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Around the Great War > Maurice Maréchal: a musician in the Great War

Maurice Maréchal: a musician in the Great War

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Maurice Maréchal
© Bibliothèque nationale de France / Gallica

Maurice Maréchal is one of the greatest cellists of all time who very much influenced his era and future generations of cellists. Unfortunately his letters seem to have disappeared, the cello he used for performing was sold and was last seen in Australia… All that remains is the memory of him is the “Poilu” which was his makeshift cello made out of an ammunitions box and kept at the Museum of the Cité de la Musique as well as his war notes which are preserved at the French National Library.

“An artist must devote himself to the most noble cause and is that not, in times of war, to die for one’s country?”, he wrote on the day he was called up. Maurice Maréchal was 22 years old and had barely started his concert tours when he was sent to the front: le Chemin des Dames, Neuville-Saint-Vaast, Haudremont, les Éparges, Verdun. Most notably, he was there on 22 September 1914, when Rheims cathedral was destroyed.

Having been a courier cyclist, Maurice Maréchal, became, as was his wish, a stretcher bearer. He wrote an account of his daily life from August 1914 to February 1919 in his personal diary. At the start of 1915, he rented an instrument and played chamber music in a threesome, performed religious functions and played for the officers.  As he said himself, “Music opens many doors”, and it also briefly allowed him some time off during which he would rehearse and perform to the officers. He was once again sent to the front in 1916 during the battle of Verdun.

A cello made out of the wood of an ammunitions box

“Le Poilu” is the name that Maurice Maréchal gave to his cello which was made in June 1915. Plicque and Neyen, two soldiers (who died in combat) and who were carpenters in civilian life, made the cello using the wood from a German ammunitions box and from pieces of oak door.
On several occasions, Maurice Maréchal was lucky enough to be able to perform in concert at the headquarters. In due course Joffre, Foch, Mangin and Pétain were all to put their signature to the table of this makeshift instrument. When the regiment left for the front, the instrument would travel in the supply van above the tinned food. Twice it was to travel like this to Verdun.

A sparse memory

Within cellist circles, many, in their own way knew the great artist that Maurice Maréchal was. Nevertheless, among the younger fraternity of musicians, notably students from conservatories, it was the case that many had never heard of him.

And it is not so surprising, for his recordings have largely disappeared and all his sheet music - which was sold to Mstislav Rostropovitch – is in a museum in Russia, notably the Sonata by Debussy which was personally signed by its composer, the Sonata for violin and cello by Ravel or the  Epiphany by Caplet which he created. Finally his precious letters mostly disappeared with the death of his children. The result is that one of the finest treasures of the French school of cellists is gradually slipping away from our memories.

Nevertheless today it is still possible to see:

  • his nine notebooks written during the First World War and which are kept at the BnF (French National Library) as well as his letters and photos ;
  • a certain number of sparse documents of which a few have fortunately been kept by the family of the composer Lucien Durosoir, whose family is very active in this remembrance work;
  • his war cello, “le poilu”, made in the trenches on ammunition boxes and which is today kept in the reserve of the Musée de la Musique (Music Museum).

Reviving the music of Maurice Maréchal

The original cello is in good condition bearing in mind what it has been through but can’t be played and restoring it would take away all its historic value. When the idea occurred to replicate it, the stringed instrument maker Jean-Louis Prochasson immediately agreed to make an identical copy. So, after spending many hours studying the original instrument, he set about this almost insane task, the result of which was unveiled at the Cité de la Musique in Paris on 10 April 2011. The dream of hearing once more its sound like a bizarre song in the middle of the war became real.

This dream was that of Emmanuelle Bertrand, herself a cellist, who, in an original musical show, The war cello, Maurice Maréchal and the Poilu, allow us to hear once more the voice of this very special instrument that Maurice Maréchal considered as precious as a Stradivarius. At her sides are  Christophe Malavoy and Didier Sandre who take it in turns to lend their voices to reading extracts from the war Notes of the famous cellist . A version for schools of this concert and intended for year 6 primary schoolchildren has been produced: A cello unlike any other or the extraordinary story of Maurice Maréchal’s war cello.


MARÉCHAL Maurice and DUROSOIR Lucien, Deux musiciens dans la Grande Guerre (Two musicians of the Great War), Paris, published by. Tallandier, 2005.

AUDOUIN-ROUZEAU Stéphane, BUSCH Esteban, CHIMÈNES Myriam, DUROSOIR Georgie, La Grande Guerre des musiciens (The Great War of the musicians), Lyon, published by. Symétrie, 2009.