Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

A Volunteer Poilu by Henry Sheahan

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

I heard only the friendliest criticism of the Russians.

It is a rather delicate task to say what the French think of the
Americans, for the real truth is that they think of us but rarely. Our
quarrel with Germany over the submarines interested them somewhat, but
this interest rapidly died away when it became evident that we were not
going to do anything about it. They see our flag over countless charity
depots, hospitals, and benevolent institutions, and are grateful. The
poilu would be glad to see us in the fray simply because of the aid we
should bring, but he is reasonable enough to know that the United States
can keep out of the melee without losing any moral prestige. The only
hostile criticism of America that I heard came from doctrinaires who saw
the war as a conflict between autocracy and democracy, and if you grant
that this point of view is the right one, these thinkers have a right to
despise us. But the Frenchman knows that the Allies represent something
more than "virtue-on-a-rampage."

In Lyons I saw a sight at once ludicrous and pathetic. Two little
dragoons of the class of 1917, stripling boys of eighteen or nineteen at
the most, walked across the public square; their uniforms were too large
for them, the skirts of their great blue mantles barely hung above the
dust of the street, and their enormous warlike helmets and flowing
horse-tails were ill-suited to their boyish heads. As I looked at them,
I thought of the blue bundles I had seen drying upon the barbed wire,
and felt sick at the brutality of the whole awful business. The sun was
shining over the bluish mists of Lyons, and the bell of old Saint-Jean
was ringing. Two Zouaves, stone blind, went by guided by a little, fat
infirmier. At the frontier, the General Staff was preparing the defense
of Verdun.

One great nation, for the sake of a city valueless from a military point
of view, was preparing to kill several hundred thousand of its citizens,
and another great nation, anxious to retain the city, was preparing
calmly for a parallel hecatomb. There is something awful and dreadful
about the orderliness of a great offensive, for while one's imagination
is grasped by the grandeur and the organization of the thing, all one's
faculties of intellect are revolted by the stark brutality of death en
masse.

Early in February we were called to Bar-le-Duc, a pleasant old city some
distance behind Verdun. Several hundred thousand men were soon going to
be killed and wounded, and the city was in a feverish haste of
preparation. So many thousand cans of ether, so many thousand pounds of
lint, so many million shells, so many ambulances, so many hundred
thousand litres of gasoline. Nobody knew when the Germans were going to
strike.

During the winter great activity in the German trenches near Verdun had
led the French to expect an attack, but it was not till the end of
January that aeroplane reconnoitering made certain the imminence of an
offensive. As a first step in countering it, the French authorities
prepared in the villages surrounding Bar-le-Duc a number of depots for
troops, army supplies, and ammunition. Of this organization, Bar-le-Duc
was the key. The preparations for the counter-attack were there
centralized. Day after day convoys of motor-lorries carrying troops
ground into town and disappeared to the eastward; big mortars mounted on
trucks came rattling over the pavements to go no one knew where; and
khaki-clad troops, troupes d'attaque, tanned Marocains and chunky,
bull-necked Zouaves, crossed the bridge over the Ornain and marched
away. At the turn in the road a new transparency had been erected, with
VERDUN printed on it in huge letters. Now and then a soldier, catching
sight of it, would nudge his comrade.

On the 18th we were told to be in readiness to go at any minute and
permissions to leave the barrack yard were recalled.

The attack began with an air raid on Bar-le-Duc. I was working on my
engine in the sunlit barrack yard when I heard a muffled Pom! somewhere
to the right. Two French drivers who were putting a tire on their car
jumped up with a "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ca?" We stood together looking
round. Beyond a wall on the other side of the river great volumes of
brownish smoke were rolling up, and high in the air, brown and silvery,
like great locusts, were two German aeroplanes.

"Nom d'un chien, il y'en a plusieurs," said one of the Frenchmen,
pointing out four, five, seven, nine aeroplanes. One seemed to hang
immobile over the barrack yard. I fancy we all had visions of what would
happen if a bomb hit the near-by gasoline reserve. Men ran across the
yard to the shelter of the dormitories; some, caught as we were in the
open, preferred to take a chance on dropping flat under a car. A
whistling scream, a kind of shrill, increasing shriek, sounded in the
air and ended in a crash. Smoke rolled up heavily in another direction.
Another whistle, another crash, another and another and another. The
last building struck shot up great tongues of flame. "C'est la gare,"
said somebody. Across the yard a comrade's arm beckoned me, "Come on,
we've got to help put out the fires!"

The streets were quite deserted; horses and wagons abandoned to their
fate were, however, quietly holding their places. Faces, emotionally
divided between fear and strong interest, peered at us as we ran by,
disappearing at the first whistle of a bomb, for all the world like
hermit-crabs into their shells. A whistle sent us both scurrying into a
passageway; the shell fell with a wicked hiss, and, scattering the
paving-stones to the four winds, blew a shallow crater in the roadway. A
big cart horse, hit in the neck and forelegs by fragments of the shell,
screamed hideously. Right at the bridge, the sentry, an old territorial,
was watching the whole scene from his flimsy box with every appearance
of unconcern.

Not the station itself, but a kind of baggage-shed was on fire. A hose
fed by an old-fashioned seesaw pump was being played on the flames.
Officials of the railroad company ran to and fro shouting unintelligible
orders. For five minutes more the German aeroplanes hovered overhead,
then slowly melted away into the sky to the south-east. The raid had
lasted, I imagine, just about twenty minutes.

That night, fearing another raid, all lights were extinguished in the
town and at the barracks. Before rolling up in my blankets, I went out
into the yard to get a few breaths of fresh air. Through the night air,
rising and falling with the wind, I heard in one of the random silences
of the night a low, distant drumming of artillery.

Chapter X

The Great Days of Verdun

The Verdun I saw in April, 1913, was an out-of-the-way provincial city
of little importance outside of its situation as the nucleus of a great
fortress. There were two cities--an old one, la ville des eveques, on a
kind of acropolis rising from the left bank of the Meuse, and a newer
one built on the meadows of the river. Round the acropolis Vauban had
built a citadel whose steep, green-black walls struck root in the mean
streets and narrow lanes on the slopes. Sunless by-ways, ill-paved and
sour with the odor of surface drainage, led to it. Always picturesque,
the old town now and then took on a real beauty. There were fine,
shield-bearing doorways of the Renaissance to be seen, Gothic windows in
greasy walls, and here and there at a street corner a huddle of
half-timbered houses in a high contrast of invading sunlight and
retreating shade. From the cathedral parapet, there was a view of the
distant forts, and a horizontal sweep of the unharvested, buff-brown
moorlands.

"Un peu morte," say the French who knew Verdun before the war. The new
town was without distinction. It was out of date. It had none of the
glories that the province copies from Paris, no boulevards, no grandes
aerteres. Such life as there was, was military. Rue Mazel was bright
with the gold braid and scarlet of the fournisseurs militaires, and in
the late afternoon chic young officers enlivened the provincial
dinginess with a brave show of handsome uniforms. All day long squads of
soldiers went flick! flack! up and down the street and bugle-calls
sounded piercingly from the citadel. The soldiery submerged the civil
population.

With no industries of any importance, and becoming less and less of an
economic center as the depopulation of the Woevre continued, Verdun
lived for its garrison. A fortress since Roman days, the city could not
escape its historic destiny. Remembering the citadel, the buttressed
cathedral, the soldiery, and the military tradition, the visitor felt
himself to be in a soldier's country strong with the memory of many
wars.

The next day, at noon, we were ordered to go to M------, and at 12.15 we
were in convoy formation in the road by the barracks wall. The great
route nationale from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun runs through a rolling,
buff-brown moorland, poor in villages and arid and desolate in aspect.
Now it sinks through moorland valleys, now it cuts bowl-shaped
depressions in which the spring rains have bred green quagmires, and
now, rising, leaps the crest of a hill commanding a landscape of
ocean-like immensity.

Gray segments of the road disappear ahead behind fuzzy monticules; a
cloud of wood-smoke hangs low over some invisible village in a fold of
the moor, and patches of woodland lie like mantles on the barren slopes.
Great swathes of barbed wire, a quarter of a mile in width, advancing
and retreating, rising and falling with the geographical nature of the
defensive position, disappear on both sides to the horizon. And so thick
is this wire spread, that after a certain distance the eye fails to
distinguish the individual threads and sees only rows of stout black
posts filled with a steely, purple mist.

We went though several villages, being greeted in every one with the
inevitable error, Anglais! We dodged interminable motor-convoys carrying
troops, the poilus sitting unconcernedly along the benches at the side,
their rifles tight between their knees. At midnight we arrived at
B------, four miles and a half west of Verdun. The night was clear and
bitter cold; the ice-blue winter stars were westering. Refugees tramped
past in the darkness. By the sputtering light of a match, I saw a woman
go by with a cat in a canary cage; the animal moved uneasily, its eyes
shone with fear. A middle-aged soldier went by accompanying an old woman
and a young girl. Many pushed baby carriages ahead of them full of
knick-knacks and packages.

The crossroad where the ambulances turned off was a maze of beams of
light from the autos. There was shouting of orders which nobody could
carry out. Wounded, able to walk, passed through the beams of the lamps,
the red of their bloodstains, detached against the white of the
bandages, presenting the sharpest of contrasts in the silvery glare. At
the station, men who had died in the ambulances were dumped hurriedly in
a plot of grass by the side of the roadway and covered with a blanket.
Never was there seen such a bedlam! But on the main road the great
convoys moved smoothly on as if held together by an invisible chain. A
smouldering in the sky told of fires in Verdun.

From a high hill between B------and Verdun I got my first good look at
the bombardment. From the edge of earth and sky, far across the
moorlands, ray after ray of violet-white fire made a swift stab at the
stars. Mingled with the rays, now seen here, now there, the
reddish-violet semicircle of the great mortars flared for the briefest
instant above the horizon. From the direction of this inferno came a
loud roaring, a rumbling and roaring, increasing in volume--the sound of
a great river tossing huge rocks through subterranean abysses. Every
little while a great shell, falling in the city, would blow a great hole
of white in the night, and so thundering was the crash of arrival that
we almost expected to see the city sink into the earth.

Terrible in the desolation of the night, on fire, haunted by specters of
wounded men who crept along the narrow lanes by the city walls, Verdun
was once more undergoing the destinies of war. The shells were falling
along rue Mazel and on the citadel. A group of old houses by the Meuse
had burnt to rafters of flickering flame, and as I passed them, one
collapsed into the flooded river in a cloud of hissing steam.

In order to escape shells, the wounded were taking the obscure by-ways
of the town. Our wounded had started to walk to the ambulance station
with the others, but, being weak and exhausted, had collapsed on the
way. They were waiting for us at a little house just beyond the walls.
Said one to the other, "As-tu-vu Maurice?" and the other answered
without any emotion, "II est mort."

The 24th was the most dreadful day. The wind and snow swept the heights
of the desolate moor, seriously interfering with the running of the
automobiles. Here and there, on a slope, a lorry was stuck in the slush,
though the soldier passengers were out of it and doing their best to
push it along. The cannonade was still so intense that, in intervals
between the heavier snow-flurries, I could see the stabs of fire in the
brownish sky. Wrapped in sheepskins and muffled to the ears in knitted
scarves that might have come from New England, the territorials who had
charge of the road were filling the ruts with crushed rock. Exhaustion
had begun to tell on the horses; many lay dead and snowy in the frozen
fields. A detachment of khaki-clad, red-fezzed colonial troops passed
by, bent to the storm. The news was of the most depressing sort. The
wounded could give you only the story of their part of the line, and you
heard over and over again, "Nous avons recules." A detachment of cavalry
was at hand; their casques and dark-blue mantles gave them a crusading
air. And through the increasing cold and darkness of late afternoon,
troops, cannons, horsemen, and motor-trucks vanished toward the edge of
the moor where flashed with increasing brilliance the rays of the
artillery.

I saw some German prisoners for the first time at T---, below Verdun.
They had been marched down from the firing-line. Young men in the
twenties for the most part, they seemed even more war-worn than the
French. The hideous, helot-like uniform of the German private hung
loosely on their shoulders, and the color of their skin was unhealthy
and greenish. They were far from appearing starved; I noticed two or
three who looked particularly sound and hearty. Nevertheless, they were
by no means as sound-looking as the ruddier French.

The poilus crowded round to see them, staring into their faces without
the least malevolence. At last--at last--voila enfin des Boches! A
little to the side stood a strange pair, two big men wearing an odd kind
of grayish protector and apron over their bodies. Against a near-by wall
stood a kind of flattish tank to which a long metallic hose was
attached. The French soldiers eyed them with contempt and disgust. I
caught the words, "Flame-throwers!"

I do not know what we should have done at Verdun without Lieutenant
Roeder, our mechanical officer. All the boys behaved splendidly, but
Lieutenant Roeder had the tremendously difficult task of keeping the
Section going when the rolling-stock was none too good, and fearful
weather and too constant usage had reduced some of the wagons to wrecks.
It was all the finer of him because he was by profession a
bacteriologist. Still very young, he had done distinguished work. Simply
because there was no one else to attend to the mechanical department, he
had volunteered for this most tiresome and disagreeable task. There is
not a single driver in Section II who does not owe much to the friendly
counsel, splendid courage, and keen mind of George Roeder.

A few miles below Verdun, on a narrow strip of meadowland between the
river and the northern bluffs, stood an eighteenth-century chateau and
the half-dozen houses of its dependents. The hurrying river had flooded
the low fields and then retreated, turning the meadows and pasturages to
bright green, puddly marshes, malodorous with swampy exhalations. Beyond
the swirls and currents of the river and its vanishing islands of
pale-green pebbles, rose the brown, deserted hills of the Hauts de
Meuse. The top of one height had been pinched into the rectangle of a
fortress; little forests ran along the sky-line of the heights, and a
narrow road, slanting across a spur of the valley, climbed and
disappeared.

The chateau itself was a huge, three-story box of gray-white stone with
a slate roof, a little turret en poivriere at each corner, and a
graceless classic doorway in the principal facade. A wide double gate,
with a coronet in a tarnished gold medallion set in the iron arch-piece,
gave entrance to this place through a kind of courtyard formed by the
rear of the chateau and the walls of two low wings devoted to the
stables and the servants' quarters. Within, a high clump of dark- green
myrtle, ringed with muddy, rut-scarred turf, marked the theoretical
limits of a driveway. Along the right-hand wall stood the rifles of the
wounded, and in a corner, a great snarled pile of bayonets, belts,
cartridge-boxes, gas-mask satchels, greasy tin boxes of anti-lice
ointment, and dented helmets. A bright winter sunlight fell on walls
dank from the river mists, and heightened the austerity of the
landscape. Beyond a bend in the river lay the smoke of the battle of
Douaumont; shells broke, pin-points of light, in the upper fringes of
the haze.

The chateau had been a hospital since the beginning of the war. A heavy
smell of ether and iodoform lay about it, mixed with the smell of the
war. This effluvia of an army, mixed with the sharper reek of
anaesthetics, was the atmosphere of the hospital. The great rush of
wounded had begun. Every few minutes the ambulances slopped down a miry
byway, and turned in the gates; tired, putty-faced hospital attendants
took out the stretchers and the nouveaux clients; mussy bundles of blue
rags and bloody blankets turned into human beings; an overworked,
nervous medecin chef shouted contradictory orders at the brancardiers,
and passed into real crises of hysterical rage.

"Avancez!" he would scream at the bewildered chauffeurs of the
ambulances; and an instant later, "Reculez! Reculez!"

The wounded in the stretchers, strewn along the edges of the driveway,
raised patient, tired eyes at his snarling.

Another doctor, a little bearded man wearing a white apron and the red
velvet kepi of an army physician, questioned each batch of new arrivals.
Deep lines of fatigue had traced themselves under his kindly eyes; his
thin face had a dreadful color. Some of the wounded had turned their
eyes from the sun; others, too weak to move, lay stonily blinking.
Almost expressionless, silent, they resigned themselves to the
attendants as if these men were the deaf ministers of some inexorable
power.

The surgeon went from stretcher to stretcher looking at the diagnosis
cards attached at the poste de secours, stopping occasionally to ask the
fatal question, "As-tu crache du sang?" (Have you spit blood?) A thin
oldish man with a face full of hollows like that of an old horse,
answered "Oui," faintly. Close by, an artilleryman, whose cannon had
burst, looked with calm brown eyes out of a cooked and bluish face.
Another, with a soldier's tunic thrown capewise over his naked torso,
trembled in his thin blanket, and from the edges of a cotton and
lint-pad dressing hastily stuffed upon a shoulder wound, an occasional
drop of blood slid down his lean chest.

A little to one side, the cooks of the hospital, in their greasy aprons,
watched the performance with a certain calm interest. In a few minutes
the wounded were sorted and sent to the various wards. I was ordered to
take three men who had been successfully operated on to the barracks for
convalescents several miles away.

A highway and an unused railroad, both under heavy fire from German guns
on the Hauts de Meuse, passed behind the chateau and along the foot of
the bluffs. There were a hundred shell holes in the marshes between the
road and the river, black-lipped craters in the sedgy green; there were
ugly punches in the brown earth of the bluffs, and deep scoops in the
surface of the road. The telephone wires, cut by shell fragments, fell
in stiff, draping lines to the ground. Every once in a while a shell
would fall into the river, causing a silvery gray geyser to hang for an
instant above the green eddies of the Meuse. A certain village along
this highway was the focal point of the firing. Many of the houses had
been blown to pieces, and fragments of red tile, bits of shiny glass,
and lumps of masonry were strewn all over the deserted street.

As I hurried along, two shells came over, one sliding into the river
with a Hip! and the other landing in a house about two hundred yards
away. A vast cloud of grayish-black smoke befogged the cottage, and a
section of splintered timber came buzzing through the air and fell into
a puddle. From the house next to the one struck, a black cat came
slinking, paused for an indecisive second in the middle of the street,
and ran back again. Through the canvas partition of the ambulance, I
heard the voices of my convalescents. "No more marmites!" I cried to
them as I swung down a road out of shell reach. I little knew what was
waiting for us beyond the next village.

A regiment of Zouaves going up to the line was resting at the crossroad,
and the regimental wagons, drawn up in waiting line, blocked the narrow
road completely. At the angle between the two highways, under the four
trees planted by pious custom of the Meuse, stood a cross of thick
planks. From each arm of the cross, on wine-soaked straps, dangled, like
a bunch of grapes, a cluster of dark-blue canteens; rifles were stacked
round its base, and under the trees stood half a dozen clipped-headed,
bull-necked Zouaves. A rather rough-looking adjutant, with a bullet head
disfigured by a frightful scar at the corner of his mouth, rode up and
down the line to see if all was well. Little groups were handing round a
half loaf of army bread, and washing it down with gulps of wine.

"Hello, sport!" they cried at me; and the favorite "All right," and
"Tommy!"

The air was heavy with the musty smell of street mud that never dries
during winter time, mixed with the odor of the tired horses, who stood,
scarcely moving, backed away from their harnesses against the
mire-gripped wagons. Suddenly the order to go on again was given; the
carters snapped their whips, the horses pulled, the noisy, lumbering,
creaky line moved on, and the men fell in behind, in any order.

I started my car again and looked for an opening through the melee.

Beyond the cross, the road narrowed and flanked one of the southeastern
forts of the city. A meadow, which sloped gently upward from the road to
the abrupt hillside of the fortress, had been used as a place of
encampment and had been trodden into a surface of thick cheesy mire.
Here and there were the ashes of fires. There were hundreds of such
places round the moorland villages between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. The
fort looked squarely down on Verdun, and over its grassy height came the
drumming of the battle, and the frequent crash of big shells falling
into the city.

In a corner lay the anatomical relics of some horses killed by an
air-bomb the day before. And even as I noted them, I heard the muffled
Pom! Pom! Pom! of anti-aircraft guns. My back was to the river and I
could not see what was going on.

"What is it?" I said to a Zouave who was plodding along beside the
ambulance.

"Des Boches--crossing the river."

The regiment plodded on as before. Now and then a soldier would stop and
look up at the aeroplanes.

"He's coming!" I heard a voice exclaim.

Suddenly, the adjutant whom I had seen before came galloping down the
line, shouting, "Arretez! Arretez! Pas de mouvement!"

A current of tension ran down the troop with as much reality as a
current of water runs down hill. I wondered whether the Boche had seen
us.

"Is he approaching?" I asked.

"Yes."

Ahead of me was a one-horse wagon, and ahead of that a wagon with two
horses carrying the medical supplies. The driver of the latter, an
oldish, thick-set, wine-faced fellow, got down an instant from his
wagon, looked at the Boche, and resumed his seat. A few seconds later,
there sounded the terrifying scream of an air-bomb, a roar, and I found
myself in a bitter swirl of smoke. The shell had fallen right between
the horses of the two-horse wagon, blowing the animals to pieces,
splintering the wagon, and killing the driver. Something sailed swiftly
over my head, and landed just behind the ambulance. It was a chunk of
the skull of one of the horses. The horse attached to the wagon ahead of
me went into a frenzy of fear and backed his wagon into my ambulance,
smashing the right lamp. In the twinkling of an eye, the soldiers
dispersed. Some ran into the fields. Others crouched in the wayside
ditch. A cart upset. Another bomb dropped screaming in a field and
burst; a cloud of smoke rolled away down the meadow.

When the excitement had subsided, it was found that a soldier had been
wounded. The bodies of the horses were rolled over into the ditch, the
wreck of the wagon was dragged to the miry field, and the regiment went
on. In a very short time I got to the hospital and delivered my
convalescents.

My way home ran through the town of S------, an ugly, overgrown village
of the Verdunois, given up to the activities of the staff directing the
battle. The headquarters building was the hotel de ville, a large
eighteenth-century edifice, in an acre of trampled mud a little distance
from the street. Before the building flowed the great highway from
Bar-le-Duc to Verdun; relays of motor lorries went by, and gendarmes,
organized into a kind of traffic squad, stood every hundred feet or so.
The atmosphere of S------at the height of the battle was one of calm
organization; it would not have been hard to believe that the
motor-lorries and unemotional men were at the service of some great
master-work of engineering. There was something of the holiday in the
attitude of the inhabitants of the place; they watched the motor show
exactly as they might have watched a circus parade.

"Les voila," said somebody.

A little bemedaled group appeared on the steps of the hotel de ville.
Dominating it was Joffre. Above middle height, silver-haired, elderly,
he has a certain paternal look which his eye belies; Joffre's eye is the
hard eye of a commander-in-chief, the military eye, the eye of an Old
Testament father if you will. De Castelnau was speaking, making no
gestures--an old man with an ashen skin, deep-set eye and great hooked
nose, a long cape concealed the thick, age-settled body. Poincare stood
listening, with a look at once worried and brave, the ghost of a sad
smile lingering on a sensitive mouth. Last of all came Petain, the
protege of De Castelnau, who commanded at Verdun--a tall, square-built
man, not un-English in his appearance, with grizzled hair and the sober
face of a thinker. But his mouth and jaw are those of a man of action,
and the look in his gray eyes is always changing. Now it is speculative
and analytic, now steely and cold.

In the shelter of a doorway stood a group of territorials, getting their
first real news of the battle from a Paris newspaper. I heard "Nous
avons recule--huit kilometres--le general Petain--" A motor-lorry
drowned out the rest.

That night we were given orders to be ready to evacuate the chateau in
case the Boches advanced. The drivers slept in the ambulances, rising at
intervals through the night to warm their engines. The buzz of the
motors sounded through the tall pines of the chateau park, drowning out
the rumbling of the bombardment and the monotonous roaring of the flood.
Now and then a trench light, rising like a spectral star over the lines
on the Hauts de Meuse, would shine reflected in the river. At intervals
attendants carried down the swampy paths to the chapel the bodies of
soldiers who had died during the night. The cannon flashing was
terrific. Just before dawn, half a dozen batteries of "seventy-fives"
came in a swift trot down the shelled road; the men leaned over on their
steaming horses, the harnesses rattled and jingled, and the cavalcade
swept on, outlined a splendid instant against the mortar flashes and the
streaks of day.

On my morning trip a soldier with bandaged arm was put beside me on the
front seat. He was about forty years old; a wiry black beard gave a
certain fullness to his thin face, and his hands were pudgy and short of
finger. When he removed his helmet, I saw that he was bald. A bad cold
caused him to speak in a curious whispering tone, giving to everything
he said the character of a grotesque confidence.

"What do you do en civil?" he asked.

I told him.

"I am a pastry cook," he went on; "my specialty is Saint-Denis apple
tarts."

A marmite intended for the road landed in the river as he spoke.

"Have you ever had one? They are very good when made with fresh cream."
He sighed.

"How did you get wounded?" said I.

"Eclat d'obus," he replied, as if that were the whole story. After a
pause he added, "Douaumont--yesterday."

I thought of the shells I had seen bursting over the fort.

"Do you put salt in chocolate?" he asked professionally.

"Not as a rule," I replied.

"It improves it," he pursued, as if he were revealing a confidential
dogma. "The Boche bread is bad, very bad, much worse than a year ago.
Full of crumbles and lumps. Degoutant!"

The ambulance rolled up to the evacuation station, and my pastry cook
alighted.

"When the war is over, come to my shop," he whispered benevolently, "and
you shall have some tartes aux pommes a la mode de Saint-Denis with my
wife and me."

"With fresh cream?" I asked.

"Of course," he replied seriously.

I accepted gratefully, and the good old soul gave me his address.

In the afternoon a sergeant rode with me. He was somewhere between
twenty-eight and thirty, thick-set of body, with black hair and the
tanned and ruddy complexion of outdoor folk. The high collar of a
dark-blue sweater rose over his great coat and circled a muscular
throat; his gray socks were pulled country-wise outside of the legs of
his blue trousers. He had an honest, pleasant face; there was a certain
simple, wholesome quality about the man. In the piping times of peace,
he was a cultivateur in the Valois, working his own little farm; he was
married and had two little boys. At Douaumont, a fragment of a shell had
torn open his left hand.

"The Boches are not going to get through up there?"

"Not now. As long as we hold the heights, Verdun is safe." His simple
French, innocent of argot, had a good country twang. "But oh, the people
killed! Comme il y a des gens tues!" He pronounced the final s of the
word gens in the manner of the Valois.

"Ca s'accroche aux arbres," he continued.

The vagueness of the ca had a dreadful quality in it that made you see
trees and mangled bodies. "We had to hold the crest of Douaumont under a
terrible fire, and clear the craters on the slope when the Germans tried
to fortify them. Our 'seventy-fives' dropped shells into the big craters
as I would drop stones into a pond. Pauvres gens!"

The phrase had an earth-wide sympathy in it, a feeling that the
translation "poor folks" does not render. He had taken part in a strange
incident. There had been a terrible corps-a-corps in one of the craters
which had culminated in a victory for the French; but the lieutenant of
his company had left a kinsman behind with the dead and wounded. Two
nights later, the officer and the sergeant crawled down the dreadful
slope to the crater where the combat had taken place, in the hope of
finding the wounded man. They could hear faint cries and moans from the
crater before they got to it. The light of a pocket flash-lamp showed
them a mass of dead and wounded on the floor of the crater--"un tas de
mourants et de cadavres," as he expressed it.

After a short search, they found the man for whom they were looking; he
was still alive but unconscious. They were dragging him out when a
German, hideously wounded, begged them to kill him.

"Moi, je n'ai plus jambes," he repeated in French; "pitie, tuez-moi."

He managed to make the lieutenant see that if he went away and left
them, they would all die in the agonies of thirst and open wounds. A
little flickering life still lingered in a few; there were vague rales
in the darkness. A rafale of shells fell on the slope; the violet glares
outlined the mouth of the crater.

"Ferme tes yeux" (shut your eyes), said the lieutenant to the German.
The Frenchmen scrambled over the edge of the crater with their
unconscious burden, and then, from a little distance, threw
hand-grenades into the pit till all the moaning died away.

Two weeks later, when the back of the attack had been broken and the
organization of the defense had developed into a trusted routine, I went
again to Verdun. The snow was falling heavily, covering the piles of
debris and sifting into the black skeletons of the burned houses.
Untrodden in the narrow streets lay the white snow. Above the Meuse,
above the ugly burned areas in the old town on the slope, rose the
shell-spattered walls of the citadel and the cathedral towers of the
still, tragic town. The drumming of the bombardment had died away. The
river was again in flood. In a deserted wine-shop on a side street well
protected from shells by a wall of sandbags was a post of territorials.

To the tragedy of Verdun, these men were the chorus; there was something
Sophoclean in this group of older men alone in the silence and ruin of
the beleaguered city. A stove filled with wood from the wrecked houses
gave out a comfortable heat, and in an alley-way, under cover, stood a
two-wheeled hose cart, and an old-fashioned seesaw fire pump. There were
old clerks and bookkeepers among the soldier firemen--retired gendarmes
who had volunteered, a country schoolmaster, and a shrewd peasant from
the Lyonnais. Watch was kept from the heights of the citadel, and the
outbreak of fire in any part of the city was telephoned to the shop. On
that day only a few explosive shells had fallen.

"Do you want to see something odd, mon vieux?" said one of the pompiers
to me; and he led me through a labyrinth of cellars to a cold, deserted
house. The snow had blown through the shell-splintered window-panes. In
the dining-room stood a table, the cloth was laid and the silver spread;
but a green feathery fungus had grown in a dish of food and broken
straws of dust floated on the wine in the glasses. The territorial took
my arm, his eyes showing the pleasure of my responding curiosity, and
whispered,--

"There were officers quartered here who were called very suddenly. I saw
the servant of one of them yesterday; they have all been killed."

Outside there was not a flash from the batteries on the moor. The snow
continued to fall, and darkness, coming on the swift wings of the storm,
fell like a mantle over the desolation of the city.

The End

Book of the day: