The book and its impact
Mr Poilu was published in December 1916, and the text is informed by loss and sorrow. The author skilfully depicts the French army as a soldier-family. Through anecdotes and encounters, he tells of his engagement with members of this family, each made unique through piercing little phrases and descriptions. A deep respect for the bravery, endurance and goodness retained by these soldiers, despite their great suffering, is the bedrock of his story.
Military conscription was in force from 1913 in France, and imposed in the UK in March 1916. The recruiting language of 1914 had not reconciled enough men to join the troops at the Western Front. Therefore, implicitly and covertly, the author invites and entreats the British reader of his words to see the French as worthy allies, their cause as dignified and just, their blood sacrificed as the blood of family lost in defence of home. The illustrations, chiefly monochrome and essential to the text, depict not victory but land despoiled and soldiers standing alone, their faces all aged by a war which must inescapably be fought despite the frightful losses already incurred.
Herbert Ward (1863-1919) began life as an adventurer, worked rough passages around the world, fought with Henry Morton Stanley (a colonial explorer) in the Congo and Sudan and then published his adventures in those countries.
In 1900, a second life called. He took his family to Paris and became a sculptor, turning his aesthetic appreciation of Central Africa into museum-quality pieces. For these, he received the Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1911. Having evacuated his family to England in September 1914, Ward returned to France to serve with the British Ambulance Committee. He was wounded but also received the Croix de Guerre for courage. He died in 1919. His eldest son was killed in battle in January 1916.