The Military Minstrel of France - Theodore Botrel - Breton Poet
- left : Theodore Botrel on the page of a French children's book
- right : a portrait
- see also 'Théodore Botrel - Rosalie'
Theodore Botrel has been known and loved throughout his native Brittany for many years. He has long been called "the people's poet." To-day he is something more; he is the officially appointed "Chansonnier des Armées," the military minstrel whose congenial task it is to go among the French and Belgian troops at the front, beguiling their hard-won leisure with his songs and recitations. The French War Minister has said, "All is good which serves the Fatherland," and Botrel, when he sings his songs of devotion and patriotism and glory, is serving his country well!
Homeland and Fatherland
Before the War, Botrel's Muse was essentially domestic; she wore the homespun and the snowy linen of Paimpol and Pont Aven; she sang the homely things of the countryside and seashore; the dear old legends of Brittany, the fateful tales that come down from generation to generation of fisher-folk, simple, kindly, brave, unselfish, canny, and, above all, superstitious.
Now, with the Teuton menace confronting his Fatherland, Botrel's note has changed. To the quaint "Contes du Lit-clos" succeeds the "Coups de Clairon," the trumpet-call summoning his countrymen to arms, urging them on to the fight, thrilling them in the hour of victory, consoling their last moments in defeat or death. It is a noble work, and one cannot think of another poet, here or in France, so abundantly equipped for its performance. Botrel has no counterpart in Britain, so it were vain to seek comparisons.
The Soldiers' Song
Now here he is, in the fighting line, even busier than in peace time, writing song after song to stimulate his compatriots and their Allies, by voice and pen. His "Rosalie," dedicated to the comrades of his old regiment, the 41st Infantry of the Line, is to the brave piou-piou very much what "Tipperary" is to our Tommy. The soldiers sing it everywhere, at all times in the trenches, on the march, in the canteen for it has a splendid swing, and, further, it symbolises and glorifies "the terrible little French bayonet," which is the terror of the boastful boche. There are a dozen verses and more, and the last runs something like this:
- Nous avons soif de vengeance:
- Rosalie! verse à la France,
- Verse à boire!
- De la Gloire à pleins bidons
- Buvons donc!
Songs of the Bivouac
"Rosalie" figures in the first issue of Les Chants du Bivouac, a monthly song-sheet, edited and written by Botrel, as a supplement to L'Echo des Armées, a ten-centimes military publication, which made its first appearance in November. "Rosalie" is entirely Botrel's, words, music and all, but in other cases he has written verses to fit well- known airs. Thus we find "C'est la Gloire (instead of C'est Boulanger) qu'il nous Faut."
- France! il est dans ton histoire
- Une page noire de trop,
- France! il nous faut la victoire
- Pour venger notre drapeau.
- C'est ta Gloir', ta Gloir', ta Gloire,
- C'est ta Gloire qu'il nous faut!
Then we have the jolly, lilting tune, familiar to all as "Auprès de ma Blonde," with the refrain "qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon," etc.
"We Wont Go Home Till Morning"
In "Guillaume s'en Va-t-en Guerre," the Kaiser's name most irreverently handled is simply substituted for that of "Malbrouck," and the air, of course, is the irresistible "We Won't Go Home Till Morning," which, for all its too-festive associations, makes a glorious march. "Dans la Tranchée," a light-hearted story of life and death in the trenches, is adapted to the well-known "A Batignolles," and dedicated "To my valiant young friend, Capt. A. Bruant " (probably a son of the celebrated Aristide Bruant, chansonnier of the "Mirlitons," himself a Breton). "La Kaisériole" is a parody of "La Carmagnole," with the famous, or infamous, original tune retained.
Contempt for Hatred
These "Camp-fire Songs" contain no equivalent to the notorious "Hassgesang gegen England," which has driven all Germany crazy, for the sufficient reason that Hymns of Hate come with difficulty from a race of such essential wit and urbanity as the French.
Theodore Botrel is no Ernst Lissauer. His weapons are keener, and far more effective than the bludgeons and bombast of the humourless Teuton. Irony, sarcasm, contempt, rather than blind hatred, are the stock of his armoury. Here, for example, is a pungent little set of verses styled "Les Goths," each line of which is a rapier thrust into the thick German hides for their stupid, wanton destruction, their wholesale plundering and pillaging of beautiful things in the Champagne country.
The poem closes with the disdainful retort of the Marquise whose mansion and grounds have been laid waste. She watches the departure of the invaders, and exclaims:
- La France a subi les ravages,
- Messieurs, de trois hordes sauvages,
- Goths, Ostrogoths et Visigoths:
- II lui manquait les Saligoths!
France in old times had to endure the ravages of three barbarian hosts Goths, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths. All she lacked was a visit from the modern Saligoths pronounced "Saligauds," otherwise "dirty beasts."
That is the note, the right note, the contemptuous, scornful note, wherewith to reply to those who think to frighten the Allies with their "Schrecklichkeit," the hideous word representing the still more hideous thing we translate "frightfulness."
An English Edition
Writing in the first week of this month from Flanders, Botrel tells me his "Coups de Clairon," recently published, is shortly to be followed by another volume of patriotic song, "Chants de Guerre," now in the printer's hands in Switzerland. Also it may be of interest to state that English versions of a score or two of the best known of the Breton poet's chansons will be issued shortly by Mr. Elkin Mathews. So far as I know, this is the first attempt to translate Botrel, who, from his very simplicity, is uncommonly hard to reproduce in another tongue. One thing is certain: if the English renderings succeed in catching anything like the spirit of the originals, they will win instant and wide appreciation among lovers of poetry in this country. The Poet's Weapon
Meanwhile, the indefatigable bard goes on with his vital work behind the lines, firing no shot, wielding no weapon other than his pen, which lately wrote:
- Quand un Attila, sans remords,
- Lance ses hordes cannibales,
- Tout est bon qui meurtrit et mord:
- Les chansons, aussi, sont des balles!
see also : Livres Roses de Larousse - Botrel
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