Poilu or Grognard?

Poilu (pronounced /pwaly/ in French) is a warmly informal term for a French World War I infantryman, meaning, literally, hairy one. The term came into popular usage in France during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and his massive citizen armies, though the term grognard (grumbler) was also common. It is still widely used as a term of endearment for the French infantry of World War I. The word carries the twin sense of the infantryman’s typically rustic, agricultural background. Beards and bushy moustaches were often worn.

The image of the dogged, bearded French soldier was widely used in propaganda and war memorials. The stereotype of the Poilu was of bravery and endurance, but not always of unquestioning obedience. At the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive of 1917 under General Robert Nivelle, they were said to have gone into no man’s land making baa’ing noises, parodying the idea that they were being sent as lambs to the slaughter. Outstanding for its mixture of horror and heroism, this spectacle proved a sobering one. As the news of it spread, the French high command soon found itself coping with a widespread mutiny. A minor revolution was only averted with the promise of an end to the costly offensive.

The last poilu from World War I was Pierre Picault. However, French authorities recognise Lazare Ponticelli as the dernier poilu, as he was the last veteran whose service met the strict official criteria.

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