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Art & War: Les Croix de bois

(This is the second in a series featuring literary and other artistic “Responses to World War I” in the Library of Congress collections. This post is by Marianna Stell, Reference Assistant in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division.)

Image of Roland Dorgelès reading a book. Found tucked inside the front cover of the 1921 edition of “Les Croix de bois,” (the Wooden Crosses) housed in the Rare Book Division.

Before the outbreak of World War I, French novelist Roland Dorgelès (1886-1973) was best known among his bohemian friends as a fun-loving prankster. Unlike Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, who were discussed in Part I of “Art & War,” Dorgelès began his writing career as a journalist rather than a poet. As a young man, he valued a good laugh more than he did artistic abstraction.

In 1910 Dorgelès pulled his most famous prank. He borrowed a donkey named Lolo from the proprietor of Au Lapin Agile, a restaurant that he frequented in the Montmartre district of Paris.  He tied a paintbrush to Lolo’s tail and fed the animal some vegetables so that its tail would wag back and forth, dragging a brush full of paint across a canvas with each wag. The result was a multi-colored painting that Dorgelès titled “Sunset over the Adriatic,” which he submitted to Salon des Indépendants, the avant-garde association of radical artists that was famous for introducing Fauvism and Cubism, two early 20th-century art movements, to the public. Dorgelès fabricated an elaborate story for the painting’s entry: it was the work of a Genoese painter, Joachim-Raphaël Boronali, he claimed, who was a leading figure in the new artistic movement ‘Excessivism.’ The canvas sold for 400 francs before Dorgelès finally revealed that it had been painted by the back end of a donkey.

Cover of the 1921 edition, with engravings by André
Dunoyer de Segonzac.

Nine years later, tempered by his experiences in World War I, Dorgelès became famous for a work of his own creation. He began his novel “Les Croix de bois” (the Wooden Crosses) during the war, but as an infantryman fighting in the trenches on the Western Front, he had little time to write. He fought in the offensive at Neuville-Saint-Vaast during the Second Battle of Artois (May-June 1915) before moving to aviation. As a pilot and instructor, he was able to write more frequently, but he could not finish his novel until the end of the war.

When it was finally published in 1919, “Les Croix de bois” was extremely well received; it won the prestigious literary award, Prix Femina, and nearly won the most esteemed award, the Prix Goncourt, which instead was given to Marcel Proust that year.  Nevertheless, “Les Croix de bois” solidified Dorgelès’ reputation as a writer of fiction and as an author who could speak with an authentic voice about the complexities of soldiering during the Great War.  In “Les Croix de bois” the reader encounters the dirt, mud, cold, and smell of trench warfare. Through a first-person narrator, the reader also learns about the social experience of war: the unique kinship formed by the camaraderie of living and suffering together for a common purpose, and the devastating loneliness of facing mortality.

French soldiers eating soup on the march, ca. 1914-15. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

French soldiers eating soup on the march, ca. 1914-15.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The copy of “Les Croix de bois” from 1921 that is housed in the Rare Book Reading Room at the Library of Congress contains rare engravings by André Dunoyer de Segonzac (1884-1974), an artist known for his oil paintings rather than his book illustrations. Dunoyer de Segonzac was mobilized in August of 1914, and served the entire war as a member of the infantry. He saw some of the most concentrated trench warfare during the winter of 1914-15 in Bois-le-Prêtre, a forested area of Lorraine, where French and German forces occupied trenches as close as 20 meters apart.

As a soldier, Dunoyer de Segonzac kept notebooks that he filled with drawings, which he then exhibited after the war. For the 1921 edition of “Les Croix de bois” he learned engraving, so that many of his original wartime sketches could be reproduced as accompanying images for Dorgelès’ text. Dunoyer de Segonzac also created some original images for the edition. The engravings are poignant complements to Dorgelès’ prose because each combines the harshness of the subject matter with the empathy of a first-hand observer. Like Dorgelès’ text, Dunoyer de Segonzac’s images focus on the simple, tangible, and sensory experiences of war, such as soup made over a fire in a cold camp. The images convey the deep sense of loneliness and loss that is echoed in the novel.

Engraving by André Dunoyer de Segonzac from the 1921
edition of “Les Croix de bois.”

Dorgelès was the first post-war novelist in France to suggest that adjustment to civilian life might be beyond the reach of some soldiers, and that returning home might not mean the end of the war for those who had internalized its abuses. In “Les Croix de bois,” he emphasized the tragedy of irreplaceable particulars — the way a soldier made a joke, ate, sang, or laughed while he was alive. Dorgelès’ youthful, fun-loving, pre-war spirit is recognizable in the brief periods of merriment that his characters experience between battles, and it is this liveliness that makes the novel’s overall sense of loss more acute. It is thus that Dorgeles is able to convey the bitter taste of victory for those surviving soldiers who, paradoxically, long for the hell of warfare over the security of peace, if it would mean returning to a time when the dead were still alive.

French flag and four crosses over a grave of French officers in Châlons-sur-Marne (now Châlons-en-Champagne), France, during World War I. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

French flag and four crosses over a grave of French officers in Châlons-sur-Marne
(now Châlons-en-Champagne), France, during World War I. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Speaking to his deceased comrades, the narrator of “Les Croix de bois” explains, “Those were the good times…I think of your myriads of wooden crosses, lined up all along the dusty highways where they seem to keep a lookout for the relief of the living, that will never come to bring the dead to life.” [C’était le bon temps…Je songe à vos milliers de croix de bois, alignées tout le long des grandes routes poudreuses, où elles semblent guetter la relève des vivants, qui ne viendra jamais faire lever les morts.]

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