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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


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