Two brothers: the eldest Joseph, the youngest Louis by a year, who called himself Loys, two photography enthusiasts, two brothers raised Catholic and who chose to become priests. And war is declared. Joseph was a sergeant, Loys a corporal, Joseph a nurse and Loys a stretcher-bearer. They asked to serve in a combat unit, and were assigned to the 25th Infantry Regiment.
It was a war in which they set off with their hearts in their mouths, certain that victory was close at hand. At first, Joseph takes photographs and writes regularly (letters, postcards, etc. to the family). Loys took fewer photographs and kept a day-to-day diary. This continued until December 21, 1915, when Joseph was killed at Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges. This left only the youngest, who continued to photograph and write until his demobilization in 1919.
Loys used his photographs, correspondence with family and friends, and his notes to create a series of wartime notebooks. After many vicissitudes following his death in 1970, a large part of his work is now held by public institutions, enabling a critical and scientific study of this original testimony (almost 2,000 pages of notebooks and 1,500 photographic images) to the First World War. This work, which is far from complete, has just been published by the Établissement de la Communication et de la Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense and the Archives du département du Rhône et de l’agglomération de Lyon.
Firstly, Loys’ intellectual evolution is particularly interesting to perceive, as it is so representative of his era and milieu. He is the archetypal priest of the early 20th century: patriotic, militaristic, anti-parliamentary, anti-republican, against universal suffrage, against the press, sincerely believing that France must find its way back to Catholicism if it is to become the beacon of the world. However, his involvement with Marc Sangnier’s Sillon shows his attachment to the social message of his religion.
As the months went by, he came to terms with the horror of the fighting and the suffering of the men involved. He remained highly critical of the political leaders, but above all showed great contempt for the officers, driven by their desire to advance in the military hierarchy at the cost of the sacrifice of the troops. He became an anti-militarist, participating as a bystander in the mutinies of 1917 (he was even nearly arrested). At the same time, he was very sensitive to the misery of the combatants, both his “brothers in arms” and, to a certain extent, the Germans. At the end of the conflict, he wanted to fight militarism, but not only that of the Germans, as the officers asserted, but also that of the French. He even admired German organization: their trenches were far better organized, even more comfortable, than the French.
Through images, he wanted to capture the horror of war, of mass death, of the destruction of buildings but also of nature, hence the sometimes unbearable photographs of dismembered bodies, funerals, crosses scattered in the countryside. But also rare moments of relaxation and rest, such as the distribution of helmets to his regiment. One of his jobs at the front is to identify bodies, giving them an identity and sometimes a life through letters or photographs found on the bodies. Total respect for the dead, whether friend or foe. Death has brought them together, and the duty of the living is to respect them.
Humanity must always triumph over the horror of war, a message, alas, still relevant today as I write these few lines.
There have already been books of testimonies by former poilus, with photographs by their authors, such as Ce que j’ai vu de la Grande Guerre by Frantz Adam (under whose orders the Roux brothers served), but there are few that show so well the daily life of the poilus, the violence of the fighting and, above all, the humanist message of Father Loys Roux.
La grande guerre de Joseph et Loys Roux
Textes et photographies présentés par Yves Le Maner et Yann Prouillet
éditions ECPAD / Archives du département du Rhône et de la métropole de Lyon. 29€
This article in its original and French version
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