Great Warrior

Robert Wohl

  • Memoirs of War 1914-15 by Marc Bloch, translated by Carole Fink
    Cornell, 177 pp, £9.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 8014 1220 X

What comes to mind when we hear the name Marc Bloch? A great medievalist whose studies of feudal society are still read and admired today? The co-founder with Lucien Febvre of a journal, the Annales, which has given its name to a new school of history with proponents all over the world? A gallant and unyielding résistant who affirmed his Jewish heritage in the face of virulent anti-semitism and died at the hands of a German firing-squad in 1944 crying: ‘Vive la France’?

Marc Bloch was all these things. But curiously, when presenting his credentials in The Strange Defeat, his analysis of the reasons why France collapsed so rapidly and ignominiously in 1940, he added with evident pride that he was by temperament a ‘warrior’. He fought in two world wars and won three citations. Readers of that impassioned book, first published in French in 1957, were treated to a trenchant account of Bloch’s experiences as a staff officer in the 1939-40 war: but it was not until 1969 that the Annales issued as a special cahier Bloch’s memoirs of his service with the infantry during the first few months of the Great War. This fragment – for that is all it can be said to be – was based on a journal Bloch kept in 1914 and reworked in 1915 while recovering from an attack of typhoid fever. It has now been skilfully rendered into English, and provided with a long, informative introduction, by Carole Fink.

Readers who have derived their idea of what the war was like from Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque or Vera Brittain may be surprised, and even slightly shocked, by what they find in these pages. There is no bitterness towards those held responsible for the war, no sense of betrayal by the older generation, no shattering of dearly held illusions, no dwelling on the horrors of combat. Bloch does not glamorise war: but neither does he hide his enjoyment of its simple pleasures. The first sentence of Memoirs of War presents its author as someone who ‘had the honour of taking part in the first five months of the campaign of 1914-15’. Sixty-five years later, those words sound almost quaint, like a formula learned in school: but Bloch meant them. War was not an experience he would have wanted to miss.

Connoisseurs of the genre will find novelty in another aspect of Bloch’s work. Where the famous war memorialists of the late 1920s and early 1930s had a tendency to reduce the war to the experience of a small group of combatants – as, say, Remarque does in All Quiet on the Western Front – or sometimes to the effects it had on the author’s sensibility – as Drieu la Rochelle did in La Comédie de Charleroi – Bloch’s gaze was projected outwards toward the larger historical world in which his experience was taking place. As a historian, he knew that war, like all great collective events, transcends the consciousness of its participants. Thus he was careful to record exactly what he saw and felt, as he saw and felt it at the time, even if later events or accepted opinion belied those impressions. Passing through Paris, for example, on his way to report for duty at Amiens, Bloch observed no traces of that mood of patriotic exhilaration that was later to be given such prominence in history books. ‘The sadness that was buried in our hearts showed only in the red and swollen eyes of many women ... The men for the most part were not hearty; they were resolute and that was better.’

Bloch’s account of his experiences in August 1914 provides a useful corrective to those military histories that view events from the Olympian heights of the general staffs. While Joffre moved armies around like chessmen, his soldiers wandered in complete confusion, not knowing from one day to the next whether they were the beneficiaries of a crushing victory or the victims of a terrible defeat. On 10 August Bloch’s regiment, the 272nd, to which he had been assigned as a sergeant, left Amiens for a train journey through ‘oppressive dog-day heat’ to the region of the Meuse, close to the French-Belgian border. For ten days, he led a monotonous, calm existence, guarding bridges, performing camp duties, swimming, and dozing on the grass. Then, suddenly, on the night of the 20th, orders arrived to march. Bloch’s company were overjoyed to be told that they were about to enter Belgium. But before they could reach their destination, a counter-order arrived, telling them to divert to Velosnes, a village next to the Belgian border. This village was occupied by French troops, some of whom had just returned from combat. During the next few days, Bloch believed that there had been a great battle, which the French had won. But on the 25th his company joined the retreat, and he realised that the French must have been badly beaten. This day of bitter disappointment, stifling heat, and sudden retreat down roads clogged with artillery and convoys – all of it aggravated by the onset of dysentery – was to live in his memory as one of the most painful he had ever known.

For the next ten days Bloch’s regiment was in continual retreat, often only a few hours in front of their rapidly advancing German pursuers. They knew nothing about the progress of the war, except the fact that they had their backs to the border and were not allowed to turn and fight. On 10 September, when their withdrawal had taken them deep into Champagne, they were ordered into action and advanced three or four kilometres under dense fire from heavy artillery and machine-guns whose bullets rustled through the branches ‘like swarms of wasps’. It was the Battle of the Marne, one of the great turning-points in 20th-century European history, but Bloch had no idea of the stakes involved in this gigantic drama in which fate had assigned him a minor role. Told by his colonel to abandon the shelter of a ditch and to continue the advance, Bloch thought that all hope was lost, that he would surely be killed, then rose and ran. Because enough French soldiers responded as he did, the Germans were confounded and decided to withdraw. Later, analysing the reasons why men were willing to risk their lives in the face of almost certain death, Bloch concluded that, except among the most noble and intelligent, military courage had little to do with love of country. The mass, he thought, was more often guided by a sense of personal honour, which became very strong when it was reinforced by the feeling of belonging to a group. It was clear enough to which category Bloch assigned himself.

Muddy roads, fatigue and German resistance soon brought the French advance to a halt. The agony of trench warfare was about to begin. During the remainder of 1914, Bloch’s company served in a line that ran through the forests of Hauzy and La Gruerie. His memories of this period, as he put it with typical understatement, were primarily meteorological. Why, he asked, did they suffer so much in the early fall when they would endure much more extreme temperatures and dampness later on? The answer he gave, anticipating the argument of The Strange Defeat, was that the troops were inexperienced and poorly-equipped. Like ‘southerners thrown abruptly into the hoarfrosts of the north’, they had no sweaters, blankets or raincoats to protect them from the wet and cold. Nor were they provided with the weapons and fortifications that would have given them confidence in their ability to withstand the enemy, entrenched only a few metres away. Their own emplacements were discontinuous, so that orders, reports, supplies and ammunition had to be delivered in the open, and those who performed these essential services were exposed to the enemy’s fire and often in his view. Though they had wire, it was not yet barbed. During his first tour in this sector, Bloch, who was in command of a platoon, scarcely slept because of his fear of a surprise enemy attack. He spent long hours listening to the sounds of the forest and realised with astonishment that he was reliving the adventures of Fenimore Cooper’s ‘subtle Mohicans’ and ‘keen trappers’ whom he had so admired as a child.

In November, Bloch’s life improved – the direct result of his company’s heavy losses. He was promoted to the rank of adjutant, which meant that he ate better food, gained access to the more sophisticated and better-informed conversation of the captain and his platoon leaders, and was given quarters more conducive to rest and reflection. Among his new luxuries were a table and a lamp. Returning to the line on 8 November, Bloch observed that the trench system no longer had the gaps that had made life so difficult in October. New weapons had begun to appear (though they often failed to work) and the sound of French artillery sometimes drowned out the guns of the adversary. Still, with the Germans 12 metres away, life was exceedingly dangerous, and in late November Bloch was wounded in the head by the splinters of a bullet which had struck the rifle of a man who was shooting in front of him, causing its magazine to explode. After having his wound treated and being reproached by his battalion commander for having unnecessarily exposed himself to fire, he returned to the line to be fêted with warm wine. December 1914 brought what Bloch called ‘the age of mud’. The small town of Vienne-le-Château to which they went for rest every seven days was within range of German artillery fire; and death and illness could come there as well as in the trenches. Small wonder, then, that when Bloch read to his men an order of the day from Joffre announcing a great offensive, they were pleased at the thought of escaping from their troglodyte existence and passing to the attack. But though they heard artillery fire in the distance, they were ordered to return to Vienne and there was no more talk of driving the Germans from French soil. Not long afterwards, Bloch asked permission to return to the base camp for treatment of a nagging illness, which was diagnosed as typhoid.

Professor Fink realises that these memoirs are important not so much because of what they tell us about the war, but because they were written by a man who later became a great historian. Convinced that Bloch’s experience in the First World War must have influenced his writings, she points to five concepts or themes of his later historiography that she feels can be traced directly to the war: his interest in popular psychology and collective mentalities; his belief that the historian’s experience of the present made possible his understanding of the past; his hostility to all forms of historical determinism; his insistence that some structures of feeling and thought remain unvarying over long periods of time; and his quest for the synthesis of all aspects of human experience, realised most fully in his masterpiece Feudal Society.

If Professor Fink is saying that the war provided Bloch with an experience upon which he drew in trying to understand the more distant past, then she is surely right, though it would be equally valid to claim that Bloch drew upon his studies of the Middle Ages to comprehend what was going on around him during the war. But if she is arguing that Bloch found in the war the categories that he later applied to historiography, then I must dissent. Concepts like those she has enumerated emerge from constellations of thought, with a social and institutional base. These constellations develop dialectically and generationally within groups of coevals. Wars may hasten or retard such development, but they do not create the categories themselves. I suspect that all the concepts mentioned by Professor Fink can be shown to have been implicit, if not explicit, in Bloch’s approach to history before 1914.

In a generation of Frenchmen that was sorely tested by two wars and a bitter sense of their country’s relative decline, Bloch seems attractive and important. Unlike so many of his coevals, he never yielded to pessimism or despair. Nor did he fall prey to the temptations offered by either of the political extremes. While others like Drieu la Rochelle yearned after a ‘chef’ and deplored the amorphousness of the masses, Bloch counselled historians to study subordinate groups that history had not bothered to record. In a generation of warriors that went astray, here is a man whose sense of direction never faltered.