Thanks to Alan Mason for this interesting new post. You can find all of Alan’s posts here.
In related earlier essays, posted on deskarati, I spoke about two British men of promise, whose life and talent was lost to the nation by their death in WWI. They were Henry Moseley, a brilliant physicist, and George Butterworth, a gifted composer. In this essay I want to review the story of a young Frenchman who was a promising writer. His name was Henri Albain-Fournier, but he is better known by his pen-name, the hyphenated surname “Alain-Fournier” without a forename. He wrote a short novel called “Le Grand Mealnes” (1) in 1912, which has been widely translated into many languages, including English, and is still widely read and discussed today.
French Provinces and Departements
After the French Revolution, at the close of the 18 Century, the names of all the old “Provinces” were swept away and replaced by the new, and much smaller, “Departements” whose names were based on geographical features like rivers or mountains. The whole idea was political, to discourage provincial loyalties, and make the French loyal and subservient only to the State and the national government in Paris. Needless to say, this Napoleonic system has only been partially successful, and the French accept the Departements because they have no choice, but to this day, all provincial French people know from which Province they come, and this is the base of their psychological and social loyalties.
A Provincial Childhood
Henri Albain-Fournier was born on the 3 October 1886, at the home of his maternal grandparents in the small town of La Chapelle-d’Angillon, (pronounced don zhee on) in the Departement of Cher, (shair) named for the River Cher (2). It was part of the old “Province of Berry” (bair ee). Both of Henri’s parents were primary school teachers and they moved about in the Departement. At the time of Henri’s birth they lived in Marçais, (mar say) (4) where they remained for five years until moving to Epineul le Fleuriel (ay pee ner ee). It is this latter school which most influenced Henri and which featured later in his novel. It may be that he took the surname of his principal character and the title of the novel from the nearby village of Meaulne (moan).
Cher is a very rural, agricultural part of France. La Chapelle-d’Anguillon is about 30 Km (18 miles) north of the Departemental capital of Bourges, (3) on the southern slopes of the Collines du Sancerrois, (Sancerre Hills). Marçais, Epineul le Fleuriel and Meaulne are also very rural, and in the south of the Departement about 50 Km (31 miles) from Bourges (4). They are on the northern foothills of the Massif Central, a great block of mountains in central France. The River Cher rises in the Massif, at about 370 metres (1,200 feet), flows north through St Amand Montrond and Bourges, before turning west to join the River Loire (loo ar) in the “Province of Touraine”, with its principal town of Tours.
Touraine has been a popular area for well-to-do visitors for centuries, and remains so for modern tourists, as “chateau country”, because of the large number of elegant and beautiful chateaux there. Though we normally translate “chateaux” into English as “castles”, this gives a mistaken impression, as many of these chateaux were built in the post-medieval period and were rarely involved in warfare. They are much more like what the English would call “great country houses” (5).
The Chateau and its Domain
The reason for my describing the rural quality of the early life of Alain-Fournier is that it clearly coloured his writing, as did the existence of beautiful and romantic castles. Despite, or perhaps because of his humble origins, he was attracted to elegant houses and graceful domains. There may be some truth in the exotic tales of his maternal grandfather, Matthieu Barthe, who claimed to be the last descendent of the family of the Marquis de Pujol de Saint-Andrè de la Tapie. (See reference AJRAF) His great novel is partly a search for a “lost domain” of a chateau in its stately grounds. Even in his grandparents little town of La Chapelle-d’Angillon there was a beautiful small chateau (6).
The concept of a “fairy-tale castle” is a very old one, and the illustration of the castle of Saumur (so moor) below, (7) is not a modern one, but comes straight from the France of the fifteenth century. It is reproduced from a “Book of Hours”, a kind of expensive illustrated prayer book for wealthy patrons. (See References D) If the sermon was too long, or too boring the owner could while away the time by looking at the pictures, and, appropriately this Book of Hours was made for the Duke of Berry, Alain-Fournier’s home Province.
Henri Seeks Advancement
Henri Albain-Fournier was a child of humble petit bourgeois origins, with a father who was, as explained, a local primary school master, as was the Observer or Storyteller in his novel, “Le Grand Mealnes“. Both he and his father were ambitious for his future advancement, and in 1898, at the age of twelve, he left his parents’ school for his secondary schooling as a boarder at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris. This was to prepare him for entry to a Naval School to train as a Naval Officer. He was at the Lycée Voltaire for four years, from 1898 to the summer of 1902, and had been a very successful student. He entered the Naval School in Brest in the autumn of 1902, but found everything so hard and uncongenial, that he left after a single term, at Christmas, 1902, when he was sixteen.
This erratic pattern in Henri’s education continued. He entered the prestigious Lycée Henri IV, in Paris, in early January 1903, but he did not remain there for the entire month. He quickly transferred to the much humbler Lycée in Bourges, so as to be much nearer to his parents. In the summer, he successfully passed his baccalauréat exam, (a university entrance qualification, roughly equivalent to the English A Levels) and left the Bourges Lycée after only six months there. Although the present Lycée now bears his name, in 1903 he spoke of it with complete contempt, claiming “its sheets stank worse, than the sheets in a barrack-room”. (See AJRAF in References)
In the October of 1903, he entered the Lycée Lakanal, Sceaux, (so) then on the outskirts of Paris, but now one of its suburbs. His aim was to prepare for the entrance examination to L’Ecole Normal Superieure (ENS). While at this school he met Jacques Rivière and they became close friends for the rest of their short lives.
Although the name of this institution, ENS, translates effortlessly into English as the Superior Normal School, this gives no idea of its reality in French academic and political life. A “Normal School” means that it trains students to become teachers, and that was the original function of the ENS when it was founded in 1794 after the French Revolution. The modern reality is quite different, and totally unlike any university in Britain. Students are selected on the basis of fiercely competitive oral and written examinations of a very high academic standard. Only the very ablest students manage to succeed in entering, and the ENS is consequently a rather small institution, currently 2,700 students, which is far smaller than any British university.
Once enrolled at the ENS, students have a charmed life as paid civil servants, and they are prepared for future careers as elite professors, high level civil servants, managers of large companies, and high ranking army officers. Whether such a fiercely elitist system is good for France is a continuing subject of debate in France and abroad. Henri Albain-Fournier was unsuccessful in his attempt to enter the ENS, as was his friend Jacques Rivière, and most of his fellow candidates.
A Chance Encounter
At the age of eighteen, he had one of those chance encounters we all experience, but which coloured the rest of his short life. It was on the 1 June 1905, when, as he descended the steps from the Salon National, (a major Paris exhibition gallery in the Palais Royal), he encountered a tall, blonde, young woman with stunning blue eyes. He was immediately struck by her beauty, but as she was accompanied by an older woman, he contented himself with following them along the Cours reine (coors rain Queen’s Way) beside the banks of the River Seine, and then on to a pleasure-boat. Finally, he trailed them to their home in the Boulevard St-Germain, a nearby fashionable street.
A few days later, he was waiting beneath her window, in his college uniform, “so that she would know I am only a college boy. I did not want to tell a lie,” as he wrote later to his friend Jacques. (See Reference AJRAF) He followed her to morning Mass, for Pentecost Sunday, at the local Church of St-Germain des Près. When she came out, he had some short conversation with her, asking her name. She had the rather splendid name of Yvonne Marie Elise Toussaint de Quiévrecourt, and though polite, she was quite uninterested in renewing his acquaintance. Henri, by contrast, had fallen deeply in love with her, and it is generally agreed that “Yvonne de Galais”, the heroine of his novel, “Le Grand Mealnes” is an idealised and romantic portrait of Yvonne de Quiévrecourt.
Having discussed Henri’s interest in “grand houses” it is interesting that his beloved had a “grand name”. After the French Revolution all the titles of the “ancient regime” (old monarchical system) were swept away. However, the surnames remained, and the use “de” indicated an aristocratic background, rather as it does in England with its old Norman-French lineages. The prefix “von” in German surnames has a similar origin.
In 1906, on 1 June, the first anniversary of Henri’s first meeting with Yvonne; he waited on the banks of the Seine to see if she would appear again. He was unlucky, as, not surprisingly, she did not appear, and he wrote next day to his friend Jacques Rivière, “She did not come. And even if she had, she would not have been the same.”
The subject of unrequited love is a familiar one to most people, but Henri’s response is unusual. Judging by his photograph, Henri was a very good-looking and personable young man (8) who might have had the pick of the young women. Most young men in his situation, having been rebuffed, would have sought fresh fields. The idea of waiting a year for an anniversary encounter seems bizarre. His letter does suggest that actually meeting the real girl (10) would have disappointed him. Was the beautiful Yvonne de Quiévrecourt no more than a romantic symbol?
An English Vacation Job
During the summer of 1905 Henri travelled to England for a vacation job as a translator of commercial letters for a paper firm in Chiswick, a western suburb of London. He took the opportunity to visit the London concert halls, museums and art galleries. Here, he was introduced to the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, as this movement was quite unknown in France, at that time. He was especially taken by the painting, (11) “La Beata Beatrix” (The Divine Beatrice) by Dante Gabriele Rossetti, an English painter of Italian lineage. The subject of the painting was taken from the life of his namesake, the poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who had a lifelong unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari. It is obvious why Henri identified with Dante’s hopeless passion, and Rossetti’s pictorial realisation of the subject.
In the middle of his examinations, on the 24 July 1907, Henri learned of the marriage of Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, and he wrote unhappily to Jacques, “She is not there. I am all alone.” (See Reference AJRAF) Several months later, in December, he published some of his writings, which included references to “a chaste and delicate young Lady”, and which he secretly dedicated to Yvonne. This was his first published written work, the first signed with the “half-pseudonym” Alain-Fournier, written with the hyphen.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, and in previous decades, both Germany and France had operated a system of conscripting all young men into the armed forces, for a period of training lasting from one to two years. This meant that in the event of war, all the reservists, (men of military age), knew the basic essentials of military life, and how to use weaponry. By contrast, Britain relied on untrained volunteers and only introduced conscription as late as 1916. It was dropped at the end of the war, but re-introduced for World War 2, and this time was retained for 15 years during the post-war period, as “National Service” until it was ended in 1960.
Henri, aged twenty-one, on the 2 October 1908, began his military service with the 23 Regiment of Dragoons (cavalry), stationed in Vincennes, near Paris. During his military life, as with his education, Henri was inclined to chop and change, and after a couple of weeks he decided he could not put up with the rigorous life of a cavalryman. He obtained a transfer to the 104 Regiment of Infantry, where he became cadet-officer on 15 October 1908, and remained there until 3 March 1909. Promoted to sous-lieutenant (Second Lieutenant), he was then assigned to 288 Regiment of Infantry stationed in the far south of France, at Mirande in the Departement of Gers, (zhair) close to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. This became his regiment, up to, and including the outbreak of war in 1914. Near the end of his military service, Henri asked the army for leave to attend the marriage of his sister, Isabelle, to his great friend, Jacques Rivière. The wedding took place on the 24 August 1909, in Paris, at the church of St Germain des Prés. In September 1909 he was free of his military service.
Trying to establish himself in the world of letters, he went to Paris in 1910 to take up a post as literary critic for the newspaper, “Paris-Journal”. Jacques Rivière and his wife were living in Paris and he introduced Henri to a great figure of the French literary scene, Andre Gide, a future Nobel Prize-winner for Literature.
At this time, the artistic movement known as Symbolism was prominent in French cultural life, and Henri was drawn into it when he and Jacques became friends with Paul Claudel, a successful Symbolist poet and dramatist, and his sister, Camille who was a sculptress. They both used mystical allegory in their works. It may be that the Claudels had considerable influence on the young Henri, who was still working on his only novel, which has been seen by some writers as an allegory, and a part of the Symbolist literary corpus.
Symbolist works, often have a mythic, and dreamlike quality which is most easily demonstrated by paintings. Compare Renoir’s robust, down-to-earth young woman enjoying the summer sunshine in the park (9), with the hazy, floating uncertainty of the girl and the peacock, (12). Undoubtedly, Rossetti’s “La Beata Beatrix” shares this otherworldly quality of the Symbolists, and some commentators on art, like Michael Gibson, have decided to classify the Pre-Raphaelite movement as “English Symbolism”. (Gibson, References E)
It was also at this time, in February 1910, that Henri met the second love of his life, a young milliner, named Jeanne Bruneau. Again, they encountered each other along the banks of the Seine, and again Jeanne lived nearby, close to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This was to be no dreamy, romanticised unrequited love, as Henri and Jeanne had a two-year relationship, punctuated by violent quarrels and optimistic reconciliations, until they parted for good at the end of 1912. Not surprisingly, Henri worked this relationship and its violence, into his novel.
Curiously, despite his enthusiasm for literary work, Henri resigned his job on the “Paris-Journal” in 1912, to take up what seemed to be a totally different career as a personal assistant to the politician Casimir Perrier. Nevertheless, he continued writing and his novel was finished in early 1913. It was first published in serial form, from July to October 1913 in a literary magazine, “Nouvelle Revue Française” (New French Review), whose editor was Henri’s friend and brother-in-law Jacques Rivière. Then it was published as a book, to so much critical acclaim that it was nominated (unsuccessfully) for the Prix Goncour, (pree gon coor), the highest literary award in France. This encouraged him to begin work on a second novel entitled, “Colombe Blanchet” (col om blon shay) which was unfinished at the outbreak of war.
When Germany declared war on France on 3 August all the French reservists, including Henri, were instructed to report to their regimental depots for further orders (13). There were only 35 days from the outbreak of war until Henri Albain-Fournier was killed on the 27 September 1914. If we want to understand the reason for the early death of this novelist, we need to step back to look at the political and military imperatives of the times.
OPENING MOVES IN WWI
We tend to associate the First World War with the miseries of trench warfare, the norm for most of the five calendar years between August 1914 and November 1918, but it was not always so. It began as a war of rapid movement (14). On the Western Front there were two major opposing forces, the bulk of the French Army and the western section of the German Army. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) was deployed against the Germans in the extreme north-west of the line, close to Belgium. Both the French and German High Commands had plans for any forthcoming war, which, unfortunately, did not evaluate what the opposition might plan to do.
The British did not expect to be involved in a land war in continental Europe, as their last experience of this was a hundred years earlier at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Consequently, their High Command had only one “plan”, if that is not too generous a description, and this was to conform to the wishes of their senior partner, the French Army.
A. The German Plan
The great worry of the German High Command was the risk of having to fight a war on two fronts, against the Russians in the east, and the French in the west. The solution was a simple one. Use all the main force to knock out the French at the start, and then concentrate on defeating the Russians later. This was an intelligent solution because Russia, though large, was inefficient and ponderously slow-moving compared with France. The knock-out blow to the French was to be a large encircling movement, through Belgium, into northern France, around the west of Paris, to meet up with fellow-Germans again near the frontiers. Thus, Paris would be cut off from the rest of France, and its surrender would bring a swift end to this first phase of the war; the defeat of the French. The overall design had been produced by Count von Schlieffen in the first decade of the twentieth century, and is known as “The Schlieffen Plan” (14).
B. The French Plan
Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, in which the French were comprehensively defeated, the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, were transferred from France to Germany, as part of the “reparations” or compensation for the war. This is not quite as outrageous as it might seem because both of these provinces lie on the Franco-German frontier and had already changed hands several times over the centuries. Moreover, the people of Alsace and Lorraine still, to this day, speak a local version of the German language. However, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, and a campaign for its recovery, was a major feature of pre-war French politics and a principal cause for entering the war. In consequence, the French war plan was a simple one, to re-capture Alsace-Lorraine, and then carry the war into Germany itself (14).
How the German Plan Unravelled
The Schlieffen Plan worked well in its opening moves. “The Germans had an easy time in their advance through Belgium. There was virtually nothing in their way; this is the only reason why the war of movement managed to move. Indeed Schlieffen’s whole conception assumed the absence of any enemy — an astonishing assumption for a commander to make but, against all the rules, justified. (Most of) the French were far away, getting themselves massacred against the fortified line in Lorraine. Only the small Belgian army opposed the Germans; and it soon drew back out of their line of march into the fortress of Antwerp.” (Taylor, References F)
The French forces were driven southward by the sheer weight of German numbers, as was the small British force on the extreme left. They had to fight a series of “holding actions”, meaning a limited battle to slow up the enemy while the main forces retreated to prepare for the next short battle. Most of these brief battles (Mons, Le Cateau, Néry, etc) are now barely remembered by historians, except for Mons, as the opening engagement.
It is a commonplace of military history that few plans long survive the realities of actual combat. This was also true of the Schlieffen Plan, when this giant encirclement of Paris began to look extremely risky to General von Moltke at German Supreme Headquarters. He knew that General von Kluck, the commander of First Army on their right wing, would become dangerously isolated from the neighbouring Second Army under General von Bülow if he followed the plan and went west of Paris. Consequently, he altered the plan so that General von Kluck, and First Army drove southwards, (15) but to the east of Paris rather than the west.
Joseph Simon Gallieni (gal ee ay nee) had spent the whole of his adult life in the French army. Having fought in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) as a 21-year-old officer he had then been posted to almost every one of the French overseas possessions, including West Africa, Martinique, Sudan, Indo-China, and Madagascar. His impressive record led to his being offered the post of supreme commander of the French forces in 1911. He declined, pleading poor health and old age, as he was sixty-two. Three years later, he retired in April 1914, but on the outbreak of war in August 1914, he was recalled and accepted the post of Military Governor of Paris (16).
There was little love lost between Gallieni and the army’s supreme commander General Joffre, who was well aware that he had been the nation’s second-best choice as leader of the armed forces. Joffre thought that the main theatre of war should be in Alsace-Lorraine, and that the fighting in north-eastern France should be no more than a “holding-operation”. Thus Gallieni in Paris would be in charge of a sideshow to the main event. To emphasise this point, Gallieni was sidelined by not being kept informed of Joffre’s existing plans or later decisions.
Joffre was wrong in this appreciation, as he was to be in many other decisions before he was replaced late in 1916. The French operations had ground to a halt in Alsace-Lorraine, while the German forces drove rapidly into northern France so the French and British were pushed back to within 19 Km (12 miles) of Paris. This was Gallieni’s moment and he seized it. He said of von Kluck’s First Army, “They offer us their flank”, meaning they were wide open to a counter-attack. He scratched together as many men as he could from the Paris garrison and crashed into the German forces. As speed was essential, Gallieni commandeered the Paris taxi fleet and had them drive the soldiers to the field of battle.
The outcome was as he expected; the Germans retreated northwards from the Battle of the Marne, as it was later called, and the city of Paris was saved. Joffre, naturally, tried to claim the credit for the victory from his subordinate, but few now accept this, and Gallieni is seen as “the Hero of the Marne” (the river in the area of the battle).
THE CAMPAIGN IN ALSACE- LORRAINE
Technology Favoured the Defence
The progress of war has always been dependent upon current technology. At this time, rifles had been improved enormously compared with a hundred years ago. Gone was the short-range, unreliable, slow musket, using barrel-loaded lead balls fired by gunpowder. The French and Germans had efficient breech-loading rifles with rifled barrels and metal-jacketed cordite ammunition. This meant that ordinary infantrymen could deliver rapid accurate fire over much longer distances. The balance of power had shifted from the offence to the defence.
It was now impossible for attacking infantry to successfully overcome enemy infantry in protected positions behind a bank or wall, or in a trench. Although artillery could break up part of the entrenched infantry it could never destroy all the rifles. With the addition of the machine gun, invented in the 1880s, and considerably improved by 1914 (17), the defence was lethally secure against almost any attack.
At a more strategic level, “reinforcements could always arrive by rail to a threatened position before the attacking side could break through on foot. Railway trains go faster than men walking. This is the strategical reason why the defence was stronger than the attack throughout the First World War. Defence was mechanized; attack was not. Supplies and guns were pulled along by horses (16). In every army forage for the horses took up more space than ammunition or food.” Food supplies were essential.
These mass armies were too big to live off the country. They had to be fed from their homeland. In this way the very size which had been designed to bring, victory made it impossible for the armies to win or even to move.
There was a real war of movement only for the first month or so before the initial impetus ran down; then followed four years of deadlock. (Taylor, References F)
No Quick Victory
“Everyone expected the decisive campaign to be in the west; and they were right, though the decision was not what they expected. It was a decision against a quick victory, a decision that the war would go on indefinitely. The key to this campaign was the German advance through Belgium. The French had long known of this plan. They took no precautions against it. They did not believe the Germans could form divisions solely from reservists; hence they underrated German strength by nearly a third.
In any case, they thought they had an answer. As the Germans struggled through Belgium, the French would strike their flank in the Ardennes and would also take a direct offensive in Lorraine; and, of course, according to official doctrine, the offensive always won. This offensive was duly launched on 14 August. It was a disaster. The French armies suffered here their heaviest casualties – worse even than the later casualties at Verdun.
They lost the flower of their armies – the best officers, the most eager soldiers; a loss from which they never fully recovered. The French offensive shattered against the German fortifications; their soldiers, untrained for defence, (19) fell back in confusion and disorder. Yet the defeat was a blessing in disguise; and the Germans erred in resisting the French attack so strongly. For Joffre, thanks to the failure of his offensive plans, had forces which he could move over to his left wing, and thus win the Battle of the Marne — against all his expectations and maybe beyond his deserts.” (Taylor, References F) How was it that the campaign was such a disaster? How could the “flower of the French Army” be so comprehensively defeated? The answer was, surprisingly, a combination of philosophy and history.
The Delusion of “Offensive Spirit”
The French Army was comprehensively defeated and humiliated (18) in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. There was much thought and discussion about the reasons for the defeat, but I do not want to examine these here. What is more important is what the French High Command of the Army thought the reason was, and how it affected military planning. For this, I refer to the excellent book by Alistair Horne, “The Price of Glory” (See References G) from which I quote at some length.
“The Army had begun to abandon its defensive thinking. Its studies of 1870 seemed to prove convincingly that the main reason for defeat had been the lack of offensive spirit. There was much talk about the posture of attack being most suited to the national temperament; the spirit of the ‘furia francese’ (“French fury”) The new mood was well matched to the philosophy of Bergson, now all the rage in France, with its emphasis on the ‘elan vital’ (the “vital spirit” or “life force”).
As the years moved farther away from the actual experience of war, so the philosophy of the offensive moved ever farther away from reality. At the Ecole de Guerre (French School of Warfare) little study was made of the success of the defence in the American Civil War, (1860-64) or the Boer War (1899-1901). In fact, there was little pragmatic study of any sort.” (Horne, see References G) What many do not realise is that trench warfare, much like that of 1914-18, occurred in the American Civil War at the sieges of Vicksburg (20) and Richmond, fifty years earlier.
“During the critical years before 1914, the gospel of ‘L’attaque a outrance’, (Attack to the uttermost) as it had become known, found its ultimate prophet in Colonel de Grandmaison, Chief of the Troisième Bureau (Operations) of the French General Staff. He and his supporters had engineered the downfall of the Commander-in-Chief, Michel, whose approach to countering a German onslaught had been a little too rational for their liking. In his place was installed Joffre, who, because he had served most of his career in the colonies, could be assumed to know nothing of military theory and would make an excellent figure-head.
From top to bottom, the army was impregnated with de Grandmaison’s extravagant, semi-mystical nonsense: ‘In the offensive, imprudence is the best of assurances . . . . Let us go even to excess, and that perhaps will not be far enough… every soldier must ardently desire the assault by bayonet as the supreme means of imposing his will upon the enemy and gaining victory…’
Another product of the de Grandmaison philosophy, was the rigid dogma that every inch of terrain must be defended to the death, and, if lost, regained by an immediate counter-attack, however inopportune. Enforced by threat of Court Martial and disgrace, this was a dogma that hardly encouraged tactical initiative among French army leaders. Only a few, like Colonel Petain, resisted, teaching that ‘firepower killed ‘ and that it might do terrible things to any ‘Attaque a l’outrance’ unsupported by heavy weapons; for which heresy his promotion had lagged.
De Grandmaison’s doctrine was to cost France hundreds of thousands of her best men, quite unnecessarily; later, discredited, he himself was to find death and ‘La Gloire’ before the end of 1914 while trying to prove his theories at the head of a brigade.” (Horne, see References G)
Deficiencies in Equipment
“The de Grandmaison doctrine naturally enough had a profound effect on the equipment of the army. In 1909, the General Staff representative declared: ‘You talk to us of heavy artillery. Thank God, we have none. The strength of the French Army is in the lightness of its guns.’ In 1910 Foch, then Commandant of the Staff College said: ‘The aircraft is all very well for sport, for the army it is useless.’ The St. Etienne machine gun was brought into service that year, but, said the Inspector General of Infantry; it would ‘not make the slightest difference to anything’.
Both machine guns and heavy artillery were deemed contrary to the Grandmaison spirit, and their withdrawal from the Army Estimates was joyfully supported by budget-conscious politicians. Everything depended on what Commandant Foch, called ‘the Will to Conquer’; that, supported by the bayonet and the ’75’. The 75 mm (3 inch bore) field gun (21) was indeed a marvellous weapon; well ahead of its age, quicker firing, more accurate, more mobile, and with longer range than any other field gun in service.
Superb for fighting in the open field — the kind of war envisaged by de Grandmaison — it could not be used for plunging fire, like the howitzers possessed in plenty by the Germans, and its projectiles were too light to be effective against entrenchments.
Nevertheless, the ’75’ saved France time and again during the war, and, for once, it was a weapon she had in sufficient numbers from the start. (Not so, alas, its ammunition, for Foch and the others had reckoned on a brief, brutal conflict of a matter of weeks.) Meanwhile, so that the enemy should see them clearly and be terror-struck by their furious numbers, the infantry went to war in the kepis (caps) and red pantaloons (breeches) (23) of the Second Empire, despising the Germans for converting to the less martial, though more practical Feldgrau (“field grey.
And, just as in 1870, the army found itself once again with a dearth of maps of France, but plenty of Germany.
By de Grandmaison, out of Joffre, was hatched the General Staff’s disastrous Plan XVII. On the outbreak of war, four out of five French armies, totalling 800,000 men, were to charge forward, with the main impetus directed towards the lost territories; objective, the Rhine.
The German army of 1914 was a fearsome power, a million and a half strong; the largest the world had ever seen. Its strength lay chiefly in the excellence of its NCOs, in its reservist system (which completely deceived Joffre just as it had deceived Louis Napoleon in 1870) and the superiority of its weapons. Whereas the French had only six of the despised St. Etienne machine guns per regiment, the Germans had highly efficient Maxims that were not relegated to the Company Quartermaster.
The French Army possessed only 300 heavy guns; the Germans had 3,500. The French heavies were elderly 120 mm guns with no recuperation system so that they had to run out up a ramp; they were outclassed in every way by the German 210s and 150s. For ‘super-heavy’ artillery, the French had a few 270 mm- mortars,
while the Germans had brand new 280s that could fire a shell weighing nearly 750
lbs. (335 Kg) over a distance of six miles (10 Km).
All along the frontier the infantrymen in their red trousers (23) and thick, blue overcoats, carrying heavy packs and long, unwieldy bayonets, broke into the double behind their white-gloved officers. Many sang the Marseillaise. In the August heat, sometimes the heavily encumbered French attacked from a distance of nearly half a mile from the enemy. Never have machine-gunners had such a heyday. The French stubble-fields became transformed into gay carpets of red and blue. Splendid cuirassiers (24) in glittering breastplates of another age hurled their horses hopelessly at the machine guns that were slaughtering the infantry.
It was horrible, and horribly predictable. In that superb, insane courage of 1914 there was something slightly reminiscent of the lemmings swimming out to sea. But it was not war. For a whole week, as the censors released news of the capture of Mulhouse while suppressing such unpleasant details as casualties, France held her breath and thought Plan XVII might succeed, but, at Joffre’s headquarters, courier after courier was arriving with news of identical disasters from all parts of the front. In the two weeks that the terrible Battle of the Frontiers lasted, France lost over 300, 000 men in killed, wounded, and missing, and 4,778 officers — representing no less than one-tenth of her total officer strength.” (Horne, see References G)
Henri Albain-Fournier was a Lieutenant, (26) aged twenty-eight, in the 288 Infantry Regiment which had advanced into Lorraine, crossed the River Meuse and climbed the range of hills known as the Côtes de Meuse (the Heights of the Meuse). This was where the attack began to falter. Henri’s regiment got to within about 12 miles (20 Km) south-east of the fortress town of Verdun (25), and he was killed on the 22 September 1915, near the site of the tiny village of Vaux-les-Palamiex (vo lay pal a mee ex). He was buried, unidentified, in a mass grave at the nearby village of St Remy la Calonne.
The villages at the front line were so small that they only appear on the most detailed maps. The top map in Figure 27 shows the whole Departement of Meuse, with the Côtes, or Heights of the Meuse, running north to south. The middle map shows the battle site of Vaux-les-Palamiex, and its relation to the fortress town of Verdun. Finally, the lowest map shows the two villages; the one where Henri Albain-Fournier and his men were killed, and the other, where they were buried.
A recent French movement for “Archaeologie de la mort” (The Archaeology of the Dead- of the Great War), has begun examining some of these battle sites. They discovered the mass grave (28) with twenty-one skeletons at the village of St Remy la Calonne.
After the discovery of this mass grave, the skeletons were individually interred in separate graves, within the national military cemetery of St Remy la Calonne, on the 10 November 1992. On the following day, Armistice Day, 11 November, a memorial service was held in the Church of St Remy la Calonne, in the presence of the relatives, and the Secretary of State for Ex- Soldiers and Victims of War.
The modern monument (29) was probably set up in the absence of a body, but it was known he was killed nearby. It bears two plaques. The upper one was contemporary with the construction of the monument and its inscription is distinguished by a couple of errors. It translates,
“To the memory of Henri Alain-Fournier, author of Grand Meaulnes, Lieutenant of the 288 R I, and his men lost in this sector 22. 9.14.”
His correct official name was Henri Albain Fournier, and his pen name was “Alain-Fournier”, so the inscription muddles the two. It should use either one or the other. Also, the book title is “Le Grand Meaulnes”. A separate plaque set below, was added after the discovery and identification of his remains, and translates,
“Alain-Fournier and his Men were recovered on the 2 May 1991 one kilometre to the south-east of this stele (upright pillar). LE SOUVENIR FRANÇAIS. (“French Memory”)
LSF is French organisation, founded in 1887, dedicated to the memory of those who died for France, and the upkeep of military cemeteries. It is similar to the British official body “The Imperial War Graves Commission” which concerns itself with the graves of British soldiers, and those of the former Empire, and the existing Commonwealth, throughout the world.
There are a variety of other memorials to Henri Albain Fournier, including schools; the most well-known is that in Bourges. The literary prize, Prix Alain-Fournier, was set up in 1986 to encourage young, recently-published writers. It is promoted by the town of Saint Amand-Montrond, (see the map in Figure 4) in the Departement of Cher, just north of the significant villages of Marçais, Epineul le Fleuriel and Meaulne. The organisation AJRAF (see References) is dedicated to preserving the memory of, and promoting knowledge of both Alain-Fournier and his friend Jacques Rivière. Although Jacques Rivière was in the French Army during WWI he survived it, but died young in 1925. AJRAF was founded in 1975 on the 50 anniversary of his death.
True or Typical?
I conclude this short essay with a couple of personal recollections. Back in the 1960s I was having lunch with my new boss, when he referred to an opinion of his French friend Pierre, “Men should marry in their mid-twenties, but only after two or three very deep and long-lasting love affairs.” My boss approved of the idea and thought this typical of Frenchmen, and conversely, not typical of Englishmen.
It is illogical to assume that, because a narrative is true, it must be typical. No doubt Pierre’s idea is true of some, but not all Frenchmen, and it is true of some, but not all Englishmen. What is “typical” of young men in either country is a matter of opinion, in the absence of properly conducted scientific research and statistical evidence.
I recalled a rather different scenario, when reading my local paper. I read of the wedding of John and Denise, which stuck in my memory, because John had the same name as a popular children’s TV presenter of those days. A short biography of John explained he was a war-time baby, conceived before his father was sent overseas, and killed later in battle. His mother struggled to bring up her son on a widow’s pension, like so many other women in that same situation. John and Denise lived near each other in South London, attended the same Junior School, (5-11) and the same Secondary School (11-16). They were teenage sweethearts, and both of them planned to become teachers.
After a three-year course at a Training College, it came as no surprise to their families when John and Denise announced their engagement to be married, as soon as they had qualified as teachers. John’s mother was particularly proud of his achievements, and thought how pleased her husband would have been of this boy who never knew his father.
A touching narrative, undoubtedly true, but how typical was it? Without evidence we can only speculate, but I suspect that this story of the marriage of childhood sweethearts is more common than might be supposed, and is, perhaps, more typical of rural communities in Britain or France than urban ones.
Which brings us back to Alain-Fournier; how typical was his unrequited love for Yvonne de Quiévrecourt? We know that he met her again in 1913 at the time his novel was published, when she was married with two children. In the end, this young woman unknowingly provided him and us with one of the great works of literature.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
My principal reference for the life of Alain-Fournier is an illustrated biography, in French, entitled, “Biographie d’ Alain-Fournier” by “AJRAF” which is an acronym of “Association des amis de Jacques Rivière et de Alain-Fournier” (Association of the friends of J R and A-F) and is readily available on the internet. I use “AJRAF” where I quote it as reference.
The wikipedia article on Alain-Fournier is much shorter but contains errors of fact, is short on dates, and often conveys misleading impressions, e.g. although A-F was born in La Chapelle-d’Angillon, he actually lived in Marçais, and principally Epineul le Fleuriel. Similarly, most of his secondary schooling was in Paris, and the fateful meeting with Yvonne occurred at the Palais Royal.
The opinions represented here are my own, but, as in previous essays on WWI, I have relied quite heavily on the work of A J P Taylor and Alistair Horne for political and military analysis.
A. “Le Grand Mealnes” by Alain-Fournier, translated by Frank Davison, Penguin Books, 1976
B. “The Faber Atlas” by D J Sinclair and L Dudley Stamp, Geo, 1961
C. “Philips Record Atlas” by Harold Fullard, Philip, 1962
D. “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, Edmond Pognon, Liber, 1983
E. “Symbolism” by Michael Gibson, Taschen, 1999
F. “The First World War – An Illustrated History” by A J P Taylor, Penguin, 1963
G. “The Price of Glory – Verdun 1916” by Alistair Horne, Macmillan, 1963
H. “The Siege of Paris” by Robert Baldick, History Book Club, 1965
I. “The Penguin Book of the American Civil War” by Bruce Catton, Penguin, 1960
J. “History of the First World War”, Purnell,
1. The Penguin Book Cover (Davison, op. cit)
2. The Departement of Cher (Author, from Fullard, op. cit)
3. Location of La Chapelle-d’ Anguillon (Fullard, op. cit)
4. Collines du Sancerrois, Departement du Cher (Google image)
5. The Chateau of Chambord (“Mary Queen of Scots”, Pitkin, 1973)
6. The Château d’Angillon (Google image)
7. The Castle of Saumur (detail from “October”, Pognon, op. cit)
8. Henri Albain-Fournier as a young man (Google image)
9. “Lise with a Parasol” by Auguste Renoir (“Renoir” by Trewin Coppleston, Regency House, 1998)
10. Yvonne de Quiévrecourt as a young woman (Google image)
11. “Beata Beatrix” by Dante Gabriele Rossetti, (“The Pre-Raphaelites” by Timothy Hilton, Thames and Hudson, 1970)
12. “Young Girl with Peacock” by Edmond Aman-Jean (Gibson, op. cit)
13. “Mobilised French troops in 1914 marching through Paris (Taylor, op. cit)
14. German and French War Plans in 1914 (Author)
15. The German Attack (Author)
16. General Gallieni (Taylor, op. cit)
17. The French Hotchkiss 8 mm machine-gun (Purnell, op. cit)
18. Mules hauling supplies (Taylor, op. cit)
19. Combat uniform and equipment of French infantryman of the 1914 period (Google image)
20. Union “caves” dugouts at the siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War 1864 (Catton, op. cit)
21. General Loyzeau de Grandmaison (Google image)
22. The 75 mm field gun (Purnell, op. cit)
23. An optimistic painting of French troops, in red pantaloons, trampling on German frontier posts on advance into Alsace (Gi)
24. French cavalry in action (Purnell, op. cit)
25. Henri Albain-Fournier’s Battleground (Author, using References B and C)
26. Lieutenant Henri Albain Fournier (Google image)
27. Location of Vaux-les-Palamiex and St Remy la Calonne (Author)
28. Mass grave at St Remy la Calonne containing the skeletons of Henri Albain Fournier and his men who died with him in 1914 (Gi)
29. Modern memorial stone to Alain- Fournier in the military cemetery of St Remy la Calonne (Google image)
30. Henri aged 16, in 1902, wearing hi s uniform as a short-lived Naval Cadet
31. Yvonne de Quiévrecourt beside the river