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The Bloody Hand by Blaise Cendrars

Relatively unknown to the English-speaking world, Blaise Cendrars (1887–1961) was an acclaimed Swiss-born writer and poet of the twentieth century.  His writing is recognized for its originality and modernity and even now, more than fifty years after his death, Cendrars remains a major figure of French literature

Battlefield Site in the Heart of the Somme Countryside

Belvedere of Frise - Credit - Simon Leroy - Cd80
When the First World War broke out, Cendrars enlisted with the French Foreign Legion and served in the Somme from mid-December 1914 to February 1915. The area he served in can still be visited today; the Mountain of Frise, maintained by the Conservatoire des Espaces Naturels de Picardie, is a preserved habitat, overlooking the River Somme and its surrounding ponds and marshlands. The whole area is just perfect for walks, picnics and bird-watching, and remains of the First World War including French and German trenches can still be found, partly hidden by bushes and long grasses. The Somme Departmental Council recently installed interpretation panels upon these heights, with one especially dedicated to Blaise Cendrars and his experiences at Frise, La Grenouillère and Bois de la Vache.


La Main Coupée

The Bloody Hand
In 1946, Cendrars published La Main Coupée, the second volume in a quartet of ‘memoirs that are memoirs without being memoirs’. It focuses on his experiences in the First World War, from enlisting amid shambolic scenes in Paris to fighting the Boche in the muddy trenches of the Western Front. Cendrars treats his subject with lucidity and detachment, never calling on the reader to pity his comrades-in-arms but rather to look at the war through the eyes of the simple Poilu, to join him in his contempt for the officers and ‘those running the war’.

The book follows him into the marshes of the Somme, just below the Mountain of Frise, where in addition to the hunting and fishing, his squad of oddballs carries out patrols and even the occasional raid.

La Main Coupée was first translated into English in 1973 under the name Lice. Today English speaking readers can learn about his war-time adventures through a new edition, The Bloody Hand, translated by Graham MacLachlan and published by the Editions Vagamundo. Acclaimed historian Nicolas Beaupré, from the Historial's Research Centre has provided the introduction and the Historial, Museum of the Great War has supplied fifty drawings by French Poilus depicting life in the trenches.

Selected Passage

Dawn unstitched the sky from the horizon and the low clouds lay like poorly-basted clothes on some tailor’s table, a jumble of cloth, wool, lining, wadding and horsehair padding. I contemplated with dismay that livid sunrise and its cast-offs in the mud. Nothing was solid in the oozing, wretched, ravaged, ragged landscape of which I too was a part, standing there like a beggar at the threshold of the world, soaked, slimy and coated with crap from head to foot, cynically happy to be there and to see it all with my own eyes...
I hasten to add that war is not a pretty sight and what you see when you take an active part in it, when you are just a simple man lost in the ranks, a service number among millions, is altogether stupid and seems to obey no overall plan but chance. To the expression ‘march or die’could be added the axiom ‘go wherever I push you’! And that was exactly how it was: we went, we pushed, we fell, we died, we got up, we marched and we started all over again.

Please click here for more information about The Bloody Man by Blaise Cendrars.

To learn more about writers in war:
The Temporary Exhibition at the Historial, Museum of the Great War this year is dedicated to Writers in War
Writers in War looks at the famous authors of the First World War and how they revealed their war-time experiences through modern literature, true stories and poetry. It also studies contemporary work on the subject.
From 9 June to the end of November 2016
Free admission

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The Bloody Hand by Blaise Cendrars
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