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Mobilization: A French Soldier Remembers
Henri Desagneui

Despite all the war plans and diplomatic alliances, the dreams and fears of statesmen, and the ranting of nationalists, when World War I (1914-1918) broke out in early August 1914, it was the average man who was mobilized and went to the front to do his duty. Of course many went with enthusiasm, and many more expected to return home, victorious, by Christmas. Four years and nearly ten million dead later, the war finally ended. One of those average men who went to do their duty was Henri Desagneaux, who recorded the disorganization of the first moments of the war in his diary.

Questions to Consider
  • In what ways does Desagneaux's diary entry evoke the disorder of the first days of mobilization?

  • Does the diary reveal any enthusiasm, in the writer or those he observed, for the war?

2 August, Sunday

Mobilized as a reserve lieutenant in the Railway Transport Service, I am posted to [assigned to] Gray. At 6 in the morning, after some painful good-byes, I go to Nogentle-Perreux station. The train service is not yet organized. There are no more passenger or goods trains. The mobilization timetable is now operative but nobody at the station has any idea when a train is due.

Sad day, sad journey. At 7 a.m. a train comes, it arrives at its terminus--Troyes--at 2 p.m. I didn't bring anything to eat, the refreshment room has already sold out. The rush of troops is beginning and consuming everything in its path. Already you find yourself cut off from the world, the newspapers don't come here any more. But, on the other hand, how much news there is! Everyone has his bit of information to tell--and it's true!

At last in the afternoon I catch the first train which comes along: a magnificent row of first-class carriages (a Paris-Vienna de-luxe; all stock is mobilized) which is going no one knows precisely where, except that it is in the direction of the Front. The compartments and corridors are bursting at the seams with people from all classes of society. The atmosphere is friendly, enthusiastic, but the train is already clearly suffering from this influx from every stratum of society! The blinds are torn down, luggage-racks and mirrors broken, and the toilets emptied of their fittings; it's (typical) French destruction.

At midnight, I am at Vesoul; nothing to eat there either; no train for Gray. I go to sleep on a bench in the refreshment room.

The most fantastic rumours are going around; everyone is seeing spies unbolting railway track or trying to blow up bridges.

Source: Henri Desagneaux, A French Soldier's War Diary (Elmsfield Press, 1975), 3-5.