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