Monday, July 9, 2012

The Great War in Greyscale - The French 'Poilu', 1914


'Poilu'.


Translated, it literally means 'hairy one'.

'Poilu' is one of those wonderful French words, like jolie-laide ('ugly-beautiful'), that is nuanced, encompassing several meanings, some divergent, but on the whole somehow 'right'. It was a common nickname given to the French infantrymen of the Great War, simultaneously describing a sense of affection, derision and fierce pride for those rustic, bearded, and fatalistically stoic soldiers of France.


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We anglophones usually only know about the early war battles in which the British were involved.  The engagements at Mons and Le Cateau resonate deeply in the English literature of the war - possessing almost mythic status in our memory.  While these actions certainly contributed to what became the 'Miracle of the Marne' - the blunting of the German advance on Paris - they were, in reality, ancillary engagements in comparison to the titanic army-level clashes fought by the French and Germans at Lorraine, in the Ardennes and around Charlelois.  In what collectively became known as 'The Battle of the Frontiers' it was the battered poilu who took the brunt of the German attacks and furiously gave back as good as they got. 

These 28mm figures from Great War Miniatures depict French infantry at the war's beginning in 1914. The early poilu went to war in uniforms not unlike those worn over 40 years earlier during the Franco-Prussian War: romantic, colourful and completely unsuitable to industrialized combat. While their blue greatcoats were similar in design as those worn by other combatants it was their bright red trousers and kepis which made them as glaring on the battlefield as they were dashing on the parade ground. (Prior to the war many committees were formed to attempt to modernize the uniform but any changes were abandoned with many excuses given; the most dominant being the belief that to replace the red garments would damage the elan of the men and be an affront to French pride.)


Like the Belgians and Germans that I have already worked on I wanted to make the French uniform as distinct as possible, all the while knowing I had to work within a relatively limited greyscale range. With this in mind I purposefully amplified the grey tones of the ranker's kepi and trousers in order to reflect their vibrant colour. I did the same with the actual red elements of the officer's and NCO's uniforms, over-saturating the colour in order to give a 'chirascuro' effect similar to the young girl in 'Schindler's List' or the femme fatale in 'Sin City'. 

For the higher ranking officers I've done their trousers in red. 
In 1914 some young officers, like these two advancing at the charge, wore white gloves into combat as it was considered the height of military fashion.
Also included in this group is a French HMG crew serving the ill-starred St. Etienne heavy machine gun.


The St. Etienne came into service in 1908 and had a miserable reputation for being heavy, having a poor rate-of-fire and being prone to stoppages.


Soon after hostilities began the French realized the limitations of the St. Etienne and began to replace it in 1917 with the Hotchkiss machine gun, which was much more reliable, easier to maintain and simpler to manufacture (having nearly half the components of the St. Etienne).

I also managed to get a few facades done for my upcoming village. As reviewed before, these are from Kobblestone Miniatures. I like that you can mix-and-match the facades and use them as simple backgrounds for games or vignettes. I'll probably go back over these and add some smoke damage, but otherwise they're pretty much done.


General Joffre, the overall commander of the Entente forces in 1914, disallowed casualty reports and forbid press or politicians to go near the fighting, thereby insulating the home front from the staggering losses being experienced along the frontier. So though the French suffered 260,000 casualties during first month of the war alone they managed to rally, reform and concentrate west to face the Germans at the decisive battle of the Marne - that they could recover and remain operational after such a battering could certainly be seen as a miracle, but I think it is more a testament to the resilience and determination of the humble French infantryman: the poilu.


By the end of the Great War France had endured a staggering 1,397,800 military deaths. To place this in a wider context the French death toll from WWI alone exceeds the U.S. mortality figures from all its conflicts combined - from 1775 to 2012. So the next time you hear someone prattling on about those 'cheese eating surrender monkeys' or how clever it was to rebrand french fries as 'Freedom Fries' ask them if they have ever visited the battlefields of the Ardenne, St. Quentin or the Ossuary at Verdun. Then politely tell them to shut their piehole.

French Reserviste by Hebert Ward, 1915

36 comments:

  1. Simply outstanding! This project just gets better and better Curt; the addition of red really jars the senses, but in a way that brings the viewer into the scene. I love it!

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    1. Thanks Michael! Happy to hear you're over your 'Man-Flu' - though I shudder to think of what that could be...

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  2. Fantastic work mate. Your use of the the limited grey-scale palette is excellent and the 'chirascuro' effect looks amazing.

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  3. Curt, what can I say, other than ... amazing. This is really working well. I love the way that you've picked out the red - yes, very Schindler's List - and ni particular on the Officers' trousers. The partly ruined Kobblestone Miniatures frontages look perfect. There's something lyrical, and haunting, about this project. Perhaps it’s the focus on the very early war, or the colours, but it's something very special indeed. I also really love the way you've inter-twined the art from the period - some excellent choices there. Well done, dear chap, well done indeed.

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    1. Thanks very much, Sidney. Yes, I'm finding this project to be quite unique to work on. Its technically challenging for sure, but it also demands a certain emotional investment as the subject portrays those beginning clashes that saw the destruction of a generation - the end of a era, really. I have to pace myself with it as I find it hard not to get drawn into the sadness of it all.

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  4. Great work! Fantastic colour scheme which is really effective ;)

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  5. I'm with the others - fantastic work. You're moving painting style is moving beyond the "hobby world" and into the "artistic world".

    I like the stark contrast of the red hats

    Miles

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    1. Thanks Miles. Not sure I'm comfortable about the 'artistic' description, but thanks very much nonetheless. This project does have a different 'feel' than others that I've done, that's for sure. Far more... 'moody', I guess.

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  6. Excellent work Curt - looking good!

    I agree re the WW1 Frecnh casualties - I often look at the enormous lists of names on the war memorials when i visit - whole communities torn apart - left a long and deep scar.

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    1. I know exactly what you speak of, Dave. When we were in France this spring I could not help but visit the cenotaphs of the villages we visited. Even the tiniest hamlet had a memorial with names in an amount that must have been crushing to those communities at the time. Its really quite staggering.

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  7. Dude - this stuff continues to blow my mind.

    And your point re: French fighting spirit overall is well made. I remember visiting the special Charles De Gaulle exhibit at Les Invalides in Paris, and there is one entire wall summarizing the total catastrophe in terms of human and financial costs of WW2 on France. It boggles the mind, and when you add in the horrible experience of WW1, it really is incredible.

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    1. Cheers Gregster! Yes, the Les Invalides' exhibits on both WWI and WWII are amazing and well worth the visit in of themselves.

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  8. I am continuously amazed by how you give the impression of colour, and the detail you convey with this technique. Congratulations on this project, I am in awe.

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    1. Thanks Derek, your comments are very encouraging.

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  9. Curt

    Love it, the red touches really work.

    Cheers

    PD

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  10. Just...

    WOW

    They look stunning, very artistic paintjob. I love it Curt. Will you the Germans as well?

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    1. Cheers Seb, much appreciated. Yes, I've started on the Germans as well. You can see a sample of them here:

      http://analogue-hobbies.blogspot.ca/2012/06/great-war-in-greyscale-german-infantry.html

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  11. Lovely stuff once again. And those facades are great - somehow all the more haunting by just being facades.

    And the French casualty statistic is mind-boggling indeed, thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Phil. Yeah, when I started looking at the statistics I was amazed. The war reduced the overall French population by over 4% but in the male demographic from 18 - 45 it rises shockingly. It is even mores so in the case of Germany who lost over 2 million to military action. Its amazing that they could even contemplate another war only 20 years later.

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  12. Fantastic work Curt, this is such a different project from the norm. I do love that first photo! Keep up the great work!

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  13. Brilliant work, as always. I really love this project.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words of support - much appreciated.

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  14. Stunning painting Curt, and the article adds more to my knowledge. What I do know about WWI mostly is set around the British and Germans. The mutiny of the French is about all I know of their involvment (though WWI is not one of the periods I follow closely). Talking of muntiny. The monicled mutinear came from the village just down the road from where I lived until getting married.

    Looking forward to more on this project

    Ian

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    1. Ian, I'm glad you're following (and enjoying) this project as it gives me impetus to push along. Thanks for the encouragement!

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  15. Clansman
    I love the look of the project as a whole and the Frenchmen in particular (although a mime or two working the gun would have given it a certain je ne sais quoi).

    keep up the good work!
    Doug

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Brother! You know a mime would work quite well with this! That and a staff officer not getting served by a disinterested waiter, smoking a gitane, would be quite good as well...

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  16. Outstanding continuation of an already brilliant project! Just awesome.

    Jason

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    1. Cheers Jason, for your very kind words.

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  17. Very nice, the red sets a pleasant contarst. Interesting seeing differing base type - round and hexagonal.

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  18. Great stuff as usual Curt, I am really looking forward to BR with these WWI troops and terrain, I suspect it will be quite neat.

    John

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    1. Thanks John, and welcome home from your vacation!

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