Three years ago I wrote two blog posts (Part I and Part II) about my “Personal Memorial Day Journey” to follow the route taken by my Great Uncle Tony Bastian before he was killed in France in August of 1918. Now I am back in France, but in Provence this time rather than the killing fields of the Marne, Ardennes, and other infamous World War I Western Front battles.
While in Aix-en-Provence, I picked up the Great War journal of a remarkable writer, Lucien Jacques. (Sorry, the Wikipedia article about Lucien Jacques is only in French.) I found myself fully immersed in the spare but beautifully written descriptions of the horror of that long-ago war. Even more, I wish I could introduce my readers to his writing! Unfortunately, I have been completely unable to locate any English translation of his book – Carnets de Moleskine. I have searched for any and all editions in translation, but to no avail. I have checked Google Books, the French Bibliotheque Nationale, a dozen websites, and the Association des Amis de Lucien Jacques – all without success.
Lucien Jacques was an artist, poet, writer, editor, designer, artisan, and even dancer. (He was a great friend of Isadora Duncan!) While serving as a stretcher bearer in the trenches during the first years of the Great War, he saw his native village and surrounding territory utterly destroyed. Wounded several times, he spent one period of convalescence in Provence. After the war ended, he eventually moved to Provence, where he befriended and promoted one of the most famous regional Provençal writers – Jean Giono. He and his friends formed an active circle of pacifists and intellectuals between the two wars and beyond.
I was struck by the fact that Lucien Jacques kept his sanity in face of the war’s horrors partly due to his ability to hang on to an active intellectual life. He found fellow soldiers willing to discuss Shakespeare, music, and painting. In his journal, he frequently mentions reading Whitman’s poems. That made me think of the Whitman collection in the Library of Congress, and I wondered if he found common cause with Whitman’s Civil War poetry.
So often American teachers leave their students with the impression that the Americans rode in on white horses to save France practically single handedly. There is a danger in depending almost entirely on American primary sources. American sources are often more easily available online than primary sources from other countries. I have realized through all my searching for information about Lucien Jacques that we as teachers are missing much of the richness of history by concentrating only on the easy-to-find primary sources that tell one piece of the story.
Here are some strategies I tested for finding primary sources related to Lucien Jacques’ writing about World War I:
- Every time I looked for photos of stretcher bearers, I found only American, Canadian, or British photos. Only when I searched on the French word brancardier (stretcher bearer) did I find examples such as the one below. It’s easy enough to translate such terms using online translation dictionaries such as wordreference.com. Let’s take that one step farther and search on words from other nations and languages.
- Don’t be afraid to let learning wander toward new discoveries. The French photo of stretcher bearers brought me to a website put together by the grandson of a French soldier and former school teacher in Brittany killed in the Battle of Verdun. The website – Joseph Sourdain, Instituteur Public, mort a Verdun – was filled with primary sources, including many postcards written by the soldier from the trenches. At the end of the site, there’s a story of a teacher who found the same soldier’s military medal in his school desk drawer and helped his students research his life and service in the Great War nearly one hundred years later.
- The rotogravures collection in the Library of Congress turned out to have many photographs of French soldiers. Even though it requires some serious digging to go through the Table of Contents, the discoveries I made were well worth the effort. How else would I have been able to see rotogravures of trench methods on page 122?
These methods all go back to the basic primary source analysis question – Whose story is not being told?