Happy Easter from a French POW

Happy Easter from a French POW

Tue 03 Apr

After four years of centenary commemorations we know everything there is to know about the First World War, don’t we? Poets, poppies, trenches, more poets, mud-splattered Tommies eating chocolate that you can now buy in Sainsbury’s according to the advert. Then there was a football match. Now there are ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, hoary historians on television, Dan Snow striding across the fields of Northern France, Benedict Cumberbatch being pensive as Christopher Tietjens, Alicia Viksander being strangely Scandinavian as Vera Brittain nursing Huns back to life, Sebastian Faulks everywhere you look; the list goes on. Anyone would be forgiven for experiencing a certain amount of commemorative fatigue: Dulce et Decorum est or, rather, give it a rest.

But this is not the only narrative the First World War has to offer. Jacques Rivière, French Catholic, writer and critic, asks us to reconsider our calcified vision of the war partly because he saw no active conflict at all. Captured after a skirmish in the woods after only three days of reconnaissance, Rivière was to be a prisoner of war from 1914-1917. Gone were the trenches he dreamed of launching himself over, gone were the tales of heroism he longed to regale to his wife and, more pressingly, his mistress. Not a daub of mud or shell-hole in sight. Instead he was forced to endure the humiliation of prison life first at Koenigsbrück prisoner-of-war camp and latterly at Hulseburg after a failed escape attempt in 1915.

When Rivière joined the other members of the 220th Infantry division in late July 1914, he began to keep extensive and detailed notes. These notes were faithful recordings of the incidents and conversations that piqued his attention. More importantly he also recorded his emotional and spiritual reactions to war. Over the course of his three years as a prisoner, he was to fill over fourteen notebooks with his varied meditations. Divided chronologically by year, the Carnets de guerre move from the tormented beginnings of his captivity to his release in 1917. Frustration and humiliation course through the prison diaries. Cast away from the Front Line in the wilds of Saxony, Rivière began to record his own private war, meditating on his long-dormant Catholicism that had begun to resurface in conversations with high-profile French Catholic poet and diplomat Paul Claudel as early as 1913. Deprived of physical battle, Rivière raged against a God that had cast him into obscurity as punishment for his affair with the publisher Gaston Gallimard’s wife Yvonne. Pulsating with shameful rage, Rivière drew the battle lines between himself and an unforgiving Jansenist God.

Gradually however, instead of bemoaning the war as evidence of Nietzsche’s famous dictum that God was dead, Rivière saw the war as a real-life Calvary in which God’s presence was writ large. Some fifty years earlier, a group of French Catholic intellectuals had turned their gaze away from fin-de-siècle decadence towards Catholicism’s rendering of mortality and suffering. Chief amongst their proclamations was the necessity of anguish to fully experience God’s grace. In captivity, Rivière was to join their ranks. The Great War, with its unprecedented devastation, was to provide ample suffering for this particular interpretation of Catholicism to be transformed, quite literally, into flesh and blood. However, after the pain came the belief in regeneration, renewal and the second coming of the Lord, a belief rooted in the hope of the resurrection. 

Within the field of First World War Studies one continues to find that the Catholic dimension has not received the attention it deserves, despite its status as a major component of belief during a transformative event. The war’s cultural legacy, dominated by representations of avant-garde modernism has left little room for narratives that do not see the war as a crisis in modern consciousness. Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (1995) has done much to realign an understanding of the Great War with motifs of classical, religious, and romantic culture. Equally, Annette Becker’s 1994 study, War and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914-1930, has highlighted the need to concentrate on more lateral religious experiences. However, particularly in France, where the secularization thesis persists, the French Catholic revivalists have been dismissed as harbingers of Vichy France and Fascist politics, and the story moves all too quickly from 1914 to 1940.

Despite attempts to resuscitate French Catholic figures such as Charles Péguy by scholars such as Glenn Roe, their radical and original response to the epic moment in religious history that the First World War represents, has gone largely ignored.

Pascal decreed that humanity must not sleep because Christ hangs on his cross until the end of the world. Despite the difficulty in fully locating the agony of Golgotha in a secular society, Rivière heeded this cry. For him, there could be no rational endeavour to grasp the collapse of European values ushered in by the guns of 1914 without reference to Christ’s agony. This symmetry between God’s kenosis (self-emptying) and the Great War faded from felt immediacy in the wake of the Holocaust. French Catholicism’s lamentable association with anti-Semitism in the Vichy era aided this disintegration of faith. Rivière’s forgotten diaries prove that fresh perspectives must now emerge.

Article by Dr Arabella Byrne

Dr Arabella Byrne holds a PhD in French Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She is writing a novel based on the First World War diaries of Jacques Rivière. 

Please leave a comment below.

The White Cliffs of