Category: Basques in World War I

Basques in World War One

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“To its sons who died in the war. The village of Biriatu.” Plaque dedicated to the fallen soldiers in both World Wars of a small town in Lapurdi.

The recent remembrance events associated with Veteran’s Day in the US and Armistice Day/Remembrance Day in Europe serve as a timely reminder of the horrors of war. The origins of these events lie in the close of World War I, the so-called Great War, in which hostilities officially came to an end at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

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“War Declared – Long Live France!” World War I is seen as a catalyst in fostering a more widespread feeling of French national identity. The Basque-language weekly Eskualduna, August 7, 1914, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As in many other parts of Europe, Iparralde lost a whole generation (or more) of young men in the service of the French armed forces during World War I, in which the loss of life surpassed anything previously thought imaginable. With all able-bodied males between 18 and 45 conscripted to fight in the French armed forces during the war, the rural baserri-based economy of Iparralde also suffered from this conflict. It has been estimated that some 6,000 men from Iparralde died during the war, a figure that was perhaps around 5 percent of its total population. In the words of James E. Jacob:

The war proved to be a watershed for the basques in two essential ways . . . For many rural Basque villages, the war simply severely reduced two generations of males and, with them, the reproductive capacity of the village . . . With the youth went the economic future; if the losses of war were not already enough, many of those who remained migrated to the coastal cities and elsewhere and would not return.

The second consequence of World War I was its impact on Basque culture. In these villages of the interior lay the vitality of Basque culture and the burden of its linguistic population. Loss by death was sudden and abrupt. But the return of demobilized Basque soldiers now committed to cultural assimilation into French society posed a longer threat to Basque culture . . . Coupled with the economic marginality of life in rural villages, the incentive to speak french was doubly persuasive; many parents viewed it as the key to success and upward mobility.

Like elsewhere in Europe, young men from the same local communities served in the same regiments or battalions in order to foster a spirit of comradeship. However, seeing the devastating effect that this had on these same communities during and after the conflict, the policy was reversed in World War II (the difference is telling in the list of casualties from both wars in the plaque above). Europe is at present holding a series of 100th-anniversary remembrance events to commemorate the Great War of 1914-1918. Its historical impact on the society of Iparralde should not be underestimated.

Further reading: 

As well as Jacob’s Hills of Conflict, check out Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga’s The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006.  For a more general overview see Cameron Watson’s Modern Basque History, free to download here.  See, too, Eneko Bidegain’s fascinating history of impact of the war on Iparralde, published in both Basque and French. And if you do read Basque, then Xipri Arbelbide’s 14eko gerla 14 lekuko offers a fascinating oral history of the war in the words of eight men and six women from the Basque Country who lived through it.

 

Maitia nun zira? New documentary about Basque prisoners in World War I

A short documentary titled Maitia nun zira? (Where are you, darling?) has just been presented by the Euskal Kultur Erakundea (Basque Cultural Institute) and Mondragon University (MU). Made by two  MU students, Elena Canas and Ainara Menoyo, the documentary is based on original recordings, made during World War I , of Basque prisoners of war from Iparralde being held by German forces.

The recordings were made between 1915 and 1918 by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, a special body established by Kaiser Wilhelm II to record the different voices–and, indeed, languages–of prisoners of war being held by the German forces. The Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission visited more than 70 camps between 1915 and 1918, recording more than 250 languages and dialects as they attempted to draw an oral map of Europe.

In 2014, recordings of soldiers speaking and even singing in Basque were passed on by the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and Humboldt University in Berlin to the Basque Cultural Institute in Iparralde. This amazing fragment of an important part of Basque history is available online and we encourage you all to take a look. Even if you don’t know any Basque, it’s still an incredibly moving testament. The documentary includes both the original recordings themselves as well as a number of well-known Basque figures reading out transcripts of the soldiers’ thoughts and wishes, and reflecting on what they have read.

For more information on the project click here (Basque) or here (French).