C'est nous les Poilus
Musée de l'Armée, Paris
Great Volunteer Servicemen
De MONTHERLANT Henry
Henry de Montherlant was born at Paris, on April 30, 1895, to a Catalan noble family. He attended school at Jeanson de Sailly, and then at Sainte Croix de Neuilly.
When the war broke out in 1914, he was declared unfit for service due to an enlarged heart. Afraid he might die, his mother objected his joining the army. With his talents of budding writer, he wrote his first work.
In 1916, two years into the Great War, men were perishing in their numbers in bloody confrontations. Henry de Montherlant was declared fit for ancillary service. Given the state of his heart, he could easily stay away from the front, but in 1917, he volunteered to go and fight, and was integrated into the 360th infantry regiment, as an enlisted man. He distinguished himself on several occasions through his exceptional spirit of voluntarism. On June 6, 1918, when his unit came under artillery fire, his commander was killed in front of him. Henry de Montherlant received seven shell shrapnel in the back, shoulder and loin. He was operated, but only one of the shrapnel could be removed. Declared 50% invalid, he continued suffering from these injuries for the rest of his life. He ended the war as an interpreter for the US army and was demobilized in 1919.
The following commendation was issued to him by General Pétain: "Serving as a Staff secretariat auxiliary, he was, at his request, sent to an active regiment, where upon arrival, and despite his unstable health condition, he exhibited much courage, composure, and admirable military feelings. He was seriously wounded at the front on June 6, 1918. GHQ, October 16, 1918. Signed Pétain”.
After the war, Henry de Montherlant pursued a brilliant career as a writer, dramatist and essayist credited for a series of novels, poems and stories. His works reflected a sensibility related to his Catalan roots – sense of duty, righteousness, death and nothingness, and a liking for physical vigour, moral, and heroism.
In 1972, aged seventy-six, Henry de Montherlant started losing his sight as a result of an accident. Afraid of becoming completely blind and feeling increasingly weak, he decided to commit suicide, putting into practice his own very quotations.
Suicide is the ultimate act through which a man can show his dominion over his life. Eternity (éternité in French) is an anagram of embrace (étreinte in French).
This talented writer left us with some food for thought, on volunteer servicemen, which will always remain topical:
"If life seems to be dozing off in you, go out and risk it.
And life will wake up in you and burn like fire. As easy as child’s play."
"Since forty-eight hours, this man has changed.
He can be overhead singing to himself, in his room; at table, he eats voraciously; his conversation conveys unimaginable radiation.
What’s going on? He decided to risk his life. And his clear conscience, morally and physically, has cleansed him.
Volunteer to face danger: a youth bath. It could even be read in his face.
People who are ready to die have a look that immediately betrays such willingness.
It’s difficult to hide it."
"Most volunteers were motivated by the most natural and sincere feelings.
One is almost disconcerted when one sees, as I saw, the modesty of some of them.
No discernible interest, which of course is legitimate, among the motives that goaded them;
There’s hardly any other motive apart from these two: love for one’s fatherland or impossibility
- like physical impossibility – of seeing others suffering, and their being unable to see themselves.
Selfless acts are the stars of the earth. "
Henry de Montherlant was Knight of the Legion of Honour, holder of the First World War Cross and the Volunteer Servicemen Cross.
Académie française 1934 Fiction Award winner, he was elected to the Académie française in 1960.