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Writing the Great War / Comment écrire la Grande Guerre?

Francophone and Anglophone Poetics / Poétiques francophones et anglophones


Nicolas Bianchi and Toby Garfitt

For France the First World War, or Great War, was a war of national self-defence, but for Britain it was not. Does that mean that French literary treatments of this unimaginably destructive war were very different from British ones? Not necessarily – but much can be learned from considering both traditions side by side, something that is rarely done.

The essays collected in this bilingual volume, by a range of scholars working on literature and history on both sides of the Channel, show that while the wider purposes of the war are striking for their absence in both French and British traditions, there are many common strands: realistic narratives of the trenches, humour as a safety-valve, imagination and creativity. Yet there are differences, too: for instance, there is plenty of French poetry about the war, but no real equivalent of the British «war poets». The volume looks at iconic figures like Owen, Brooke, Barbusse, Apollinaire and Proust, but also at a number of lesser known writers, and includes a study of «poetry of colour», recognising the active contribution of some four million non-Europeans to the war effort. The book includes a preface by the eminent war historian Sir Hew Strachan.

Engagée dans une guerre défensive sur ses frontières, la France connut une Grande Guerre bien différente de celle avec laquelle composèrent ses alliés britanniques. Faut-il en conclure que les deux nations furent amenées à produire des réponses au conflit radicalement différentes? Peut-on dégager des traditions nationales ou des tendances transnationales ouvrant la voie à des comparaisons encore rarement esquissées par la critique littéraire? C’est le pari des contributions de ce volume bilingue, réunissant autour de la question: «comment écrire la Grande Guerre?», les articles de spécialistes francophones et anglophones des domaines historique et littéraire. Il montre la variété des thématiques partagées par les deux traditions littéraires: récits réalistes des tranchées, usage de l’humour comme d’un exutoire salutaire, imagination et créativité; et souligne la présence de différences notables, comme l’absence de mythification en France de la poésie de 14, pourtant elle-aussi produite en masse tout au long de la guerre. L’ouvrage, tout en donnant une place de choix aux écrivains de premier ordre (Owen, Brooke, Barbusse, Apollinaire ou Proust), tente d’offrir quelque visibilité à un certain nombre d’auteurs moins connus, au nombre desquels des auteurs de couleur, à qui leur contribution à l’effort de guerre n’aura pas valu la reconnaissance littéraire attendue. La préface a été rédigée par Sir Hew Strachan, grand spécialiste de l’histoire de la période.

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16 ‘[I am] unable to refuse the call of these pages to be scribbled in’: First World War combatant testimony and the navigation, narration and maintenance of self (Nancy Martin)


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16  ‘[I am] unable to refuse the call of these pages to be scribbled in’: First World War combatant testimony and the navigation, narration and maintenance of self

On 4 December 1915, Captain Charlie May leads D Company back from the line. ‘[T]hey have had rather a tough time from the rain and trench mortars’. Mud-laden and wet, his men make their way toward ‘good billets’ of ‘clean straw’ – a reward they look forward to with ‘amazing keenness’. Ever conscious of their needs, May ensures the billets are cleaned and the fires lit – ‘fire putting new life’ into the ‘poor devils’. Over the next two days, the company will march twenty-six miles back to the reserve billets at Candas. Once here, Captain May is able to rest. He allows himself a restorative hour. He and Lizzie – his horse – ride into a nearby wood that is blissfully untouched.1 He commits the details of this seemingly perfect, pastoral respite to his diary, just as he has done every day – good and bad – since arriving in France. Written in his tidy slanting hand, the entry is composed, like a love letter, to his wife, Maude:

7th December ’15

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