Illustrating the First World War. The year 1915 in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement

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“New Year’s Day in the trenches. Little gifts maintain the friendship between officers and soldiers.” Le Petit Journal, Supplément illustré, Sunday 9 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF

In January 1915 Colette talked about her visit to the front over Christmas in her column for Le Matin. She described her horror at seeing the soldiers receiving all sorts of presents and luxuries while the children and villagers of the region were left without homes, food and clothes.[1]

Le Petit Journal took a different approach to the soldiers and their holiday gifts. The January cover of their illustrated supplement from 1915 (see above) shows officers sharing gifts with ordinary soldiers on New Year’s Day: friendship among the ranks. It is a scene that is obviously meant to boost moral and offer some holiday spirit and relief. I am not an expert on the First World War – the topic falls outside of the period I usually look at and certainly my expertise – but Colette’s articles led me to some other representations of war in the press around the same period. I decided to take a look at Le Petit Journal‘s illustrated supplement, a newspaper whose covers -like those of Le Petit Parisien – are always a visual treat. Even when reporting on an event that was horrible enough as it was – the war – Le Petit Journal managed to turn it into what they did best: sentimental and brutal melodrama.

 The intimate prose of Colette’s newspaper columns tended to focus very much on the devastating impact of war on ordinary people.[2] By comparison Le Petit Journal’s illustrations are less than subtle and revel in sentimentality, glory, heroism, patriotic flag waving, dramatic scenes of (modern) warfare, royalty and lots of evil Germans. For those familiar with Le Petit Journal’s sensationalist depictions of crime , the lack of subtlety in the paper’s representations of war in the year 1915 should hardly come as a surprise. I’ve made a selection of the ones that struck me the most. Let’s take a look. Covers with evil Germans. EvilGermans

Flag waving everywhere. Even wounded soldiers keep holding on to the flag.

Flag waving

Modern air warfare makes its debut in the war and in the illustrated press.

Modern air warfare

Heroic battle scenes, both on land and at sea. Including singing the Marseillaise while attacking.

Heroicbattle

And if that isn’t heroic enough, there is always this soldier who keeps on playing the trumpet even though one of his arms has just been blown off. 

Playing the trumpet with one arm

Heart-breaking scenes at home, patriotism, remembrance, courageous dogs and horses. 

Sentiment

Brave royals doing their bit for the war effort. And for the press.

Royalty1

And just look at how bad things are in Germany. They even have to resort to fake news. BadinGermany I always wonder to what extent contemporary readers believed these dramatised images. How did these covers – if they did at all – influence public opinion? Was the average reader able to look at these a bit critically? Did they bring some comfort? Did people even care when there were so many other things to worry about? The propaganda war was fought on both sides. Covers like these in the popular press were – and had to be – all about rallying support,  a government-backed press machine to keep French citizens supportive of a war that was turning into a disaster. If you wanted to know a little bit about what was going on in everyday life or behind the scenes, it was probably better to read Colette’s articles as well.    Notes

[1‘L’automobile emporte, avec nous, des paniers de cadeaux de Noël. Pour les soldats? Non. Les soldats ont tout ce qu’il faut et davantage.’ (Le Matin, ‘Le journal de Colette’, 6 January 1915). See also my previous post on Colette.

[2] Which I discuss in my article in French Cultural Studies. You can find it here as well as draft version here.

A Portrait of Colette as a Journalist

Colette in 1932

Colette in 1932, press photograph. Source: Gallica BnF

Shoddy journalistic stuff. That’s how Colette herself described the newspaper columns she wrote for Le Matin during the First World War. She was being a bit harsh. Perhaps because she preferred to be known for her literary work. Perhaps because she always had a tendency to downplay anything she wrote. But the fact was that she was a journalist. And she was good at it. Whether she liked it or not. I have been wanting to do a post on Colette and journalism for a while now. And since an academic article I wrote on her and the Belle Époque press was published last week this seemed like a good time for it. Somewhere in between her other writing, her theatre career and just living her life, Colette found the time to write an overwhelming amount of journalism. She tackled all sorts of subjects: war, crime, boxing, fashion, film, theatre, dieting. Her journalistic career spanned nearly half a century, starting in the early 1900’s and lasting almost up until her death in 1954. Her articles were published everywhere, cultural and literary periodicals, women’s magazines, fashion magazines, popular daily newspapers. Yet strangely enough very little has been said or written about her journalism.  Shortly before the First World War Colette’s journalistic career received a real boost when she started to work for one of the biggest players in the French newspaper world, Le Matin. By 1913 Le Matin had become the second largest paper in France after Le Petit Parisien, selling almost a million copies a day. Colette was asked to write a weekly column entitled ‘Le journal de Colette.’ Colette’s name is hardly ever mentioned among the names of journalists who documented the war. Yet her articles on the First World War were deemed interesting enough at the time to be published. They appeared in a collection entitled Les Heures longues in 1917. The collection received good reviews, even though Colette herself called it ‘shoddy journalistic stuff.’ [1] During the war she travelled to Verdun, visiting her then husband who was in the army and witnessed the devastation first-hand. It wasn’t her style to write about the strategies or politics of war. Partly because it didn’t fit her writing, partly because it wasn’t very easy for any woman journalist to write about ‘hard news’ to begin with. But Colette wrote about the human cost of war, or the effects it had on those who stayed behind, women, children. Such as in the piece below from January 1915 titled ‘children among the ruins.’

Le Journal de Colette

‘Les enfants dans les ruines’ (Children among the ruins), Le Journal de Colette, Le Matin, 6 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF.

In 1914 Colette had said about her employment as a journalist for Le Matin: ‘il faut vivre’ (one has to make a living).[2]  It’s true that she needed the regular income but Colette enjoyed the journalistic world, a world she would often reminisce about in her novels and stories. She loved how she had been one of the very first women to work as a court reporter for example. In 1933, when explaining her recent return to journalism, Colette gave a vivid description of her first impressions of the newspaper world in the 1890’s:

Where does this urge of mine come from. From way back when, when I was in my twenties. From my silent years, when I sat quietly observing Fouquier, Mendès, Courteline and Sarcey. From the former Écho de Paris, the Cocarde, the old Intransigeant…From the Rue du Croissant, the dirty editorial offices, where the gas made it impossible to breath. From the smell of ink, of men, of tobacco, damp mud and beer…[3]

If you would like to read more about Colette in the wider context of the Belle Époque press – and don’t mind academic writing too much- you can find my article in French Cultural Studies here. If you don’t have library access not to worry. A draft uncorrected version of that article can also be found on my Academia page. Follow the link in the About section above.

Better yet, if you want to read Colette’s original articles in Le Matin (provided you can read French), you can search for them here on Gallica. Luckily, digitalisation of newspapers and periodicals means that Colette’s journalistic writing is becoming more easily available. Let’s hope that will also spark a renewed interest in her journalistic work.

Le Matin

The front page of Le Matin on 6 January 1915. Colette’s column can be found on page 4, the last page. Most newspapers only had 4 pages at the time. Source: Gallica/BnF

NOTES

[1]‘pauvres choses journalistiques’ (letter to Francis Carco, July 1918) [2]Letter to Christiane Mendelys, 20 August 1914, cited in: Colette, Lettres de la vagabonde. Paris, Flammarion,1961, 107. [3]  D’ou me vient cette tentation? De très loin, de ma vingtième année. D’un temps silencieux ou, silencieuse, je contemplai. De l’ancien Écho de Paris, de la Cocarde, du vieil Intransigeant…De la rue du Croissant, des salles de rédaction souillées, irrespirable, du gaz vert. De l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière..Le Journal de Colette: On ne redevient pas journaliste’, La République, 15 December 1933. Cited in: Gerard Bonal and Frederic Maget (ed.), Colette journaliste. Chroniques et reportages 1893-1955, Seuil, 2010, 35. This book is, apart from articles in the Cahiers Colette, the only recent publication to focus on her journalism. Translation done in haste by me.

The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.


Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica