Le Poilu, informal term for a French World War I infantryman, and literally meaning ‘hairy one’ was also used to describe soldiers in the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. (The term ‘grognard’ (grumbler) was also common.)
The word ‘poilu’ was coined from the caricature image of the bear-like, bearded and moustached French soldier, much used in propaganda at the time.
Its origins are also associated with a story by Honoré de Balzac, Le Médecin de Campagne (1834), in which a group of French soldiers are required to take part in a mission requiring particular courage, but only 40 of the regiment are deemed to be ‘assez poilu’, (hairy enough!) to carry it out.
The ‘Grande Guerre‘ of 1914-1918 was referred to at the time as “la der des ders” (the last of the last).
The stereotype of the Poilu was brave but undisciplined. During the disastrous ‘Chemin des Dames’ offensive of 1917, they were said to have gone into battle baa’ing like sheep, to symbolise lambs to the slaughter….. as proved to be the case.
Widespread mutiny followed, and a mini military revolution was only avoided by withdrawing from the whole offensive.