The two notebooks are in the library. Not hidden, but not in plain sight either. “You will entrust them to the Museum of the Great War in Meaux,” his father asked him in 2019, a few months before he died. Geneviève, suddenly intrigued, decides today to read the war diary of her grandfather, soldier Raymond Pasquier (1894-1924), which he wrote between 1914 and 1919.
The ink has yellowed, but the beautiful calligraphy typical of generations trained in penholders remains very legible and Geneviève has no difficulty following the weeks of integration of this Parisian office worker of just 20 years old, versed in French artillery, near Rennes (Ille-et-Vilaine): “September 11, 1914. Although at this late hour, the population gave us a pleasant reception. Led by two officers, we cross Rennes and reach through the countryside a farm 5 km away, located in Saint-Laurent. (…) At midnight, in the flickering light of a globe, we huddle together. After being soaked, we are chilled and unable to sleep. »
All the same, his story is very monotonous and beyond the century that separates them, his granddaughter is annoyed that he notes ” nothing in particular “ opposite certain days, while excessively detailing his chores and his apprenticeship with the horses: “You must ride without a saddle or stirrup, taking the bridle and a handful of horsehair. The right hand on the withers allows you to be on horseback with flexion and recovery. But, not used to this and tired by this new life that is so different, I cannot do it alone. A brigadier helps me so vigorously that I pass to the other side of the horse. »
At least that’s funny, says Geneviève, who is surprised that artillery training lasts seven months. It is true that he has a lot to learn. On the Internet, she searches for what a “battery” of the time looked like: this combat unit of around 170 men and as many horses to drag the nine “pieces” (cannons) would become crucial during this first world conflict. . And this is why, very quickly, Raymond also speaks of “driver”, who rides a horse, “servant”, who is transported seated on the “boxes” ammunition, chores “water trough”, where to lead the horses and “step” to designate the rear line of the “firing battery” … A long line of harnessed carts takes shape in her mind as the artillery jargon becomes integrated into the prose of her ancestor: “This war suddenly seems more concrete to me,” she tells her nephew Olivier who also declares himself interested in the rediscovery of this family document.
In March 1915, things accelerated: Raymond and his comrades from the 41st battery of the 25th artillery regiment were sent to Marseille, from where they would embark for Turkey . He notes each station where people stop to care for the horses and carefully observes the landscape he passes through. The Massif Central enchants him, then Provence, from Avignon: “The first ranges of the Alps fade into the mist and are cut into patches of all colors. Let’s cross the Rhône, immensely wide, cut from here beyond there are sandy islands. Then, closer, fields of orange trees, fig trees, peach trees in flower. » His taste for geographical description is undoubtedly what is most personal in his diary, notes Geneviève. With his sense of event: one of his favorite passages is the picture he draws, a few weeks later, of his arrival in the Dardanelles Strait: “May 15, 1915. The spectacle is magical, on all sides commercial vessels, liners with two or three chimneys, sailing boats, submarines, torpedo boats, cruisers, battleships, English and French coal transports, some in position, the others carrying us. We never had witnessed such a spectacle. English buildings painted iron gray quickly stand out. All around us are islands whose terrain, although rocky, appears cultivated. Lighthouses are spread across all heights. The passage is terribly guarded, the ships almost touch each other. »
In the East, he also readily described the customs, very picturesque for him, of the peasants and fishermen of the Greek island of Lemnos where he was stationed.
Very quickly, it was the baptism of fire, which he recalled on June 21: “For our arrival, the French cannons spat vigorously and enveloped the ridge occupied by the Turks in smoke; they respond weakly. What an infernal noise, luckily we’re getting used to it. » The more Geneviève reads about the Battle of the Dardanelles, the less she understands the strategic evolution of this murderous operation, disastrous for the allied armies, and the more she guesses that the young hairy man is thus putting his emotions at bay. “On the other hand,” she explains to her nephew, “when grandfather talks about food, he puts emotion into it! » For example on August 7: “At 9 o’clock in the evening, we got up and found for all soup on our return after fifteen hours of riding, a piece of horse and a tablespoon of peas. Delicious meal! » She appreciates these little notes of derision that he often uses.
Dysentery will get the better of the soldier, repatriated to France in October 1915 . After a few weeks of convalescence in Menton, a too-short leave in Paris, which he mentions in one sentence: “Needless to say the joy of these seven days, which passed too quickly after such a long absence. » And here he is reassigned to the French front. “He implies that with his friend Thion, they maneuvered not to return to the Orient,” explains his descendant.
Although he continues to list the stations through which he passes, the rest of the war is difficult to follow as his unit, now the 22nd battery of the 225th artillery regiment, is called in to reinforce a region to the other. Geneviève, armed with two stabilos, one orange for the climbs to the front, the other yellow for the returns, tries to retrace her movements: Suippes first, in the Marne, then Verdun, where the battle rages: “ Gutted caissons, overturned carriages, cannons, fodder, corpses of rotting horses and probably also of men who could not be recovered. It’s a horrible sight and the hill is hard to climb in this famous ravine where, at night, you pass over mowed trees and through countless potholes. (…) Our box is immobilized by the branches and unable to free itself. Some pots fall quite close, so much so that the driver in the middle wants to abandon the box and cut the lines, which we refuse. Seeing this, he unharnesses his horses and leaves us both with the brakeman. We unharness, unbrick the fallen horse and manage to put everything back together. It only lasted a quarter of an hour but it seemed like a century. Having only four horses left, we had difficulty climbing the slope, but finally we managed to rejoin the bulk of the column. »
This is a breathtaking passage which gives the measure of this invisible but essential work: driving heavy teams, loaded with ammunition, to the gun, ” THE refueling » as he says, across a broken battlefield and under grapeshot. The twenty-one days spent in the hell of Verdun while waiting ” Succession “ seem very long to the gunner.
After that, his regiment was sent to recover behind the lines, in the Marne. . Barely back from his first leave in ten months, Raymond learns of his mother’s death and must return to Paris: “September 5, 1916. Sad day of the ceremony that there is no need to describe,” he wrote, unable to say more. Two days later, he joins his comrades and Geneviève points on his map: Damery, Bray-sur-Somme…
A huge camp is set up near Suzanne in the Somme, which reminds the soldier of the Eastern Front. But instead of sand and dust, it’s mud, in which the horses get bogged down “up to the hock”, who becomes enemy number 1: “What a sweet life it is to settle in such weather under a tent where the water leaks through and where you slip covered in mud from head to toe. Furthermore, it is impossible to wash. » Hygiene is a constant concern throughout the conflict, notes his granddaughter.
Move to Aisne then, where Raymond is introduced to shell firing, while the fighting seems very intense, under the combined fire of the aviation. ” A of our squadrons set fire to a sausage which had direct views of our lines, but the Germans, furious, shot down one of ours” A ” sausage “ ? Wouldn’t it be an airship?, Geneviève wonders. From a gunner’s point of view, the enemy doesn’t really have a face. It is therefore only designated by this generic term: “the Krauts” , throughout the story. However, Geneviève has noticed that he hardly likes the British allies anymore, of whom he describes at the very beginning the corporal punishments they inflict on their deserters. By the way, what about the riots of 1917 which shook part of the French army? He talks a little about it on June 3: “At the level, a small demonstration occurred among the drivers to whom the trench bonus is not granted. Immediately we exaggerate what happened as if it was natural and this takes on importance, because in other regiments there were leaders who tried to disturb morale, and as always they are poor innocent people who paid for the instigators. »
Geneviève then remembers her father commenting on other events with the same type of sentence: “It’s the basic clampin who will pay again! » Then, it was in Alsace that his grandfather spent several months, including a very harsh winter where even the wine froze. In March 1918, return to the Somme with fiercer fighting than ever. Raymond even speaks of “debacle” early April and note on May 29: “We are anxious about the Boche advance on the Soissons Reims line and we are watching for the news. » Geneviève notices that the tone only becomes optimistic again from mid-August, faithfully reflecting what we read in history books about the tenacity of the Germans during their final offensive.
Raymond Pasquier is appointed non-commissioned officer . “Having always preferred the camaraderie of the 2nd piece, I am taking back command with the agreement of Lieutenant Thibault”, he said on September 12. Comrades indeed seem very important in his life. Geneviève found, among the songs they invented to pass the time, a description of Raymond, judged ” very soft “ by his friends.
The desire to know what his grandfather felt when the armistice was announced was, again, frustrating: he learned it while he was on a train to Lorraine and coldly noted November 11 : “The company is in exceptional condition this evening following the armistice and its joy has been translated into exaggerated libations. » The men of that time did not indulge much, sighs Geneviève. She will also never know why her own father spoke so little about this diary even though he was himself a history professor. Is it because he too was disappointed to come close to, without ever reaching, this father who died of illness when he was only six months old? Or on the contrary because he wanted to keep this voice for himself, certainly distant, but anchored in a reality that he could understand through his profession? Geneviève thinks of all the research she now wants to carry out in the cellar where the family archives are piled up. Having thought about it, it is not yet time to entrust these notebooks to the Museum of the Great War in Meaux.