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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La guerre vue et vécue par les "gens ordinaires"

by Alain Raynal

The Great War As Seen and Lived By "Ordinary Folks"

Translated Friday 18 October 2013, by Isabelle Métral

The publication of 500 new testimonies about WWI, half of them from the popular classes, is a rich contribution to France’s social history.

500 Témoins de la Grande Guerre (500 witnesses to the Great War)
Rémy Cazals, editor, Midi-Pyrénées pub./Edhisto 2013

This dictionary is the achievement of a collective enterprise that is as notable for its scope as for its rigorous method. Its five main authors and twenty-eight contributors analyze 500 new testimonies about WWI. Rémy Cazals, Alexandre Lafon, Cédric Marty, Yan Prouillet, Jean-François Jagielski and most of the contributors are members of the International Collective for Research and Debate on the History of the First World War (Crid 14-18). [1]

These testimonies, whether already published or not, are by soldiers of all arms, services and ranks, from the private to the general. But also by civilians that kept diaries. All testify to individual experiences and life-stories during the war.

The timing of this publication, on the eve of the celebration of the Great War’s centenary, makes it all the more valuable. This work continues, completes and enriches the novel method proposed by Jean Norton Cru who, in 1929, had edited, analyzed, and published 250 Témoins, namely works by 250 authors who had been witnesses. Some of Cru’s objectives were “to describe the reality of the war, which would dissuade the people from fighting them,” and to test the reliability of the books chosen as testimonies by subjecting them to a methodical, rigorous examination.

Norton Cru’s references were, for the most part, works written by intellectuals. The authors of the present book have sought a more socially balanced authorship. Half of their 500 witnesses are from the lower class, either peasants, blue-collar workers, employees, small shopkeepers, primary school teachers.

For each of them a note has been composed after careful checking of the sources thanks to documents found in the Records and soldiers’ rolls. In these notes extracts from the testimonies are quoted and replaced in their contexts. The specificity and contributions of each witness’s experience are studied. These notes form the bulk of the work. They describe the workings of society at the time, “sometimes in a shockingly vivid way,” the authors warn.

Useful indexes enrich the study: either of the themes considered, or of the military units that are mentioned, or of the names of the persons quoted, of the places… .

A remarkable historian’s and editor’s achievement, this work gives direct access to French society during the war, as the authors note: “A social history as close to the actors as possible, unlike those works that will wash their readers’ brains with either the leaders’ paternalistic or rhetorical views about the men under their commandment, or with superfluous stylistic tricks.”


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