No nation suffered worse casualties or physical destruction in the Great War than France, which was the scene of the largest and most sustained fighting. The French army eventually called up nearly nine million men to defend the six thousand miles of trenches that divided the Allies from the German army. Early losses were so substantial that men up to forty-five were conscripted. The French army eventually suffered six million casualties, including 1.4 million dead. Almost three-quarters of those who fought were killed, wounded, or lost in action.
The Battle of Verdun left 700,000 casualties, not counting the “lightly wounded.” Losses were nearly equal on each side. There were too many corpses to be adequately counted or buried. Verdun was only one battle. In 1914 alone France and the Allies engaged in some of the largest military engagements in human history at Marne, Ypres, and Champagne
Postwar France was a nation full of the blind, the crippled, the scarred, and the shell-shocked. America’s “lost generation” consisted of spiritually confused emigrees living in Paris. The lost generation of France lay in cemeteries, hospitals, and sanitaria. They shuffled as amputees on village streets or hid their disfigured faces behind painted copper masks.
How did the human imagination comprehend the nature and extent of the carnage? Old worldviews no longer fit the horrific reality. Artists had to reimagine the modern world and develop ways to present it truthfully. The result was the transformation of the nascent Modernist movement into the dominant form of artistic expression across Europe and the Americas. Since the Modernist impulse had originated in France, it found immediate and multifarious forms there. American readers generally have a limited sense of the vast literature that emerged from the conflict. Most of the major French works spawned by the war remain unknown in English. It may be illuminating to summarize a few.
The visionary poet Charles Péguy, who died in the Battle of the Marne, saw the massacre as redemptive national sacrifice consecrating the soil of France.
Blessed are those who died in great battles.
Stretched out on the ground in the face of God.
Blessed are those who died on a final high place,
Amid all the pomp of grandiose funerals.
Blessed are those who died for carnal cities.
For they are the body of the city of God.
Blessed are those who died for their hearth and fire,
And the lowly honors of their father’s house.
Péguy’s approach served the needs of public ceremony in Catholic France—sonorous sentiments to comfort survivors. Had he lived to see the final outcome of the war, I think he would have regretted those lines. Being beautiful did not make them true. Sacramental violence offers no redemptive grace.
The more common literary response was that of Louis Ferdinand Céline, who was wounded in the Battle of Flanders leaving his right arm partially paralyzed. For him, the horror of mechanized mass murder destroyed the moral authority of society. The experience left him bereft of moral vision to guide his cynical satiric genius. Despite his fascist allegiances and anti-Semitism, Céline’s nihilistic anger remained influential into the Existentialist period, and one still sees his shadow today in Michel Houellebecq.
Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the term surrealism, thrilled at the violent spectacle of battle. “Soldiering is my true profession,” he boasted. “I so love art,” he told a friend, “that I have joined the artillery.” He never fully recovered from a shrapnel wound that tore open his head in 1915. He died from influenza at 38 a few days before the Armistice. His truest response to the war was Les mamelles de Tirésias, The Breasts of Tiresias (1918), a surreal farce in which a woman becomes a man and invents a baby-making process that produces 40,049 children in a single day. Drafted before the war, Apollinaire revised his “drame surréaliste” to reflect the realities of 1917. Its absurd ingenuity was a hilarious evasion of the national nightmare—amusing to the degree one forgets why France needed all those new bodies. “Listen closely to the lessons of war,” the play concludes gleefully, “and make babies as never before!”
Serge Férat, décor et costumes pour Les Mamelles de Tirésias (Serge Férat, set and costumes for Les Mamelles de Tirésias)
de g. à dr., Presto, Jeune divorcée, Gendarme à Cheval, Thérèse, Peuple de Zanzibar (photographie reproduite dans H. CARTER, The New Spirit in European Theatre 1914-1924, Londres, 1925).
Péguy, Céline, and Apollinaire are brilliant writers, but their works suggest the impossibility of any comprehensive artistic response to the European apocalypse. Each author offered a dazzling tableau colored by his own tortured experience. In those tragic years French history had become psychohistory. It helps to consider these estimable writers to assess the imaginative and moral power of another less celebrated work, Julien Vocance’s Cent visions de guerre, One Hundred Visions of War, first published in 1916.
Joseph Seguin, who published under the name Julien Vocance, provides a more cogent response to the holocaust of the Western Front. The poet, who lost an eye in the trenches of Champagne, crafted one of the clearest and objective records of the conflict. He avoided the hypnotic spell of traditional meters—the glorious traditional music of Péguy. He also rejected the avant-garde glorification of violence—with its priapic cannons and flowering explosions— that Lieutenant Apollinaire absorbed from Futurism. Vocance sought clarity not enchantment. He found a moral stance without any taint of moralism by adopting a radical new form into French, the Japanese haiku, or as he called it haikai—les epigrammes lyrique du Japon. The effect was a Modernist mixture of the realist and lyric modes.
To reach my skin, how
would bullets ever get through my
Bombs, bombs and more bombs—
but we don’t take up much space:
our chances are good.
The choice of haiku as the form of Vocance’s long poem was revolutionary. The haiku had only just entered Western poetry. Yone Noguchi’s “A Proposal to American Poets” (1904) brought the “hokku” into English and inspired Ezra Pound’s fascination with the form. The French introduction to the haiku began at the same time through the translations and poems of Paul-Louis Couchoud in Au fil de l’eau, Along the Waterway (1905). The haiku was still viewed mostly as a short lyric form. In neither language had such an ambitious Modernist sequence been attempted.
Vocance’s extraordinary One Hundred Visions of War has a simple but ambitious design. It presents a soldier’s experience of the Western Front in one hundred discrete imagistic moments. There is no narrative framework, except the implied passing of time. Each section is self-contained. One can read the individual haiku as separate lyric poems, but the sections gain a collective resonance as the sequence proceeds. Vocance allows the reader to see the battlefield at ground level in one sudden moment of clarity after another. Most of these “visions” are small, but some are panoramic. The compression and sensuous quality of the haiku communicate the moments in experiential terms. (The work’s title and numeration make bitter allusion to Katsushika Hokusai’s exquisite collection of woodblocks, One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji.) Vocance’s poems are both visual and visionary but never grandiose. He reports rather than philosophizes. Only at the end does he venture a well-earned conclusion:
Two rows of trenches,
Two lines of barb-wire fences:
One Hundred Visions of War is a major poetic testament of the Great War. Few works of such audacious originality are so accessible and emotionally engaging. More than a century after its publication, Vocance’s sequence has lost neither its shock value nor its strange tenderness. Alfred Nicol deserves every accolade for his brilliant and affecting translations. He has restored a lost masterpiece to English-language memory.
Dana Gioia is one of the most prominent New Formalist poets in America and the author of many books. His website is DanaGoia.com. He has served as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poet Laureate of California, and is currently Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.