French soldiers’ attitudes influence past, current culture


Zen Ren

Oberlin College assistant professor Elizabeth Murphy delivers a talk about French WWI soldiers at Mezes Hall Friday afternoon. The potential UT faculty member discussed the culture that evolved from trench warfare and how it represented integral parts of French identity.

Many French soldiers during World War I possessed the concept of Le Système D, which is understood as coping, managing, making do or muddling through situations, Elizabeth Murphy said.

Murphy, assistant professor of French at Oberlin College and potential faculty member for UT’s French and Italian department, discussed the experience of French soldiers in the trenches during a talk on Friday.

Rather than analyzing French cultural trends and history through academic and literary sources, Murphy used soldier narratives for the majority of her research.

French tactics during World War I mainly involved trench warfare, and Murphy said the French soldier had a very distinct attitude towards his service.

The typical French soldier was an agile opportunist and could adapt to contingencies, Murphy said.

“The French soldiers’ wit and resourcefulness motivated them to stay alive and express their intellectual freedom and dignity,” she said.

The concept of Le Système D, or “just getting by,” was portrayed throughout French culture both literally and figuratively during the early 1900s, Murphy said. In popular culture depictions, the French soldiers’ trials in the trenches were seen humourously as opposed to heroic, Murphy said.

“[In popular culture] characters were represented literally as getting oneself out of shit,” Murphy said. “Shit was seen falling from the sky.”

The image of young Frenchmen in the war was at times portrayed negatively, Murphy said. She described the great lengths soldiers went to in order to avoid army service, such as a draftee who refused to cut his hair and chose to go to jail rather than be drafted. Also in popular culture, soldiers were shown as poaching and stealing during their time in the army.

World War I was a fight for “Frenchiness,” which created a new identity for the country moving into the 20th century, Murphy said.

French linguistics graduate student Stephanie Russo said she appreciated the level of humor Murphy brought to the otherwise grim subject of trench warfare.

“The French soldier’s resistance showed the human spirit of the French,” Russo said. “They did what they could with what they had. They weren’t trying to be the best.”

French linguistics professor Barbara Bullock said that the trait of “getting by” is not only found in French soldiers.

“French university students embrace this concept,” Bullock said. “They try not to go to class, do homework or put in any effort, and they are very proud of it.”

Bullock said it might not only be the French who embrace the art of “getting by.”

“This concept might sound familiar to University of Texas students as well,” she said.