Part 2 out of 3
that had fallen into the trenches of the Bois-le-Pretre, together with
French answers to them, would be telephoned to headquarters. The soldier
in charge of the telephone was an instructor in Latin in a French
provincial university, a tall, stoop- shouldered man, with an
indefinite, benevolent smile curiously framed on thin lips. Probably
very much of a scholar by training and feeling, he had accepted his
military destiny, and was as much a poilu as anybody. During his leisure
hours he was busy writing a "Comparison of the Campaign on the Marne and
the Aisne with Caesar's battles against the Belgian Confederacy." He had
a paper edition of the Gallic Wars which he carried round with him. One
day he explained his thesis to me. He drew a plan with a green pencil on
a piece of paper.
"See, mon ami," he exclaimed, "here is the Aisne, Caesar's Axona; here
is Berry-au-Bac; here was Caesar, here were the invaders, here was
General French, here Foch, here Von Kluck. Curious, isn't it--two
thousand years afterward?" His eyes for an instant filled with dreamy
perplexity. A little while later I would hear him mechanically
telephoning. "Poste A--five 'seventy-seven' shells, six mines, twelve
trench shells; answer--ten 'seventy-five' shells, eight mines, eighteen
trench shells; Poste B--two 'seventy-seven' shells, one mine, six
grenades; answer--fifteen 'seventy-five' shells; Poste C--one 'two
hundred and ten' shell, fifty mines; answer--sixty mines; Poste D--"
At Dieulouard I had entered the shell zone; at Pont-a-Mousson, I crossed
the borders of the zone of quiet; at Montauville began the last
zone--the zone of invisibility and violence. Civilian life ended at the
western end of the village street with the abruptness of a man brought
face to face with a high wall. Beyond the village a road was seen
climbing the grassy slope of Puvenelle, to disappear as it neared the
summit of the ridge in a brown wood. It was just an ordinary hill road
of Lorraine, but the fact that it was the direct road to the trenches
invested this climbing, winding, silent length with extraordinary
character. The gate of the zone of violence, every foot of it bore some
scar of the war, now trivial, now gigantic--always awesome in the power
and volition it revealed. One passed from the sight of a brown puddle,
scooped in the surface of the street by an exploding shell, to a view of
a magnificent ash tree splintered by some projectile. It is a very rare
thing to see a sinister landscape, but this whole road was sinister. I
used to discuss this sinister quality with a distinguished French artist
who as a poilu was the infirmier, or medical service man, attached to a
squad of engineers working in a quarry frequently shelled. In this
frightful place we discussed la qualite du sinistre dans l'art (the
sinister in art) as calmly as if we were two Parisian critics sitting on
the benches of the Luxembourg Gardens. As the road advanced into the
wood, there was hardly a wayside tree that had not been struck by a
shell. Branches hung dead from trees, twigs had been lopped off by stray
fragments, great trunks were split apart as if by lightning. "Nature as
Nature is never sinister," said the artist; "it is when there is a
disturbance of the relations between Nature and human life that you have
the sinister. Have you ever seen the villages beyond Ravenna overwhelmed
by the bogs? There you see the sinister. Here Man is making Nature
unlivable for Man." He stroked his fine silky beard meditatively--"This
will all end when the peasants plant again." As we talked, a shell,
intended for the batteries behind, burst high above us.
Skirting the ravine, now wooded, between Puvenelle and the
Bois-le-Pretre, the road continued westward till it emerged upon the
high plateau of La Woevre; the last kilometre being in full view of the
Germans entrenched on the ridge across the rapidly narrowing, rising
ravine. Along this visible space the trees and bushes by the roadside
were matted by shell fire into an inextricable confusion of destruction,
and through the wisps and splinters of this ruin was seen the ridge of
the Bois-le-Pretre rapidly attaining the level of the moor. At length
the forest of Puvenelle, the ravine, and the Bois-le-Pretre ended
together in a rolling sweep of furzy fields cut off to the west and
north by a vast billow of the moor which, like the rim of a saucer,
closed the wide horizon. Continuing straight ahead, the Puvenelle road
mounted this rise, dipped and disappeared. Halfway between the edge of
the forest of Puvenelle and this crest stood an abandoned inn, a
commonplace building made of buff-brown moorland stone trimmed with red
brick. Close by this inn, at right angles to the Puvenelle road, another
road turned to the north and likewise disappeared over the lift in the
moor. At the corner stood a government signpost of iron slightly bent
back, bearing in gray-white letters on its clay-blue plaque the
legend--Thiaucourt, 12 kilometres Metz, 25 kilometres.
There was not a soul anywhere in sight; I was surrounded with evidences
of terrific violence--the shattered trees, the shell holes in the road,
the brown-lipped craters in the earth of the fields, the battered inn;
but there was not a sign of the creators of this devastation. A
northwest wind blew in great salvos across the mournful, lonely plateau,
rippling the furze, and brought to my ears the pounding of shells from
behind the rise. When I got to this rim a soldier, a big, blond fellow
of the true Gaulois type with drooping yellow mustaches, climbed slowly
out of a hole in the ground. The effect was startling. I had arrived at
the line where the earth of France completely swallows up the army. This
disappearance of life in a decor of intense action is one of the most
striking things of the war. All about in the surface of the earth were
little, square, sooty holes that served as chimneys, and here and there
rectangular, grave-like openings in the soil showing three or four big
steps descending to a subterranean hut. Fifty feet away not a sign of
human life could be distinguished. Six feet under the ground, framed in
the doorway of a hut, a young, black-haired fellow in a dark-brown
jersey stood smiling pleasantly up at us; it was he who was to be my
guide to the various postes and trenches that I had need to know. He
came up to greet me.
"Better bring him down here," growled a voice from somewhere in the
earth. "There have been bullets crossing the road all afternoon."
"I am going to show him the Quart-en-Reserve first."
The Quart-en-Reserve (Reserved Quarter) was the section of the
Bois-le-Pretre which, because of its situation on the crest of the great
ridge, had been the most fiercely contested. We crept up on the edge of
the ridge and looked over. An open, level field some three hundred yards
wide swept from the Thiaucourt road to the edges of the Bois-le-Pretre;
across this field ran in the most confused manner a strange pattern of
brown lines that disappeared among the stumps and poles of the haggard
wood to the east. To the northwest of this plateau, on the road ahead of
us, stood a ruined village caught in the torment of the lines. Here and
there, in some twenty or thirty places scattered over the scarred
plateau, the smoke of trench shells rose in little curling puffs of
gray-black that quickly dissolved in the wind.
"The Quart is never quiet," said my guide. "It is now half ours, half
Close to the ground, a blot of light flashed swifter than a stroke of
lightning, and a heavier, thicker smoke rolled away.
"That is one of ours. We are answering their trench shells with an
occasional 'one hundred and twenty."
"How on earth is it that everybody is not killed?"
"Because the regiment has occupied the Quart so long that we know every
foot, every turn, every shelter of it. When we see a trench shell
coming, we know just where to go. It is only the newcomers who get
killed. Two months past, when a new regiment occupied the Quart during
our absence en repos, it lost twenty-five men in one day."
The first trench that I entered was a simple trench about seven feet
deep, with no trimmings whatsoever, just such a trench as might have
been dug for the accommodation of a large water conduit. We walked on a
narrow board walk very slippery with cheesy, red-brown mire. From time
to time the hammer crash of a shell sounded uncomfortably near, and bits
of dirt and pebbles, dislodged by the concussion, fell from the wall of
the passage. The only vista was the curving wall of the long
communication trench and the soft sky of Lorraine, lit with the pleasant
sunlight of middle afternoon, and islanded with great golden-white cloud
masses. My guide and I might have been the last persons left in a world
of strange and terrible noises. The boyau (communication trench) began
to turn and wind about in the most perplexing manner, and we entered a
veritable labyrinth. This extraordinary, baffling complexity is due
primarily to the fact that the trenches advance and retreat, rise and
fall, in order to take advantage of the opportunities for defense
afforded by every change in the topography of the region. I remember one
area along the front consisting of two round, grassy hills divided by a
small, grassy valley whose floor rose gently to a low ridge connecting
the two heights. In this terrain the defensive line began on the first
hill as a semicircle edging the grassy slopes presented to the enemy,
then retreated, sinking some forty feet, to take advantage of the
connecting link of upland at the head of the ravine, and took
semicircular form again on the flat, broad summit of the second hill. In
the meadows at the base of these hills a brook flowing from the ravine
had created a great swamp, somewhat in the shape of a wedge pointing
outward from the mouth of the valley. The lines of the enemy, edging
this tract of mire, were consequently in the shape of an open V. Thus
the military situation at this particular point may be pictorially
represented by a salient semicircle, a dash, and another salient
semicircle faced by a wide, open V. Imagine such a situation complicated
by offensive and counter-offensive, during which the French have seized
part of the hills and the German part of the plain, till the whole
region is a madman's maze of barbed wire, earthy lines, trenches,--some
of them untenable by either side and still full of the dead who fell in
the last combat,--shell holes, and fortified craters. Such was something
of the situation in that wind-swept plain at the edge of the
Bois-le-Pretre. I leave for other chapters the account of an average day
in the trenches and the story of the great German attack, preferring to
tell here of the general impressions made by the appearance of the
trenches themselves. Two pictures stand out, particularly, the dead on
the barbed wire, and the village called "Fey au Rats" at night.
"The next line is the first line. Speak in whispers now, for if the
Boches hear us we shall get a shower of hand-grenades."
I turned into a deep, wide trench whose floor had been trodden into a
slop of cheesy, brown mire which clung to the big hobnailed boots of the
soldiers. Every foot or so along the parapet there was a rifle slit,
made by the insertion of a wedge-shaped wooden box into the wall of
brownish sandbags, and the sentries stood about six feet apart. The
trench had the hushed quiet of a sickroom.
"Do you want to see the Boches? Here; come, put your eye to this rifle
A horizontal tangle of barbed wire lay before me, the shapeless gully of
an empty trench, and, thirty-five feet away, another blue-gray tangle of
barbed wire and a low ripple of the brownish earth. As I looked, one of
the random silences of the front stole swiftly into the air. French
trench and German trench were perfectly silent; you could have heard the
ticking of a watch.
"You never see them?"
"Only when we attack them or they attack us."
An old poilu, with a friendly smile revealing a jagged reef of yellow
teeth, whispered to me amiably:--
"See them? Good Lord, it's bad enough to smell them. You ought to thank
the good God, young man, that the wind is carrying it over our heads."
"Any wounded to-day?"
"Yes; a corporal had his leg ripped up about half an hour ago."
At a point a mile or so farther down the moor I looked again out of a
rifle box. No Man's Land had widened to some three hundred feet of
waving furze, over whose surface gusts of wind passed as over the
surface of the sea. About fifty feet from the German trenches was a
swathe of barbed wire supported on a row of five stout, wooden posts. So
thickly was the wire strung that the eye failed to distinguish the
individual filaments and saw only the rows of brown-black posts filled
with a steely purple mist. Upon this mist hung masses of weather-beaten
blue rags whose edges waved in the wind.
"Des camarades" (comrades), said my guide very quietly.
A month later I saw the ruined village of Fey-en-Haye by the light of
the full golden shield of the Hunters' Moon. The village had been taken
from the Germans in the spring, and was now in the French lines, which
crossed the village street and continued right on through the houses.
"The first village on the road to Metz" had tumbled, in piles and mounds
of rubbish, out on a street grown high with grass. Moonlight poured into
the roofless cottages, escaping by shattered walls and jagged rents, and
the mounds of debris took on fantastic outlines and cast strange
shadows. In the middle of the village street stood two wooden crosses
marking the graves of soldiers. It was the Biblical "Abomination of
Looking at Fey from the end of the village street, I slowly realized
that it was not without inhabitants. Wandering through the grass,
scurrying over the rubbish heaps, running in and out of the crumbling
thresholds were thousands and thousands of rats.
Across the bright sky came a whirring hum, the sound of the motors of
aeroplanes on the way to bombard the railroad station at Metz. I looked
up, but there was nothing to be seen. The humming died away. The bent
signpost at the corner of the deserted moorland road, with its arrow and
its directions, somehow seemed a strange, shadowy symbol of the
impossibility of the attainment of many human aspirations.
The Trenches In The "Wood Of Death"
So great has been the interest in the purely military side of the
struggle that one is apt to forget that the war is worth study as the
supreme occupation of many great nations, whose every energy, physical,
moral, and economic, has been put to its service, and relentlessly
tested in its fiery furnace. A future historian may find the war more
interesting, when considered as the supreme achievement of the
industrial civilization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, than
as a mere vortex in the age-old ocean of European political strife.
There is something awe-inspiring in the spectacle of all the continuous
and multitudinous activity of a great nation feeding, by a thousand
channels, a thousand rills, to the embattled furrows of the zone of
By a strange decree of fate, a new warfare has come into being,
admirably adapted to the use and the testing of all our faculties,
organizations, and inventions--trench warfare. The principal element of
this modern warfare is lack of mobility.
The lines advance, the lines retreat, but never once, since the
establishment of the present trench swathe, have the lines of either
combatant been pushed clear out of the normal zone of hostilities. The
fierce, invisible combats are limited to the first-line positions,
averaging a mile each way behind No Man's Land. This stationary
character has made the war a daily battle; it has robbed war of all its
ancient panoply, its cavalry, its uniforms brilliant as the sun, and has
turned it into the national business. I dislike to use the word
"business," with its usual atmosphere of orderly bargaining; I intend
rather to call up an idea more familiar to American minds--the idea of a
great intricate organization with a corporate volition. The war of
to-day is a business, the people are the stockholders, and the object of
the organization is the wisest application of violence to the enemy.
To this end, in numberless secteurs along the front, special
narrow-gauge railroad lines have been built directly from the railroad
station at the edge of the shell zone to the artillery positions. To
this end the trenches have been gathered into a special telephone system
so that General Joffre at Chantilly can talk to any officers or soldiers
anywhere along the great swathe. The food, supplies, clothing, and
ammunition are delivered every day at the gate of the swathe, and calmly
redistributed to the trenches by a sort of military express system.
Only one thing ever disturbs the vast, orderly system. The bony fingers
of Death will persist in getting into the cogs of the machine.
The front is divided, according to military exigencies, into a number of
roughly equal lengths called secteurs. Each secteur is an administrative
unit with its own government and its own system adapted to the local
situation. The heart of this unit is the railroad station at which the
supplies arrive for the shell zone; in a normal secteur, one military
train arrives every day bringing the needed supplies, and one hospital
train departs, carrying the sick and wounded to the hospitals. The
station at the front is always a scene of considerable activity,
especially when the train arrives; there are pictures of old poilus in
red trousers pitching out yellow hay for the horses, commissary officers
getting their rations, and artilleurs stacking shells.
The train not being able to continue into the shell zone, the supplies
are carried to the distributing station at the trenches in a convoy of
wagons, called the ravitaillement. Every single night, somewhere along
the road, each side tries to smash up the other's ravitaillement. To
avoid this, the ravitaillement wagons start at different hours after
dark, now at dusk, now at midnight. Sometimes, close by the trenches on
a clear, still night, the plashing and creaking of the enemy's wagons
can be heard through the massacred trees. I remember being shelled along
one bleak stretch of moorland road just after a drenching December rain.
The trench lights rising over The Wood, three miles away, made the wet
road glow with a tarnished glimmer, and burnished the muddy pools into
mirrors of pale light. The ravitaillement creaked along in the darkness.
Suddenly a shell fell about a hundred yards away, and the wagons brought
up jerkily, the harnesses rattling. For ten minutes the Germans shelled
the length of road just ahead of us, but no shell came closer to us than
the first one. About thirty "seventy-seven" shells burst, some on the
road, some on the edges of the fields; we saw them as flashes of
reddish-violet light close to the ground. In the middle of the melee a
trench light rose, showing the line of halted gray wagons, the
motionless horses, and the helmeted drivers. The whole affair passed in
silence. When it was judged that the last shell had fallen, whips
cracked like pistol shots, and the line lumbered on again.
The food came to us fresh every day in a freight car fitted up like a
butcher's shop, in charge of a poilu who was a butcher in civilian life.
"So many men--so many grammes," and he would cut you off a slice. There
was a daily potato ration, and a daily extra, this last from a list ten
articles long which began again every ten days, and included beans,
macaroni, lentils, rice, and cheese. The French army is very well and
plenteously fed. Coffee, sugar, wine, and even tea are ungrudgingly
furnished. These foods are taken directly to the rear of the trenches
where the regimental cooks have their traveling kitchens. Once the food
is prepared, the cooks--the beloved cuistots--take it to the trenches in
great, steaming kettles and distribute it to the men individually. As
for clothing, every regiment has a regimental tailor shop and supply of
uniforms in the village where they go to repos. I have often seen the
soldier tailor of one of the regiments, a little Alsatian Jew, sewing up
the shell rents in a comrade's greatcoat. He had his shop in a pleasant
kitchen, and used to sit beside the fire sewing as calmly as an old
The sanitary arrangements of the trenches are the usual army latrines,
and very severe punishments are inflicted for any fouling.
If a man is wounded, the medical service man of his squad (infirmier),
or one of the stretcher-bearers (brancardiers), takes him as quickly as
possible to the regimental medical post in the rear lines. If the trench
is getting heavily shelled, and the wound is slight, the attendant takes
the man to a shelter and applies first aid until a time comes when he
and his patient can proceed to the rear with reasonable safety. At this
rear post the regimental surgeon cleans the wound, stops the bleeding,
and sends for the ambulance, which, at the Bois-le-Pretre, came right
into the heart of the trenches by sunken roads that were in reality
broad trenches. The man is then taken to the hospital that his condition
requires, the slightly wounded to one hospital, and those requiring an
operation to another. The French surgical hospitals all along the front
are marvels of cleanliness and order. The heart of each hospital is the
power plant, which sterilizes the water, runs the electric lights, and
works the X-ray generator. Mounted on an automobile body, it is always
ready to decamp in case the locality gets too dangerous. You find these
great, lumbering affairs, half steamroller, half donkey-engine, in the
courtyards of old castles, schools, and great private houses close by
The first-line trenches, in a position at all contested, are very apt
still to preserve the hurried arrangement of their first plan, which is
sometimes hardly any plan at all. It must be admitted that the Germans
have the advantage in the great majority of places, for theirs was the
first choice, and they entrenched themselves, as far as possible, along
the crests of the eastern hills of France, in a line long prepared for
just such an exigency. It has been the frightfully difficult task of the
Allies, these two years, not only to hold the positions at the foot of
these hills, in which they were at a tactical disadvantage, all their
movements being visible to the Boches on the crests above them, but also
to attack an enemy entrenched in a strong position of his own choosing.
To-day at one point along the line, the French and Germans may share the
dominating crest of a position, at another point, they may be equally
matched, and at another, such as Les Eparges, the French, after fearful
losses, have carried the coveted eminence. One phase of the business of
violence is the work of the military undertaker attached to each
secteur, who writes down in his little red book the names of the day's
dead, and arranges for the wooden cross at the head of each fresh grave.
Every day along the front is a battle in which thousands of men die.
The eastern hills of France, those pleasant rolling heights above
Rheims, Verdun, and old, provincial Pont-a-Mousson, have been literally
gorged with blood. It being out of the question to strengthen or rectify
very much the front-line trenches close to the enemy, the effort has
taken place in the rear lines. Wherever there is a certain security, the
rear lines of all the important strategic points have been converted
into veritable subterranean fortresses. The floor plan of these trenches
is an adaptation of the military theory of fortification--with its
angles, salients, and bastions--to the topography of the region. The
gigantic concrete walls of the bomb-proof shelters, the little forts to
shelter the machine guns, and the concrete passages in the rear-line
trenches will appear as heavy and massive to future generations as Roman
masonry appears to us. There are, of course, many unimportant little
links of the trench system, upon whose holding nothing depends and for
whose domination neither side cares to spend the life of a single
soldier, that have only an apology for a second position. The war needs
the money for the preparation of important places. At vital points there
may be the tremendously powerful second line, a third line, and even a
fourth line. The region between Verdun and the lines, for instance, is
the most fearful snarl of barbed wire, pits, and buried explosives that
could be imagined. The distance would have to be contested inch by inch.
The trench theory is built about the soldier. It must preserve him as
far as possible from artillery and from an infantry attack. The defenses
begin with barbed wire; then come the rifles and the machine guns; and
behind them the light artillery, the "seventy-fives," and the heavy
artillery, the "one hundred and twenties," "two hundred and twenties,"
and, now, an immense howitzer whose real caliber has been carefully
concealed. To take a trench position means the crossing of the
entanglements of No Man's Land under fire from artillery, rifles, and
machine guns, an almost impossible proceeding. An advance is possible
only after the opposing trenches have been made untenable by the
concentration of artillery fire. The great offensives begin by blowing
the first lines absolutely to pieces; this accomplished, the attacking
infantry advances to the vacated trenches under the rifle fire of those
few whom the terrible deluge of shells has not killed or crazed, works
toward the strong second position under a concentrated artillery fire of
the retreating enemy as terrible as its own, fights its way heroically
into the second position, and stops there. The great line has been bent,
has been dented, but never broken. An offensive must cover at least
twenty miles of front, for if the break is too narrow the attacking
troops will be massacred by the enemy artillery at both ends of the
broken first lines. If the front lines are one mile deep, the artillery
must put twenty-five square miles of trenches hors de combat, a task
that takes millions of shells. By the time that the first line has been
destroyed and the troops have reached the second line, the shells and
the men are pretty well used up. A great successful offensive on the
western front is theoretically possible, given millions of men, but
practically impossible. Outside of important local gains, the great
western offensives have been failures. Champagne was a failure, the
Calais drive was a failure, Verdun was a failure, and the drive on the
Somme has only bent the lines. The Germans may shorten their lines
because of a lack of men, but I firmly believe that neither their line
nor the Allies' line will ever be broken. What will be the end if the
Allies cannot wrest from Germany, Belgium and that part of northern
France she is holding for ransom--to obtain good terms at the peace
congress? Is Germany slowly, very slowly going under, or are we going to
witness complete European exhaustion? Whatever happens, poor, mourning,
desolated France will hold to the end.
In localities where no great offensive is contemplated, and the business
of violence has become a routine, the object of the commander is to keep
the enemy on the qui-vive, demoralize him by killing and wounding his
soldiers, and prevent him from strengthening his first lines. Relations
take on the character of an exchange; one day the French throw a
thousand mines (high-explosive trench shells) into the German lines, and
the next day the Germans throw a thousand back. The French smash up a
village where German troops are en repos; while it is being done, the
Germans begin to blow a French village to pieces. In the trenches the
individual soldiers throw grenades at each other, and wish that the
whole tiresome business was done with. They have two weeks in the
trenches and two weeks out of them in a cantonment behind the lines. The
period in the trenches is divided between the first lines and the rear
lines of the first position. Often on my way to the trenches at night I
would pass a regiment coming to repos. Silent, vaguely seen, in broken
step the regiment passed. Sometimes a shell would come whistling in.
There was one part of the Bois-le-Pretre region upon which nothing
depended, and the war had there settled into the casual exchange of
powder and old iron that obtains upon two thirds of the front. At the
entrance to this position, in the shadow of a beautiful clump of ash
trees, stood the rustic shelters of the regimental cooks. From behind
the wall of trees came a terrifying crash. The war-gray, iron field
kitchen, which the army slang calls a contre-torpilleur (torpedo-boat
destroyer), stood in a little clearing of the wood; there was nothing
beautiful to the machine, which was simply an iron box, two feet high
and four feet square, mounted on big wheels, and fitted with a high oval
chimney. A halo of kitcheny smell floated about it, and the open door of
its fire-box, in which brands were burning furiously, and a jet of vapor
from somewhere, gave it quite the appearance of an odd steam engine.
Beside the contre-torpilleur stood the two cooks, both unusually small
in stature. One was about thirty-two or three years old, chunky, and
gifted with short, strong, hairy arms; the other was much slighter,
younger, and so juvenile of face that his downy mustache was almost
invisible. I knew these men very well; one, the older, was a farmhand in
a village of Touraine, and the other, an errand boy in a bookbinding
works at Saint-Denis. The war had turned them into regimental cooks,
though it was the older man who did most of the cooking, while the boy
occupied himself with gathering wood and distributing the food. The
latter once confessed to me that when he heard that Americans were
coming to the Bois-le-Pretre, he had expected to see Indians, and that
he and his comrades had joked, half in jest, half in earnest, about the
Boches going to lose their scalps. The other was famous for an episode
of the July attacks: cornered in the trench by a Boche, he had emptied
his kettle of hot soup over the man's head and finished him off with a
knife. They waved friendlily at me. The farmhand, in particular, was one
of the pleasantest fellows who ever breathed; and still fond, like a
true good man of Touraine, of a Rabelaisian jest.
The road now entered the wood, and continued straight ahead down a
pleasant vista of young ash trees. Suddenly a trench, bearing its name
in little black, dauby letters on a piece of yellow board the size of a
shingle, began by the side of the forest road, and I went down into it
as I might have gone down cellar. The Boyau Poincare--such was its
title--began to curve and twist in the manner of trenches, and I came
upon a corner in the first line known as "Three Dead Men," because after
the capture of the wood, three dead Germans were found there in
mysterious, lifelike attitudes. The names of trenches on the French
front often reflect that deep, native instinct to poetry possessed by
simple peoples--the instinct that created the English ballads and the
exquisite mediaeval French legends of the saints. Other trench names
were symbolic, or patriotic, or political; we had the "Trench of the
Great Revenge," the "Trench of France," the "Trench of Aristide"
(meaning Briand), and the "Boulevard Joffre."
Beyond "Les Trois Morts," began the real lines of the position, and as I
wound my way through them to the first lines, the pleasant forest of
autumnal branches thinned to a wood of trees bare as telegraph poles. It
had taken me half an hour to get from the cook's shelters to the first
lines, and during that time I had not heard one single explosion. In the
first trench the men stood casually by their posts at the parapet, their
bluish coats in an interesting contrast to the brown wall of the trench.
Behind the sentries, who peered through the rifle slits every once in a
while, flowed the usual populace of the first-line trench, passing as
casually as if they were on a Parisian sidewalk, officers as miry as
their men, poilus of the Engineer Corps with an eye to the state of the
rifle boxes, and an old, unshaven soldier in light-brown corduroy
trousers and blue jacket, who volunteered the information that the
Boches had thrown a grenade at him as he turned the corner "down
there"--"It didn't go off." So calm an atmosphere pervaded the cold,
sunny, autumnal afternoon that the idea "the trenches" took on the
proportions of a gigantic hoax; we might have been masqueraders in the
trenches after the war was over. And the Germans were only seventy-five
feet away, across those bare poles, stumps, and matted dead brown
The atmosphere of the trench changed in a second. Every head in sight
looked up searchingly at the sky. Just over the trees, distinctly seen,
was a little, black, cylindrical package somersaulting through the air.
In another second everybody had calculated the spot in which it was
about to land, and those whom it threatened had swiftly found shelter,
either by continuing down the trench to a sharp turn, running into the
door of an abri (shelter), or simply snuggling into a hole dug in the
side of the trench. There was a moment of full, complete silence between
the time when everybody had taken refuge and the explosion of the trench
shell. The missile burst with that loud hammer pound made by a
thick-walled iron shell, and lay smoking in the withered leaves.
"It begins--it begins," said an old poilu, tossing his head. "Now we
shall have those pellets all afternoon."
An instant after the burst the trench relaxed; some of the sentries
looked back to see where the shell had fallen, others paid no attention
to it whatsoever. Once again the quiet was disturbed by a muffled boom
somewhere ahead of us, and everybody calculated and took refuge exactly
as before. The shells began to come, one on the heels of the other with
alarming frequency; hardly had one burst when another was discovered in
the air. The poilus, who had taken the first shells as a matter of
course, good-naturedly even, began to get as cross as peevish
schoolboys. It was decidedly too much of a good thing. Finally the order
was given for every one except the sentinels, who were standing under
the occasional shelters of beams and earth bridged across the trench, to
retire to the abris. I saw one of the exposed sentinels as I withdrew, a
big, heavily built, young fellow with a face as placid as that of a farm
animal; his rifle leaned against the earth of the trench, and the shadow
of the shelter fell on his expressionless features. The next sentinel
was a man in the late thirties, a tall, nervous soldier with a fierce,
The abri to which we retired was about twenty-five feet long and eight
feet wide, and had a door at either end. The hut had been dug right in
the crude, calcareous rock of Lorraine, and the beams of the roof were
deeply set into these natural walls. Along the front wall ran a corridor
about a foot wide, and between this corridor and the rear wall was a
raised platform about seven feet wide piled with hay. Sprawled in this
hay, in various attitudes, were about fifteen men, the squad that had
just completed its sentry service. Two candles hung from the massive
roof and flickered in the draughts between the two doors, revealing, in
rare periods of radiance, a shelf along the wall over the sleepers'
heads piled with canteens, knapsacks, and helmets. In the middle of the
rock wall by the corridor a semicircular funnel had been carved out to
serve as a fireplace, and at its base a flameless fire of beautiful,
crumbling red brands was glowing. This hearth cut in the living rock was
very wonderful and beautiful. Suddenly a trench shell landed right on
the roof of the abri, shaking little fragments of stone down into the
fire on the hearth. The soldiers, who sat hunched up on the edge of the
platform, their feet in the corridor, gave vent to a burst of anger that
had its source in exasperation.
"This is going too far."--"Why don't they answer?"--"Are those dirty
cows (the classic sales vaches) going to keep this up all afternoon?"
"Really, now, this is getting to be a real nuisance." Suddenly two forms
loomed large in the left doorway, and the stolid sentry of whom I have
spoken limped in on the arm of an infirmier. Voices murmured in the
obscurity, "Who is wounded?"--"Somebody wounded?" And dreamy-eyed ones
sat up in the straw. The stolid one--he could not have been much over
twenty-one or two--sat down on the edge of the straw near the fireplace,
his face showing no emotion, only a pallor. He had a painful but not
serious wound; a small fragment of iron, from a shell that had fallen
directly into the trench, had lodged in the bones of his foot. He took
off his big, ugly shoe and rested the blood-stained sock on the straw.
Voices like echoes traveled the length of the shelter--"Is it thou,
Jarnac?"--"Art thou wounded, Jarnac?" "Yes," answered the big fellow in
a bass whisper. He was a peasant of the Woevre, one of a stolid,
"The lieutenant has gone to the telephone shelter to ring up the
batteries," said the infirmier. "Good," said a vibrant, masculine voice
somewhere in the straw.
A shell coming toward you from the enemy makes a good deal of noise, but
it is not to be compared to the noise made by one's own shells rushing
on a slant just over one's head to break in the enemy's trenches
seventy-five feet away. A swift rafale of some fifty "seventy-five"
shells passed whistling like the great wind of the Apocalypse, which is
to blow when the firmament collapses. Looking through the rifle slit,
after the rafale was over, I could see puffs of smoke apparently rising
out of the carpet of dead leaves. The nervous man, the other sentry,
held up his finger for us not to make the slightest noise and
"I heard somebody yell."
"Over there by that stump."
We strained our ears to catch a sound, but heard nothing.
"I heard the yell plainly," replied the sentry.
The news seemed to give some satisfaction. At any rate, the Germans
stopped their trench shells. The quiet hush of late afternoon was at
hand. Soon the cook came down the trench with kettles of hot soup.
Five months have passed since I last saw the inhabitants of this abri,
the tenants of the "Ritz-Marmite." How many are still alive? What has
happened to this fine, brave crowd of Frenchmen, gentlemen all, bons
camarades? I have seen them on guard in a heavy winter snowstorm, when
the enemy was throwing grenades which, exploding, blew purplish-black
smudges on the snow; I have seen them so bemired in mud and slop that
they looked like effigies of brownish earth; I have watched them wading
through communication trenches that were veritable canals. And this is
the third year of the war.
The most interesting of the lot mentally was a young Socialist named
Hippolyte. He was a sous-lieutenant of the Engineers, and had quarters
of his own in the rear of the trenches, where one was always sure to
find books on social questions lying round in the hay. When the war
began he was just finishing his law course at the University of
Montpellier. A true son of the South, he was dark, short, but well
proportioned, with small hands and feet. The distinguishing features of
his countenance were his eyes and mouth--the eyes, eloquent, alert,
almost Italian; the mouth, full, firm, and dogmatic. The great orators
of the Midi must have resembled him in their youth. He was a Socialist
and a pacifist a outrance, continuing his dream of universal fraternity
in the midst of war. His work lay in building a tunnel under the
Germans, by which he hoped to blow part of the German trenches, Teutons
and all, sky-high.
The tunnei (sape) began in the third line, at a door hi the wall of the
trench strongly framed in wooden beams the size of railroad ties. At
occasional intervals along the passage the roof was reinforced by a
frame of these beams, so that the sape had the businesslike,
professional look of a gallery in a coal mine. Descending steeply to a
point twelve feet beyond the entrance, it then went at a gentle incline
under No Man's Land, and ended beneath the German trenches. It was the
original intention to blow up part of the German first line, but it
being one day discovered that the Germans were building a tunnel
parallel to the French one, it was decided to blow up the French safe so
that the explosion would spend its force underground, and cause the
walls of the German tunnel to cave in on its makers. I happened to see
the tunnel the morning of the day it was blown up. The French had
stopped working for fear of being overheard by the Germans. It was a
ticklish situation. Were the Germans aware of the French tunnel? If so,
they would blow up their own at once. Were they still continuing their
labor? The earth of the French might burst apart anyminute and rain down
again in a dreadful shower of clods, stones, and mangled bodies.
Alone, quiet, at the end of the passage under the German lines sat an
old poilu, the sentinel of the tunnel. He was an old coal miner of the
North. The light of a candle showed his quiet, bearded face, grave as
the countenance of some sculptured saint on the portico of a Gothic
church, and revealed the wrinkles and lines of many years of labor. The
sentinel held a microphone to his ears; the poles of it disappearing
into the wall of damp earth separating us from the Boches.
Hippolyte whispered, "You hear them?"
The old man nodded his head, and gave the microphone to his officer. I
saw Hippolyte listen. Then, without a word, he handed it to me. All that
I could hear was a faint tapping.
"The Boches," whispered Hippolyte.
The French blew up the sape early in the afternoon, at a time when they
felt sure the Germans were at work in their tunnel. I saw the result the
next day. A saucer-shaped depression about twenty-five feet in diameter,
and perhaps two feet deep, had appeared in No Man's Land. Even the
stumps of two trees had sunk and tilted.
It was Hippolyte who had turned on the electricity. I once talked the
matter over with him. He became at once intense, Latin, doctrinaire.
"How do you reconcile your theories of fraternity to what you have to
"I do not have to reconcile my theories to my office; I am furthering my
"By combating the Boches. Without them we might have realized our idea
of universal peace and fraternity. Voila l'ennemi! The race is a
poisonous race, serpents, massacreurs! I wish I could smother as many of
them every day as I did yesterday."
During my service I did not meet another soldier whose hatred of the
Germans was comparable to that of this advocate of universal love.
I left the trenches just at dusk. Above the dreadful depression in No
Man's Land shone a bronzy sky against which the trees raised their
haggard silhouettes. There was hardly a sound in the whole length of The
Wood. A mist came up making haloes round the rising winter stars.
The Germans Attack
The schoolmaster (instituteur) and the schoolmistress (institutrice) of
Montauville were a married couple, and had a flat of four rooms on the
second story of the schoolhouse. The kitchen of this fiat had been
struck by a shell, and was still a mess of plaster, bits of stone, and
glass, and a fragment had torn clear through the sooty bottom of a
copper saucepan still hanging on the wall. In one of the rooms, else
quite bare of furniture, was an upright piano. Sometimes while stationed
at Montauville, I whiled away the waits between calls to the trenches in
playing this instrument.
It was about nine o'clock in the morning, and thus far not a single call
had come in. The sun was shining very brightly in a sky washed clear by
a night of rain, the morning mists were rising from the wood, and up and
down the very muddy street walked little groups of soldiers. I drew up
the rickety stool and began to play the waltz from "The Count of
Luxembourg." In a short time I heard the sound of tramping on the stairs
voices. In came three poilus--a pale boy with a weary, gentle expression
in his rather faded blue eyes; a dark, heavy fellow of twenty-five or
six, with big wrists, big, muscular hands, and a rather unpleasant,
lowering face; and a little, middle-aged man with straightforward,
friendly hazel eyes and a pointed beard. The pale, boyish one carried a
violin made from a cigar box under his arm, just such a violin as the
darkies make down South. This violin was very beautifully made, and
decorated with a rustic design. I stopped playing.
"Don't, don't," cried the dark, big fellow; "we haven't heard any music
for a long time. Please keep on. Jacques, here, will accompany you."
"I never heard the waltz," said the violinist; "but if you play it over
for me once or twice, I'll try to get the air--if you would like to have
me to," he added with a shy, gentle courtesy.
So I played the rather banal waltz again, till the lad caught the tune.
He hit it amazingly well, and his ear was unusually true. The dark one
had been in Canada and was hungry for American rag-time. "'The Good Old
Summer Time'--you know that? 'Harrigan'--you know that?" he said in
English. The rag-time of "Harrigan" floated out on the street of
Montauville. But I did not care to play things which could have no
violin obligato, so I began to play what I remembered of waltzes dear to
every Frenchman's heart--the tunes of the "Merry Widow." "Sylvia" went
off with quite a dash. The concert was getting popular. Somebody wanted
to send for a certain Alphonse who had an occarina. Two other poilus,
men in the forties, came up, their dark-brown, horseshoe beards making
them look like brothers. Side by side against the faded paper on the
sunny wall they stood, surveying us contentedly. The violinist, who
turned out to be a Norman, played a solo--some music-hall fantasy, I
imagine. The next number was the ever popular "Tipperaree," which every
single poilu in the French army has learned to sing in a kind of
English. Our piano-violin duet hit off this piece even better than the
"Merry Widow." I thanked Heaven that I was not called on to translate
it, a feat frequently demanded of the American drivers. The song is
silly enough in the King's English, but in lucid, exact French, it sinks
to positive imbecility.
"You play, don't you?" said the violinist to the small bearded man.
"A little," he replied modestly.
The little man sat down at the piano, meditated a minute, and began to
play the rich chords of Rachmaninof's "Prelude." He got about half
through, when Zip-bang! a small shell burst down the street. The dark
fellow threw open the French window. The poilus were scurrying to
shelter. The pianist continued with the "Prelude."
Zip-bang! Zip-bang! Zshh--Bang--Bang. Bang-Bang!
The piano stopped. Everybody listened. The village was still as death.
Suddenly down the street came the rattle of a volley of rifle shots.
Over this sound rose the choked, metallic notes of a bugle-call. The
rifle shots continued. The ominous popping of machine guns resounded.
The village, recovering from its silence, filled with murmurs. Bang!
Bang! Bang I Bang! went some more shells. The same knowledge took
definite shape in our minds.
The violinist, clutching his instrument, hurried down the stairs
followed by all the others, leaving the chords of the uncompleted
"Prelude" to hang in the startled air. Shells were popping
everywhere--crashes of smoke and violence--in the roads, in the fields,
and overhead. The Germans were trying to isolate the few detachments en
repos in the village, and prevent reinforcements coming from Dieulouard
or any other place. To this end all the roads between Pont-a-Mousson and
the trenches, and the roads leading directly to the trenches, were being
"Go at once to Poste C!"
The winding road lay straight ahead, and just at the end of the village
street, the Germans had established a tir de barrage. This meant that a
shell was falling at that particular point about once every fifty
seconds. I heard two rafales break there as I was grinding up the
machine. Up the slope of the Montauville hill came several of the other
drivers. Tyler, of New York, a comrade who united remarkable bravery to
the kindest of hearts, followed close behind me, also evidently bound
for Poste C. German bullets, fired wildly from the ridge of The Wood
over the French trenches, sang across the Montauville valley, lodging in
the trees of Puvenelle behind us with a vicious tspt; shells broke here
and there on the stretch leading to the Quart-en-Reserve, throwing the
small rocks of the road surfacing wildly in every direction. The French
batteries to our left were firing at the Germans, the German batteries
were firing at the French trenches and the roads, and the machine guns
rattled ceaselessly. I saw the poilus hurrying up the muddy roads of the
slope of the Bois-le-Pretre--vague masses of moving blue on the brown
ways. A storm of shells was breaking round certain points in the road
and particularly at the entrance to The Wood. I wondered what had become
of the audience at the concert. Various sounds, transit of shells,
bursting of shells, crashing of near-by cannon, and rat-tat-tat-tat! of
mitrailleuses played the treble to a roar formed of echoes and
cadences--the roar of battle. The Wood of Death (Le Bois de la Mort) was
That day's attack was an attempt by the Germans to take back from the
French the eastern third of the Quart-en-Reserve and the rest of the
adjoining ridge half hidden in the shattered trees. At the top of the
plateau, by the rise in the moorland I described in the preceding
chapter, I had an instant's view of the near-by battle, for the focus
was hardly more than four hundred yards away. There was a glimpse of
human beings in the Quart--soldiers in green, soldiers in blue--the very
fact that anybody was to be seen there was profoundly stirring. They
were fighting in No Man's Land. Tyler and I watched for a second,
wondering what scenes of agony, of heroism, of despair were being
enacted in that dreadful field by the ruined wood.
We hurried our wounded to the hospital, passing on our way detachments
of soldiers rushing toward The Wood from the villages of the region.
Three or four big shells had just fallen in Dieulouard, and the village
was deserted and horribly still. The wind carried the roar of the attack
to our ears. In three quarters of an hour, I was back again at the same
moorland poste, to which an order of our commander had attached me.
Montauville was full of wounded. I had three on stretchers inside, one
beside me on the seat, and two others on the front mudguards. And The
Wood continued to sing. From Montauville I could hear the savage yells
and cries which accompanied the fighting.
Half an hour after the beginning of the attack, the war invaded the sky,
with the coming of the German reconnoitering aeroplanes. One went to
watch the roads leading to The Wood along the plateau, one went to watch
the Dieulouard road, and the other hovered over the scene of the combat.
The sky was soon dotted with the puffs of smoke left by the exploding
shells of the special anti-aircraft "seventy- fives." These puffs
blossomed from a pin-point of light to a vaporous, gray-white puff-ball
about the size of the full moon, and then dissolved in the air or blew
about in streaks and wisps. These cloudlets, fired at an aviator flying
along a certain line, often were gathered by the eye into arrangements
resembling constellations. The three machines were very high, and had a
likeness to little brown and silver insects.
The Boche watching the conflict appeared to hang almost immobile over
the Quart. With a striking suddenness, another machine appeared behind
him and above him. So unexpected was the approach of this second
aeroplane that its appearance had a touch of the miraculous. It might
have been created at that very moment in the sky. The Frenchman--for it
was an aviator from the parc at Toul, since killed at Verdun, poor
fellow--swooped beneath his antagonist and fired his machine gun at him.
The German answered with two shots of a carbine. The Frenchman fired
again. Suddenly the German machine flopped to the right and swooped
down; it then flopped to the left, the tail of the machine flew up, and
the apparatus fell, not so swiftly as one might expect, down a thousand
feet into The Wood. When I saw the wreckage, a few days afterwards, it
looked like the spilt contents of a waste-paper basket, and the
aviators, a pilot and an observer, had had to be collected from all over
the landscape. The French buried them with full military honors.
Thanks to the use of a flame machine, the Germans succeeded in regaining
the part of the ridge they had lost, but the French made it so hot for
them that they abandoned it, and the contested trenches now lie in No
Man's Land. All that night the whole Wood was illuminated, trench light
after trench light rising over the dark branches. There would be a
rocket like the trail of bronze-red powder sparks hanging for an instant
in the sky, then a loud Plop! and the French light would spread out its
parachute and sail slowly down the sky toward the river. The German
lights (fusees eclairantes), cartridges of magnesium fired from a gun
resembling a shotgun, burned only during their dazzling trajectory. At
midnight the sky darkened with low, black rain clouds, upon whose
surface the constant cannon fire flashed in pools of violet-white light.
Coming down from the plateau at two in the morning, I could see sharp
jabs of cannon fire for thirty miles along the front on the other side
of the Moselle.
Just after this attack a doctor of the army service was walking through
the trenches in which the French had made their stand. He noticed
something oddly skewered to a tree. He knocked it down with a stone, and
a human heart fell at his feet.
The most interesting question of the whole business is, "How do the
soldiers stand it?" At the beginning of my own service, I thought
Pont-a-Mousson, with its ruins, its danger, and its darkness, the most
awful place on the face of the earth. After a little while, I grew
accustomed to the decor, and when the time came for me to leave it, I
went with as much regret as if I were leaving the friendliest, most
peaceful of towns. First the decor, growing familiar, lost the keener
edges of its horror, and then the life of the front--the violence, the
destruction, the dying and the dead--all became casual, part of the
day's work. A human being is profoundly affected by those about him;
thus, when a new soldier finds himself for the first time in a trench,
he is sustained by the attitude of the veterans. Violence becomes the
commonplace; shells, gases, and flames are the things that life is made
of. The war is another lesson in the power of the species to adapt
itself to circumstances. When this power of adaptability has been
reinforced by a tenacious national will "to see the thing through," men
will stand hell itself. The slow, dogged determination of the British
cannot be more powerful than the resolution of the French. Their
decision to continue at all costs has been reached by a purely
intellectual process, and to enforce it, they have called upon those
ancient foundations of the French character, the sober reasonableness
and unbending will they inherit from Rome.
And a new religion has risen in the trenches, a faith much more akin to
Mahomet than to Christ. It is a fatalism of action. The soldier finds
his salvation in the belief that nothing will happen to him until his
hour comes, and the logical corollary of this belief, that it does no
good to worry, is his rock of ages. It is a curious thing to see
poilus--peasants, artisans, scholars--completely in the grip of this
philosophy. There has been a certain return to the Church of Rome, for
which several reasons exist, the greatest being that the war has made
men turn to spiritual things. Only an animal could be confronted with
the pageant of heroism, the glory of sacrifice, and the presence of
Death, and not be moved to a contemplation of the fountain-head of these
sublime mysteries. But it is the upper class which in particular has
returned to the Church. Before the war, rationalist and genial skeptic,
the educated Frenchman went to church because it was the thing to do,
and because non-attendance would weaken an institution which the world
was by no means ready to lay aside. This same educated Frenchman,
brought face to face with the mystery of human existence, has felt a
real need of spiritual support, and consequently returned to the Church
of his fathers.
The religious revival is a return of upper-class prodigals to the fold,
and a rekindling of the chilled brands of the faith of the amiably
skeptical. The great mass of the nation has felt this spiritual force,
but because the mass of the nation was always Catholic, nothing much has
changed. I failed to find any trace of conversions among the still
hostile working men of the towns, and the bred-in-the-bone Socialists.
The rallying of the conservative classes about the Cross is also due to
the fact that the war has exposed the mediocrity and sterile windiness
of the old socialistic governments; this misgovernment the upper classes
have determined to end once they return from the trenches, and
remembering that the Church of Rome was the enemy of the past
administrations, cannot help regarding her with a certain friendliness.
But this issue of past misgovernment will be fought out on purely
secular grounds, and the Church will be only a sympathizer behind the
fray. The manner in which the French priests have fought and died is
worthy of the admiration of the world. Never in the history of any
country has the national religion been so closely enmeshed in the
national life. The older clergy, as a rule, have been attached to the
medical services of the front, serving as hospital orderlies and
stretcher-bearers, but the younger priests have been put right into the
army and are fighting to-day as common soldiers. There are hundreds of
officer-priests--captains and lieutenants of the regular army.
But the real religion of the front is the philosophy of Mahomet. Life
will end only when Death has been decreed by Fate, and the Boches are
the unbelievers. After all, Islam in its great days was a virile faith,
the faith of a race of soldiers.
The Town In The Trenches
At the beginning of the war the German plan of campaign was to take
France on the flank by marching through Belgium, and once the success of
this northern venture assured, strike at the Verdun-Belfort line which
had baffled them in the first instance. Had they not lost the battle of
the Marne, this second venture might have proved successful, for the
body of the French army was fighting in the north, and the remaining
troops would have been discouraged by the capture of Paris. On the eve
of the battle of the Marne the campaign seeming to be well in hand in
the north, a German invasion of Lorraine began, one army striking at the
defenses of the great plateau which slopes from the Vosges to the
Moselle, and the other attempting to ascend the valley of the river. It
was this second army which entered Pont-a-Mousson.
Immediately following the declaration of hostilities the troops who had
been quartered in the town were withdrawn, and the town was left open to
the enemy who, going very cautiously, was on his way from Metz. For
several weeks in August, this city, almost directly on the frontier, saw
no soldiers, French or German. It was a time of dramatic suspense. The
best recital of it I ever heard came from the lips of the housekeeper of
Wisteria Villa, a splendid, brave French woman who had never left her
post. She was short, of a clear, tanned complexion, and always had her
hair tightly rolled up in a little classic pug. She was as fearless of
shells as a soldier in the trenches, and once went to a deserted
orchard, practically in the trenches, to get some apples for Messieurs
les Americains. When asked why she did not get them at a safer place,
she replied that she did not have to pay for these apples as the land
belonged to her father! Her ear for shells was the most accurate of the
neighborhood, and when a deafening crash would shake the kettles on the
stove and rattle the teacups, she could tell you exactly from what
direction it had come and the probable caliber. I remember one morning
seeing her wash dishes while the Germans were shelling the corner I have
already described. The window over the sink opened directly on the
dangerous area, and she might have been killed any minute by a flying
eclat. Standing with her hands in the soapy water, or wiping dry the
hideous blue-and-white dinner service of Wisteria Villa, she never even
bothered to look up to see where the shells were landing. Two
"seventy-sevens" went off with a horrid pop; "Those are only
'seventy-sevens,'" she murmured as if to herself. A fearful swish was
next heard and the house rocked to the din of an explosion. "That's a
'two hundred and ten'--the rogues--oh, the rogues!" she exclaimed in the
tone she might have used in scolding a depraved boy.
At night, when the kitchen was cleared up, she sat down to write her
daily letter to her soldier son, and once this duty finished, liked
nothing better than a friendly chat. She knew the history of
Pont-a-Mousson and Montauville and the inhabitants thereof by heart; she
had tales to tell of the shrewdness of the peasants and diverting
anecdotes of their manners and morals. These stories she told very well
"The first thing we saw was the President's poster saying not to be
alarmed, that the measures of military preparation were required by
circumstances (les evenements) and did not mean war. Then over this bill
the maire posted a notice that in case of a real mobilization (une
mobilisation serieuse) they would ring the tocsin. At eleven o'clock the
tocsin rang, oh, la la, monsieur, what a fracas! All the bells in the
town, Saint-Martin, Saint-Laurent, the hotel de ville. Immediately all
our troops went away. We did not want to see them go. 'We shall be back
again,' they said. They liked Pont-a-Mousson. Such good young fellows!
The butcher's wife has heard that only fifty-five of the six hundred who
were here are alive. They were of the active forces (de l'active). A
great many people followed the soldiers. So for two weeks we were left
all alone, wondering what was to become of us. And all the time we heard
frightful stories about the villages beyond Nancy. On the nth of August
we heard cannon for the first time, and on the 12th and the 14th we were
bombarded. On the 4th of September, at five o'clock in the evening, the
bells began to ring again. Everybody ran out to find the reason. Les
Allemands--they were not then called Boches--were coming. Baoum! went
the bridge over the Moselle. Everybody went into their houses, so that
the Germans came down streets absolutely deserted. I peeked from my
window blind. The Boches came down the road from Norroy, les Uhlans, the
infantry--how big and ugly they all were. And their officers were so
stiff (raide). They were not like our bons petits soldats Francais. In
the morning I went out to get some bread.
"'Eh la, good woman' (bonne femme), said a grand Boche to me.
"'What do you want?' said I.
"'Are there any soldats francais in the town?' said the Boche.
"'How should I know?' I answered.
"'You do not want to tell, good woman.'
"'I do not know.'
"'Are there any francs-tireurs (civilian snipers) in this town?'
"'Don't bother me; I'm going for some bread.'
"During the night all the clocks had been changed to German time. Many
of the Boches spoke French. There were Alsatians and Lorrains who did
not like the fracas at all. Yes, the Boches behaved themselves all right
at Pont-a-Mousson--there were some vulgarities (grossieretes). One of
the soldiers, a big blond, went down the street wearing an ostrich
feather hat and a woman's union suit and chemise. It was a scandale. But
uncle laughed to kill himself; he was peeping out through the blinds.
Right in front of my door were ten cannon, and all the street was full
of artillery. Well we had four days of this, hearing never a word from
the French side.
"On the night of the 9th I heard a good deal of noise, and somebody woke
up the Boches sous-officiers who were quartered in a house across the
street. I saw lights and heard shouts. I was peeping out of my window
all the time. The dark street filled with soldiers. I saw their officers
lashing them to make them hurry. They harnessed the artillery horses to
the guns, and at four o'clock in the morning there was not a single
Boche in Pont-a-Mousson. They had all gone away in the night, taking
with them the German flag on the city hall. You know, monsieur, on the
night of the 9th they received news of the battle of the Marne.
"For five days more we saw neither Francais nor Boches. Finally some
French dragoons came down the road from Dieulouard, and little by little
other soldiers came too. But, helas, monsieur, the Boches were waiting
for them in the Bois-le-Pretre."
Such was the way that Pont-a-Mousson did not become Mussenbruck. The
episode is an agreeable interlude of decency in the history of German
occupations, for that atrocities were perpetrated in Nomeny, just across
the river, is beyond question. I have talked with survivors. At
Pont-a-Mousson everything was orderly; six miles to the east, houses
were burned over the heads of the inhabitants, and women and children
I best remember the little city as it was one afternoon in early
December. The population of 17,000 had then shrunk to about 900, and
only a little furtive life lingered in the town. My promenade began at
the river-bank by the wooden footbridge crossing from the shore to the
remaining arches of the graceful eighteenth-century stone bridge blown
up in September, 1914. There is always something melancholy about a
ruined bridge, perhaps because the structure symbolizes a patient human
victory over the material world. There was something intensely tragic in
the view of the wrecked quarter of Saint-Martin, seen across the deep,
greenish, wintry river, and in the great curve of the broad flood
sullenly hurrying to Metz. At the end of the bridge, ancient and gray,
rose the two round towers of the fifteenth-century parish church, with
that blind, solemn look to them the towers of Notre Dame possess, and
beyond this edifice, a tile-roofed town and the great triangular hill
called the Mousson. It was dangerous to cross the bridge, because German
snipers occasionally fired at it, so I contented myself with looking
down the river. Beyond the Bois-le-Pretre, the next ridge to rise from
the river was a grassy spur bearing the village of Norroy on its back.
You could see the hill, only four kilometres away, the brown walls of
the village, the red roofs, and sometimes the glint of sunlight on a
window; but for us the village might have been on another planet. All
social and economic relations with Norroy had ceased since September,
1914, and reflecting on this fact, the invisible wall of the trenches
became more than a mere military wall, became a barrier to every human
relation and peaceful tie.
A sentry stood by the ruined bridge, a small, well-knit man with
beautiful silver-gray hair, blue eyes, and pink cheeks; his uniform was
exceptionally clean, and he appeared to be some decent burgher torn from
his customary life. I fell into conversation with him. He recollected
that his father, a veteran of 1870, had prophesied the present war.
"'We shall see them again, the spiked helmets (les casques a pointe),'
said my father--'we shall see them again.'
"'Why?' I asked him.
"'Because they have eaten of us, and will be hungry once more.'"
The principal street of the town led from this bridge to a great square,
and continued straight on toward Maidieres and Montauville. The
sidewalks around this square were in arcades under the houses, for the
second story of every building projected for seven or eight feet over
the first and rested on a line of arches at the edge of the street. To
avoid damage from shells bursting in the open space, every one of these
arcades, and there were perhaps a hundred all told, had been plugged
with sandbags, so that the square had an odd, blind look. A little life
flickered in the damp, dark alleys behind these obstructions. There was
a tobacco shop, kept by two pretty young women whom the younger soldiers
were always jollying, a wineshop, a tailorshop, and a bookstore, always
well supplied with the great Parisian weeklies, which one found later in
odd corners of shelters in the trenches. Occasionally a soldier bought a
serious book when it was to be found in the dusty files of the
"Collection Nelson"; I remember seeing a young lieutenant of artillery
buying Segur's "Histoire de la Grande Armee en 1812," and another taking
Flaubert's "Un coeur simple." But the military life, roughly lived, and
shared with simple people, appears to make even the wisest boyish, and
after a while at the front the intellect will not read anything
intellectual. It simply won't, perhaps because it can't. The soldier
mind delights in rough, genial, and simple jokes. A sergeant, whom I
knew to be a distinguished young scholar in civilian life, was always
throwing messages wrapped round a stone into the German trenches; the
messages were killingly funny, amiably indecent, and very jejune.
Invariably they provoked a storm of grenades, and sometimes epistles in
the same vein from the Boches. In spite of the vicious pang of the
grenades, there was an absurd "Boys-will-be-boys" air to the whole
performance. Conversation, however, did not sink to this boyish level,
and the rag-tag and bob-tail of one's cultivation found its outlet in
At the end of this street was the railroad crossing, the passage a
niveau, and the station in a jungle of dead grass and brambles. Like the
bridge, its rustiness and weediness was a dreadful symbol of the
cessation of human activity, and the blue enamel signpost lettered in
white with the legend, "Metz--32 kilometres," was another reminder of
the town to which the French aspired with all the fierce intensity of
crusaders longing for Jerusalem. It was impossible to get away from the
omnipresence of the name of the fated city--it stared at you from
obscure street corners, and was to be found on the covers of printed
books and post-cards. I saw the city once from the top of the hill of
the Mousson; its cathedral towers pierced the blue mists of the brown
moorlands, and it appeared phantasmal and tremendously distant. Yet for
those towers countless men had died, were dying, would die. A French
soldier who had made the ascent with me pointed out Metz the much
"Are you going to get it?" I asked. "Perhaps so," he replied gravely.
"After so many sacrifices." (Apres tant de sacrifices.) He made no
gesture, but I know that his vision included the soldiers' cemetery at
the foot of the Mousson hill. It lay, a rust-colored field, on the steep
hillside just at the border of the town, and was new, raw, and dreadful.
The guardian of the cemetery, an old veteran of 1870, once took me
through the place. He was a very lean, hooped-over old man with a big,
aquiline nose, blue-gray eyes framed in red lids, and a huge,
yellowish-white mustache. First he showed me the hideous picture of the
civilian cemetery, in which giant shells had torn open the tombs, hurled
great sarcophagi a distance of fifty feet, and dug craters in the rows
of graves. Though the civilian authorities had done what they could to
put the place in order, there were still memories of the disturbed dead
to whom the war had denied rest. Coming to the military cemetery, the
guardian whispered, pointing to the new mounds with his rustic cane, "I
have two colonels, three commandants, and a captain. Yes, two colonels"
(deux colonels). Following his staff, my eye looked at the graves as if
it expected to see the living men or their effigies. Somewhat apart lay
another grave. "Voila un colonel boche," said the sexton; "and a
lieutenant boche--and fifty soldats boches."
The destroyed quarter of Pont-a-Mousson lay between the main street and
the flank of the Bois-le-Pretre. The quarter was almost totally
deserted, probably not more than ten houses being inhabited out of
several thousand. The streets that led into it had grass growing high in
the gutters, and a velvety moss wearing a winter rustiness grew packed
between the paving-stones. Beyond the main street, la rue Fabvrier went
straight down this loneliness, and halted or turned at a clump of
wrecked houses a quarter of a mile away. Over this clump, slately-purple
and cold, appeared the Bois-le-Pretre, and every once in a while a puffy
cloud of greenish-brown or gray-black would float solemnly over the
crests of the trees. This stretch of la rue Fabvrier was one of the most
melancholy pictures it was possible to see. Hardly a house had been
spared by the German shells; there were pock-marks and pits of shell
fragments in the plaster, window glass outside, and holes in walls and
roofs. I wandered down the street, passing the famous miraculous statue
of the Virgin of Pont-a-Mousson. The image, only a foot or two high and
quite devoid of facial expression, managed somehow to express emotion in
the outstretched arms, drooping in a gesture at once of invitation and
acceptance. A shell had maculated the wall on each side and above the
statue, but the little niche and canopy were quite untouched. The heavy
sound of my soldier boots went dump! clump! down the silence.
At the end of the road, in the fields on the slope, a beautiful
eighteenth-century house stood behind a mossy green wall. It was just
such a French house as is the analogue of our brick mansions of Georgian
days; it was two stories high and had a great front room on each side of
an entry on both floors, each room being lighted with two
well-proportioned French windows. The outer walls were a golden brown,
and the roof, which curved in gently from the four sides to central
ridge, a very beautiful rich red. The house had the atmosphere of the
era of the French Revolution; one's fancy could people it with soberly
dressed provincial grandees. A pare of larches and hemlocks lay about
it, concealing in their silent obscurity an artificial lake heavily
coated with a pea-soup scum.
Beyond the house lay the deserted rose-garden, rank and grown to weeds.
On some of the bushes were cankered, frozen buds. In the center of the
garden, at the meeting-point of several paths, a mossy fountain was
flowing into a greenish basin shaped like a seashell, and in this basin
a poilu was washing his clothes. He was a man of thirty-eight or nine,
big, muscular, out-of-doors looking; whistling, he washed his gray
underclothes with the soap the army furnishes, wrung them, and tossed
them over the rose-bushes to dry.
"Does anybody live in this house?"
"Yes, a squad of travailleurs."
A regiment of travailleurs is attached to every secteur of trenches.
These soldiers, depending, I believe, on the Engineer Corps, are
quartered just behind the lines, and go to them every day to put them in
order, repair the roads, and do all the manual labor. Humble folk these,
peasants, ditch-diggers, road-menders, and village carpenters. Those at
Pont-a-Mousson were nearly all fathers of families, and it was one of
the sights of the war most charged with true pathos to see these
gray-haired men marching to the trenches with their shovels on their
"Are you comfortable?"
"Oh, yes. We live very quietly. I, being a stonemason and a carpenter,
stay behind and keep the house in repair. In summer we have our little
vegetable gardens down behind those trees where the Boches can't see
"Can I see the house?"
"Surely; just wait till I have finished sousing these clothes."
The room on the ground floor to the left of the hallway was imposing in
a stately Old-World way. The rooms in Wisteria Villa were rooms for
personages from Zola; this room was inhabited by ghosts from the pages
of Balzac. It was large, high, and square; the walls were hung with a
golden scroll design printed on ancient yellow silk; the furniture was
of some rich brown finish with streaks and lusters of bronzy yellow, and
a glass chandelier, all spangles and teardrops of crystal, hung from a
round golden panel in the ceiling. Over a severe Louis XVI mantel was a
large oil portrait of Pius IX, and on the opposite wall a portrait head
of a very beautiful young girl. Chestnut hair, parted in the fashion of
the late sixties, formed a silky frame round an oval face, and the
features were small and well proportioned. The most remarkable part of
the countenance were the curiously level eyes. The calm,
apart-from-the-world character of the expression in the eyes was in
interesting contrast to the good-natured and somewhat childish look in
the eyes of the old Pope.
"Who lived here?"
"An old man (un vieux). He was a captain of the Papal Zouaves in his
youth. See here, read the inscription on the portrait--'Presented by His
Holiness to a champion (defenseur) of the Church.'"
"Is he still alive?"
"He died three months ago in Paris. I should hate to die before I see
how the war is going to end. I imagine he would have been willing to
last a bit longer."
"And this picture on the right, the jeune fille?"
"That was his daughter, an only child. She became a nun, and died when
she was still young. The old man's gardener comes round from time to
time to see if the place is all right. It is a pity he is not here; he
could tell you all about them."
"You are very fortunate not to have been blown to pieces. Surely you are
very near the trenches."
"Near enough--yes, indeed. A communication trench comes right into the
cellar. But it is quiet in this part of The Wood. There is a regiment of
old Boches in the trenches opposite our territorials, fathers of
families (peres de familles), just as they are. We fire rifles at each
other from time to time just to remember it is war (c'est la guerre). We
share the crest together here; nothing depends on it. What good should
we do in killing each other? Besides it would be a waste of shells."
"How do you know that the Boches opposite you are old?"
"We see them from time to time. They are great hands at a parley. The
first thing they tell you is the number of children they have. I met an
old Boche not long ago down by the river. He held up two fingers to show
that he had two children, put his hand out just above his knee to show
the height of his first child, and raised it just above his waist to
show the height of the second. So I held up five fingers to show him I
had five children, when the Lord knows I have only one. But I did not
want to be beaten by a Boche."
A sound of voices was heard beneath us, and the clang of the shovels
being placed against the stone walls of the cellar.
"Those are the travailleurs. The sergeant will be coming in and I must
report to him. Good-bye, American friend, and come again."
A melancholy dusk was beginning as I turned home from the romantic
house, and the deserted streets were filling with purplish shadows. The
concussion of exploding shells had blown almost all the glass out of the
windows of the Church of St. Laurent, and the few brilliant red and
yellow fragments that still clung to the twisted leaden frames reminded
me of the autumn leaves that sometimes cling to winter-stricken trees.
The interior of the church was swept and garnished, and about twenty
candles with golden flames, slowly waving in the drafts from the ruined
windows, shone beneath a statue of the Virgin. There was not another
soul in the church. A terrible silence fell with the gathering darkness.
In a little wicker basket at the foot of the benignant mother were about
twenty photographs of soldiers, some in little brassy frames with spots
of verdigris on them, some the old-fashioned "cabinet" kind, some on
simple post-cards. There was a young, dark Zouave who stood with his
hand on an ugly little table, a sergeant of the Engineer Corps with a
vacant, uninteresting face, and two young infantry men, brothers, on the
same shabby finger-marked post-card. Pious hands had left them thus in
the care of the unhappy mother, "Marie, consolatrice des malheureux."
The darkness of midnight was beginning at Pont-a-Mousson, for the town
was always as black as a pit. On my way home I saw a furtive knife edge
of yellow light here and there under a door. The sentry stood by his
shuttered lantern. Suddenly the first of the trench lights flowered in
the sky over the long dark ridge of the Bois-le-Pretre.
Messieurs Les Poilus De La Grande Guerre
The word "poilu," now applied to a French soldier, means literally "a
hairy one," but the term is understood metaphorically. Since time
immemorial the possession of plenty of bodily hair has served to
indicate a certain sturdy, male bearishness, and thus the French, long
before the war, called any good, powerful fellow--"un veritable poilu."
The term has been found applied to soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. The
French soldier of to-day, coming from the trenches looking like a
well-digger, but contented, hearty, and strong, is the poilu par
The origin of the term "Boche," meaning a German, has been treated in a
thousand articles, and controversy has raged over it. The probable
origin of the term, however, lies in the Parisian slang word "caboche,"
meaning an ugly head. This became shortened to "Boche," and was applied
to foreigners of Germanic origin, in exactly the way that the
American-born laborer applies the contemptuous term "square-head" to his
competitors from northern Europe. The word "Boche" cannot be translated
by anything except "Boche," any more than our word "Wop," meaning an
Italian, can be turned into French. The same attitude, half banter, half
race contempt, lies at the heart of both terms.
When the poilus have faced the Boches for two weeks in the trenches,
they march down late at night to a village behind the lines, far enough
away from the batteries to be out of danger of everything except
occasional big shells, and near enough to be rushed up to the front in
case of an attack. There they are quartered in houses, barns, sheds, and
cellars, in everything that can decently house and shelter a man. These
two weeks of repos are the poilus' elysium, for they mean rest from
strain, safety, and comparative comfort. The English have behind their
lines model villages with macadam roads, concrete sidewalks, a water
system, a sewer system, and all kinds of schemes to make the soldiers
happy; the French have to be contented with an ordinary Lorraine
village, kept in good order by the Medical Corps, but quite destitute of
anything as chic as the British possess.
The village of cantonnement is pretty sure to be the usual brown-walled,
red-roofed village of Lorraine clumped round its parish church or
mouldering castle. In such a French village there is always a hall,
usually over the largest wineshop, called the "Salle de Fetes," and this
hall serves for the concert each regiment gives while en repos. The
Government provides for, indeed insists upon, a weekly bath, and the
bathhouse, usually some converted factory or large shed, receives its
daily consignments of companies, marching up to the douches as solemnly
as if they were going to church. Round the army continues the often busy
life of the village, for to many such a hamlet the presence of a
multitude of soldiers is a great economic boon. Grocery-shops, in
particular, do a rushing business, for any soldier who has a sou is glad
to vary the government menu with such delicacies as pates de foie gras,
little sugar biscuits, and the well- beloved tablet of chocolate.
While the grocery-man (l'epicier) is fighting somewhere in the north or
in the Argonne, madame l'epiciere stays at home and serves the
customers. At her side is her own father, an old fellow wearing big
yellow sabots, and perhaps the grocer's son and heir, a boy about twelve
years old. Madame is dressed entirely in black, not because she is in
mourning, but because it is the rural fashion; she wears a knitted
shoulder cape, a high black collar, and moves in a brisk, businesslike
way; the two men wear the blue-check overalls persons of their calling
affect, in company with very clean white collars and rather dirty,
frayed bow ties of unlovely patterns. Along the counter stand the
poilus, young, old, small, and large, all wearing various fadings of the
horizon blue, and helmets often dented. "Some pate de foie gras, madame,
s'il vous plait." "Oui, monsieur." "How much is this cheese, maman?"
cries the boy in a shrill treble. In the barrel-haunted darkness at the
rear of the shop, the old man fumbles round for some tins of jelly. The
poilu is very fond of sweets. Sometimes swish bang! a big shell comes in
unexpectedly, and shopkeepers and clients hurry, at a decent tempo, to
the cellar. There, in the earthy obscurity, one sits down on empty
herring-boxes and vegetable cases to wait calmly for the exasperating
Boches to finish their nonsense. There is a smell of kerosene oil and
onions in the air. A lantern, always on hand for just such an emergency,
burns in a corner. "Have you had a bad time in the trenches this week,
Monsieur Levrault?" says the epiciere to a big, stolid soldier who is a
"No, quite passable, Madame Champaubert."
"And Monsieur Petticollot, how is he?"
"Very well, thank you, madame. His captain was killed by a rifle grenade
"Oh, the poor man."
Crash goes a shell. Everybody wonders where it has fallen. In a few
seconds the eclats rain down into the street.
"Dirty animals," says the voice of the old man in the darkest of all the
Madame Champaubert begins the story of how a cousin of hers who keeps a
grocery-shop at Mailly, near the frontier, was cheated by a Boche
tinware salesman. The cellar listens sympathetically. The boy says
nothing, but keeps his eyes fixed on the soldiers. In about twenty
minutes the bombardment ends, and the bolder ones go out to ascertain
the damage. The soldier's purchases are lying on the counter. These he
stuffs into his musette, the cloth wallet beloved of the poilu, and
departs. The colonel's cook comes in; he has got hold of a good ham and
wants to deck it out with herbs and capers. Has madame any capers? While
she is getting them, the colonel's cook retails the cream of all the
These people of Lorraine who have stayed behind, "Lorrains," the French
term them, are thoroughly French, though there is some German blood in
their veins. This Teuton addition is of very ancient date, being due to
the constant invasions which have swept up the valley of the Moselle.
This intermingling of the races, however, continued right up to 1870,
but since then the union of French and German stock has been rare. It
was most frequent, perhaps, during the years between 1804 and 1850, when
Napoleon's domination of the principalities and states along the Rhine
led to a French social and commercial invasion of Rhenish Germany, an
invasion which ended only with the growth of German nationalism. The
middle classes in particular intermarried because they were more apt to
be engaged in commerce. But since 1870, two barriers, one geographic
--annexed Lorraine, and one intellectual--hatred, have kept the
neighbors apart. The Lorrain of to-day, no matter what his ancestors
were, is a thorough Frenchman. These Lorrains are between medium height
and tall, strongly built, with light, tawny hair, good color, and a
The poilus who come to the village en repos are from every part of
France, and are of all ages between nineteen and forty-five. I remember
seeing a boy aged only fourteen who had enlisted, and was a regular
member of an artillery regiment. The average regiment includes men of
every class and caste, for every Frenchman who can shoulder a gun is in
the war. Thus the dusty little soldier who is standing by Poste A, may
be So-and-So the sculptor, the next man to him is simple Jacques who has
a little farm near Bourges, and the man beyond, Emile, the notary's
clerk. It is this amazing fraternity that makes the French army the
greatest army in the world. The officers of a regiment of the active
forces (by l'armee active you are to understand the army actually in the
garrisons and under arms from year to year) are army officers by
profession; the officers of the reserve regiments are either retired
officers of the regular army or men who have voluntarily followed the
severe courses in the officers' training-school. Thus the colonel and
three of the commandants of a certain regiment were ex-officers of the
regular army, while all the other officers, captains, lieutenants, and
so forth, were citizens who followed civilian pursuits. Captain X was a
famous lawyer, Captain B a small merchant in a little known provincial
town, Captain C a photographer. Any Frenchman who has the requisite
education can become an officer if he is willing to devote more of his
time, than is by law required, to military service. Thus the French army
is the soul of democracy, and the officer understands, and is understood
by, his men. The spirit of the French army is remarkably fraternal, and
this fraternity is at once social and mystical. It has a social origin,
for the poilus realize that the army rests on class justice and equal
opportunity; it has a mystical strength, because war has taught the men
that it is only the human being that counts, and that comradeship is
better than insistence on the rights and virtues of pomps and prides.
After having been face to face with death for two years, a man learns
something about the true values of human life.
The men who tramp into the village at one and two o'clock in the morning
are men who have for two weeks been under a strain that two years of
experience has robbed of its tensity. But strain it is, nevertheless, as
the occasional carrying of a maniac reveals. They know very well why
they are fighting; even the most ignorant French laborer has some idea
as to what the affair is all about. The Boches attacked France who was
peacefully minding her own business; it was the duty of all Frenchmen to
defend France, so everybody went to the war. And since the war has gone
on for so long, it must be seen through to the very end. Not a single
poilu wants peace or is ready for peace. And the French, unlike the
English, have continually under their eyes the spectacle of their
devastated land. Yet I heard no ferocious talk about the Germans, no
tales of French cruelty toward German prisoners.
Nevertheless, a German prisoner who had been taken in the Bois-le-Pretre
confessed to me a horror of the French breaking through into Germany.
Looking round to see if any one was listening, he said in English, for
he was an educated man--"Just remember the French Revolution. Just
remember the French Revolution. God! what cruelties. You remember
Carrier at Nantes, don't you, my dear sir? All the things we are said to
have done in Belgium--" But here the troop of prisoners was hurried to
one side, and I never saw the man again. An army will always have all
kinds of people in it, the good, the bad, the degenerate, the depraved,
the brutal; and these types will act according to their natures. But I
can't imagine several regiments of French poilus doing in little German
towns what the Germans did at Nomeny. The backbone of the French army,
as he is the backbone of France, is the French peasant. In spite of De
Maupassant's ugly tales of the Norman country people, and Zola's studies
of the sordid, almost bestial, life of certain unhappy, peasant
families, the French peasant (cultivateur) is a very fine fellow. He has
three very good qualities, endurance, patience, and willingness to work.
Apart from these characteristics, he is an excellent fellow by himself;
not jovial, to be sure, but solid, self-respecting, and glad to make
friends when there is a chance that the friendship will be a real one.
He does not care very much for the working men of the towns, the
ouvriers, with their fantastic theories of universal brotherhood and
peace, and he hates the depute whom the working man elects as he hates a
vine fungus. A needless timidity, some fear of showing himself off as a
simpleton, has kept him from having his just influence in French
politics; but the war is freeing him from these shackles, and when peace
comes, he will make himself known: that is, if there are any peasants
left to vote.
Another thing about the peasantry is that trench warfare does not weary
them, the constant contact with the earth having nothing unusual in it.
A friend of mine, the younger son of a great landed family of the
province of Anjou, was captain of a company almost exclusively composed
of peasants of his native region; he loved them as if they were his
children, and they would follow him anywhere. The little company, almost
to a man, was wiped out in the battles round Verdun. In a letter I
received from this officer, a few days before his death, he related this
anecdote. His company was waiting, in a new trench in a new region, for
the Germans to attack. Suddenly the tension was relieved by a fierce
little discussion carried on entirely in whispers. His soldiers appeared
to be studying the earth of the trench. "What's the trouble about?" he
asked. Came the answer, "They are quarreling as to whether the earth of
this trench would best support cabbages or turnips."
It is rare to find a French workman (ouvrier) in the trenches. They have
all been taken out and sent home to make shells.
The little group to which I was most attached, and for whose hospitality
and friendly greeting I shall always be a debtor, consisted of Belin, a
railroad clerk; Bonnefon, a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; Magne,
a village schoolmaster in the Dauphine; and Gretry, proprietor of a
butcher's shop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Belin and Magne had
violins which they left in the care of a cafe-keeper in the village, and
used to play on them just before dinner. The dinner was served in the
house of the village woman who prepared the food of these four, for
sous-officiers are entitled to eat by themselves if they can find any
one kind enough to look after the cooking. If they can't, then they have
to rely entirely on the substantial but hardly delicious cuisine of
their regimental cuistot. However, at this village, Madame Brun, the
widow of the local carpenter, had offered to take the popotte, as the
French term an officer's mess. We ate in a room half parlor, half
bedchamber, decorated exclusively with holy pictures. This was a good
specimen menu--bread, vermicelli soup, apple fritters, potato salad,
boiled beef, red wine, and coffee. Of this dinner, the Government
furnished the potatoes, the bread, the meat, the coffee, the wine, and
the condiments; private purses paid for the fritters, the vermicelli,
and the bits of onion in the salad. Standing round their barns the
private soldiers were having a tasty stew of meat and potatoes cooked by
the field kitchen, bread, and a cupful of boiled lentils (known in the
army as "edible bedbugs"), all washed down with the army pinard, or red
This village in which the troops were lodged revealed in an interesting
way the course of French history. Across the river on a rise was a cross
commemorating the victory of the Emperor Jo vin over the invading
Germans in 371, and sunken in the bed of the Moselle were still seen
lengths of Roman dikes. The heart of the village, however, was the
corpse of a fourteenth-century castle which Richelieu had dismantled in
1630. Its destiny had been a curious one. Dismantled by Richelieu,
sacked in the French Revolution, it had finally become a kind of
gigantic mediaeval apartment house for the peasants of the region. The
salle d'honneur was cut up into little rooms, the room of the seigneur
became a haymow, and the cellars of the towers were used to store
potatoes in. About twenty little chimneys rose over the old, dilapidated
battlements. A haymow in this castle was the most picturesque thing I
ever saw in a cantonment. It was the wreck of a lofty and noble
fifteenth-century room, the ceiling, still a rich red brown, was
supported on beautiful square beams, and a cross-barred window of the
Renaissance, of which only the stonework remained, commanded a fine view
over the river. The walls of the room were of stone, whitewashed years
before, and the floor was an ordinary barn floor made of common planks
and covered with a foot of new, clean hay. In the center of the southern
wall was a Gothic fireplace, still black and ashy within. On the corners
of this mantel hung clusters of canteens, guns were stacked by it, and a
blue overcoat was rolled up at its base. An old man, the proprietor of
the loft, followed us up, made signs that he was completely deaf, and
traced in the dust on the floor the date, 1470.
The concerts were held in the "Salle de Fetes," a hall in which, during
peace time, the village celebrates its little festivals. It was an ugly,
bare shed with a sloping roof resting on iron girders painted clay
white, but the poilus had beautified it with a home-made stage and
rustic greenery. The proscenium arch, painted by Bonnefon, was
pearl-gray in color and decorated with panels of gilt stripes; and a
shield showing the lictor's rods, a red liberty cap and the letters "R.
F." served as a headpiece. The scenery, also the work of Bonnefon,
represented a Versailles kind of garden full of statues and very watery
fountains. There was no curtain. Just below the stage a semicircle of
chairs had been arranged for the officers of the regiment, and behind
these were wooden benches and a large space for standing room. By the
time the concert was supposed to begin, every bench was filled, and
standing room was at a premium. Suddenly there were cries of "Le
Colonel," and everybody stood up as the fine-looking old colonel and his
staff took their places. The orchestra, composed of a pianist, a few
violinists, and a flute-player, began to play the "Marseillaise." When
the music was over, and everybody decently quiet, the concert began.
"Le Camarade Tollot, of the Theatre des Varietes de Paris will recite
'Le Dernier Drapeau,'" shouted the announcer. Le Camarade Tollot walked
on the stage and bowed, a big, important young man with a lion's mane of
dark hair. Then, striking an attitude, he recited in the best French,
ranting style, a rhymed tale of a battle in which many regiments charged
together, flags flying. One by one the flags fell to the ground as the
bearers were cut down by the withering fire of the enemy; all save one
who struggled on. It was a fine, old-fashioned, dramatic
"will-he-get-there-yes-he-will-he-falls" sort of thing. "Il tombe," said
le Camarade Tollot, in what used to be called the "oratorical
orotund"--"il tombe." There was a full pause. He was wounded. He rose
staggering to his feet. All the other flags were down. He advanced--the
last flag (le dernier drapeau) reached the enemy--and died just as his
comrades, heartened by his courage, had rallied and were charging to
victory. A tremendous storm of applause greeted the speaker, who favored
us with the recital of a short, sentimental poem as an encore.
The next number was thus announced: "Le Camarade Millet will sound,
first, all the French bugle-calls and then the Boche ones." Le Camarade
Millet, a big man with a fine horseshoe beard, stood at the edge of the
stage, said, "la Charge francais" and blew it on the bugle; then "la
Charge boche," and blew that. "La Retraite francais--La Retraite boche,"
etc. Another salvo of applause was given to le Camarade Millet.
"Le Camarade Roland."
Le Camarade Roland was about twenty-one or two years old, but his eyes
were old and wise, and he had evidently seen life. He was dark-haired
and a little below medium height. The red scar of a wound appeared just
below his left ear. After marking time with his feet, he began a kind of
patter song about having a telephone, every verse of which ended, "Oh,
la la, j'ai le telephone chez moi" (I've a telephone in my house). "I
know who is unfaithful now--who have horns upon their brow," the singer
told of surprising secrets and unsuspected affaires de coeur. The silly,
music-hall song may seem banal now, but it amused us hugely then. "Le
"Oh, if you could have seen your son, My mother, my mother, Oh, if you
could have seen your son, With the regiment"--sang Camarade Duclos,
another old-eyed youngster. There was amiable adventure with an amiable
"blonde" (oh, if you could have seen your son); another with a "jolie
brune" (oh, ma mere, ma mere); and still another lecon d'amour. The
refrain had a catchy lilt to it, and the poilus began humming it.
"Le Camarade Salvatore."
The newcomer was a big, obese Corsican mountaineer, with a pleasant,
round face and brown eyes. He advanced quietly to the side of the stage
holding a ten-sou tin flute in his hand, and when he began to play, for
an instant I forgot all about the Bois-le-Pretre, the trenches, and
everything else. The man was a born musician. I never heard anything
more tender and sweet than the little melody he played. The poilus
listened in profound silence, and when he had finished, a kind of sigh
exhaled from the hearts of the audience.
There followed another singer, a violinist, and a clown whose song of a
soldier on furlough finished with these appreciated couplets:--
"The Government says it is the thing To have a baby every spring; So
when your son Is twenty-one, He'll come to the trenches and take papa's
place. So do your duty by the race."
In the uproar of cheers of "That's right," and so on, the concert ended.
The day after the concert was Sunday, and at about ten o'clock that
morning a young soldier with a fluffy, yellow chin beard came down the
muddy street shouting, "le Mouchoir, le Mouchoir." About two or three
hundred paper sheets were clutched tightly in his left hand, and he was
selling them for a sou apiece. Little groups of poilus gathered round
the soldier newsboy; I saw some of them laughing as they went away. The
paper was the trench paper of the Bois-le-Pretre, named the "Mouchoir"
(the handkerchief) from a famous position thus called in the Bois. The
jokes in it were like the jokes in a local minstrel show, puns on local
names, jests about the Boches, and good-humored satire. The spirit of
the "Mouchoir" was whole-heartedly amateur. Thus the issue which
followed a heavy snowfall contained this genuine wish:--
"Oh, snow, Please go, Leave the trench Of the French; Cross the band Of
No Man's Land To where the Boche lies. Freeze him, Squeeze him, Soak
him, Choke him, Cover him, Smother him, Till the beggar dies."
This is far from an exact translation, but the idea and the spirit have
been faithfully preserved. The "Mouchoir" was always a bit more
squeamish than the average, rollicking trench journal, for it was issued
by a group of medical service men who were almost all priests. Indeed,
there were some issues that combined satire, puns, and piety in a
terrifying manner. Its editors printed it in the cellar of the church,
using a simple sheet of gelatine for their press.
I wandered in to see the church. The usual number of civilians were to
be seen, and a generous sprinkling of soldiers. Through the open door of
the edifice the sounds of a mine-throwing competition at the Bois
occasionally drifted. The abbe, a big, dark man of thirty-four or five,
with a deep, resonant voice and positive gestures, had come to the
"Brethren," said he, "in place of a sermon this morning, I shall read
the annual exposition of our Christian faith" (exposition de la foi
chretienne). He began reading from a little book a historical account of
the creation and the temptation, and so concise was the language and so
certain his voice that I had the sensation of listening to a series of
events that had actually taken place. He might have been reading the
communique. "Le premier homme was called Adam, and la premiere femme,
Eve. Certain angels began a revolt against God; they are called the bad
angels or the demons." (Certains anges se sont mis en revolte contre
Dieu; il sont appelles les mauvais anges ou les demons.) "And from this
original sin arrives all the troubles, Death to which the human race is
subjected." Such was the discourse I heard in the church by the trenches
to the accompaniment of the distant chanting of The Wood.
Going by again late in the afternoon, I saw the end of an officer's
funeral. The body, in a wooden box covered with the tricolor, was being
carried out between two files of muddy soldiers, who stood at attention,
bayonets fixed. A peasant's cart, a tumbril, was waiting to take the
body to the cemetery; the driver was having a hard time con-trolling a
foolish and restive horse. The colonel, a fine-looking man in the
sixties, came last from the church, and stood on the steps surrounded by
his officers. The dusk was falling.
"Officiers, sous-officiers, soldats.
"Lieutenant de Blanchet, whose death we deplore, was a gallant officer,
a true comrade, and a loyal Frenchman. In order that France might live,
he was willing to close his eyes on her forever."
The officer advanced to the tumbril and holding his hand high said:--
"Farewell--de Blanchet, we say unto thee the eternal adieu."
The door of the church was wide open. The sacristan put out the candles,
and the smoke from them rose like incense into the air. The tumbril
rattled away in the dusk. My mind returned again to the phrases of the
sermon,--original sin, death, life, of a sudden, seemed strangely
It would be hard to find any one more courteous and kind than the French
officer. A good deal of the success of the American Ambulance Field
Sections in France is due to the hospitality and bon acceuil of the
French, and to the work of the French officers attached to the Sections.
In Lieutenant Kuhlman, who commanded at Pont-a-Mousson, every American
had a good friend and tactful, hard-working officer; in Lieutenant Maas,
who commanded at Verdun, the qualities of administrative ability and
perfect courtesy were most happily joined.
The principal characteristic of the French soldier is his
Preparing The Defense Of Verdun
Every three months, if the military situation will allow of it and every
other man in his group has likewise been away, the French soldier gets a
six days' furlough. The slips of paper which are then given out are
called feuilles de permission, and the lucky soldier is called a
permissionnaire. When the combats that gave the Bois-le-Pretre its
sinister nickname began to peter out, the poilus who had done the
fighting were accorded these little vacations, and almost every
afternoon the straggling groups of joyous permissionnaires were seen on
the road between the trenches and the station. The expression on the
faces was never that of having been rescued from a living hell; it
expressed joy and prospect of a good time rather than deliverance.
When I got my permission, a comrade took me to the station at a certain
rail-head where a special train started for Paris, and by paying extra I
was allowed to travel second class. I shall not dwell on the journey
because I did not meet a single human being worth recording during the
trip. At eight at night I arrived in Paris. So varied had been my
experiences at the front that had I stepped out into a dark and deserted
city I should not have been surprised. The poilu, when he sees the city
lights again, almost feels like saying, "Why, it is still here!" Many of
them look frankly at the women, not in the spirit of gallant adventure,
but out of pure curiosity. In spite of the French reputation for roguish
licentiousness, the sex question never seems to intrude very much along
the battle-line, perhaps because there is so little to suggest it.
Certainly conversation at the front ignores sex altogether, and speech
there is remarkably decent and clean. Of course, when music-hall songs
are sung at the concerts, the other sex is sometimes more than casually
mentioned. It is the comic papers which are responsible for the myth
that the period of furlough is spent in a Roman orgy; this is, of
course, true of some few, but for the great majority the reverse rules,
and une permission is spent in a typically French way, paying formal
calls to the oldest friends of the family, being with the family as much
as possible, and attending to such homely affairs as the purchase of
socks and underclothes. In the evening brave Jacques or Georges or
Francois is visited by all his old cronies, who gather round the hero
and ask him questions, and he is solemnly kissed by all his relatives.
One evening is sure to be consecrated to a grand family reunion at a
I determined to observe, during my permission, the new France which has
come into being since the outbreak of the war, and the attitude of the
French toward their allies. I knew the old France pretty well. Putting
any ridiculous ideas of French decadence aside, the France of the last
ten years did not have the international standing of an older France.
The Delcasse incident had revealed a France evidently untaught by the
lesson of 1870, and if the Moroccan question ended in a French victory,
it was frankly won by getting behind the petticoats of England. The
nation was unprepared for war, torn by political strife, and in a
position to be ruthlessly trampled on by the Germans. The France of
1900-13 is not a very pleasant France to remember.
For one thing, the bitter strife aroused by the breaking of the
Concordat and the seizure of the property of the Church was slowly
crystallizing into an icy hatred, the worst in the world, the hatred of
a man who has been robbed. The Church Separation Law may have been right
in theory, and with the liberal tendencies of the reformers one may have
every sympathy, but the fact remains that the sale and dispersion of the
ecclesiastical property passed in a storm of corruption and graft.
Properties worth many thousands of dollars were juggled among political
henchmen, sold for a song, and sold again at a great profit. Even as the
Southerners complain of the Reconstruction rather than of the Civil War,
so do the French Catholics complain, not of the law, but of its
aftermath. The Socialist- Labor Party exultant, the Catholic Party
wronged and revengeful, and all the other thousand parties of the French
Government at one another's throats, there seemed little hope for the
real France. The tragedy of the thing lay in the fact that this disunion
and strife was caused by the excess of a good quality; in other words,
that the remarkable ability of every Frenchman to think for himself was
destroying the national unity.
Meanwhile, what was the state of the army and navy?
The Minister of War of the radicals who had triumphed was General Andre,
a narrow, bigoted doctrinaire. The force behind the evil work of this
man can be hardly realized by those who are unfamiliar with the passion
with which the French invest the idea. There are times when the French,
the most brilliant people in the world as a nation, seem to lack mental
brakes--when the idea so obsesses them, that they become fanatics,--not
the emotional, English type of fanatic, but a cold, hard-headed,
intellectual Latin type. The radical Frenchman says, "Are the Gospels
true?" "Presumably no, according to modern science and historical
research." "Then away with everything founded on the Gospels," he
replies; and begins a cold-blooded, highly intellectual campaign of
destruction. Thus it is that the average French church or public
building of any antiquity, whether it be in Paris or in an obscure
village, has been so often mutilated that it is only a shadow of itself.
France is strewn with wrecks of buildings embodying disputed ideas. And
worst of all, these buildings were rarely sacked by a mob; the
revolutionary commune, in many cases, paying laborers to smash windows
and destroy sculpture at so much a day.
Andre believed it his mission to extirpate all conservatism, whether
Catholic or not, from the army. In a few short months, by a campaign of
delation and espionage, he had completely disorganized the army, the
only really national institution left in France. Officers of standing,
suspected of any reactionary political tendency, were discharged by the
thousand; and officers against whom no charge could be brought were
refused ammunition, even though they were stationed at a ticklish point
on the frontier. At the same time a like disorganization was taking
place in the navy, the evil genius of the Marine being the Minister
Those who saw, in 1912, the ceremonies attendant on the deposition of
the bones of Jean Jacques Rousseau in the Pantheon were sick at heart.
Never had the Government of France sunk so low. The Royalists shouted,
the extreme radicals hooted, and when the carriage of Fallieres passed,
it was seen that humorists had somehow succeeded in writing jocose
inscriptions on the presidential carriage. The head of the French
nation, a short, pudgy man, the incarnation of pontifying mediocrity,
went by with an expression on his face like that of a terrified,
elderly, pink rabbit. The bescrawled carriage and its humiliated
occupant passed by to an accompaniment of jeering. Everybody--parties
and populace--was jeering. The scene was disgusting.
The election of Poincare, a man of genuine distinction, was a sign of
better times. Millerand became Minister of War, and began the
reorganization of the army, thus making possible the victory of the
Marne. But a petty intrigue led by a group of radicals caused the
resignation of this minister at a time when the First Balkan War
threatened to engulf Europe. The maneuver was inexcusable. Messimy, an
attache of the group who had led the attack, took Millerand's place.
When the war broke out, Messimy was invited to make himself scarce, and
Millerand returned to his post. Thanks to him, the army was as ready as
an army in a democratic country can be.
The France of 1915-16 is a new France. The nation has learned that if it
is to live it must cease tearing itself to pieces, and all parties are
united in a "Holy Union" (l'Union Sacree). Truce in the face of a common
danger or a real union? Will it last? Alarmists whisper that when the
war is over, the army will settle its score with the politicians. Others
predict a great victory for the radicals, because the industrial classes
are safe at home making shells while the conservative peasants are being
killed off in the trenches. Everybody in France is saying, "What will
happen when the army comes home?" There is to-day only one man in France
completely trusted by all classes--General Joffre, and if by any chance
there should be political troubles after the war, the army and the
nation will look to him.
The French fully realize what the English alliance has meant to them,
and are grateful for Engish aid. As the titanic character of England's
mighty effort becomes clearer, the sympathy with England will increase.
Of course one cannot expect the French to understand the state of mind
which insists upon a volunteer system in the face of the deadliest and
most terrible foe. The attitude of the English to sport has rather
perplexed them, and they did not like the action of some English
officers in bringing a pack of hounds to the Flanders front. It was
thought that officers should be soldiers first and sportsmen afterward,
and the knowledge that dilettante English officers were riding to hounds
while the English nation was resisting conscription and Jean, Jacques,
and Pierre were doing the fighting and dying in the trenches, provoked a
secret and bitter disdain.
But since the British have got into the war as a nation, this secret
disdain has been forgotten, and the poilu has taken "le Tommie" to his