Claire Ferchaud, La Jeanne d’Arc de la Grande Guerre

While in Paris, I trawled a few bookshops, and found some good new history books. One of them is Claire Ferchaud, La Jeanne d’Arc de la Grande Guerre, by Jean-Yves Le Naour (Hachette 2006), which tells the story of a young woman from the Vendée (one of the most traditionally religious areas of France) who was blessed with a vision of Jesus in 1916.

He bared his sacred heart, and told her that God was on the side of France, and would lead the country to victory – so long as the country confessed its sins and rediscovered its true faith. Jesus pointed towards the wound on his heart, and explained “This signifies the official atheism of France.” Since the revolution, the French had denied their faith and substituted secular laws for the Gospel. – “Les hordes maconniques ont laceré son titre de chretienne.”

Specifically, victory would come if the French government agreed to add a depiction of the Sacred Heart to the tricolor.

Joan of Arc, of course, was her role model. This visionary twenty-year-old, who when a child had had Jesus as her imaginary friend, was carried to fame on a wave of popular excitement. She got as far as an interview with President Poincaré, though she couldn’t convince him on the flag issue (and the Allies, of course, eventually won without the French becoming notably holier.)

It’s a good story, and one that illustrates perfectly the way that popular enthusiasm could outrun the more careful authorities during wartime. It also shows how, when the national fight became a supreme endeavour, groups tried to define it by linking it to their own causes – in this case defining the fight for France as a fight for traditional reactionary Catholicism.

What Le Naour describes is not a case of the government using the Church to rally people to the war effort, but one of the religious using the war to promote Catholicism. What is more, it is a grass-roots movement. When the rumours about Claire’s miraculous visions began to spread in 1916, and up to two thousand people a day were visiting her village because they had heard about her, the seniors of the church were at first careful. As an influential Church paper said, “The best course for us, in such circumstances, would be to stay calm, keep silence and rely entirely on the diocesan authority which alone has the status to pronounce on such delicate and serious questions.” Another paper warned that “the angel of shadows can transform itself into an angel of light, and diabolical manifestations deceive those who are not alert to the dangers.”

Popular opinion took no notice of such warnings, and soon swept influential churchmen along with it, endorsing her cause.

She wrote a long letter to Poincare, of which this is a part:

It is from the divine mouth of God in Heaven that I have received the order to transmit to you the express desire of Jesus. On you depends the salvation or death of our country…

You will have salvation first, if you renounce in this life the fight against religion. You are the leader, you have in your hand the key of government. It is up to you to take the right path, which is that of Christian civilisation, the source of all morality. You must show a good example in combating freemasonry…

The whole story is a good example of the ways in which conspiracy theories flourished in time of War. In Britain, so far as I know, there was no mass unease about freemasonry, which had long ago made its peace with Anglicanism and the Establishment, but there was plenty of ill-feeling directed against Jews (especially those with German-sounding names) and against sexual deviants – as demonstrated in the Pemberton-Billing libel case.

For people like Claire Forchaud, deeply committed both to France and to Catholicism, it appeared blindingly obvious that Germany was the centre of a masonic campaign for world domination, just as Antisemites could with equal conviction present it as the hub of world Jewry and homophobes as a hotbed of Hunnish practices.

I think the original Joan of Arc possessed some useful strategic instincts when it came to battle. Claire Forchaud’s ideas about warfare seem vaguer. The main tactic she suggested foe defeating the enemy was pinning an image of the Sacred Heart to all French flags, and to those of France’s allies, as well. Dedicating all the Allies to the cause of the Sacred Heart might have presented some difficulties. As Le Naour points out, this would mean convincing Protestant England, Orthodox Russia and Shintoist Japan of the rightness of evangelical Catholicism. But maybe this would not have seemed an impossibility to a young woman who believed that carrying out Jesus’s declared wishes about the Sacred Heart would lead automatically to the conversion of the Jews, the fall of the Republic and the restoration of the Monarchy.

I’m perversely delighted to discover (by a bit of Googling) that some modern Catholics have responded to Le Naour’s intelligently sceptical account with a defence of Ferchaud’s memory.

I don’t think I’ll read that one, though. I doubt whether it would be nearly as entertaining or thought-provoking as Le Naour’s excellent book (which is clearly written, and in not-too-difficult French, so that I’ve made my way through it without too much difficulty.)

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