This is a fictional story about the life a French soldier during the First World War in 1914. It is based on historical facts, names and places have been changed.
Henri Roy was born the 7th of May 1896 in a small but busy and growing town somewhere in France.
His parents, Jeanne and Antoine, were not married and his father left home two years after. Henri had an older half-sister, Marie, born of an unknown father and a brother Bernard, from same father, born before his father left. Jeanne lived the difficult situation of being a single mother with three children of two different man, she did have much to offer to her children until she met Vincent, a twice widower older man. They married in 1902 and life was pleasant. Vincent was not rich but he was a kind and loving man, bearing the loss of two wives and a daughter in his heart. Despite Jeanne’s children not being his, he officially recognized them as his children soon after the wedding and with his wife, he opened a grocery shop. Due to his hard work and success, he was able to provide a decent life to the children and more importantly the opportunity to a decent education. France saw drastic changes during the XIXth century and education was amongst these changes. Primary instruction was mandatory for children from the age of six to thirteen since 1882, but Vincent and Jeanne managed to offer Henri and Bernard a more advanced education.
In 1914, eighteen year old Henri works as an apprentice clerk and Bernard will soon start studying to be an accountant. Life was not always easy for humble families such as Henri’s, but they were successfully in their business and worries were small. Even political issues and disputed did not troubled them too much, after all everything was far away.
However, Vincent remembered very well the war of 1870, he was ten years old at the time but saw the lands being ravaged by the war against Prussia and he knew that one day, France would go to war against Germany again. Everyone knew or suspected that this time may come soon, the youngest generation was even impatient to wash away the affront done in 1871 by Kaiser Wilhelm I. Children were taught to hate Germans and to prepare to retake the Alsace and the Lorraine. Vincent warned the boys and told them to study as much as they could, this way they may become too valuable to French society thus not send to war. Loosing other members of his family would be too much for old Vincent.
The date of the 28th of June 1914 forever engraved itself in history. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the powerful Empire of Austria-Hungary, and his wife the Countess Sophie Chotek are murdered in Sarajevo. Following the news, the French press of the time welcomed the news as a justified chain of events in answer to the policies of the Kaiser Franz Joseph I but for the majority of the French people this was just the murder, terrible maybe, of an unknown noble from distant lands. However, the following months revealed the scale that the assassination took when the alliances between the major European powers entered the play of warnings, intimidations, and then full mobilization of their respective armed forces.
This is World War One.
The 2nd of August 1914, France declared its first ( the second was in 1939 ) order of general mobilization with 3,780,000 men being called to serve in the army and the navy. Henri was called the first day of the mobilization and left his family immediately after quick farewells. His brother Bernard was then too young to be called and watched his brother leaving their home, whistling patriotic songs.
The day after his departure, Henri is sent to Annecy ( in the Haute-Savoie departement ) by train and incorporated to the 30e Régiment d’Infanterie which departed Annecy the 5th of August. The next three days were spent moving and travelling, by train and on foot until the 8th of August when his battalion stationed at Charmois. Henri loose his first brother in arms the 9th, when a soldier from Annecy was evacuated because of a disease contracted during the march. Private Roy and his comrades moved during the next six days which costed the health of 10 soldiers who had to be evacuated because of sickness. The forced marches were weary and the soldiers had little time to sleep. Thirteen days after being sent to war, Henri had already lost any wish to sing, the war would be short they said but the 15th of August 1914 was the longest day of his life. At 2.30pm, his company and another one received the order to launch an attack on ” hill 600 “, near the village of Sainte-Croix. The hill is heavily defended by German troops and the attack is a failure. The loss of Henri’s fellow soldiers is 52 killed and wounded, including one Lieutenant. And on the morrow it started again, this time it was a victorious assault for Henri’s company. Hill 600 fell into French hands, the German having started to retreat during the night. However there was no time to rest and Henri was moving again, further East. If the 16th of August was a successful day for the men of the 30th, 29 men were lost because of wounds and one was killed. One soldier, a local named François with whom Henri get on well with, would died a month later because of the injuries suffered that day. It took two days of fighting for Henri to loose his first “war friend”.
Henri kept fighting in the 30e for the next ten months. There were calm and quiet days, some violent. New recruits came, all full of joy to finally fight for the Motherland.
For Henri and the other veterans, it has been a long time since they had lost the joy to fight and also to hope for a short war. Private Roy went home several times during 1914 and 1915 and his family already felt a drastic change in him. He was not talking as much as used to, he now hated singing and more than anything else he hated the questions asked by those who were not fighting – How is the war? So you are kicking Prussian butts are you? – What did they know about the war, the soldiers burying themselves in the trenches. The only person with whom Henri confide well was his half-sister Marie. Already a pregnant war widow, she came to see him at their mother’s home and was the closest person in the family to have an idea about the costs of the war.
April 1915 was one of the calmest month since the beginning of the war. Days were pretty much the same and Henri’s company suffered little losses. Private Roy was transferred to a newly formed regiment, the 414e and with some fellow soldiers of the 30e he joined the 6th Company. The 414th knew its first fights in August 1915 and the 20th of September, the regiment is relived by British troops and moved north to the Artois front in order to assist a gigantic assault planned for the 25th. Henri was now a corporal and stood for two months in the trenches, living in horrific conditions due to the mud, the rain, the rotting corpses, German assaults, bombardments from both sides. The regiment had done well between its arrival on the 20th of September and its departure the 20th of November and received the visit and congratulations of Général Victor Louis Lucien d’Urbal who kissed a soldier and declared that he would like to be able to kiss every men of the ” beautiful 414e “. Finally the men of the 414e were offered some rest and from November 1915 to January 1916 the regiment reformed and trained, away from the front-line. Throughout January, the regiment was sent little by little in Alsace to help a regiment in difficulty. The sector was starting to be very dangerous but it was very successfully that the 414e managed to restore a semblance of calm in three weeks until it had to be moved once more.
This time the 414e was heading to the grand battle of Verdun, hell on earth. The first weeks were quiet for the regiment, mostly resting and guarding the Meuse but in May, Henri and his brothers in arms were sent right to the front where they became an unbreakable wall to the German soldiers. However the losses were heavy, by August 1916, the 414e Regiment of Infantry had lost more than half its men, including Corporal Henri Roy who was killed in action or “tué à l’ennemi”as said in his death certificate. At the end of July 1916, Jeanne and Vincent received two letters, one explaining that he met a painless death and that he died as a hero of God and the Motherland the other was contained the personal effects he had with him, including an attached document mentioning the order of the regiment for “bravery while leading his men into the enemy trenches”, received five days before Corporal Henri Roy was killed in action. He was one of thousands of men to die at Verdun.
Henri’s family knew other tragedies in the following years, with the death of Vincent and Henri’s half-sister Marie, widow and mother of a little girl succumbed to the Spanish flew in 1918. Bernard, Henri’s brother, died 26 years later executed by Vichy France for the possessions of communist propaganda. Henri is still resting with thousands of his fallen brothers in arms, a dozen meters close to his ” would have been ” brother-in-law should the First World War had not taken their lives.
This story is based on true facts, however the names have been changed due to the demand of close relatives.