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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The French Intellectuals and the Great War of 1914–1918

The Cases of Ernest Psichari and Charles Péguy,
French Soldier-Intellectuals on the Eve of the Great War

By Dr. Paul W. Gery

Prior to the cataclysmic outbreak of the violence of World War I in 1914, few observers predicted a long, drawn-out, violent conflict that would result in the enormous numbers of casualties.  In the case of the French intellectuals prior to the war, very few predicted the violence of the Great War. In fact, the prospect of a war to cleanse society of stagnation and renew the roots of civilization was actually a fervent desire among many French intellectuals, to include such writers such as Maurice Barrès, Ernest Psichari, and Charles Péguy.  Prewar French society praised the roles of the Church and the Army in their efforts to foster a new sense of French nationalism and patriotic fervor. Two French authors who were converted to the nationalist message of past military and religious glory of France were the French writer Ernest Psichari and the poet Charles Péguy.

Ernest Psichari
Psichari was a grandson of the well-known French historian, Ernest Renan, who made critical studies of sacred texts that shook his faith in religious doctrine.  Renan then focused his studies on historical relativism and oriented himself toward skepticism. Psichari, born in 1883, initially shared the intellectual attitudes of his grandfather, but in 1903 Psichari faced a personal crisis and he joined the army in 1905.  Later, in 1913, he converted to Catholicism and henceforth Psichari became an ardent supporter of the Army and the Church.  Viewing society as being sick in its various manifestations, he soon became a career soldier in the French Army.

 For Psichari, the ascetic life of a soldier and war became a source of physical, moral and spiritual regeneration, and he expressed these sentiments in several of his written works, to include l’Appel des armes (The Call to Arms, 1911) and Terres de soleil et de sommeil (Lands of Sun and Sleep, 1908).  The latter work recounted his military experiences in North Africa.  The life and works of Psichari represent a generation of idealistic nationalists in France during the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914.  Moreover, for Psichari, death in combat for a noble cause constituted for him the glorious summit of the soldier.

Charles Péguy
Another example of the intellectual and religious transformation that affected French intellectuals in the years preceding the Great War was the French poet Charles Péguy. In a similar manner as in the case of Psichari, Péguy admired military life, condemned the excesses of contemporary materialism in society and believed that war was both necessary and inevitable.  Péguy was born in 1873 in Orléans and lost his father when Péguy was less than one year old. Raised by his mother and grandmother, Péguy took an interest in socialism and the plight of the French  poor. At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, Péguy actively worked to prove the innocence of the Alsatian officer of Jewish descent who was unjustly accused of transmitting French military secrets to the Germans.  Péguy’s poetic themes focused soon on Jeanne d’Arc, the heroine of religious faith and the French motherland. He rediscovered his religious faith that inspired him to admire the sentiments of heroism and mysticism that were evident in the works of the 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille.

Both Psichari and Péguy anticipated a war with Germany, and they believed that such a war between France and Germany was inevitable. The two French writers shared the love of heroism, sacrifice for the nation and religious faith embodied in the Catholic religion. The ardent enthusiasm of the two writers was diffused not only among French intellectuals, but throughout the European intellectual community as well.  This attitude manifested itself in feelings of the need to prove one’s courage in battle, as if the age of chivalry still existed at the turn of the 20th century.  For example, the British poet Rupert Brooke expressed the sentiment of many heroic-minded youth in his famous sonnet titled "Peace", written in 1914:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping.

Psichari's Grave at Rossignol

Yet, the European youth did not understand that the epoch of individual glory and the chivalrous warrior no longer existed prior to the onset of war in 1914.  Psichari and Péguy had anticipated a mighty crusade against the barbarism of imperial Germany and her allies.  Very rapidly, the war evolved into a protracted and violent war of mass, one in which man was but a number in the most destructive war of the modern era. Perhaps it is fitting that both Psichari and Péguy were killed early in the conflict. Psichari was a second lieutenant serving with the 2nd Colonial Artillery Regiment when he was killed in action in Rossignol, Belgium, in August 1914, just weeks after the start of the war. I have not visited the site, but apparently there is some kind of memorial for him at Rossignol.  

Péguy's Burial Site at Villeroy

Péguy, a reserve lieutenant, killed by a bullet to the forehead after rejoining his reserve unit at the beginning of the battle of the Marne at Villeroy. It was as if the two French authors had prophesied their deaths on the battlefield. Moreover, their deaths seemed to confirm their sentiments that the noblest calling is to die for one’s country, a sentiment that had already captured the souls and thinking of a generation of European youth on the eve of the most destructive and violent war that Europe had yet to experience. 


  1. These "intellectuals" clearly were a product of the 19th century. I think Patton got it right in WW2. To paraphrase: "Nobody ever won a war for dying for one's country. He won it by making the other guy [the enemy] die for his country." (Salty language edited...)

  2. What a fine pair of stories, illustrating one way Europe leaped into WWI.
    (I confess: I haven't read their works yet)

  3. This is very helpful in understanding attitudes at the time. Many thanks.

  4. Margaret Sydney, AustraliaJanuary 2, 2018 at 9:00 PM

    "Roads to the Great War" every now and then produces "little gems". And this pre Christmas "gem" was a wonderful gift.
    So very fascinating and now leads down another unknown path of WW1. Thank you.