It is a strange book – not fiction, not allegory, not hard stuff. I hold for it three things: It is true. It has the form of a wedge. It sets light at the heart of a matter that has made the world mad.
The author Roland Dorgelès’s response to his publisher when told: “It is a very strange book. But we want to publish it.”
In the first essay in this series on The Great War, I alluded to the catastrophic loss of life, particularly in France, where (and I repeat it for emphasis): one out of every two men who had gone off to war died. A million more Frenchmen came home permanently disabled. There is no real measure of the psychological cost. To get a sense of the physical destruction, consider the fact that whole areas of northeastern France, particularly Verdun, remain uninhabitable to this day, scarred still, hiding undetonated explosives in the earth; and contemplate this truth: that beneath most of those white crosses in European memorial fields the grave there does not contain the remains of a soldier, but the merest idea where he might have fallen.
The reality is grimmer: most of them men disappeared, had been vaporized, or ended up being buried in mass graves; and for a final, poignant consideration, every year, here in the United States, veterans organizations hand out red poppies as a symbol of the war dead. In the first Remembrance Day ceremonies these organizations used live poppies, adopting the California red poppy before the creation of artificial poppies. The red poppy from the Fields of Flanders is a lot redder than the California variety, and, when in bloom, often in August and September, the field evokes a blood-soaked expanse.
This essay confines itself to two texts, two authors, and the film adaptation of their novels. First, the question for the French between the end of one war in 1918 and the start of the next one in 1939 was how they would commemorate their dead, evaluate the total cost of the war, and determine what attitude to adopt that would be the most therapeutic for them as they moved forward in the process of recovery. In the end, I believe that the French, because their price for peace had been so prohibitive, so Pyrrhic relative to their population, comprehended their dead as stark reminders that such casualties must never to be repeated, unless absolutely necessary. Peace is preferable to War. This attitude is very different from the British and German response. I point to the Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers in France, Britain, and Germany for my evidence. The United States has several Tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The American memorial specific to World War I is the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
In Paris, an unknown soldier from Verdun rests beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The location merges individual, symbolic sacrifice with national history. In Britain, the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Warrior’ is in Westminster Abbey. The ‘unknown’ is not simply a soldier, but a ‘warrior,’ who rests, just as his French counterpart, in immortal history, but with one difference: the British ‘warrior’ is buried with a crusader’s sword, which elevates and ennobles sacrifice his sacrifice to the level of divine act. The American, British, and French memorials were built in 1920.
The Germans had a particular dilemma because most of their war dead died on foreign soil. The location for their memorial is inside the New Guard House, the Neue Wache, on the popular Berlin street, Unter den Linden. While the Guard House dates back to the early nineteenth century, it became a war memorial in 1931. The Germans, however, can also point to an earlier memorial in Tannenberg, which honored Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and the German dead from the second Battle of Tannenberg in 1914. Hitler would remodel this memorial into the ‘Castles of the Dead,’ converting the site into stone fortresses, where the anonymous dead were buried in mausoleums beneath altars. As Elias Canetti put it in Masse und Macht (in English, Crowds and Power): ‘a heap of dead’ (Haufen der Toten) would be subsumed and absorbed, the State over the individual, into a “united entity” (Einheit). These differences in remembering the dead, the disposition of the living in relation to their dead, is crucial as we turn to the two literary texts.
In French literary journals the literature of World War I is denoted as ‘GG’ for ‘Grande Guerre’ and the term used in discussion is témoignage or ‘testimony.’ There are numerous French literary texts about the war, but the war-literature is interpreted as a continuity of the French Naturalists who conveyed misery and suffering, often of the lower class in their novels. Zola is cited as the best example. The GG combat narrative is not quite yet journalistic reportage, but the emphasis is on despair, on degradation, seen in the individual, the group, and throughout the physical landscape. This is important to remember when any war novel is adapted to film, because the visual image is more powerful than the image recreated in the reader’s mind from the page.
In 1919, jurors voted six to four and gave the Goncourt Prize to Marcel Proust’s third volume of the Remembrance of Things Past, The Guermantes Way, published six years earlier. The ‘runner-up’ Roland Dorgelès didn’t seem to stand a chance against Proust with Proust friend and supporter Léon Daudet on the jury and his publisher Gallimard’s heavy marketing. Dorgelès would receive the Prix Femina for Les croix de bois that year. Dorgelès had written his novel in 1916, but he had had to fight the censors before it could be published. Three offending chapters from his novel would find their way into another novel brought out later that year, Le cabaret de la belle femme (The Cabaret of the Beautiful Woman). While he battled the censors, Dorgelès watched Henri Barbusse receive the Goncourt Prize in 1916 for Under Fire (Le Feu in French).
Les croix de bois was translated into English in 1921 as Wooden Crosses. The translation is unfortunately dated and poorly edited. In 1932 and 1934 Raymond Bernard would direct two epic films for Pathé Studios: Wooden Crosses and Les Misérables. Dorgelès would have to sue Twentieth Century Fox for plagiarism for Howard Hawks’s Road to Glory (1936). Although the novel was successful in English and French, the delay from 1919 to 1932 for the film adaptation has one significant benefit: sound in film appeared in 1929. The consensus among film historians is that Wooden Crosses, literary text and cinematic masterpiece, is France’s answer to All Quiet on the Western Front.
The film Wooden Crosses uses actual battle footage filmed by the French government. War veterans made up the cast of Crosses and the film was shot on location, near La Neuvillette in France’s Champagne region, where General Nivelle, leading the French offensive in 1917, had failed so miserably that French soldiers hunkered down in the trenches and refused to fight. The military declared the inaction mutinous; some men were executed, but at the end of the day the enlisted had declared it a successful strike. The had used the labor turn ‘strike.’ Pétain replaced Nivelle and promised the men that they would not be used for meaningless offensives. The actor Charles Vanel would later say of his performance in the Bernard film in the cinema magazine Pour Vous: “We didn’t act, we remembered!”
A century later Dorgelès should still feel slighted, for more people read Proust and nearly everyone cites All Quiet on the Western Front as the book about life and death in the trenches. Crosses has 2 reviews on Goodreads (in French), 2 on Amazon U.S., 1 on Amazon U.K., 18 on Amazon France, and none on Amazon Germany for the original French, but 1 for the translation into German, Die hölzernen Kreuze.
Like Remarque’s 1928 book, Wooden Crosses is anti-heroic, brutal and violent, but it is a very different book. The narrative is episodic, with men on patrol, conducting attacks on the Germans, and rotating out from action to the rear for deserved relief. There is a stock scene in which a soldier is shot for refusing an order. Every protest novel has this scene, because it is an allusion to the hundreds of men executed for cowardice.
The stoicism of the men in Crosses is what makes the novel both sad and terrifying. Readers get to know only two characters well: Gilbert Demachy, a law student and bibliophile, and Sulphart, a factory worker. One man is educated, loves plays, and the other is a common man, wily but a decent man. Sulphart is wounded after three years in the trenches. He returns to indifferent Parisians and struggles to adjust to civilian life. Numerous other characters weave in and out of view. Dorgelès uses trench argot and regional speech, which gives the novel an air of authenticity. Readers at home would learn trench slang words. The one Dorgelès uses most, but the English translation fails to annotate, is ‘poilu.’ The word dates back to Balzac, and it should be a derogatory word because it suggest the bestial, as in ‘those hairy ones,’ but I would translate it first as ‘roughnecks,’ and then say ‘rogue.’ The poilu is that cantankerous, irascible sergeant in every World War II film. He is for his men all the way to the gates of hell and he can scratch a match off of his beard.
Dorgelès himself had volunteered for combat; thus, he wrote from personal experience. His narrative conveys the stupidity of ‘hurry up and wait,’ the crushing drudgery of chores, the gut-wrenching simplicity of small joys and memories. The men in Gilbert’s infantry platoon live in filth, without water, and crack jokes about their lice. Ordinary men. Ordinary lives. Horrifying conditions. Death overshadows everything in the omnipresent image of the wooden cross. This war, however, is just, though not remembering these men is unjust. The wooden cross is not only a symbol of death; but the author’s pun on the French war medal, the croix de guerre. Cross of War. The soldier will get his war medal or his coffin. In the film Wooden Crosses the men crawl out past the wooden coffins awaiting them.
The movie versions of Wooden Crosses and All Quiet on the Western Front, like most adaptations, took liberties. ‘Irresponsible’ is a matter of judgment. The ‘message’ in Crosses occurs near the end of the novel when Sulphart is in a bar. He overhears the locals debating the war; they consider it a loss, a defeat. Sulphart, worn down and disoriented, says otherwise; it’s not a loss. His answer is not about camaraderie or sacrifice. He says, “I believe it is a victory because I got out of it alive.” Bernard shifts that scene to another part of the film. He uses powerful visuals to glorify peace and denounce carnage. In the opening scene, there is a montage of faces that dissolve eerily into wooden crosses. Bernard emphasized suffering and downplayed Dorgelès’s notion of survival as victory.
Remarque’s novel suffered a double injustice because two scenes, not in the novel, are added to the film. Paul Bäumer does visit the schoolroom, but the speech he makes in the film to the boys about war is absent from the text. More egregious still is director Lewis Milestone’s ending. In the final scene, Bäumer reaches out to touch a butterfly when a sniper’s bullet takes his life. Without expounding on the poetic implications of a delicate butterfly amidst the cratered landscape of hell on earth, the text’s ending is more ironic, more understated and powerful:
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
All Quiet, the film, would suffer yet another indignity. Critical reception of both film and novel was overall positive and respectful in Britain, France, and in the United States. The novel did court controversy, though; it did provoke discussion, but the overall tenor was positive. Nearly everyone agreed that the film depicted the horror of war. German critics, however, were divided, but positive, admiring the film’s honesty about war, but sensitive to anti-German sentiment and wary that the film could be interpreted as a narrative of German defeat. Unfortunately, the National Socialists saw the film’s 1932 premiere as an opportunity. Goebbels had his hooligans create a ruckus by shouting at the screen and throwing stink bombs, and then releasing white mice to upset the women in the audience. A riot ensued and the political propagandists had grist for the mill. The film was banned.
It is worth mentioning here what happened to one of Bernard’s actors. Harry Baur, who appeared in Wooden Crosses and as Jean Valjean in Les misérables, traveled to Berlin to do a German film because he was perceived as a collaborator. A false report, starting around the time of the Nazi Occupation of France, said Baur was Jewish, when, in fact, Baur was pro-French and Catholic. He was, however, married to a Jewish woman. With suspicion around him in France, despite statements to the contrary, he found work in German productions. In 1942, the rumor reached Goebbels and theGestapo arrived to arrest Baur’s wife Rika on charges of espionage. Baur went to defend his wife. The Gestapo beat him and tortured him for four months and then released him in September 1942 with much fanfare because he was one of France’s leading actors. He never recovered from the torture and died April 8, 1943. The American actor Rod Steiger, when asked how he could put himself into a rage for a role, replied that he thought of the Gestapo maltreatment of his favorite actor, Harry Baur.
Both Dorgelès and Remarque had seen combat. They both testified to their experience on behalf of the typical soldier, the man who didn’t make it home, or if he did was too conflicted and inarticulate to explain what he had seen and experienced. Dorgelès remains the less read, if he is read at all. Remarque’s novel endures perhaps because it is a better novel, although Wooden Crosses deserves a better translation into English. Raymond Bernard’s film is the better film and deserves an equal audience. The film is now available in a Criterion edition. Whether or not the total number of French casualties from The Great War could explain capitulation to the Nazis in June 1940, I’d think the remaining numbers left to fight speaks for itself.
Remarque’s works were banned and burned. Hitler and his henchmen denied German defeat in The Great War and proceed to revitalize nationalism. His sister Elfriede was tried and executed in 1943, more or less for being his sister; and in the SS tradition of executing German citizens they sent “the cost of her prosecution, imprisonment and execution — 495,80 Reichsmark” to his remaining sister. That is almost $12,000 in U.S. dollars in 1943, not adjusted for inflation. Just as the original French title of Wooden Crosses does in France, so does Remarque’s title holds its own irony in Germany. Im Westen nichts Neues translates as “Nothing New in the West.” Western Front, yes; but it can also allude to a lack of civilization in Europe.