The misfortune is in the meadow: high school students are investigating the Great War


How to interest 16-year-olds in the first world conflict other than by reading hairy letters or the eternal visit to a war memorial? How to make the violence of war and its consequences palpable in a region at the opposite end of the line?

These two questions are at the origin of an educational experiment conducted in 2014 with a class of first, at the high school Maréchal Lannes de Lectoure (Gers). This survey, labeled by the Centenary Mission , resulted in an exhibition: “Great War, Small Villages. The repercussions of 14-18 in the Gers “.

A department marked by hyponatality

Far from the front, the Gers is one of the departments where the demographic section of the Great War was the most visible in France. In a rural department, where the only child was the norm, a large proportion of men were sent to the front. But this male workforce was essential to the operation of farms, main economic activity of the region, in decline since the middle of the XIX th century. Between 1911 and 1921, while France lost 5% of its population, the Gers lost 12%.

The demographic cut of 14-18 is therefore only another step, but radical, in the secular decline of the Gers population. While these demographic data are not reflected in the lists of war memorials, they are essential for understanding how far the shock wave may have spread to the rear, affecting the deep structures of the population. from the rural economy to the landscape.

Conducting a historical survey with students involves careful preparation, making contact with historians of the Gers Archaeological Society to locate files in departmental archives, through exchanges with the Tourist Office. The survey took place over almost three months. Here are the four main steps

Fates mowed behind the monuments

At first, the students were asked to raise in their village, the names of the “fallen for the homeland” on the war memorials. Thanks to the database “Memory of Men” of the Ministry of the Armed Forces , they managed to reconstitute some life course and give flesh to lists engraved on marble.

Then, from the 1911 censuses, they were able to calculate the mortality of the conflict by relating the number of deaths in their commune to the local population. Thus, in Urdens, 13 men were killed, out of a population of 180 inhabitants, that is to say nearly one in four men of fighting age. In this town, located a few kilometers from the city of Fleurance, no war memorials. A commemorative plaque was sealed on the pedestal of a mission cross of the XIX th century.

In another village, Gimbrède, a student discovered, amazed, the name of a great-grandfather: in August 1914, Camille barreled, of the 209 th Infantry Regiment, was killed at the age of 29 years, in Villiers in the Meuse after a German offensive and in a retreat phase, in August 1914.

Places ignored by commemorations

In a second time, thanks to Laurent Ségalant, a teacher passionate about history author of Dying Bertrix (Privat, 2014), we went to the place called “The Faubourg of Egypt” in the village of Tournecoupe. At the bottom of a valley, won by brambles and streaked with cracks, a farm threatens to collapse. She belonged to a family of well-off farmers, the Pouydebat.

At the beginning of XX th century, POUYDEBAT only have one heir, Jean-Firmin was born in 1881. Mobilized in August and immediately sent to the front without preparation, it is “killed in action” 14 September 1914 in Hurlus-sur-Marne, village completely destroyed by the conflict. Without an heir, the farm is abandoned and ends up falling apart.

On the left, the farmhouse where the Pouydebat family lived, in the center, the pigsty and on the right, the dovecote. Arnaud Exbalin , Author provided

The scrub has won and invade the entrances of this building typically Gascon, a deep crack threatens the building to collapse. This ruin is perhaps more telling about the consequences of war than some monuments to the dead with their lists without faces. How many farms in France have been decommissioned after the 14-18 cut? This visit enabled the students to concretize the moment of death and its repercussions on the landscape since in the 1920s, huge acres of land were left fallow, which is confirmed by the counting of the departmental archives of the Gers which constitutes the third part of the survey.

Diving in the press of the time

This is the first time students have tasted the archives. After visiting funds and restoration workshops, we looked at two types of documents. The first is the general agricultural census of 1925, which gave us a wealth of information about the transformations caused by the conflict over the modes of cultivation. Thus we can see the extension of brownfields and the development of livestock, at the expense of grain, more expensive in labor at the time.

The second, more classic, is the local press. The use of period newspapers was essential to understand how the Gers had been able to overcome the lack of arms. To conduct our surveys, we favored the years 1924-1926 which corresponded to the first wave of immigration of Italians. A dozen articles were finally selected. Their reading gave a completely different approach to the stereotypes usually circulated about immigrants at the same time: the students realized that the Italians seemed to have been rather well received in the Gers.

In The Workers’ Republic is thus presented the departmental office of the agricultural workforce of the department, structure intended to facilitate the insertion of the Italian families on the farms. He put in contact the newly arrived migrants and the owners whose farms lacked arms.

As shown in the excerpt below, a real eulogy is made of the Italian workers who are presented as “people laborious, clean, looking after the cattle”. It’s a way to convince homeowners to use these families.

A traveling exhibition

Another example: in July 1924, the Republican newspaper Le Gers evoked a tragic drowning, that of Joseph Anglésio, son of an Italian farmer in the municipality of Miradoux, disappeared under the eyes of his three brothers. From this fact, the students were able to perceive the rapid integration of Italians into the Gers population. The Anglesio own the land they cultivate, so they are not mere farm laborers; moreover, the victim is named Joseph and not Guiseppe, a sign of an almost immediate francization. Without immigration, the Gers would have become a desert.

Back in class, we had to select the most relevant documents, define guidelines, write the descriptive documents and edit the whole with specialized software. From this work was born an exhibition in ten panels, large format. It was first presented by the students themselves at the Lectoure Tourist Office, then in two villages before returning to high school. The openings were a great success with the public, especially the elderly, which resulted in lively exchanges between young and old.

This educational experience is just one example of ways to think outside the box of textbooks and introduce 16-year-olds to the historical inquiry. It finally reflects the efforts, often ignored or diminished in the media, of secondary school teachers to constantly renew the ways of teaching history. Today, three of the fifteen students in this first class are registered in this discipline. The sown seeds sprouted. Happiness is back in the meadow.

Author Bio: Arnaud Exbalin is a Senior Lecturer, History, Labex Tepsis – American Worlds (EHESS), Paris Nanterre University at Paris Lumières University