The Embattled Self: French Soldiers' Testimony of the Great War

Overview

How did the soldiers in the trenches of the Great War understand and explain battlefield experience, and themselves through that experience? Situated at the intersection of military history and cultural history, The Embattled Self draws on the testimony of French combatants to explore how combatants came to terms with the war. In order to do so, they used a variety of narrative tools at hand—rites of passage, mastery, a character of the soldier as a consenting citizen of the Republic. None of the resulting ...

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The Embattled Self: French Soldiers' Testimony of the Great War

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Overview

How did the soldiers in the trenches of the Great War understand and explain battlefield experience, and themselves through that experience? Situated at the intersection of military history and cultural history, The Embattled Self draws on the testimony of French combatants to explore how combatants came to terms with the war. In order to do so, they used a variety of narrative tools at hand—rites of passage, mastery, a character of the soldier as a consenting citizen of the Republic. None of the resulting versions of the story provided a completely consistent narrative, and all raised more questions about the "truth" of experience than they answered. Eventually, a story revolving around tragedy and the soldier as victim came to dominate—even to silence—other types of accounts. In thematic chapters, Leonard V. Smith explains why the novel structured by a specific notion of trauma prevailed by the 1930s.

Smith canvasses the vast literature of nonfictional and fictional testimony from French soldiers to understand how and why the "embattled self" changed over time. In the process, he undermines the conventional understanding of the war as tragedy and its soldiers as victims, a view that has dominated both scholarly and popular opinion since the interwar period. The book is important reading not only for traditional historians of warfare but also for scholars in a variety of fields who think critically about trauma and the use of personal testimony in literary and historical studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Smith's analysis of these narratives makes for absorbing reading. . . . I particularly enjoyed Smith's analysis of Marc Bloch's war diary and the narrative he wrote from it several months later. It is an illuminating example of the conundrum that faced the war writers—and perhaps all writers who attempt to construct narrative from experience. The Embattled Self stands on the intersection of literature and history. . . . The task of turning war experience into narrative was difficult—even perilous—work. For many, writing about the experience of war was as tortured as the war experience itself. Readers will gain from Smith's book a greater understanding and respect for both the genre of war testimony and its embattled practitioners."—H-France Reviews

"This book's virtues include a diligent use of underutilized first-person French sources, a careful analytic eye to interpret those sources, and a sincere empathy for the men who lived through the horrendous wars of the trenches. By examining the soldier as witness to the great tragedy that the war represented, Smith dissects the scholarly tension of relying on testimonies that were themselves as much about the narratives of war as about soldiers’ actual, lived experiences. A reexamination of soldiers’ testimony, Smith posits, will return to them their basic humanity and introduce a great deal of complexity to a picture that has for too long been overly simplified."—American Historical Review

"Skillfully dissecting the work of French soldier-writers, Leonard V. Smith shows that experience is virtually inseparable from narrative but that narrative changes in nature and function over time. During the war, soldiers grappled with killing, survival, and death and sought meanings for their actions. Subsequently, the war became a tale of their passive victimhood. In a penetrating and highly readable discussion of the relationships among narrative, memory, and the 'witness,' Smith challenges received views of the soldiers' experience in the Great War. This important book will appeal to students of literary and cultural studies as well as of history."—John Horne, Trinity College Dublin and Research Centre of the Historial de la Grande Guerre

"The Embattled Self is an important statement by a scholar at the forefront of his subject. Leonard V. Smith's subject is how we are to approach the testimony of soldiers who wrote about their experience of the trenches in the Great War. He argues for an approach grounded in narrative theory, which posits that 'experience becomes experience through narrative.' The result is a challenging and stimulating engagement with both well-known and obscure works of fiction and nonfiction."—James McMillan, Richard Pares Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars, University of Edinburgh

"This is an excellent book. In The Embattled Self, Leonard V. Smith makes three convincing points: war testimonies written at the time of the Great War or in its immediate aftermath told stories of consent; wartime testimonies strove for a documentary realism by using narrative strategies that gave rise to much of their persuasive power; and these strategies didn't always work because they failed to suppress feelings—whether of vengeance or bloodlust—deemed out of bounds or imposed false closure on experiences of arbitrary and terrifying violence. The simplicity and verbal economy of Smith's prose in some respects replicates the style of the testimonies he is analyzing."—Philip Nord, Princeton University, author of Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801479564
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Leonard V. Smith is Frederick B. Artz Professor of History at Oberlin College. He is the author of Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War I, coauthor of France and the Great War, 1914–1918, and coeditor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Experience, Narrative, and Narrator in the Great War

1. Rites of Passage and the Initiation to Combat

2. The Mastery of Survival: Death, Mutilation, and Killing

3. The Genre of Consent

4. The Novel and the Search for Closure

Conclusion

Bibliography
Index

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