LE COUSIN JEAN
Luxor, 11 November 2017
This painting, “A Dawn” by C.R.W. Nevinson, which is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, was making a splash in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It shows tired French troops marching silently to the front on a dawn morning in 1914, those cataclysmic first months of the War when France suffered staggering losses. Nevinson, who was in France as a volunteer ambulance driver within weeks of war breaking out, must have seen these men marching by.
When I saw the painting, it made me think of my French cousin Jean – well, not my cousin, strictly speaking; my French grandmother’s cousin. When I was young, there was this faded oval photo hanging in my grandmother’s living room, of a bearded young man in uniform, solemnly looking out at the viewer. The photo was bordered in bleached purple velvet. One day, when I was nine or ten, I asked my grandmother who this young man was. She became very solemn and intoned, “It is le cousin Jean. He died in the First World War. He died very bravely.” Suitably impressed, I kept silent for a moment before carrying on with my life.
But that photo of le cousin Jean has always stayed with me. It has something to do with his quiet composure in the photo; there was none of that swagger you often see in studio photos of World War I soldiers, with the sitter showing off his uniform and trying to project a military bearing. Jean just gazed steadily out at the viewer. So on this day, the 99th anniversary of the end of the First World War on the Western Front, my memory jogged by Nevinson’s painting, I’ve decided to memorialize his story in that war, illustrating it with other paintings by Nevinson. I should warn readers that his is not a particularly dramatic story. He just did what he had to do.
Jean was 23 when war was declared in 1914, and he was called up almost immediately. He joined his local regiment, the 95th Infantry Regiment, as a sub-lieutenant. The 95th took part in the initial French attempts to retake Alsace and Lorraine. But when the Germans attacked Verdun, leaving the beleaguered city and its string of forts in a deep salient, Jean’s regiment was pulled back and thrown into the furious attacks and counterattacks that took place as the Germans tried to completely surround Verdun and the French tried to stop them. The armies on both sides fought to the point of complete exhaustion.
It was during this period that Jean was wounded in Bois d’Ailly, just south of Verdun, some time in late September-October 1914. He was wounded badly enough to be invalided out. He was probably subjected to the rough and ready medical aid that was available, especially at the beginning of the war.
At some point, Jean had recovered enough to be brought back into active service. He joined a regiment newly-formed in April 1915, the 408th Infantry Regiment. It was created with “elements from the depots”, presumably wounded soldiers like Jean as well as others passed over in the first round of call-ups. He joined one of the regiment’s machine gun sections.
The regiment spent 1915 and the first months of 1916 in a quiet sector of the front. Then in early March, as the situation rapidly deteriorated for the French in the Verdun sector after the Germans renewed their attacks in February, the regiment was shipped in urgently to fight around the Fort de Vaux, in lunar landscapes like this.
The regiment suffered heavy losses, but Jean survived. They were eventually pulled out for rest and refitting. By late September/early October 1916, they were in good enough shape to take part in some small battles at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. They spent the time thereafter in reserve positions, filling in gaps here and there. They probably did a lot of marching back and forth, from one position to the next.
The regiment’s second tour in the dreaded mincing machine of Verdun came in October 1917, although by then the worst of the fighting was over. By now, Jean had risen to be a Captain, no doubt because everyone else above him was either dead or was filling holes in the ranks even further up the chain of command.
The regiment was out of Verdun by January 1918, moving to a quieter sector. Then, at the end of May, the regiment was sent to the sector just south of Rheims. This was part of the Allies’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop what turned out to be the Germans’ last roll of the dice. In March they had punched a hole through the British lines. In June they punched another through the French lines just west of Reims and had managed to move 14 km south, but now they were caught in a salient, from which they were trying hard to break out. At midnight on July 14th, they abruptly started a bombardment of the eastern wall of the salient, just south of Reims. Their goal was to break through to the town of Épernay and so cut Reims off from Paris. On the morning of July 15th, they began hammering their way through the narrow valley of the River Ardre and the two woods on either side, the Bois de Vrigny to the south and the Bois de Courton to the north. Jean’s machine gun section lay nestled in the Bois de Courton. At some point, Jean went over to his commanding officer to report. While there, he was badly wounded by a shell burst. The family history says that his last words to his commanding officer were, “I’m sorry, Sir, to be leaving you at such a moment” before climbing into an ambulance. Did he really say that? I suppose he could have, but the family can only have known of this from a letter which they received from the commanding officer. Quite often the writers of these letters of condolences tried to make the man’s death more noble than it had been, in an attempt to soften the blow. My guess is that he just crumpled to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely, and they bundled him into an ambulance.
In any event, according to the French Ministry of Defence’s bureaucratic fiche which logged his death, he died the same day in an Italian dressing station in a small place called Cartière, near Hautvillers, which lies some 10 km from the Bois de Courton. Jean was 27 when he died.
The reference to Italy confused me until I read that the 76th Infantry Regiment of the Italian II Corps had been posted just south of the Bois de Courton on the road to Épernay. The Allied High Command had given the II Corps the task of holding the road, which they managed – just – to do. I suppose the Italian dressing station was the closest to that particular sector of the front.
Jean’s body was brought back home by his family after the war for burial in the family plot; they were lucky, his body could be identified. So now he lies, together with his parents and maternal grandparents, in a graveyard which is a mere 5 km as the crow flies from where the ten year old me stared at that faded photo and asked my grandmother who the young man was with the steady gaze.
CRW Nevinson, “A Dawn”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/first-world-war-painting-expected-to-reach-up-to-1m-at-sothebys
CRW Nevinson, “Troops Resting”: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/modern-post-war-british-art-l16141/lot.3.html
CRW Nevinson, “The Doctor”: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/362469469989052114/
CRW Nevinson, “La Patrie”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b6rnx/p01b6qvn
CRW Nevinson, “La Mitrailleuse”: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nevinson-la-mitrailleuse-n03177
CRW Nevinson, “In the Trenches”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/393431717421822995/
CRW Nevinson, “After A Push”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20212
CRW Nevinson, “Column on the March”: https://kweiseye.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/christopher-r-w-nevinson-1889-1946/amp/