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

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Emergence of the Poilu

The French frontline soldier of 1914 began morphing into the Poilu or "hairy one" as the war turned into a long slog. The expression has origins in the Napoleonic Wars, and while it explicitly refers to the facial hair that the men in the trenches affected, it suggested some other qualities like virility, self-reliance, the rural background of many of the soldiers, and a propensity to resist authority (grumbling).

The composite image above from Tony Langley's collection show the evolution of the Poilu as presented in French publications.

  • Top left, a sort of idealized, clean-cut image from the early war.
  • Bottom left, a 1914 image shows the growing popularity among the troops for mustaches and beards.
  • Top right, by 1915 the soldiers are showing serious cultivation of facial hair.
  • Bottom right, a 1917 drawing shows an example of the French soldier who had fully emerged by that stage of the war, the Poilu. Untidily bearded, utterly independent looking, he is carrying all the things necessary for making life at the front bearable, including kitchen utensils, and is smoking his ever-present pipe.
This Poilu "look" became almost a uniform standard for the French enlisted men of the Great War. As one commentator later said, it came to look as if every Poilu had the same mother.  Below is a late-war postcard from the French WWI Centenaire Association that similarly captures the spirit of the hairy one.

Here's a rough partial translation: To make a hairy one (Poilu), it obviously takes hair, optimism, courage, a ration of wine and wit.

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