Pierre Normand, from Architect to War-time Captain on the Somme Front
Pierre Normand served as a captain with the French Army during the First World War but never spoke of his experiences. It was only after his death that his diaries were found, detailing his daily life during the war and the Battle of the Somme. His daughters decided to reproduce them to learn more about his war-time experiences. He often remarked on the state of the buildings, and talked about the death of his comrades. After the war, he helped with the reconstruction of the Somme, especially the churches that he later showed his grand-children.
Here are a few selected passages of his diaries, translated into English:
14 July 1916: "At Rozières-en-Santerre, called a place of rest, soldiers languished in squalid, ruined buildings. Dishonest merchants sold them expensive watered-down wine, which many drank to excess. Maybe, for some, it was a way of spending their savings before the expected attack."
15 July 1916, in the sector of Soyécourt-Vermandovillers: “The Germans bombarded the trenches, we had to interrupt our reconnaissance mission. I remember a shell exploding so close to us that instinctively I drew in my breath waiting for the shock. I just got covered in earth.”
18 July 1916: "The commander, giving recommendations to the officers, added a few words about the uncertainty of our fate. I looked at my comrades, one by one, asking myself who would be missing, alas, from our next meeting. I didn't feel the risk of danger to myself."
"On the evening of 19 July, I was dining with my comrades from the 24th Company when the order for a departure at 11pm was given. It was a terrible time, I ate to give a semblance of normality, but my throat was dry. The meal ended quickly, the cheerfulness had abruptly vanished; to help shake the anxiety away we walked through the village paying farewell calls on our comrades, and wishing each other good luck. The darkness began. On the thresholds of the houses, we shook hands for the last time and everyone left to where duty called."
20 July 1916: "Day broke. The German fire was very intense at this time, explosions multiplied. Without respite, airburst and percussion shells exploded onto our lines. To the sound of the German shells was added the thunder of ours which exploded on the edge of the wood, 200 metres away at the most.
My often looked at watch read ten to seven, I felt a touch to my shoulder. The commander had come himself to inform me of the departure time. The sections were informed. I let my thoughts wander to the men who surrounded me. The expression on their impassive faces was impenetrable. Close to me, one of them, his face drawn, was drinking in long draughs. But this was the precise moment. I got up and blew my whistle “En avant!”. Everyone climbed up the parapet and surged forward, I dragged myself up and walked with my revolver in hand.
Going forth from the 2nd German trench, our 75s broke out again, we experienced a moment of hesitation… but we passed anyway, the order had to be obeyed: as quickly as possible to the 3rd trench. But Alas! I had time to see some of my men fall, hit by our own shells!