« 15 octobre [1915] : Schmargult
La batterie de 95 de Schmargult tire sous la direction de Georges Spitzmuller romancier-feuilletoniste-librettiste et… capitaine d’artillerie ; elle bombarde le joli village de Mühlbach, entre Munster et Metzeral. Ah ! Détruire ces objets qui sont le régal de notre gourmandise patriotique !…. Pour Spitzmuller, Alsacien, quel drame intime. »

It’s a throwaway reference. It felt worth looking into. Who was this ‘novelist-journalist-librettist and… artillery captain’?

Born on the last day of 1866 at Épinal in the Vosges département, his early life was against the backdrop of the French defeat in the War of 1870 and, as a small child, he was one of those besieged in the fortress city of Belfort. Later, as a student in Belfort he volunteered for military service (engagé conditionnel) a little before his 20th birthday, when his period of obligatory military service would have begun. We can’t be absolutely sure why, but exploring the possible reasons gives a fascinating insight into French military conscription under the law of 1872. It was, quite literally, a lottery. Space here precludes detail but, in essence, to remove the risk of a long period of enlistment, a recruit could pay a sum of money ‘en droit d’acquittement‘ and, provided he had ‘irreproachable conduct’ during his period of service and had a good military education, he could serve for one year and avoid the possibility of five years’ service. Given the sum that had to be paid, this was insurance for the middle classes. The law of 1905, which reduced military service to 2 years and abolished all exemptions, except those for disability, finally ended this inequitable ‘conscription insurance’.

Of course, even those like Georges who took this option still had to complete their subsequent military service obligations. After a year with the 5e Régiment d’artillerie, he was placed « en disponibilité » until 1891 when he transitioned to the reserve as a sous-lieutenant de réserve. Numerous periods of training exercises with the artillery reserve between 1889 and 1896 followed, then in the territorial artillery in 1900, 1903 and 1905 during which time he was promoted to lieutenant, before service in the territorial reserve. By 1913, he was capitaine de réserve.

Outside his military service, Georges married and first developed a career as a journalist (he was editor of the short-lived Libéral de l’Est – a newspaper in Nancy). He also wrote the vocal scores for a number of operas and two plays. However, his main career was to develop as a romancier or novelist. His books were numerous and across a variety of genres: police and detective mysteries, romans d’amour, romans de cape et d’épée (for example, Le Capitaine Bel-Cœur : « aventures d’amour et d’épée sous Henri IV ») and historical novels. He had become ‘well-known’, but had not achieved notable success when war intervened.

All images are  « Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France » 

As capitaine de réserve Georges began his war service in the 49e batterie of the 62e régiment d’artillerie de campagne (RAC). The batterie was equipped with the Canon de 95 modèle 1875 Lahitolle – the first French artillery piece manufactured from steel. Although still in use for fortress and coastal defences, these out-dated guns were brought back into service with the field artillery because of the inability of French industry to manufacture more modern guns in sufficient quantities early in the war. Over a thousand were used. Reserve artillery units were typically those equipped with these guns. It was with 62e RAC that Maurice Bedel encountered him in Autumn 1915 (although his regiment was re-organised as 101e Régiment d’Artillerie Lourde on 1 November 1915). Their friendship probably had its origins in their status as fellow writers and Bedel provides several stories from their time in the increasingly tough conditions as winter descended on their mountain positions. Just after Christmas 1915, Spitzmuller’s unit moved from the sector and their time and adventures together ended.

War in the mountains of Alsace in the depths of winter took their toll on the 49-year old Spitzmuller and at the beginning of February 1916 he was evacuated to hospital in Belfort then, on leave for seven days in Monéteau (Yonne), he was admitted to Nr 107 auxiliary hospital in Auxerre for bronchitis and emphysema. His regiment considered him as definitively evacuated i.e. unlikely to return. He had a period of convalescence in mid-1916 but any possibility of his return to front-line service was ended by a further period of convalescence after again being evacuated to hospital in July 1918. Meanwhile he was made chevalier de la Légion d’honneur on 5 January 1918.

It’s during this period he began his association with La Collection “Patrie” – a collection of fictionalised and very patriotic short stories published by Éditions Rouff based on various episodes of the war. Some examples of Spitzmuller’s works are shown (I’m torn between ‘To the Rescue’ and ‘The Ace of Searchlights’ as my favourite). One of the things that most attracts collectors to the series lies in the colour cover illustrations, many of which were the work of Gil Baer who, like Spitzmuller was an Alsatian and whose work was widely known from newspapers and postcards. You can see one of his works below.

The influence of these 24-page booklets on shaping popular knowledge of, and attitudes to, the war during, and immediately after, has been undervalued.² Printed on the poor quality paper available at that stage of the war, with their colour illustrated cover and priced at 20 centimes, they were intended to attract the errand boy and junior clerk, the schoolboy and all those who craved adventure and knowledge of what the war was really like.

Spitzmuller, continued to write other novels after the war’s end. By one account, he “contributed … to rehabilitate the popular novel. He liked to entertain a large and diverse audience, to involve it in adventures of tenderness and heroism…” and his death in October 1926 hurt “the anonymous general public to whom he provided, every morning, moments of joy or emotion.”³ In La Collection “Patrie” he found one creative outlet.

Gilles Berr dit Gil Baer, Carte postale depicting the countries of Europe as women (1901)

Perhaps in many ways a ‘minor character’ in the story of the war, researching Spitzmuller’s story provided a real insight into some less-well known aspects of the French military and society.

This blog post could not have been written without the generous help of Simon Godly, whose website webmatters.net is thoroughly recommended. Simon took on the task of tracking down Georges Spitzmuller’s service record with enthusiasm and determination and provided lots of other useful information – especially on the system of conscription in place under the law of 1872.

¹ Maurice Bedel, Journal de guerre (CONTEMPO.) (French Edition) (p. 318). Tallandier. Kindle Edition.

² Frederic, François, “Littérature populaire et témoignage : les livres que Norton Cru n’a pas lus” in : Madeleine Frederic& Patrick Lefevre, Actes du colloque : Sur les traces de Jean Norton Cru, colloque international 18-19 novembre 1999, Centre d’Histoire militaire – Musée Royal de l’Armée, Travaux, 32, Bruxelles, 2000, pp. 53-74.

³ From the web site

2 thoughts on “Georges Spitzmuller: A popular First World War writer you’ve probably never heard of …

  1. I have a reproduction of a 1919 Michelin Guide to Ypres and the Battlefield of Ypres. It’s dedicated to, “…the Michelin Workmen and Employees who Died Gloriously for Their Country”.


    1. That’s great. Thanks for sharing and for visiting. The Michelin Guides are still very popular and I’ve recently found out just how many of them there are beyond those I knew about!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s