The War of 1914-18 was not only fought with guns but with intellect, a world war of minds and of the spirit.
French and German thinkers clashed.
German intellectuals rejected the criticism their country was facing, en masse. On the battle fields, numerous writers and artists took up arms, even sacrificing their lives.
Britain’s Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke, Germany’s Ernst Jünger… American Ernest Hemingway joined the fighting, as did the English JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings. Famous Frenchmen included Guillaume Apollinaire and Alain Fournier; they went to their deaths defending ideals. In the end, 450 French authors were killed.
Geraldi Leroy, a professor of literature, said: “All these men truly believed that the country was under attack and that this warranted any sacrifice. They had to defend what was most precious: the homeland.”
Euronews envoy Laurence Alexandrowicz said: “One of those who got into the war was the poet Charles Péguy, the most poignant example of this fervent patriotism. We’re in Orléans, his birthplace. Péguy was killed 100 years ago, in the first days of the war. Here’s a remarkable irony: in the Second World War, shrapnel struck his statue in the exact spot as the wound that cost Péguy his life on 5 September, 1914.”
One hour’s drive south of Paris today, in the city of Joan of Arc, France’s warrior heroine whom the English burned at the stake in 1431, Charles Péguy was raised in poor circumstances, by his widowed mother, who mended chairs.
There was nothing to indicate the boy was destined to write.
His house is long since gone, marked by this plaque. But there is a museum.
Curator Aurelie Bonnet Chavigny said: “He was a writer, a journalist, an editor, a polemicist and poet. If he’d outlived the war, he would have become a great philosopher.”
Péguy set up his own publishing company, called Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, with the aim of publishing his and his friends’ work twice monthly.
Chavigny said: “I’ve emphasised this quotation from him, ‘I love nothing as much as liberty’. He sought no favours from anyone, nor riches; he always said what he had to say, always.”
Faithful to socialist ideals, Péguy defended Dreyfus in France’s notorious anti-Semitic case of perversion of justice. He later became a devout Catholic. His legacy would be widely interpreted.
Leroy said: “Péguy died telling his soldiers, ‘Shoot, good God!’ But some Catholics transcribed that as, ‘Shoot, in the name of God!’”
Aged 41, Péguy had not been obliged to sign up for action. In his last weeks, he wrote to his wife, “I may perish, but I won’t die.”