Michel Corday in the Great War

Throughout the Great War, Michel Corday kept a diary. A former minister told him (he says in the Foreword) that he should be able to publish this within 18 months of the Armistice; in fact he waited fourteen years. His diary, which is the sole source for what follows, was pruned a little, but essentially appears as he wrote it down, day by day, between 4 September 1914 and 11 November 1918: it is a series of notes, not made into a story or otherwise prettified. He was in doubt whether he should publish it this way, and sent a three-month sample to H.G. Wells, who wrote back: “It is wonderful stuff, and of the greatest historical value. The tone, concise, ironic, shrewd, is entirely novel, and the whole work extraordinarily interesting. It must be published just as it stands” (5).

I am quoting from the English translation, which was published by Gollancz (London) in 1933: The Paris Front: An Unpublished Diary: 1914-1918. The translator is not mentioned in the book itself: it was probably listed on the dust jacket, but, then, the British Library (where I am doing my research) throws dust jackets away. I quote relatively briefly below (although the diary is eminently quotable; there are much more extensive quotations currently online here.

Corday was ill in August 1914, informed only by newspapers and by twice-daily telephone calls from his friend M. Thomson, the Minister for Commerce and Posts.

Every thought and deed to which the outbreak of war gave vent struck a bitter and mortal blow at the one great belief of my heart—the continuous progress of the race towards great happiness. I had not believed that this thing could happen. It marked the collapse of my faith. It marked the awakening from a dream that I had cherished ever since I began to think (7).

He left Paris in early September, with the title of joint permanent secretary to the Ministry of Commerce and Posts, to go (with the rest of the government) to Bordeaux. Much of what he puts in his diary at this point is, inevitably, hear-say: rumours about what the Germans are doing, and what ordinary Frenchmen are doing to Germans. “Oh, this anxiety about ‘what people will say,’ which impels everyone to wear a uniform. After Loti [Pierre Loti, writer, 1850-1923] now we have Anatole France (writer, 1844-1924], who wants to enlist at the age of seventy one” (September 1914, 13). “Ministers complains that they know the disposition of the German troops, but not that of the French” (October 1914, 20).

What seems to exercise him most at this time is the unthinking patriotism that has become normal, acceptable, and demanded. His five-year-old nephew Claude wants to cut off the head of all the Boche (that word had rapidly become a common replacement for “German”). “A woman is furious because I have proved to her that her husband is not exposed to danger. She is anxious that he should be—or, at least, appear to be. Affection is banished by fear of public opinion” (October 1914, 18).

January 5th [1915]. I have before me a letter from a soldier, in which he swears, by all that he holds dear, that on the 24th December two regiments in the opposing lines put aside their arms, in defiance of their officers, and fraternised between the trenches. The soldiers exchanged cigars, shook hands, and walked about arm in arm. The Germans promised not to fire that night or the following day. They kept their word. That seemed to me symbolic—it marks a humane spirit far superior to the war (44).

There are lots of stories to illustrate the imbecility or absurdity of war. One, almost at random, comes from June 1915:

I see that a general has been killed because he was sitting on the parapet of a trench, The title of the article is: “Heroic death of a general.” But, if so, why impress on the soldiers that a shelter is intended to afford shelter? And if the life of a leader is useful, why expose it without cause? In the same way, people pour scorn on soldiers who crouch down in the trench, although those very trenches have been dug for the express purpose of escaping observation. The everlasting conflict of human instincts! It is all utterly absurd, even amid the grim absurdity of the war (88-89).

Occasionally, however, there is a “little story illustrating exceptional intelligence”:

Two Breton territorials were leading down the line a squad of German prisoners. A colonel asked the two soldiers where they were taking their prisoners. No reply. Then one of the prisoners came forward and explained in the most perfect French: “You must excuse them, sir. They are Bretons. They don’t speak French” (December 1915, 127).

On 1 January 1916 the eminent historian Ernest Lavisse wrote in the Petit Parisien. Corday comments that the reasons he gives for why war must go on “are an indication of the general dementia” (130).

1. We cannot allow all those Frenchmen to have died in vain. (So let us let just as many more die!)
2. Our sorrows demand the solace of vengeance. (A sentiment which, in any period of sanity, would be considered barbarous and neolithic.)
3. The war “which is thrust upon us” must provide revenge for 1870. (Ho! Ho! So he is by no means sorry to be compelled to take his revenge!)
4. No Frenchman can live without honour and glory. It is his duty to free the world from tyranny, etc. (Ah! If only we tore off those veils of verbiage, what a foul body would be seen underneath!)

Later in January we get a glimpse as to what Corday is actually doing (his diary says very little about himself), and then only in an anecdote about someone else; it is followed by another anecdote (139).

My nephew, Claude, six years old, brought up on the idea that inventors always go bankrupt and ruin their families, wept bitterly on learning that I am now serving with the Inventions Commission. (I joined it as Honorary General Secretary of the Inter-allied Committee.)
His sister Solange, only two years old, noticing a soldiers at Saint-Nazaire, pointed him out to her mother, with the remark: “Oh, look, mama, there’s a soldier who isn’t dead!”

In February 1916 he notes that the Inventions Commission had just been shown a grenade-rifle, and the caterpillar (an armoured car which can cross trenches) (141). On 31 May 1916 he went to lunch with Deputy Girod, now a colonel in the Air Force.

Girod mentioned his interest in flying, and his annoyance at the time of the first Zeppelin raid on Paris, when he was regarded as responsible for the weakness of our defences—in his capacity as commandant of this fortified area—though actually at the time he was wounded and in bed. At a near-by table, three twenty-year-old Flying officers were lunching with three girls. Their eyes were bright and their nostrils dilated. Girod told me that many of them take morphia and cocaine, but he is indulgent towards them, knowing the dangers they run (169).

When people of the future look back, will they be able to form any accurate conception of the atmosphere in which we live—he everlasting glorification of murder on a foundation of insensibility and cruelty? Magazines full of gaiety and laughter furnish stories still warm and fetid with the taste of blood. For instance: the little boy who thought that his newly minted sou was made of gold, so that he took it to the bank to help them to kill a lot of Prussians; the lady clerks covered him with kisses (January 1917, 227).

In the progressive weekly paper Men of To-day, the artist Gassier has started a very amusing series in which he attributes all our tragicomic experience to a tribe of savages called the Empapahoutas. When his satire is thus disguised the Censor frequently lets it through. Here is a specimen of these cartoons. Two chiefs of the Empapahoutas, black as their own to-hats (their only clothing), are pointing to an old man sitting on a rock quietly smoking his pipe: “dat fella ver’ dangerous. Dat fella am pacify’!” (October 1917, 284).

Two schoolmistresses have been arrested on a charge of pacifist propaganda. They are the first militant women pacifists to suffer from official persecution. The magistrate spent two months over their cross-examination. This arrest is a kind of present to celebrate the happy accession of His Majesty Clemenceau (19 November 1917, 294).

April 1 [1918]. I was travelling with a second lieutenant on his way back from Verdun. “The bombardment of Paris,” he remarked, ” upsets me more than the bombardment at the front. At the front there is such a prodigious waste of ammunition that men are very seldom killed by a direct hit. But in Paris, after every shell, I remember there are bound to be some victims.” He had been gassed. And he remarked with a curious melancholy: “some of those gas shells have such a pleasant smell that you stop to breathe them” (332).

April 12/13 [1918]. Paris is taking to its heels. People do not frankly confess that they are sending their family to a safe place: “Oh! every year we’ve always gone down to the country just about now!” Lucien Guitry’s witticism has made a great hit: “Now, we are not going away for the same reason as the rest. We’re going because we’re frightened” (336).

Rage and disgust fill me every time the British communiqués, reporting aeroplane attacks on towns, describe this hideous outrage as “good work” (July 1918, 359).

On the 11th, at seven in the morning,the local military HQ was informed by wireless that the armistice was signed at five o’clock in the morning. … Bells are ringing. The air is full of their peals. Soldiers dance with ecstasy. They brandish flags. They wave bouquets of flowers. It is a pleasure to witness their delight. Tragedy was looming over them. The 1919 class… they were just on draft for reinforcements. Within six months they would all have been killed. At noon, we heard of the flight of the Kaiser to Holland. At three o’clock I was informed by telephone from Paris of the terms of the armistice… The only chance that this unparalleled war shall not entail further war lies in vigorous action by international Socialism during the peace discussions. God grant it may play its full part! And now, for the moment, we must savour the gladness of salvation and echo the soldiers’ words: “The war is over” (387).


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