The infantrymen of the French in World War 1 were often referred to as the Poilus, or the hairy ones. The Poilus were the backbone of the French military, many coming from the working class. Whatever their differences, in the beginning they all viewed the war in the same sparkling light. They had no idea what war was really about. As the war progressed many things from their uniforms to their outlooks changed drastically. Fraternizations and even mutinies occurred as the dreary battles raged on.
The war began in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne. The big world powers had networks of alliances, and new technologies that lead to the first global conflict. The French entered the war with a very optimistic view and a flower in their rifles. Out of a population of 40 million, they mobilized 1.1 million men in the beginning (Bracken). They were convinced that the war would be over very quickly, and they could rescue the Alsace and Lorraine regions from the boorish Germans.
As we see in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A very Long Engagement, the men in the French army were from similar, yet different backgrounds. Bastoche and Six-Sous were both tradesmen from Paris, working in carpentry and welding respectively. Benoit Notre-Dame was a farmer who had to leave his home when he got drafted into war. Manech was a fearless fisherman, with a beautiful fiancée. The big outlier of the group was Ange, the Corsican pimp. He was hard and seemingly unfeeling. Out of the five he was the least innocent. These were the stories of most men drafted into the war. They were generally from lower classes without the money and privilege to belong in the rear where they would be relatively safe. Occasionally artists and musicians would be forced to enter the war. They were placed on the front and got leave more frequently.
The French army was surprisingly well supplied. According to the Western Front Association they were “well fed with two full meals stipulated per day. Each company of soldiers - 200 men - was supposed to be provided with its own mobile field kitchen well supplied with bread, tinned meat, salted fish and other foodstuff as available,“ (Payne). This concept didn’t work very well on the front; mostly the soldiers were sustained on a diet of the French equivalent of corned beef, and pinard wine. Care packages from home often helped break the monotony for the soldiers. They often contained various canned foods and cigarettes, as shown in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, where we visited an officer’s prisoner of war camp. In that film the officers were treated very well, another illustration of how the upper classes got treated differently than the lower classes during war time.
Draped in their bright red képis, blue overcoats, and matching red pants, the French army stuck out like a sore thumb against the dull, earthy colors of the trenches. During the first battles of the war the Poilus were slaughtered at...