French Poilu (1914 – 1918) by Ian Sumner is an excellent book about the millions of French citizens who were called upon to defend their country during World War I – the Poilu. I am the first to admit that I am not a huge fan of the French, but even I have to admit that the French soldiers of the past were not to blame for their poor performance in battle – they were often very poorly led. This book reenforces that opinion and helps to enlighten those of us who know nothing about the French soldier in World War I.
The book covers all aspects of the Poilu – joining the army, equipment and weapons used, living in the trenches, combat, and leaving the trenches. Sumner calls upon the personal accounts of individual French soldiers to provide a dose of real world experiences to his writing. For example, he quotes Gabriel Chevallier (novelist) when describing what it was like the first time going “over the top” (climbing out of a trench) in an attack. Since I have not read much war literature from a French perspective – these were interesting to read.
In the course of the book, Sumner explains why the French did so poorly in the early stages of the war, why their losses were so appalling, and the reasons for the 1917 Poilu mutiny. With regard to the poor performance, the French military was in a time of turmoil at the outset of World War I – the Dreyfuss affair and various political scandals had destabilized the French military leadership. Their losses were horrendous because of poor leadership and inadequate equipment (some troops went into combat with red pants – can’t conceal yourselves very easily with those on) and an aggressive attack attitude that did not take into account the advent of the machine gun. Finally, the Poilu did not revolt because they wanted to get out of the war,but because of continued poor leadership and lack of any comforts – they were rarely given any leave.
This book is an excellent resource for someone who wants to get a general idea of the French Poilu in World War I.