memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for July 20, 2011

Le Quatorze Juillet

A week ago France’s national day – le Jour de Bastille – was marked as usual by a huge military parade down one the most famous venues in the world – les Champs Elysées.

You’ve got to take your hat off to the French!

Still locked into dreams of military glory, I think they must be only remaining country in Western Europe to have such an exhaustive nuts n’ bolts parade. Not that they don’t have a glorious military past – they do, culminating I suppose in their titanic struggle against the might of Germany in the First World War.

I’m reminded of an excellent film called Paths of Glory (possibly one of Stanley Kubrick’s first) starring Kirk Douglas as the French combat officer Colonel Dax serving at the fortress complex of Verdun where the might of the German 5th Army assaulted the French 2nd Army in 1916.

It was a battle of attrition and although the French emerged as tactical winners, the combined butcher’s bill was well over 300,000 dead. The horrors of Verdun struck a despairing chord in the army’s psyche; (Verdun was for the French army what The Somme was for the British army – an awful and de-humanizing exercise in futility).

By 1917 the French casualties had reached the million mark (total population of Frenchmen of combat-age was 20 million); the troops were exhausted and of low morale and were showing increased reluctance to go over the top to be slaughtered by the hail of shells and machine-gun bullets. (The full extent of the French mutinies on the western front was kept secret for decades but it is now reckoned that up to 50 divisions were affected).


Paths of Glory has Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers who refused to continue a suicidal attack, who was a criminal defense lawyer in civilian life, attempt to defend them against a charge of cowardice in a court martial.

The film is about the execution of innocent men to strengthen others’ resolve to fight. The French Army did carry out military executions for cowardice, as did all the other major participants. However, a significant point in the film is the practice of selecting individuals at random and executing them as a punishment for the sins of the whole group. This is similar to the Roman practice of decimation, and was rarely used by the French Army in World War I.

The title of the film comes from the famous 9th stanza of the 18th century English poet Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


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