but by the 1840s it had become cramped and was in need of repair. It was decided to construct a new barracks, on the plateau to the north of the town, and construction began in October 1845.

The barracks was named after a local man, General Jean Louis de Billy (1763-1806). When the Revolution broke out, he was an artillery instructor at a military academy in Paris. He joined the National Guard, and subsequently served with the Armée des Côtes de l'Océan and the Armée du Rhin, and was wounded at Zürich (2 June 1799). He was subsequently promoted to brigadier and commanded a brigade in Oudinot's Division (III Corps) at Austerlitz. He was killed at the head of his men at the victory over the Prussians at Auerstadt, 14 October 1806.

The barracks would become the home not only of the 101st, but also the reserve regiment, the 301st, and of the local territorial regiment, the 29th. In 1895, a company of the all-volunteer 300th Infantry, 333 men strong under a Captain Immelin, left from here for the campaign in Madagascar.

From 1932, it became the home of three squadrons of gardes mobiles (part of the gendarmerie), as well as a number of colonial regiments. In 1936, it was the home of the 1st Colonial Infantry Regiment. In 1939, the 3rd group of squadrons of 1st Algerian Spahis maintained a presence there, but by that time many of the buildings had been turned over to civilian use. 

After the war, the site was progressively taken back into military use, and a number of units, including gendarmerie, were stationed there, including the 1st Colonials between 1948 and 1955. The last Army unit to occupy the barracks was 22nd Colonial Infantry, who left in 1963. 

The site is currently occupied by a gendarmerie unit, Escadron 43/3 of the Gendarmerie mobile (responsible for the maintenance of wider public order, rather than for ordinary rural policing). Footage of the squadron's fiftieth anniversary parade in 2011 is on YouTube here. On the same occasion, the barracks was renamed as the Caserne Albert Bertrand, in honour of a gendarme who died in the line of duty in Paris in 1958.

The regiment also maintained a detachment near Paris, at the Caserne de Sully, in Saint-Cloud. The barracks were constructed on the edge of a park, part of the grounds of the Royal palace, which dated back to the sixteenth century, but which was destroyed by fire during the seige of 1870-71. The barracks themselves were built in the 1820s.

The barracks (which, despite their age, are not protected as historic buildings) and the neighbouring park are the subject of some controversy. They were recently handed over to the departement by central government. Part of the area was subsequently rezoned for housing, which has got a considerable number of people up in arms at the 'threat' to the site. The onside view, which emphasises the barracks as the new home for the departemental archives, is here; the offside view, which emphasises the modern threat to some of the few old buildings left in a town that was heavily modernised in the 1960s and 1970s, is here.

Illustrations: postcards of the barracks from notrefamille; the portrait of de Billy from Dreux par Pierloum; the 1933 aerial view from geoportail. The pictures of Saint-Cloud from delcampe.com and avsaintcloud.com

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Delvert's regiment - the 101st Infantry

In 1914, Charles Delvert joined the 101st Infantry.

A little history. Because of the changes that have taken place since 1789, the French rule is that the 'current' regiment is the bearer of the traditions of every previous regiment that bears the same number, irrespective of whatever amalgamations and disbandments occurred. Thus the 101st is the descendant of all infantry units with the number 101. 

The 101st was originally raised in 1787 by the Prince-Bishop of Liège from the French-speaking parts of the Austrian Netherlands. Entering French service, it was named Royal-Liégeois. In 1791, all the old names were abolished, and the regiment became the plain 101e Régiment d'Infanterie.

Even this title smacked too much of the past, and in 1793, regiments were abolished, to be replaced by 'half-brigades'. This came too late for the 101st because the whole regiment deserted in 1792 and joined the Austrians. So in 1793 at Besançon, the 101e Demi-Brigade de Bataille had to be created from scratch from the 1st Battalion, 51st Infantry (the former La Sarre-Infanterie), and two battalions of volunteers, the 3rd and 6th, from the department of Bouches-du-Rhône. These demi-brigades proved too difficult to maintain in the field, so in 1796, a second reorganisation was put in place. The old 101st was renumbered as 25th, and a new 101e Demi-Brigade de Ligne was formed from detachments from four different units.

The word 'regiment' was reintroduced by Napoleon, and the 101st Demi-Brigade became the 101st Line Infantry Regiment. It served in Italy and in Spain, before embarking on the Russian campaign of 1812. The regiment took part in the campaigns in Germany and France during 1813 and 1814, before being disbanded on Napoleon's abdication in 1814. It had no fixed connection with a particular area, and took conscripts from the Vienne, the Ain, Moselle and Doubs departments, amongst others - the recruitment registers can be consulted here. After its disbandment, many of the 101st's men went on to serve with 82nd Infantry during the Hundred Days.

It was re-raised in Lyon in 1855, during the Crimean War, but disbanded the following year without seeing action. It was re-raised a second time in 1859 for the war in Italy, likewise in Lyon. The regiment never saw Italy, but embarked for China, where it took part in several engagements against both the Chinese and against Vietnamese pirates, before being disbanded again, in 1862.

It was re-raised for a third time in 1871, this time at Cambrai, as the 1st Provisional Regiment, its men former prisoners of war returned from German captivity. In the following year, the regiment was renumbered as 101st Line Infantry Regiment. In 1882, like all infantry regiments, the 'Line' element of the name was dropped, and the regiment became the simpler 101st Infantry Regiment. The regimental depot was at Dreux (Eure-et-Loir), with a detachment at Saint-Cloud (Hauts-de-Seine). At mobilisation in 1914, the regiment's reservists formed their own regiment, the 301st Infantry.

During the Great War, the regiment fought in the following actions:
1914: battle of the Ardennes (combats of Ethe and Ruette), First Battle of the Marne (battle of the Ourcq), battle of the Aisne, First Battle of Picardy;
1915: First Battle of Champagne, Second Battle of Champagne
1916: Verdun (fort de Vaux)
1917: Champagne
1918: Fourth Battle of Champagne (defence of Prosnes), battle of Champagne and Argonne (action of Orfeuil and pursuit), battle of the Chesne (crossing the Aisne and attack on Voncq)

Both the 101st and 301st were disbanded after the end of the war. To maintain the traditions of the 101st, its colour was preserved by the 5th Infantry.

A new 101st was raised in 1939 as an A Reserve regiment, serving with 41st Division, but was disbanded the following year. The number has never been used since.

The regimental battle honours are Marengo 1800, Bautzen 1813, Hanau 1813, Palikao 1860, L'Ourcq 1914, Prosnes 1918, and Orfeuil 1918.

A regimental history, in which all the regiment's actions were 'brilliant', was published in 1875 on behalf of an association of former officers of the regiment, and is on Gallica here. A book of humorous sketches of regimental personalities, as well as other essays, by Jules Noriac, which went through an extraordinary forty-eight editions in the 1860s and 1870s, is likewise on Gallica here. An account of the regiment's time in Cochinchina in 1861-62, by one of its officers, is here. A regimental history for the period of the Great War was published in 1920; it has been digitized by the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporain, and is available here, together with a separate list of those killed. However, several pages are missing from the digitized version of both history and casualty list. Other books about the regiment are Actes de guerre. 1914-1917, by Colonel Lebaud (Paris, Charles-Lavauzelle, 1932); P.-A. Roy, Avec les honneurs de la guerre: souvenirs du fort de Vaux, (Paris, Grasset, 1938); and J. Pluyette, In memoriam, (Paris, Imp. des Orphelins, 1918).

Of the other regiments at Dreux in 1914, the 301st are commemorated in Le miracle du feu by Marcel Berger (Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1916), but which has no value as an account of the regiment; the 27th Territorial Regiment, which recruited in the same area, has no published history.

Illustrations: the French Army has an ambivalent attitude to the regiments of the Ancien Régime. None of the latter's battles are commemorated in honours borne on the colours, and modern regiments are not expected to trace their ancestry further back than the regiment that existed at the Revolution. Yet the pre-1789 regimental colours often form the basis of more modern regimental badges. At the top, the colour of Royal-Liègois from the excellent Vexillologie militaire européenne; the badge of the 101st, clearly based on the Royal-Liègois' colours; the basic pattern of the colours of 101st Demi-Brigade (omitting the central device of fasces and phrygian cap), taken from Hollander's great work; a regimental colour from the period of the Great War, in this case, that of the 37th Infantry - I have been unable to find a picture of those of the 101st; and the badge of the new 101st of 1939, both badges from the comprehensive Lavocat site.The cover / title page of the regimental history is from the BDIC's digitized copy.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Charles Delvert - his war-time diaries

Delvert was by no means unique in maintaining a diary and then using as the basis for an autobiographical memoir. However, his writing style was so succinct that there was no need for further editing. There is no question of 'horrors recollected in tranquility' - what you see on the printed page was always exactly what was written at the time.

This immediacy and honesty made an immediate impression. Delvert lent his diaries to the writer Henry Bordeaux, who was doing a piece on the fall of Fort Vaux during the battle of Verdun for the journal Revue des Deux Mondes (here and here); Bordeaux was able to use them almost completely word for word, except for changes made in line with Bordeaux's propagandist aims.

In comparing Delvert's original and Bordeaux's version, the normally grumpy Jean Norton Cru was positively scathing: 'Henry Bordeaux's book, the object of so many laudatory reviews, acquires its vivid nature wholly from the memoirs lent to him by Delvert and by the abbé Cabanel [the padre of a chasseurs alpins battalion at Fort Vaux, and the author of Avec les Diables Bleus (Pars: Beauchesne, 1916)] ... such a vivid, lively and truthful text lent by a combattant to a publicist like Henry Bordeaux, [has been] subject to amendment to make it to the public taste from which it emerges emasculated, distorted and so completely altered. It is unfortunate that Bordeaux's version is known to a great many more readers and critics that Delvert's original. It only serves to keep hidden the merits of one of the best combattant authors.'

Cru continued to champion the value of Delvert's memoirs. To Cru, their value lay in the fact they were not padded with imagined happenings, but faithfully reflected life in the trenches. When Cru compiled his critical bibliography of war memoirs, Témoins [Witnesses], in 1929, he wrote to Delvert that, 'I don't want to write history, or even criticise texts ... But criticism will be completely impossible once our generation has passed: criticism demands a knowledge of the War that only those who fought in it, lived through it, and suffered in it, could possibly have.' For Cru, memoirs and novels that were exaggerated or untruthful served only to disguise the true nature of war, making it almost attractive to those who did not know its true nature, hence his rough handling of 'publicists' like Bordeaux and novelists like Barbusse.

What is more, Cru continued, Delvert was there, whereas Bordeaux was not: 'I have my very own definition of "war books", not that of newspaper critics or others: [that is,] a book by a combattant speaking for himself. We are hypnotised by stories and histories, by the books of Madelin, Le Goffic, Bordeaux, Victor Giraud, not to mention Mangin and the other brass-hats or Young Turks. Why [should you] speak to the saints when you can speak to God? These [ie books by combattants] are the sources you should use. These are the witnesses you have to consult, and not the bystanders.'

'Your book', he wrote to Delvert, 'will present a faithful picture of the war to future generations, a picture neither flattering or too dark - both faults each as dangerous as the other, because fanatical militarism and fanatical pacifism reinforce each other.' With Témoins, he hoped its readers would come to see the truth about war, because 'we'll get nowhere if the Right stick to Rightist ideas and the Left stick to Leftist ideas about war.'

It is doubtful whether Delvert himself saw his work in such crusading terms. While he kept in touch with many of his wartime comrades, he does not appear to have participated in the politics of the French veterans' movement, nor in the later pacifism it espoused.

In a review of Témoins for the 1st December 1929 issue of Revue des Deux Mondes (here), Delvert admitted the difficulty in preparing the diaries for publication, and doubted the appetite of the public. There were, he thought, 'too many legends, preconceived ideas that prevented their [ie the edited diaries'] acceptance. "Once upon a time, they wanted a fictional war, flags flying in the breeze; today they want something no less fictional, trenches filled with the hellishly grimacing corpses ..."'

The process of editing gives some authors 'the opportunity to spin things out, to develop, to delay. You no longer find the firm, direct language of the front, but the complete opposite - something more obscure, even refined, the language of a modern novelist. It is in these rough notes, above all, that the truth can appear - a historic and a literary truth - from which emerges the real life of a combattant, a participant as well as a witness. Edited notes are like a painting calmly executed in a studio. Raw notes are a canvas finished in plein air, utterly more moving than a work that has been considered, arranged.'

Certainly, this is one of the reasons I used contemporary memoirs both in They Shall Not Pass and in Kings of the Air. The use of contemporary witnesses is of inestimable value, simply because it was contemporary, and not modified by later opinions and 'found' memories. In their book 14-18: retrouver la guerre (Gallimard, 2000), Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker argue that such eye-witness accounts are useless because they cannot be disentangled from the culture that produced the individual soldier. But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Eye-witness accounts are sources like any other; sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong; sometimes they are helpful, and sometimes not. But they should not be discounted or ignored.


As an aside, it is interesting to see from the original contract for Carnets d'un fantassin (here), that Delvert received 10% of the cover price (which is good enough), and a print run of between 3,000 to 5,000 copies (which is extraordinary by modern standards - or perhaps it's simply just my books that have pitifully short print runs :-) ).

As a second aside, some of Delvert's diaries were used as a source for the TV movie Die Hölle von Verdun (2006). The film used diaries from participants on both sides (the other French source was the diaries of Captain Anatole Castex of 288th Infantry) to tell the story of the battle at a personal level, with Johannes Oliver Hamm playing Delvert. A trailer is here; the whole film, in nine parts, brought to you (not wholly legally, one suspects) by YouTube user rammsteiner18 is here.

Illustrations: some of Delvert's diaries; Henry Bordeaux; Jean-Norton Cru; Johannes Oliver Hamm as Delvert

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Another new source on the French Army of the Great War

With the recent centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, new initiatives are coming thick and fast. On 6 November, a new database was added to the Mémoire des Hommes site, joining the existing databases of deaths, unit war diaries and of French aviation personnel. The new database contains the digitised files of those were executed during the war.

During the Great War, 1008 people, military and civilian, French and non-French, were executed for military offences, for espionage or under other existing criminal laws. Of these were 55 were summarily executed; 825 have their files included in the database; the files of 101 men are now missing, but their fate can be found in other sources, such as war diaries and the Morts pour la France cards; a further 27 were killed without trial for disobeying orders. Searching can be done by name, date and place of birth and of death, unit or place of recruitment.

So, what do you get? A number of individual files are missing, so the contents of each dossier can vary. Each should certainly include the minutes de jugement, a summary detailing the charges and the judgment of the court martial. It should also include summaries of witness statements in the dossier de procédure. Some also include appeal files, which sometimes have information missing from the original; others include files from the Cour spéciale de justice militaire, which re-examined a number of wartimecases between 1932 and 1935, including the notorious case of the Corporals of Souain (the cour spéciale file is here), and corrected a number of miscarriages of justice.

One of those executed during the war was an American - a Leo MacGhastley, born in Sacramento (California) on 2 September 1870, and executed as a spy at Romigny (Marne) on 15 September 1914. At the time of his arraignment, MacGhastley was living in Château-Thierry, and working as an electrician. Also accused were his wife, Marie Biehl, born 1874 in Trier (Germany) and Georges Lecointe, born 1866 in Mailly-Reineval (Somme). The court martial was held at Romigny by the Lines of Communication troops (Directeur des Etapes et Services) of 5th Army, under the presidency of a Colonel Rossert of the Gendarmerie.

Documents in the file show that on 31 December 1904, MacGhastley arrived in Stahlheim (the modern Amnéville (Moselle)). Over the next few years, he was constantly on the move: he married his wife in Rombach (Haut-Rhin), but was living in the Rue Périer in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge in April 1905; from there, on 10 May he moved to Plombières-les-Bains (Vosges); in September he had moved to Goucelin (Isère); in July 1906 he was in Corbeil (Seine-et-Oise); in November 1909, he moved to Chalons-sur-Saône; in June 1910, he was back in Paris, living in the Rue des Archives; in January 1911 he had moved to Saint-Martin-de-Valgalgues (Gard); in 1913 he was in Revel (Haut-Garonne); and he arrived in Château-Thierry on 4 August 1914, and set up house in the Hotel Leroy, 44 avenue de la République.

The main evidence against the trio came from police Inspectors Perard and Roch attached to 5th Army's provost detachment. They had interviewed one Marie Mayer of 37 Avenue de la République, Château-Thierry. She complained that during the brief time that the Germans occupied the town, the couple had been very anxious to socialise with the invading Germans. Biehl in particular went out of her way to talk to the Germans, who always greeted her. Mayer did not know what was said, but she thought it suspicious because none of other inhabitants of that part of town dared speak to the Germans. When the French arrived, Biehl was very friendly towards them, particularly towards the gendarmes. No-one else locally was so enthusiastic about the French, so Mayer thought Biehl's behavious most suspicious.

Another neighbour, Camille Bouyer, at number 32, said 'l'Américaine' had told her she was trying to save her own house and those of others from the depredations of the Germans. The couple moved into number 36, owned by MacGhastley's boss, which had a message in German painted on the wall, 'Leave these people alone - they are poor, good folk'.

Ernest Köchli, a Swiss national, knew MacGhastley from when the latter was installing electrical equipment at the local sugar works where Köchli worked. The owner of the works, M. Thorailler, left before the Germans arrived, and asked MacGhastley to look after his house. German officers billeted themselves at Thorailler's house, where Biehl let them in. She also served the meals, when she talked to the officers, including a general. One day, Köchli observed a bearded man arrive, clutching papers which he gave to the Germans: 'I presume they contained information' he concluded. Throughout the German ccupation, the American had driven a car and a motorbike, that he kept in Thorailler's garage. I know nothing about what was said between the couple and the Germans, but they all seemed to get on well together.

Célestin Houel lived at number 45. She said that when the Germans arrived a note, written by the couple, was stuck on the door of number 36 to protect it from the Germans. The wife was always watching out of the window for German cars, but did not know if she made any sign at them. Biehl offered to give her a note of protection against the Germans because she had lots of influence with them, but never gave Houel the note in the end. She didn't know anything else about them, but thought they were suspect because of their actions towards the German troops.

Léonie Moreau, aged 22, was in service at the Hotel de la Gare in the town. She had seen a chalk inscription on the hotel wall intended to keep the hotel from pillage (she does not say who put it there, but by implication attributes it to 'the American' and his wife). Marie Angéline Roblin was a guest in the hotel at the time, and she saw the inscription and was told the American and his wife wrote it.

Lecointe, the third defendant, was the manager of the hotel. When French troops reoccupied the town, he refused to open the shutters. When he did, the inscription was revealed ('Good people', it said, 'have given everything. Please spare them'.), Lecointe had acted so suspiciously, he was arrested and charged.

Er, that's it. To say that the evidence was 'flimsy' is to rewrite the meaning of the word. On this showing, it seems nothing more than hearsay and neighbours with a grudge. Nevertheless, MacGhastley was found guilty of passing information about French operations to the enemy, and guilty of fraudulently obtaining a pair of binoculars, belonging to M. Thorailler, that were found in his possession. Biehl was equally found guilty of passing information. Lecointe was found not guilty of passing information by a majority of three to two.

On 15 September, Sous-Lieutenant Marcel Braibant, as clerk to the court martial, in the company of Captain Vilette, of the 19th Squadron of the Train des Equipages, read the sentence to MacGhastley and Biehl. The condemned were then taken out and shot by a squad of infantry.

A proper defence lawyer would have demolished this tissue of rumour and innuendo in seconds. But the court-appointed defender, a Sergeant Cayla of the 22nd Administration Section, does not appear to have acted as zealously. But, as I wrote here, in the rear areas spymania was at its height, and normal standards of justice did not always prevail. Unsuspecting individuals came under suspicion for the most trivial of reasons. Warned to be wary of German spies, Robert Deville (17th Artillery) and his fellow officers were enjoying their after-dinner coffee on the evening of 8 August. Suddenly in walked a civilian, 'quite tall, with a blonde beard, a pipe in his mouth, wearing a green cap. We fell upon him and placed him under arrest. On further interrogation he turned out to be from the local highways department. What the devil was he doing wearing a green cap?'

The Express du Midi ran a real scoop on 13 August. Mysterious car drivers had reportedly appeared in several villages deep in the countryside of the Corrèze and the Lot, 'handing out poisoned sweets to children as they pass by. At Figeac seven individuals disguised as women threw their deadly sweetmeats to the little ones.' Seventeen such cases had been reported and in Cahors one child had died. 'Everything leads [us] to believe that we're dealing with Germans,' concluded the Express. 'An absurd tissue of lies,' snorted the prefect; but the stories continued to circulate for several months thereafter. And suspicion continued to fall on the Swiss-owned company Maggi: on 10 September, Le Correspondant warned that pre-war German spy-rings had put up posters for Maggi soups and Kub-brand bouillon cubes to mark points of great strategic significance. The newspaper advised its readers to tear them down immediately.

These episodes have an air of black comedy. But in the febrile atmosphere of the time events could quickly turn sour. Luigi Barzini, a journalist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, was travelling behind the front, when a gendarme stopped him and asked to see his papers. 'We have to be very careful,' said the gendarme, 'because we're surrounded by spies. We shot three here just yesterday morning, one of them a woman. I was the executioner, I presided over the court-martial and we didn't hang about.' The whole incident was over in less than half an hour.

Searching for further information on MacGhastley has proved difficult. The French file sometimes gives his forename as Léo, other times as Léon; his surname as MacGhastley or as Ghastley, as if Mac was a middle name. His father was given as Frederick; his mother, Babette Stang. But there is no-one with his distinctive surname listed in California on the Federal censuses on Ancestry.com.

Pictures: the cover of the case file; MacGhastley's driving license and identity card, from the court martial files; the Avenue de la République and the Hotel de la Gare, on what is now the Avenue Wilson (both from delcampe.com)

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Grand Mémorial - a new database of the French Army

I take a pause in my Delvert-ing activities to post news of a new database on the French Army of the Great War, launched on 11 November.

The Grand Mémorial is a gateway to two sets of digitized documents. The first is the record cards of those who were killed in action - morts pour la France (MPLF). These are already approachable by name, but recently, an indexing project has been undertaken to include the other fields on each card - unit, place of birth and enlistment, place and cause of death (I originally wrote about it here).

The second set consists of the digitized registres matricules, held in each departmental archives across France. These registers list every man who was called up, by the year of his enlistment, with details of his family, occupation, educational level and military career. Many of these are already digitized, but are available only through the website of the archive. What the Grand Mémorial site does is to combine the index of each departmental archive, to which is added the existing MPLF indexing, to create a grand index covering all those who served.

It sounds good, doesn't it? But we know it's not quite as simple as that. I already noted the incompleteness of the MPLF indexing (although this is being remedied by volunteers); further, not all the indexes of the registres matricules have been added to the site. Frustratingly for my Delvert project, those of Eure-et-Loir (where his regiment had its depot) are still only available through the departmental archive website. The plan is to have everything complete by November 2018.

The map shows the current state of the registres matricules. The palest blue indicates those departments whose registers are digitized but not indexed, and are available through their own website. The slightly darker blue indicates departments whose registers are indexed and on the Mémorial. The slightly greener blue (eg 36 and 37) indicates departments whose registers are digitized but access is only available in their respective archive search rooms. The dark blue are those departments with registers that are digitized and indexed, but not yet on the Mémorial (and by implication, the next to be included?). The yellow are those departments with no registers. I hope that's clear ...

The departments currently included, then, are: Ain, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Côtes-d'Armor, Haute-Marne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Hautes-Pyrénées, Mayenne, Saône-et-Loire, Sarthe, Seine-Maritime, Yvelines, Somme, Tarn, Var, Vaucluse, Vendée. Plus Algeria and French Polynesia, from the Archives Nationales d'Outre-Mer at Aix-en-Provence (with the following promised soon: Madagascar, Comores, Côte française des Somalis (1889-1918), Réunion (1889-1918), Guyane (1890-1914), Afrique occidentale française (1893-1917), Polynésie (1894-1919), Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (1901-1921) and Nouvelle-Calédonie (1907-1918)).

What can you do? Search by name, obviously. The Advanced Search option also permits searching by place of birth, of enlistment, of abode or of death; you can limit this by date, by educational level and by occupation, using drop-down menus. From this, you find, amongst other things, that ten men on the database gave their occupation as 'acrobat'. Their origins were equally divided between the south (Nice and Toulon) and Brittany (Saint-Brieuc and Guingamp) - was there no call for acrobats elsewhere in the country? 

Some 234 men in the database were born in the UK - most from the Channel Islands and enlisting in Brittany. You just search under 'Royaume-Uni' - there is no need to also search under the constituent parts. And one man came from Ireland - the unfortunate Corporal John Joseph Barrett, born in Ennis (Co Clare) in 1890, enlisted at Dunkerque in 1914, and killed in action on 20 April 1917 at Auberive (Marne), serving with the Foreign Legion.

Helpfully, you can download your results as a comma-delimited file, giving your own research database. I'll go further into the registres matricules, and the information they contain, in my posts about Charles Delvert.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Charles Delvert - his writing

Delvert's first book, Quelque héros (Paris: Berger-Levrault), was published in November 1917. It is simply a collection of factual accounts of gallantry at the front. Occasionally the author's experiences emerge, but all material that will appear in his later books. Perhaps it was Delvert simply dipping his toe in the water of publishing. Nonetheless, it went through at least six editions within a year.

Delvert had always kept a diary, and it is these notebooks that form the basis for his most important works. The first was Histoire d'une compagnie: Main de Massiges - Verdun: novembre 1915-juin 1916: journal de marche (Paris: Berger-Levrault), published in July 1918.

In December 1920, Delvert used his diaries from his time on the staff of 5th Army to write L'erreur du 16 avril 1917 (Paris: L. Fournier). It was this army that took one of the major parts in the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive. On the opening day, Delvert was able to observe the progress of the attack (or, rather, non-progress) from XXXII Corps' position at Point 186, west of Cormicy.

In January 1921, Delvert provided the text to accompany fifty-nine reproductions of paintings by Joseph-Félix Bouchor, published as Verdun (Paris: L. Fournier). Again, there was little personal in the text, although it did include a section on the defence of redoubt R1, in which the 101st took part.

His next book, Les opérations de la 1re armée dans le Flandres, appeared in June 1921 (Paris: L. Fournier). Delvert was once more on the staff of the attacking forces, and details the build-up and progress of the offensive of 31 July-2 November 1917 across the river Lys towards Houthulst Forest.

Delvert then temporarily abandoned military history. His next published work was actually a speech given at a prize-giving at the Lycée d'Amiens in 1924: Discours prononcé par M. Charles Delvert, professeur agrégé d'histoire, à la distribution des prix, le samedi 12 juillet 1924, sous la présidence de M. Armand Tumel, avocat, président de l'Association des anciens élèves (Amiens: imprimerie du Progrès de la Somme).

He used his trip around the world to inform his next book L'Algérie (Paris: Hachette), published in July 1930.

In October of the same year, he published another work of history, a school textbook intended for baccalauréat students - Memento. Histoire contemporaine depuis le milieu du XIXe siècle (1848-1920) (Paris: Emile Croville.

For his final major work, he returned to his wartime diaries. Carnets d'un fantassin was published in 1935 (Paris: Albin Michel). It covered his service from the outbreak of war until August 1916, and so overlaps his first book. It has been through several subsequent editions, in 1966, 1981, 2003, 2008 and 2013 - all in French, so my translation will be the first in English.

The cover illustrations are taken from the websites of assorted dealers.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Charles who?

So who was this Charles Delvert?

Charles Laurent Delvert was born in the Third Arrondissement of Paris on 27 April 1879, the son of Antoine Delvert, a shoemaker, and his wife Anna Servant, a furniture finisher. A talented student, he attended the Lycée Charlemagne before going to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, from where he graduated in history.

In common with all young men of his age, he saw service in the Army. He actually volunteered in advance of his call-up, and on 10 November 1899, was posted to the 46th Infantry. He was promoted to corporal on 28 May 1900. After his period of service, he spent periods of reserve training with the 96th (Béziers) in 1910, and the 301st Infantry (Dreux) in 1912 (moving around the country in 1908-9, he was also briefly borne on the books of two other infantry regiments, the 100th (Narbonne) and the 17th (Lyon)). He was commissioned as a sous-lieutenant on 16 December 1908.

After graduation, he became a school teacher. Recalled to the colours, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 101st Infantry, whose depot was in Dreux (Eure-et-Loir), while also maintaining a detachment in south-west Paris. He saw action almost immediately, on 6 August around Ethe, in command of a platoon. He was later mentioned in divisional orders for his leadership during the battle: 'Remained alone with his platoon on the position to which they were assigned, even though the rest of the battalion had withdrawn behind the village [of Ethe]. Wounded at Marville on 29 August, but refused to be evacuated. Was wounded again on 21 September at the head of his company.' Over the autumn and winter of 1914-15, his division (the 7th) served on the Ourcq, the Aisne, at Roye and in Champagne.

In June, the 101st transferred to a new division, the 124th. It took part in the autumn offensive in Champagne, around the Main de Massiges feature, before heading for Verdun in May 1916. His company was committed to the defence of Fort Vaux, where it endured very heavy casualties. Delvert was made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur for his leadership during the battle. Army Orders of 20 June 1916 read: 'wounded twice at the beginning of operations, but returned to the front despite not being completely healed, contributing to the destruction of violent enemy attacks on a neighbouring sector. Was strongly attacked in his turn, putting himself at the head of his bombers, and with a desire not to cede an inch of ground, inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy and maintained his position intact.'

Delvert was wounded four times: on 25 August and 23 December 1914 (both by rifle fire), and on 9 July and 16 August 1916 (by a German grenade and a minenwerfer respectively). He was given the temporary rank of captain on 9 December 1915, made permanent on 4 July 1916.

On 28 August 1916 he was posted to GQG, and then two months later, to the staff of 5th Army. He was still on 5th Army's staff during the Chemin des Dames offensive in April 1917. In July 1917, he moved to 1st Army staff, and so was on hand for the Flanders offensive. He was moved again at the beginning of 1918 to the staff of the French army in Italy.

He was demobilised on 19 March 1919. After the war, he resumed teaching, first at the prestigious lycée Janson-de-Sailly, and then at the lycée Henri IV. Still an Army reservist, he was promoted to major in 5th Tirailleurs in 1925, and was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in 1927.

He married Andrée Leduc in Paris on 28 June 1920. During the 1920s and 1930s, he devoted much time to writing (more on that in another post) and travelling, including an around-the-world voyage. He died as a result of the long-term effects of his wounds, on 10 July 1940.

As a postscript, on 12 December 2013, a further honour was bestowed on Delvert. Every year, each intake at Saint-Cyr, the French Military Academy now at Coëtquidan (Morbihan), chooses a name for their class, chosen from French battles and distinguished officers. The 2013-14 class of the 4th Battalion (largely composed of cadets heading to the Engineers and supporting services) chose to commemorate Delvert. A video of the naming ceremony (the 'baptism') is on Daily Motion here; the class song, which makes a brief appearance on the video here.

Illustrations: Delvert in c.1917 (from the Saint-Cyr site here); the young Sergeant Delvert (second from right) (from centenaire.org.fr here); Delvert (centre, in the side cap) and some of his men of the 101st (likewise from centenaire.org.fr); Delvert's medals (top row, left right: Légion d'honneur, Croix de guerre, Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Croix du combattant, (bottom row) Victory Medal, 1914-18 War Medal, Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra, Spanish Cruz del Mérito Militar; the badge of the Promotion Charles Delvert; and a scene from the baptism ceremony, on a cold and misty December night (all from the Saint-Cyr site).

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ceux de 14 - the critics speak!

With the first episodes of Ceux de 14 having been broadcast on France 3 earlier this week, the critics have now had their say.

Télé-Loisirs: 'a good reconstruction of war', but overall the cast 'was rather wooden'; on the other hand Théo Frilet, as Genevoix was 'convincing'. Overall: Very Good

Télé 2 Semaines: 'convincing casting', but also thought they were 'rather wooden'. Overall: Quite Good

Télé Z: 'we lived, suffered and wept with these soldiers serving during the Great War'. Overall: Excellent

Télé Poche: 'faithful to the original book'. Overall: Good

TV Grandes Chaines: 'a bold production' with 'convincing actors'. Overall: Very Good.

Télé 7 Jours: 'the series is a noteworthy tribute to a generation that was sacrificed', played by 'outstanding actors'. Overall: Good

Télé Star: Overall: Good

So ... 'could be better' by the sound of things; but likewise, could be a lot worse (and we've seen plenty of those over the years!). I'll still be watching.

The quotes and stills come from TV-Premières here; thanks to Jeeves for the reference

Update 4 November: I watched the first two episodes on TV5 last night, and yes, it was 'good'. First episodes are always tricky, because there is so much back story to get in for the viewer that knows nothing about the period, but I thought it was slightly too episodic to get a real sense of all the characters. Lovers of explosions will have been disappointed, because there was little in the way of set-piece action - it certainly didn't build into the action in the same way that Band of Brothers did, for example. And on one occasion, our hero Genevoix becomes isolated behind German lines following an enemy attack; but the next scene has him strolling into his platoon's lines as if nothing much had happened. So, a qualified success. Will I watch the rest? Oh yes. Should you? Yes.

Another update 11 November: the third and fourth episodes were broadcast last night. Episode 4 is largely concerned with the fighting at Les Eparges in late 1914 / early 1915; a clip of the set-piece assault is on YouTube here. The poster says this is by no means the most interesting episode because it is largely concerned with combat - imagine, a film about war that includes actual fighting! Who'd'a thunk it? The opening credits of episode 1 can be viewed here.

Another update 18 November: the fifth and sixth, final, episodes were broadcast on Monday evening. One by one, the soldiers we have introduced to are killed in action at Les Eparges. The final episode reprises the attack that opens episode 1, and it concludes with Genevoix being shot three times as he goes to rescue one of his men under fire. You are left wondering if he would die of his wounds; in real life, Genevoix was so badly wounded, he was invalided out of the army after seven months in various hospitals, was assessed at 70% disability, and permanently lost the use of his left hand.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A new project: Charles Delvert

As Kings of the Air winds down to a conclusion (page proof checking and indexing going on as we speak ... er, type ... er, wotevva), a new project appears on the horizon, once again with those nice people at Pen & Sword.

My new project is the first translation into English of the Great War memoirs of Charles Delvert, Carnets d'un fantassin (An Infantryman's Diary).

Over the next weeks and months, rather than publish extracts hot from the translations face, I'll use the blog to explore Delvert's world, that of his regiment (the 101st Infantry), and the battles in which it took part, using war diaries and other contemporary material. Although I might use the occasional translation, just as a taster!

All this and a new look for the blog pages. It's all go here at Sumner Towers!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ceux de 14 reaches the screen

In a previous post, I mentioned that preparations were under way to adapt Maurice Genevoix's novel Ceux de 14 for television. The novel has now been adapted into six 52-minute episodes, the first of which is to be broadcast on France 3 on 28 October. Those of us who cannot receive France 3 will have to wait until it appears on TV5 Monde (channel 796 on your Sky box, but Freeview watchers are doomed to disappointment). The good news is that it starts on 3 November at 1835 (other times in other continents), according to TV5's website.

The French Allociné site tries to tempt you with the idea that the series will be a French Band of Brothers. In the way of internet comments section everywhere, a number of public comments laugh at the idea - whoever heard of positive comments on a webpage?

Certainly, the novel relies on a single point of view - it's Genevoix who tells the story - rather than the multiple points of the US series, so the two are not directly comparable. The footage of individual veterans used at the start of each Band of Brothers episode also gave that series an emotional impact that Ceux de 14 cannot possibly have, since Genevoix and his comrades are all long in their graves. But the idea of following a small group of soldiers through the conflict holds good. In an article in Le Monde, the director Olivier Chatzky insists, 'With Genevoix's pen, each soldier is an individual, each portrait complete. There is a dignity in his writing, and throughout this project, it has almost been a public service to counter the cliche of the mass anonymity of the conflict. In this series, we follow a small group of lads under the orders of the young sous-lieutenant Genevoix.'

A short trailer is available here; a slightly longer one here. A Youtube clip here depicts a combat from early in the conflict. A large number of stills are shown on the Centenaire 14-18 website here.

Théo Frilet (on the left), the actor who plays Genevoix (on the right), received the best newcomer prize at the Luchon Festival 2014 for his role. I think the former's moustache perhaps needs a little work ...

Much of the series was filmed in the east of France, around Thierville-sur-Meuse. Stories charting the creation of the series, taken from the local newspaper, the Est-Republicain, are linked to from the Verdun-Meuse website here.

Illustrations: the top picture and that of Frilet both come from the Séries Mania website; the photo of actors and crew came from the Le Monde article; the book cover a webfind; the photo of Genevoix from the excellent Ceux de 14 blog, which contains many articles and much information about the author and his writing career.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Here we are, here we are, here we are again!

After an unconscionable lay-off, it may be time to resuscitate this blog.

Although it may not be universally popular

Since June: 
The proofs (not quite galley-proofs, but a manuscript produced from my computer file) of my most recent book, Kings of the Air: French aces and airmen of the Great War, came, got checked, and were then sent back. I'm now waiting for the page proofs. Once those are returned then it's full steam ahead for publication sometime in the New Year.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, I wandered into the bookshop in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, to find some of my previous books on sale, but translated into Czech. Well, I never.

No, never. Not even once. They spelled my forename wrong with the French Army book, as Jan rather than Ian, but that's OK, because my Czech is non-existant.

I should be able to get back on something approaching my old weekly schedule for next week, with updates of previous posts, and news of a new project. And, since I missed the 10,000 page views milestone (thanks, everyone), a bit more eye-candy in the form of posters and other artwork.

The stills are from the 1931 version of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Kings of the Air: 'War, German style' 3

The third of three posts on Paris under attack during the Great War.

'Berthas by day, Gothas by night,' proclaimed l'Illustration, 'the dull rumble of the guns at the front, the uhlans just "five marches" from the boulevards … things should be pretty grim in Paris right now! [But no.] Everyday life continues, no airs, no graces and no faint hearts. This is our Paris in wartime: no fuss, no panic, no bravado. A model of steadiness and self-control.'

Under the bombardment in Paris was the American Mildred Aldrich: 'We were hardly on the balcony, when, in an instant, all the lights of the city went out, and a strange blackness settled down and hugged the housetops and the very sidewalk. At the same instant the guns of the outer barrage began to fire, and as the night was cold, we went inside to listen, and to talk. I wonder if I can tell you – who are never likely to have such an experience – how it feels to sit inside four walls, in absolute darkness, listening to the booming of the defence, and the falling of bombs on an otherwise silent city, wakened out of its sleep. It is a sensation to which I doubt if any of us get really accustomed – this sitting quietly while the cannon boom, and now and then an avion whirs overhead, or a venturesome auto toots its horn as it dashes to a shelter, or the occasional voice of a gendarme yells angrily at some unextinguished light, or a hurried footstep on the pavement tells of a passer in the deserted street, braving all risks to reach home. I assure you that the hands on the clock-face simply crawl. An hour is very long. This raid of the 17th lasted only three-quarters of an hour. It was barely half-past eleven when the berloque sounded from the hurrying firemen's auto – the B-flat bugle singing the "all clear" – and, in an instant, the city was alive again – noisily alive. Even before the berloque was really audible in the room where we sat, I heard the people hurrying back from the abris – doors opened and banged, windows and shutters were flung wide, and the rush of air in the gas pipes told that the city lights were on again.'

'Every one hates it,' she continued. 'But every one knows that the chances are about one in some thousands – and takes the chance. I know of late sitters-up, who cannot change their habits, and who keep right on playing bridge during a raid. How good a game it is, I don't know. Well, one kind of bravado is as good as another. Among many people the chief sensation is one of boredom – it is a nuisance to be wakened out of one's first sleep; it is a worse nuisance to have proper saut de lit clothes ready; and it is the worst nuisance of all to go down into a damp cellar and possibly have to listen to talk.' This short film shows the entrances to some of the shelters, and how some shopkeepers, in taping up their windows to reduce the dangers of shattered glass, tried to create 'artistic' arrangements. This film shows some of the measures to sandbag historic monuments.

'No use complaining!' cautioned La France illustrée. 'It's war. War, German style! Our enemies have handed us another lesson. Our will to win may equal theirs, but do we match them in our determination to develop weapons of war, achieve the technical superiority required to counter the threat of their evil genius, find new applications for science or make the most infinitessimal of new discoveries?'

Before the outbreak of war, Clément Ader had prophesied great (Anglo-German!) air fleets that would lay waste to the centre of Paris, and excitable politicans and excitable newspapers had been fascinated with the notion ever since. It came as no surprise that many from within that constituency wanted to do nothing more than lay Germany waste from the air.

'It is sad to think,' mourned deputy Alain d'Aubigny (file under: Excitable Politician), 'that what our air force could not do was provide the weapon of reprisal that every Frenchman wanted to see used against our enemies; and what heartbreak for after the war. Britain, the United States, [and] our enemies, understand the role the heavy bomber has in enforcing peace.'

A journalist asked Giovanni Caproni, the Italian bomber manufacturer, 'Do you believe in long-range bombing? Would you see Paris, Lyon, Le Creusot [and] Saint-Chamond bombarded?' 'Oh yes,' came the reply, 'with an unforseen regularity.'

Georges Kirsch (V29) was a reluctant supporter: 'There was no question of us trying to inflict physical damage on military targets,' he wrote of a raid on Saarbrücken. 'Our task was to sneak up on the major arteries and drop the lot at zero hour, midday German time, as people were leaving the factories. Four hundred and twenty dead. We thought it despicable, but that's war.' 
The position of these bombing enthusiasts included a number of contradictions, which they did nothing to address. One of the main underlying assumptions was that German moral, particularly that of German workers, was nowhere near as good and steady as that of French workers, and so would immediately collapse. So, our civilians can take it, simply because they are ours; theirs cannot, because they are them. Obviously.

In his post-war book L'Aéronautique hier, demain (Paris, Masson, 1920) Major Jean Orthlieb, who had been an army aviation commander during the war, noted with some satisfaction the poor results of the German raids on Paris, particularly when compared to the decisive interventions by French tactical bombers on the battlefield. Yet he concluded, 'what we really lacked during the war, and something that would have played a decisive role, was a longe-range aircraft, with a powerful bomb load.' The Aircraft of the Future was to be a 'night battleship' (cuirassé nocturne) carrying several tons of explosives. So when they do it, it's rubbish; but when we do it, it's a war winner.

After Major Louis Robert de Beauchamp made a solo raid on Munich in 1916, Captain Henri de Kérillis, who led C66 on their reprisal raid on Karlsruhe later that year, wondered, 'what would have happened if fifty had gone with him ... You can see that fifty Sopwiths dropping 500 bombs onto the streets of the city would have given pause to the torpedoers of the Lusitania and the incendiarists of Reims.' But when zeppelins started regular raids against London, de Kérillis condemned it as terrorism. So when we do it, it's a justified reprisal; when you do it, it's terrorism.

Yet if the object of the German air-raids and the bombardment was destroy French civilian morale, it did not work. Journalist Marie Harrison reported on Paris under bombardment: 'I was in Paris during the first days of the bombardment, and I know something about the morale of the city under circumstances of acute unpleasantness. Air raids are horrible enough but they have their time limit. There is no "all clear" in an attack by the mystery gun. I remember that on Good Friday it began early in the morning, and the explosions continued throughout the day, occurring precisely at every quarter of an hour. That is a form of irritation which the Huns thought would empty Paris in a week. Some people left the city as some people have left London to escape the raid. But the greater number of Parisians went quietly about their work and did not even leave the business at hand to seek shelter from the approach of the next expected attack. Paris is so close to the war and has lived for so long beneath its shadow that it would take more than a long range-gun to disturb the normal course of its way of living.' And in this short film, shot outside the Printemps department store, it does look like business as usual.

Pictures: Mildred Aldrich; a contemporary novel - they seem to be enduring Aldrich's 'worst nuisance of all', and are certainly not singing this naughty little ditty of the time, by the music-hall star Dranem; a map showing all the bombs and shells that fell on Paris; Alain d'Aubigny (from Wikipedia); de Kérillis in the 1930s (also from Wikipedia). There is a short newsreel film showing some of the destruction in Paris here, and some photos of the damage are here.