Poilu means shaggy one and is the warm informal term for a French infantryman. The pluralization is Poilus. As an instinctively democratic people the French have an affection for the most democratic arm of the military: the infantry. The term came into popular usage in France during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte, when his massive citizen armies smashed feudalism to pieces across much of continental Europe. However it was used most often during the First World War.
The word always carried the twin sense of the infantryman's typically rural background and the suggestion of Gallic manliness. However during the First World War the word also expressed a defiant pride in the more animal existence to which they had been reduced by the horrors and filth of trench warfare. According to historian Ian Ousby, the poilus made a cult of beards and unbarbered luxuriant mustaches: "Some may deliberately have been invoking memories of the early Revolution, with their curving mustaches and clay pipes; many may have been taking comfort in theor resemblance to conventional depictions of Gallic warriors (p. 136).
- Ian Ousby. 2002. The Road to Verdun: World War II's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism. Anchor Books. ISBN 0385721730.