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

Friday, October 12, 2018

C’est la guerre

The widespread French phrase C’est la guerre was on the cover of
the 17 August 1916 issue of the French magazine
La Baïonnette (The Bayonet). 

By Paul Albright

The Armistice had been decreed two weeks earlier and the fighting had ceased. AEF Captain Francis Wolle of Boulder, Colorado, at last had time to comment on aspects of everyday life around him. After service with the 356th Infantry, Wolle had been reassigned to an intelligence unit (G2) of the 4th Army Corps based in the Moselle region of France, moving with his G2 unit to Luxembourg as part of the Allied occupation forces. 

On 26 November 1918 Wolle remarked briefly on the French phrase C’est la guerre that had attained widespread use in western Europe and the U.S.A. Today’s dictionary translation of the phrase is “That’s war,” or “Can’t be helped.”  Wolle, who was a longtime professor of English and theater at the University of Colorado after the war, placed the phrase in its wartime context.

"C’est la guerre is a peculiar French expression, or rather I should say it is a French expression with a peculiar effect and a peculiar feeling behind it,” Wolle wrote to his parents (then residing in Detroit, Michigan). “A shrug of the shoulders means the same thing; and they are used both together if anything goes wrong, if something unusual or out-of-the-way, or unpleasant occurs.

“It represents a sort of ‘sit down and take it’ philosophy, which the Americans helped to break up. If said laughingly it may make men cheerfully bear hardships and in that way is good. ‘I should worry’ is the nearest American equivalent.” 

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