history of the phrase ‘c’est la guerre’ (‘it can’t be helped’)

Les Civils (The Civilians), from C’est la Guerre ! (1916), a series of six woodcuts by the Swiss-born French artist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925)—source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France:

Les Civils (C'est la Guerre - 1916), by Félix Vallotton

 

The French phrase c’est la guerre1—literally it is war—expresses acceptance of, or resignation at, the situation engendered by war; it can be translated as it can’t be helped.

1 French guerre corresponds to English war because, in words of Germanic origin, when initial, the labio-velar approximant /w/ has regularly become the velar /g/. For instance, in the French noun loup-garou, garou corresponds to werewolf (loup was added when the notion of wolf expressed by garou had been forgotten), le pays de Galles corresponds to Wales, gaufre to wafer, and gardien to warden (English guardian is a later borrowing from French). This velar is spelt gu before the vowels e and i, as in guerre, and in Guillaume, corresponding to William.

In Discours Politiques et Militaires du Seigneur de la Nouë. Nouvellement recueillis & mis en lumiere (Basle: François Forest, 1587), written during the French Wars of Religion (1562-98), the Huguenot captain François de La Noue (1531-1591) already denounced:

[les] responses que quelques vns font à tant & tant de gens qui vont maudissant nos tempestes ciuiles : car ils leur disent, c’est la guerre, & pensent que cette parole ouïe ils doyuent hausser les espaules à l’Italienne2, & se preparer à souffrir encores pis.
     translation:
[the] replies that some make to the great many people who are cursing our civil storms: for they say to them, it is war, and think that once they have heard those words they must shrug their shoulders the Italian way2, and prepare themselves to suffer even worse.

2 The obsolete French phrase hausser les épaules à l’Italienne, to shrug one’s shoulders the Italian way, seems to indicate that this gesture is of Italian origin; the phrase is now hausser les épaules.

More than three centuries later, on 31st August 1914, one month after the outbreak of the First World War3, Le Temps (Paris, France) published a letter from Argentan, in Normandy, where 1,300 Belgian refugees had arrived—one of those refugees declared:

« Que l’on tire, que l’on brûle les maisons, cela est compréhensible, c’est la guerre, mais qu’on maltraite comme ils l’ont fait des habitants paisibles, des femmes, des vieillards et des enfants, est-ce possible ! »
     translation:
“That shots are fired, that the houses are burned, that is comprehensible, it is war, but that peaceful inhabitants, women, old people and children are ill-treated as they have been, that is impossible!”

3 The First World War lasted from 28th July 1914 to 11th November 1918.

In English, the phrase was occasionally used before—but gained currency during—the First World War.

There are several occurrences of c’est la guerre in the following passage from The Pastor’s Narrative; or, Before and After the Battle of Wörth4, 1870 (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1879), by Pastor Klein, translated by F. E. Marshall—passage published in the Volunteer Service Gazette (London, England) of 22nd September 1883. Pastor Klein, who was in charge of the congregation of Frœschwiller, in Alsace, described the French troops that were stationed on the frontier with the North German Confederation during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71:

The bands of order and regularity were broken; every man did that which was right in his own eyes—came and went as he pleased; left his company and the camp, and roamed about until it suited him to return; did his duty or not, as it happened. If the Corporal met him, he paid not the smallest attention; if a command came, he had no ears—it was repeated, he laughed; if he was threatened, he shrugged his shoulders—“To be punished am I? All right.” And the Corporal went his way, followed by curses and grimaces, neither revengeful nor troubled. He could not secure order; he neither could nor would—“que voulez vous?5 c’est la guerre.”
And really the Corporal was right, and could afford to be quite content at the treatment of his person and authority; for see, here comes his superior, and he does just the same to him; and the Sergeant beats a retreat, and swallows his vexation, and makes no complaint of the godless rebels, for he thinks to himself—and this thought is the sweetest balm for his wounded dignity—“This evening or to-morrow morning early, I can serve my Lieutenant so. Oh, he will put up with it! why not? War is war!”
This is incredible, is it not? Yet it is history. So it went on, from Sergeant to Lieutenant, and from Lieutenant to Captain, till the highest pitch of insubordination was reached, each man having the greatest contempt for the other.
Oh, when one recalls those days and scenes, how often did it happen that the soldiers utterly refused to obey, abused their superiors—even threatened them; and what came of it? “C’est la guerre,” was the unfailing reply; “we cannot punish.”

4 The Battle of Wörth, also known as the Battle of Reichshoffen, or as the Battle of Frœschwiller, took place on 6th August 1870 in the opening stages of the Franco-Prussian War.
5 Here, the French phrase que voulez-vous?— literally what do you want?—expresses resignation; it can be translated as what can you do?, what do you expect?.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found in an English text dating from the First World War is from a story, by a reporter named R. J. Hodson, writing from Antwerp, in Belgium, about one “Sub-Lieutenant (late Corporal) Straus, […] the son of a wealthy Belgian-American”—story published in The Manchester Courier (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of 5th September 1914:

When he volunteered for service the authorities put him in charge of an armoured motor car, but first of all he was commissioned to take a message to Liege on a bicycle. Returning thence he discovered an autocar containing four German officers. These he surprised, and shot with a Winchester rifle from cover. “C’est la guerre,” he said, cheerfully, “and my colonel gave me corporal’s stripes for that.”

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the account that an Englishwoman named Mary Macdonald Brown wrote from Holland about the “continual coming and going of Belgian refugees from Holland to Belgium and back again from Belgium to Holland”—account published in the Sheffield Independent (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of 4th November 1914:

My journey from Flushing to Bergen-op-Zoom, a town of 20,000 inhabitants, which is giving hospitality to an equal number of refugees, was quite normal. My travelling companions were well-to-do Belgian refugees, but the two old ladies discussed fashions, and one of them (a dear old soul who inquired at every station on my behalf if it was Bergen-op-Zoom) protested, just as if it were peace time, when newcomers brought in an unconscionable quantity of luggage. “C’est la guerre, madame,” was the reply of the owner.

The phrase was borrowed into American English after the USA entered the war in April 1917. For example, the following is from a correspondence by C. C. Lyon, the Examiner reporter with General Pershing’s Army, published in The Lancaster Examiner (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA) of 14th November 1917:

Paris, France.—Said an army officer just arrived in France from America:
“It seems almost impossible to arouse our people to a realization that they are in a great war. We’ll have to have casualty lists first.”
The French people don’t need casualty lists to remind them. Every hour of the day war is impressed on them—whenever they eat, sleep, talk, travel or seek amusement.
And what goes for the French also goes for the thousands of Americans now in France.
You arrive at a hotel and, naturally, the clerk tries to induce you to take a room with a bath, if he has any such luxury to offer.
Pretty soon you come down to the office, storming.
“There’s no hot water in that bath,” you complain.
He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. You want to choke him.
C’est la guerre,” he says. “It is the war. We are permitted to have hot water only on Saturdays and Sundays. We must be economical with our coal, you know.”
C’est la guerre”—“It is the war”—is almost a national motto over here. No matter what the trouble is, blame it on the war.

And the following is a passage from The Little Moment of Happiness (New York: A. L. Burt Company, circa 1919), a novel set in 1918 France, by the U.S. author Clarence Budington Kelland (1881-1964)—Kendall Ware, a U.S. officer, has just met a French girl, “a refugee from Soissons and an orphan”, who works in a chocolate-shop:

“Poor kid!” said Kendall.
She shrugged her shoulders and said, with that calm resignation which is so much to be met with, “C’est la guerre. . . . It is the war.” That is a phrase which explains everything, excuses anything in France to-day. “C’est la guerre.” One offers it to explain the lateness of trains, the price of cheese, poverty, the lack of sugar, morale, everything great or small. “C’est la guerre” is the countersign of the epoch. It embraces everything.

Two quotations seem to indicate that c’est la guerre was used in German, too:

1: The phrase occurs in the translation—published in The Yorkshire Post (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of 17th November 1914—of a letter that a German soldier wrote from Flanders (the original letter was first published in the German newspaper Berliner Lokalanzeiger):

In the darkness early, the day before yesterday, our company retired from a far-advanced trench. It was frightful there. We were lying there for three days, cut off from communication with the rear, and without food. The last night we lay awake in five centimetres of water, with the rain pouring down. Of the enemy there is little to be seen, but there is fire from all quarters and directions. Everywhere fall bullets of Franc-tireurs, who act in the most shameless manner. If we send out patrols to look for them they have always disappeared. One has to act without consideration against these bands; it is the only way in which one can do anything. “C’est la guerre.”

2: The phrase occurs in the translation—published in the Evening Despatch (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of 26th December 1914—of the account that a French doctor gave of his captivity in a German camp:

We ended by being set at liberty. But when we asked to have our belongings returned to us—for we were released as being doctors and non-combatants—they laughed at us; “C’est la guerre” (“it is war”) was the reply of the military authorities.

Likewise, on 24th November 1914, Le Temps (Paris, France) published a letter from the mayor of Reims, in northern France, who gave an account of the conversation he had with a German officer on 4th September, after the German troops’ arrival in the city:

La conversation, d’ailleurs courtoise, ponctuée de temps en temps, comme excuse de leurs exigences, d’un C’est la guerre ! sans réplique, se continuait, quand éclata comme un coup de tonnerre le bruit de la première bombe tombant sur Reims.
     translation:
The conversation, which I may add was very civil, punctuated from time to time—as an excuse for their demands—with a It is war! that brooked no reply, was going on, when the first bomb falling on Reims boomed like a crash of thunder.