Georges Bernanos

Georges Bernanos ca. 1940. Public domain


The author of The Diary of a Country Priest joined the cavalry in August of 1914 at the age of 26. Like that of many other writers, Georges Bernanos’ work was marked by the Great War. Through his writing, he constantly sought to explore the mystery of evil while being committed to the struggle for faith and freedom.

Born in Paris in 1888, Georges Bernanos studied law and literature. A Catholic and a Royalist, he was an activist with the "Camelots du Roi". His first fictional essays were published in the press in 1913 and 1914, before being brought together in a book titled Dialogue of Shadows. While discharged in 1911, he managed to sign up again at the end of August 1914. His passion for horses and horse-riding led him to choose the cavalry. At the end of December, he joined the 6th Dragoon regiment, where he was to serve until the Armistice.

Bernanos was changed by the war. It was the ordeal that shaped his work. In a letter, he wrote "Those who cannot see the tragic side of our times, not because of a few thousand deaths, but because it marks the limit of world history, are asses."

"The ordeal of the trenches showed him the terrible grimace of modern humanity," observed Albert Béguin, literature professor, art critic and publisher whom Bernanos asked to manage his writings after his death. It was no doubt there that the tragic dimension of his work was born, with the author going, as Jean Bastier pointed out, "from a rather conventional world to the dark, cloudy skies, dirty, livid dawns and muddy, satanic lands," that can be seen in his main novels. Talking about his novel Under the Sun of Satan, which he began soon after the Armistice and was published in 1926, Bernanos himself said that it was born of the war.

In February 1915, Bernanos was in the Marne; in April he was near Verdun. In May, his division was in Picardy where part of the men were holed up in the trenches. In September, before the major offensives in Artois and Champagne, he hoped that the infantry would break through and finally enable the cavalry to ride on to victory. But the big attack was cancelled. During the following winter, the 6th Dragoons provided more detachments to the trenches. Bernanos was seriously shell-shocked during the bombardments of 1 May 1916: "Their big shells fell regularly around us, tightening their circle minute by minute, until one of them exploded right in the trench, at the height of a man, one metre away from me. What a flash of light (...) and immediately afterward, what darkness! The sparkling thing had thrown me God knows where, along with a comrade, under an avalanche of smoking dirt. The ground around us and under us was riddled with huge pieces of exploded shells (...)".

In February and March 1917, he took pilot courses at the Dijon-Longvic aviation school, then at Chartres. But as his eyesight was not considered to be good enough, he was sent back to the 6th Dragoons at the beginning of April. He nonetheless took advantage of his time away from the front to get married on 14 May 1917.

The Germans launched major offensives in the spring of 1918. Bernanos’ unit fought, on foot, in the Aisne and the Oise. On 30 May his leg was injured and he received a commendation. "I spent two days in the liaison service between my section and my company. (...). I travelled about the entire day of Thursday on a plain and in woods that were literally riddled with bullets (....). I fought like I had always dreamt of fighting."

Hospitalised in July-August, Bernanos returned to his regiment in September: "Dust, mud (...), I took on the colour of our paths". When 11 November came, the writer shared the regrets of the cavaliers – there was not a complete victory, the disorganised enemy army was not pursued. He was also disappointed by the application of the Treaty of Versailles: "Victory didn’t like us," he wrote in The Humiliated Children.

In the 1930s he broke away from his political circle. He lived in Palma de Mallorca with his family during the Spanish Civil War, which inspired his work, The Big Cemeteries under the Moon (1938), in which he criticised Franco and his partisans. In 1938, he left for Paraguay, then Brazil. He called the Vichy regime a "ridiculous farm dictatorship" and took the side of General de Gaulle.

He came back to France in 1945 and left for Tunisia, from which he returned to die in Neuilly in 1948.


Source : Jean Bastier, "Georges Bernanos, le dragon de 1914-1918" In Les écrivains combattants de la Grande Guerre, Giovanangeli éd., 2004, In Les Chemins de la Mémoire, 186/September 2008