Captain Charles Delvert was a French army officer who fought in some of the costliest battles of the First World War. His unit took part in the initial disasters of the battle of the Frontiers, the long retreat that followed, the first battle of the Marne and the Race to the Sea. Delvert was wounded on 23 September 1914, and didn’t return to the front until November 1915. He was most famous for the part his unit played in the defensive phase of the battle of Verdun, defending Retranchement R.1, one of the outlying defensive positions around Fort Vaux and the last to fall to the Germans. He was wounded again in July 1916, and never returned to front line service, although did see some of the later battles of the war from the staff.
In general the tone here is quite light-hearted, with many brief portraits of his colleagues, and a great deal on the daily life of the French soldier. As a result the darker sections stand out more than is often the case, especially the portrayal of the battle of Verdun, which comes across as a hellish situation.
Delvert also gives us a picture of some battles that are rarely seen in detail in British narratives of the war, in particular the battle of the Frontiers, where the pre-war French army first began to realise that its plans weren’t going to work. Delvert supports some of the images of this period, including criticising the highly visible pre-war uniform, the limited range of French artillery and even details such as the shiny metal mess tins that glinted in the sun and were far too visible to German aircraft.
Delvert wasn’t at all impressed with the French High Command during the first half of the war, but unlike many other critics in memoirs he gave examples of why he was unimpressed, mainly to do with the distribution of resources between the front line and rear areas. This is interested, as many British memoirs were very critical of French front line trenches when the BEF took over sectors from the French, and here we get some confirmation of that from the French side. He was also repeatedly critical of the tactics used in many of the French attacks, which ignored their own wartime guides about not using men to defeat material.
One of the more ironic features of the book is that Delvert was very impressed with Petain, crediting him with a series of reforms that greatly improved the French army. Given that this version of the book was produced in the mid 1930s, it helps us understand why Petain’s leadership was accepted by many in the dark days of 1940, when his great reputation helped convince many to accept the armistice and the division of France.
This is a compelling first hand account of the fighting on the Western Front, from a viewpoint rarely seen in British accounts of the war.
Book 1 - Early Battles
Book 2 - Story of a Company
Book 3 - In a Quiet Sector
Author: Charles Delvert
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military