Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War — Reviewed by Margaret Spratt, PhD

Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War
By Martha Hanna
Published by Harvard University Press, 2009.

The Great War often brings to mind numbers -- numbers of dead, numbers of troops, numbers of divisions, numbers of aircraft, numbers of combatant nations. We think of lists-types of armaments, Fourteen Points, conditions of surrender. But to study this world-shattering set of events in such a way ignores the human experience. To consider the lives of those who endured the depravations, tragedies, and despair as well as the exhilaration of success and homecoming is a difficult task. True, we have access to some great memoirs, fictionalized accounts, and collections of letters. New technology brought staged and extemporaneous photographs as well as moving pictures to the historical record. With some exceptions, the majority of those resources chronicle the lives of the prominent and extraordinary. Most often we can only guess at the feelings, hopes, and opinions of the ordinary person swept up in this all-consuming event.

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This wonderful book, Your Death Would Be Mine, remedies that omission by examining the lives and relationship of a young French peasant couple during the war that consumed their every breath and word. Paul and Marie Pireaud were married in February 1914. From socially prominent if not affluent families in Nateuil-de-Bourzac in the Dordogne region, the couple felt their relationship was special because they had married for love rather than to advance the standing of their families.

They exchanged over 2000 letters during the war detailing both military and civilian life. This is the story of one young French couple in love who struggled with uncertainty and separation. The thread that connected them was this correspondence that traveled across the miles they could not physically traverse.

For almost five years, Paul and Marie wrote of intimate matters, farming, the wartime economy, child rearing, military monotony, and horrific battle experience in their letters. Paul took part in some of France's bloodiest battles — Verdun, the Somme, and the Nivelle Offensive of 1917, and was remarkably unharmed. He served in northern Italy and only returned to the Dordogne in July 1919.

During this time, Marie struggled with the physical agricultural work of a rural peasant, sent lovingly packed parcels to her soldier-husband, traveled long distances to meet him for a few furtive leaves, and suffered through difficult childbirth. Her world, although hidden from the public stage, had nonetheless expanded and provided her with new experiences. After Paul left for the war, Marie begged, "Write to me every day and I will be happy." Their relationship proved that this simple request was enough to sustain them during the most difficult years of their lives. As Paul wrote to Marie in 1918 "…with hearts like ours nothing will ever tire them and nothing will break them."

A French Convoy in Northern Italy
Paul Was Deployed Here After the Battle of Caporetto

This is social history done right. All of the ingredients are here -- a treasure trove of correspondence, letter writers, who, even given their limited educations, are observant and candid, and a historian who has through thorough research and skill placed this story within the context of larger events and themes. Profesor Hanna viewed the lives of Paul and Marie as two concentric circles much like the ripples that stones thrown into a pond produce. Although they were physically separated, the Pireauds' lives intersected at least on the edges. As she wrote, "The concerns and anxieties of the one became, through regular, frank correspondence, the concerns and anxieties of the other." The traditional view that the private life (female) and the public life (male) of wartime are separate and isolated spheres is disproven in this study.

Although Your Death Would Be Mine examines the correspondence and world of only one peasant couple, it is intriguing. The book not only humanizes the war experience, it forces us to look at our assumptions of historical inquiry in new ways. Thus it cements its place in the literature of the Great War and inspires further generations of social historians in their studies of war and gender.

Margaret Spratt, PhD


  1. This book sounds excellent! Looking forward to reading how the letters survived, and it's uplifting to know that Paul survived and their life went on after the war. Real life, on the home front and on the battlefield. My only question concerns the author's use of "peasant" although the families are described as "from socially prominent if not affluent families" - not my ordinary understanding of peasants. Also impressed by the ability to get so many letters back and forth from the front given the uncertainties of battle, resources, and weather.

  2. Wow, it is heartbreaking at what harsh environments many innocent peasant families were forced to live by. But, it is even more amazing at how resilient Paul and Marie's personalities were.

    1. It is also inspiring to know how Paul and Marie overcame many different struggles and obstacles in their daily lives during the Great War. This was a difficult time for most people around the world, but Paul and Marie have managed to cope with the tough times and grow spiritually. Absolutely incredible.

  3. It's always nice when one is studying such a tragic event as this, and steps away from cold, precise numbers to know what it felt to really be there to experience events. Although language is an imperfect medium for communicating emotion and true feelings, this documentation of a couple's struggle to get by and their love for one another is a wonderful message to stay hopeful even in times of great distress.

  4. Professor. Hanna has spoken at twe of our WWI Historical association symposia, most recently in 2013 at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.

  5. I think this book would be a good example to learn about peasant people and what their lives were like during WWI. With a story line, it is easier to relate to the hardships and struggles of a big war.