Produced by A. Langley
A VOLUNTEER POILU
by Henry Sheahan
To Professor Charles Townsend Copeland of Harvard University
At Verdun I thought of you, and the friendly hearth of Hollis 15 seemed very far away from the deserted, snow-swept streets of the tragic city. Then suddenly I remembered how you had encouraged me and many others to go over and help in any way that we could; I remembered your keen understanding of the Epic, and the deep sympathy with human beings which you taught those whose privilege it was to be your pupils. And so you did not seem so far away after all, but closer to the heart of the war than any other friend I had.
I dedicate this book to you with grateful affection after many years of friendship.
Topsfield, September, 1916
I have ventured to call this book A Volunteer Poilu principally because we were known to the soldiers of the Bois-le-Pretre as “les Poilus Americains.” Then, too, it was my ambition to do for my comrades, the French private soldiers, what other books have done for the soldiers of other armies. The title chosen, however, was more than complimentary; it was but just. In recognition of the work of the Section during the summer, it was, in October, 1915, formally adopted into the French army; a French officer became its administrative head, and the drivers were given the same papers, pay, and discipline as their French comrades.
I wish to thank many of my old friends of Section II, who have aided me in the writing of this book.
I. THE ROCHAMBEAU S’EN VA-T-EN GUERRE
I A war-time voyage–The Rochambeau–Loading ammunition and food supplies–Personalities on board–The dyestuffs agent–The machine lathes man–The Swede from Minnesota who was on his way to the Foreign Legion–His subsequent history–The talk aboard–The French officer–His philosophy of war–Ernest Psichari–Arrival at Bordeaux–The Arabs at the docks–The convalescent soldiers– Across La Beauce–The French countryside in war-time.
II. AN UNKNOWN PARIS IN THE NIGHT AND RAIN.
Paris, rain, and darkness–The Gardens of the Tuileries–The dormitory–The hospital at night–Beginning of the Champagne offensive–The Gare de la Chapelle at two in the morning–The wounded–The Zouave stretcher-bearers–The Arabs in the abandoned school–Suburban Paris at dawn–The home of the deaconesses.
III. THE GREAT SWATHE OF THE LINES
Nancy–The porter’s story–Getting to the front–What the phrase “the front” really means–The sense of the front–The shell zone–The zone of quiet–My quarters in the shelled house–The fire shells–Bombarded at night–Death of the soldier fireman.
IV. LA FORET DE BOIS-LE-PRETRE
Le Bois-le-Pretre–Description–History–Les Glycines, “Wisteria Villa”–The Road to the trenches–At the trenches–The painter’s idea of “le sinistre dans l’art”–The sign post–The zone of violence–The Quart-en-Reserve–The village caught in the torment of the lines–The dead on the barbed wire–“The Road to Metz.”
V. THE TRENCHES IN THE “WOOD OF DEATH.”
The Trenches–Organization–Nature of the war–Food, shelters, clothing, ammunition, etc.–A typical day in the trenches–Trench shells or “crapouilots”–In the abri–The tunnel–The doctrinaire lieutenant of engineers.
VI. THE GERMANS ATTACK
The piano at Montauville–An interrupted concert–At the Quart–The battle for the ridge of the Wood–Fall of the German aeroplane–Psychology of the men in the trenches–Religion in the trenches–
VII. THE TOWN IN THE TRENCHES
Poor old “Pont”–Description of the town–A civilian’s story–The house of the Captain of the Papal Zouaves–Church of St. Laurent–The Cemetery and its guardian.
VIII. MESSIEURS LES POILUS DE LA GRANDE GUERRE
En repos–A village of troops–Manners and morals–The concert–journal of the Bois-le-Pretre–Various poilus.
IX. PREPARING THE DEFENSE OF VERDUN
En permission–State of France–The France of 1905 and the France of 1915–The class of 1917–Bar-le-Duc–The air raid–Called to Verdun.
X. THE GREAT DAYS OF VERDUN
Verdun in 1912–Verdun on the night of the first great attack–The hospital–The shelled cross road–The air shell–The pastry cook’s story–The cultivateur of the Valois and the crater at Douaumont–The pompiers of Verdun–“Do you want to see an odd sight?”–Verdun in storm and desolation.
A Volunteer Poilu
The Rochambeau S’en Va-t-en Guerre
Moored alongside a great two-storied pier, with her bow to the land, the cargo and passenger boat, Rochambeau, of the Compagnie Generale was being loaded with American supplies for the France of the Great War. A hot August sun struck spots and ripples of glancing radiance from the viscous, oily surface of the foul basin in which she lay inert; the air was full of sounds, the wheezing of engines, the rattling of cog-checks, and the rumble of wheels and hoofs which swept, in sultry puffs of noise and odor, from the pavements on the land. Falling from the exhausts, a round, silvery-white cascade poured into the dark lane between the wharf and the deck, and sounded a monotonous, roaring underchord to the intermingled dins. At the sun-bathed bow, a derrick gang lowered bags of flour into the open well of the hold; there were commands in French, a chugging, and a hissing of steam, and a giant’s clutch of dusty, hundred-kilo flour-bags from Duluth would swing from the wharf to the Rochambeau, sink, and disappear. In some way the unfamiliar language, and the sight of the thickset, French sailor-men, so evidently all of one race, made the Rochambeau, moored in the shadow of the sky-scrapers, seem mysteriously alien. But among the workers in the hold, who could be seen when they stood on the floor of the open hatchway, was a young, red-headed, American longshoreman clad in the trousers part of a suit of brown-check overalls; sweat and grime had befouled his rather foolish, freckled face, and every time that a bunch of flour-bags tumbled to the floor of the well, he would cry to an invisible somebody–“More dynamite, Joe, more dynamite!”
Walking side by side, like ushers in a wedding procession, two of the ship’s officers made interminable rounds of the deck. Now and then they stopped and looked over the rail at the loading operations, and once in low tones they discussed the day’s communique. “Pas grand’ chose” (nothing of importance), said he whom I took to be the elder, a bearded, seafaring kind of man. “We have occupied a crater in the Argonne, and driven back a German patrol (une patrouille Boche) in the region of Nomeny.” The younger, blond, pale, with a wispy yellow mustache, listened casually, his eyes fixed on the turbulence below. The derrick gang were now stowing away clusters of great wooden boxes marked the Something Arms Company. “My brother says that American bullets are filled with powder of a very good quality” (d’une tres bonne qualite), remarked the latter. “By the way, how is your brother?” asked the bearded man. “Very much better,” answered the other; “the last fragment (eclat) was taken out of his thigh just before we left Bordeaux.” They continued their walk, and three little French boys wearing English sailor hats took their places at the rail.
As the afternoon advanced, a yellow summer sun, sinking to a level with the upper fringes of the city haze, gave a signal for farewells; and little groups retired to quieter corners for good-byes. There was a good deal of worrying about submarines; one heard fragments of conversations–“They never trouble the Bordeaux route”–“Absolutely safe, je t’assure”; and in the accents of Iowa the commanding advice, “Now, don’t worry!” “Good-bye, Jim! Good-bye, Maggie!” cried a rotund, snappy American drummer, and was answered with cheery, honest wishes for “the success of his business.” Two young Americans with the same identical oddity of gait walked to and fro, and a little black Frenchman, with a frightful star-shaped scar at the corner of his mouth, paraded lonelily. A middle-aged French woman, rouged and dyed back to the thirties, and standing in a nimbus of perfume, wept at the going of a younger woman, and ruined an elaborate make-up with grotesque traceries of tears. “Give him my love,” she sobbed; “tell him that the business is doing splendidly and that he is not to buy any of Lafitte’s laces next time he goes to Paris en permission.” A little later, the Rochambeau, with slow majesty, backed into the channel, and turned her bow to the east.
The chief interest of the great majority of her passengers was commercial; there were American drummers keen to line their pockets with European profits; there were French commis voyageurs who had been selling articles of French manufacture which had formerly been made by the Germans; there were half-official persons who had been on missions to American ammunition works; and there was a diplomat or two. From the sample trunks on board you could have taken anything from a pair of boots to a time fuse. Altogether, an interesting lot. Palandeau, a middle-aged Frenchman with a domed, bald forehead like Socrates or Verlaine, had been in America selling eau-de-cologne.
“Then you are getting out something new?” I asked.
“Yes, and no,” he answered. “Our product is the old-fashioned eau-de-cologne water with the name ‘Farina’ on it.”
“But in America we associate eau-de-cologne with the Germans,” said I. “Doesn’t the bottle say ‘Johann Maria Farina’? Surely the form of the name is German.”
“But that was not his name, monsieur; he was a Frenchman, and called himself ‘Jean Marie.’ Yes, really, the Germans stole the manufacture from the French. Consider the name of the article, ‘eau-de-cologne,’ is not that French?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Alors,” said Palandeau; “the blocus has simply given us the power to reclaim trade opportunities justly ours. Therefore we have printed a new label telling the truth about Farina, and the Boche ‘Johann Maria’ is ‘kapout.'”
“Do you sell much of it?”
“Quantities! Our product is superior to the Boche article, and has the glamour of an importation. I await the contest without uneasiness.”
“When Jean Marie meets Johann Maria–apres la guerre,” said Palandeau with a twinkle in his eye.
In the deck chair next to mine sat a dark, powerfully built young Iowan with the intensely masculine head of a mediaeval soldier. There was a bit of curl to the dark-brown hair which swept his broad, low forehead, his brown eyes were devoid of fear or imagination, his jaw was set, and the big, aggressive head rested on a short, muscular neck. He had been a salesman of machine tools till the “selling end” came to a standstill.
“But didn’t the munitions traffic boom the machine-tool industry?” I asked.
“Sure it did. You ought to have seen what people will do to get a lathe. You know about all that you need to make shells is a machine lathe. You can’t get a lathe in America for love or money–for anything”–he made a swift, complete gesture–“all making shells. There isn’t a junk factory in America that hasn’t been pawed over by guys looking for lathes–and my God! what prices! Knew a bird named Taylor who used to make water pipes in Utica, New York–had a stinking little lathe he paid two hundred dollars for, and sold it last year for two thousand. My firm had so many orders for months ahead that it didn’t pay them to have salesmen–so they offered us jobs inside; but, God, I can’t stand indoor work, so I thought I’d come over here and get into the war. I used to be in the State Cavalry. You ought to have seen how sore all those Iowa Germans were on me for going,” he laughed. “Had a hell of row with a guy named Schultz.”
Limping slightly, an enormous, grizzled man approached us and sat down by the side of the ex-machinist. Possibly a yellow-gray suit, cut in the bathrobe American style, made him look larger than he was, and though heavily built and stout, there was something about him which suggested ill health. One might have thought him a prosperous American business man on his way to Baden-Baden. He had a big nose, big mouth, a hard eye, and big, freckled hands which he nervously opened and closed.
“See that feller over there?” He pointed to a spectacled individual who seemed lost in melancholy speculation at the rail–“Says he’s a Belgian lieutenant. Been over here trying to get cloth. Says he can’t get it, the firms over here haven’t got the colors. Just think of it, there isn’t a pound of Bernheim’s blue in the whole country!”
“I thought we were beginning to make dyes of our own,” said the Iowan.
“Oh, yes, but we haven’t got the hang of it yet. The product is pretty poor. Most of the people who need dyes are afraid to use the American colors, but they’ve got to take what they can get. Friend of mine, Lon Seeger, of Seeger, Seeger & Hall, the carpet people in Hackensack, had twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of mats spoiled on him last week by using home dyes.”
The Belgian lieutenant, still standing by the rail, was talking with another passenger, and some fragments of the conversation drifted to our ears. I caught the words–“My sister–quite unexpected–barely escaped–no doubt of it–I myself saw near Malines–perfectly dreadful–tout-a-fait terrible.”
“Twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of mats all spoiled, colors ran, didn’t set, no good. This war is raising the devil with the United States textiles. Maybe the Germans won’t get a glad hand when they come back. We hear that they’re going to flood the market with good, low-priced dyes so as to bust up the new American plants. Haven’t you heard them hollerin’ for tariff protection? I’m going over to look up a new green dye the French are getting out. We hear it’s pretty good stuff. What are you boys doing, looking for contracts?”
The Iowan replied that he hoped to get into an English cavalry regiment, and I mentioned the corps I had joined.
“Well, don’t get killed,” exclaimed the dye-stuffs agent paternally, and settled down in his chair for a nap.
It was the third day out; the ocean was still the salty green color of the American waters, and big, oily, unrippled waves were rising and falling under the August sun. From the rail I saw coming toward us over the edge of the earth, a small tramp steamer marked with two white blotches which, as the vessel neared, resolved themselves into painted reproductions of the Swedish flag. Thus passed the Thorvald, carrying a mark of the war across the lonely seas.
“That’s a Swedish boat,” said a voice at my elbow.
“Yes,” I replied.
A boy about eighteen or nineteen, with a fine, clear complexion, a downy face, yellow hair, and blue eyes, was standing beside me. There was something psychologically wrong with his face; it had that look in it which makes you want to see if you still have your purse.
“We see that flag pretty often out in Minnesota,” he continued.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Oscar Petersen,” he answered.
“Going over to enlist?” I hazarded.
“You bet,” he replied–and an instant later–“Are you?”
I told him of my intention. Possibly because we were in for the same kind of experience he later became communicative. He had run away from home at the age of fourteen, spent his sixteenth year in a reform school, and the rest of his time as a kind of gangster in Chicago. I can’t imagine a more useless existence than the one he revealed. At length he “got sick of the crowd and got the bug to go to war,” as he expressed it, and wrote to his people to tell them he was starting, but received no answer. “My father was a Bible cuss,” he remarked cheerfully,–“never got over my swiping the minister’s watch.”
A Chicago paper had printed his picture and a “story” about his going to enlist in the Foreign Legion–“popular young man very well known in the–th ward,” said the article. He showed me, too, an extraordinary letter he had received via the newspaper, a letter written in pencil on the cheapest, shabbiest sheet of ruled note-paper, and enclosing five dollars. “I hope you will try to avenge the Lusitania,” it said among other things. The letter was signed by a woman.
“Do you speak French?” I asked.
“Not a word,” he replied. “I want to be put with the Americans or the Swedes. I speak good Swedish.”
Months later, on furlough, I saw in a hospital at Lyons a college classmate who had served in the Foreign Legion. “Did you know a fellow named Petersen?” I asked.
“Yes, I knew him,” answered my friend; “he lifted a fifty-franc note from me and got killed before I could get it back.”
“How did it happen?”
“Went through my pockets, I imagine.”
“Oh, no, I meant how did he get killed?” “Stray shell sailed in as we were going through a village, and caught him and two of the other boys.”
“You must not make your friend talk too much,” mumbled an old Sister of Charity rather crossly.
The two young men with the same identical oddity of gait were salesmen of artificial legs, each one a wearer and demonstrator of his wares. The first, from Ohio, had lost his leg in a railroad accident two years before, and the second, a Virginian with a strong accent, had been done for in a motor-car smashup. One morning the man from Ohio gave us a kind of danse macabre on the deck; rolling his trouser leg high above his artificial shin, he walked, leaped, danced, and ran. “Can you beat that?” he asked with pardonable pride. “Think what these will mean to the soldiers.” Meanwhile, with slow care, the Virginian explained the ingenious mechanism.
Strange tatters of conversation rose from the deck. “Poor child, she lost her husband at the beginning of the war”–“Third shipment of hosses”–“I was talking with a feller from the Atlas Steel Company”–“Edouard is somewhere near Arras”; there were disputes about the outcome of the war, and arguments over profits. A voluble French woman, whose husband was a pastry cook in a New York hotel before he joined the forces, told me how she had wandered from one war movie to another hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband, and had finally seen “some one who resembled him strongly” on the screen in Harlem. She had a picture of him, a thin, moody fellow with great, saber whiskers like Rostand’s and a high, narrow forehead curving in on the sides between the eyebrows and the hair. “He is a Chasseur alpin,” she said with a good deal of pride, “and they are holding his place for him at the hotel. He was wounded last month in the shoulder. I am going to the hospital at Lyons to see him.” The day’s sunset was at its end, and a great mass of black clouds surged over the eastern horizon, turning the seas ahead to a leaden somberness that lowered in menacing contrast to the golden streaks of dying day. The air freshened, salvos of rain fell hissing into the dark waters, and violet cords of lightning leaped between sea and sky. Echoing thunder rolled long through unseen abysses. In the deserted salon I found the young Frenchman with the star-shaped scar reading an old copy of “La Revue.” He had been an officer in the Chasseurs-a-pied until a fearful wound had incapacitated him for further service, and had then joined the staff of a great, conservative Parisian weekly. The man was a disciple of Ernest Psichari, the soldier mystic who died so superbly at Charleroi in the dreadful days before the Marne. From him I learned something of the French conception of the idea of war. It was not uninteresting to compare the French point of view with the German, and we talked late into the night while the ship was plunging through the storm. An article in the review, “La Psychologie des Barbares,” was the starting-point of our conversation.
“You must remember that the word ‘barbarian’ which we apply to the Germans, is understood by the French intellectually,” said he. “Not only do German atrocities seem barbarous, but their thought also. Consider the respective national conceptions of the idea of war. To the Germans, war is an end in itself, and in itself and in all its effects perfect and good. To the French mind, this conception of war is barbaric, for war is not good in itself and may be fatal to both victor and vanquished.” (He spoke a beautiful, lucid French with a sort of military preciseness.)
“It was Ernest Psichari who revealed to us the raison d’etre of arms in modern life, and taught us the meaning of war. To him, war was no savage ruee, but the discipline of history for which every nation must be prepared, a terrible discipline neither to be sought, nor rejected when proffered. Thus the Boches, once their illusion of the glory of war is smashed, have nothing to fall back on, but the French point of view is stable and makes for a good morale. Psichari was the intellectual leader of that movement for the regeneration of the army which has saved France. When the doctrines of pacificism began to be preached in France, and cries of ‘A bas l’armee’ were heard in the streets, Psichari showed that the army was the only institution left in our industrialized world with the old ideals and the power to teach them. Quand on a tout dit, the military ideals of honor, duty, and sacrifice of one’s all for the common good are the fundamentals of. character. Psichari turned this generation from a generation of dreamers to a generation of soldiers, knowing why they were soldiers, glad to be soldiers. The army saved the morale of France when the Church had lost its hold, and the public schools had been delivered to the creatures of sentimental doctrinaire government. Was it not a pity that Psichari should have died so young?”
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Yes; I saw something of him in Africa. The mystery of the East had profoundly stirred him. He was a dark, serious fellow with something of the profile of his grandfather, Ernest Renan. At Charleroi, after an heroic stand, he and every man of his squad died beside the guns they served.”
Long after, at the Bois-le-Pretre, I went to the trenches to get a young sergeant. His friends had with clumsy kindness gathered together his little belongings and put them in the ambulance. “As tu trouve mon livre?” (Have you found my book?) he asked anxiously, and they tossed beside the stretcher a trench-mired copy of Psichari’s “L’Appel des Armes.”
One morning, just at dawn, we drew near a low, sandy coast, and anchored at the mouth of the great estuary of the Gironde. A spindly lighthouse was flashing, seeming more to reflect the sunlight from outside than to be burning within, and a current the color of coffee and cream with a dash of vermilion in it, went by us mottled with patches of floating mud. From the deck one had an extraordinary view, a ten-mile sweep of the strangely colored water, the hemisphere of the heavens all of one greenish-blue tint, and a narrow strip of nondescript, sandy coast suspended somehow between the strange sea and unlovely sky. At noon, the Rochambeau began at a good speed her journey up the river, passing tile-roofed villages and towns built of pumice-gray stone, and great flat islands covered with acres upon acres of leafy, bunchy vines. There was a scurry to the rail; some one cried, “Voila des Boches,” and I saw working in a vineyard half a dozen men in gray-green German regimentals. A poilu in a red cap was standing nonchalantly beside them. As the Rochambeau, following the channel, drew incredibly close to the bank, the Germans leaned on their hoes and watched us pass, all save one, who continued to hoe industriously round the roots of the vines, ignoring us with a Roman’s disdain. “Comme ils sont laids” (How ugly they are), said a voice. There was no surprise in the tone, which expressed the expected confirmation of a past judgment. It was the pastry cook’s voluble wife who had spoken. The land through which we were passing, up to that time simply the pleasant countryside of the Bordelais, turned in an instant to the France of the Great War.
Late in the afternoon, the river, slowly narrowing, turned a great bend, and the spires of Bordeaux, violet-gray in the smoky rose of early twilight, were seen just ahead. A broad, paved, dirty avenue, with the river on one side and a row of shabby houses on the other, led from the docks to the city, and down this street, marching with Oriental dignity, came a troop of Arabs. There was a picture of a fat sous-officier leading, of brown-white rags and mantles waving in the breeze blowing from the harbor, of lean, muscular, black-brown legs, and dark, impassive faces. “Algerian recruits,” said an officer of the boat. It was a first glimpse at the universality of the war; it held one’s mind to realize that while some were quitting their Devon crofts, others were leaving behind them the ancestral well at the edges of the ancient desert. A faint squeaking of strange pipes floated on the twilight air.
There came an official examination of our papers, done in a businesslike way, the usual rumpus of the customs, and we were free to land in France. That evening a friend and I had dinner in a great cafe opening on the principal square in Bordeaux, and tried to analyze the difference between the Bordeaux of the past and the Bordeaux of the war. The ornate restaurant, done in a kind of Paris Exhibition style, and decorated with ceiling frescoes of rosy, naked Olympians floating in golden mists and sapphire skies, was full of movement and light, crowds passed by on the sidewalks, there were sounds–laughter.
“Looks just the same to me,” said my friend, an American journalist who had been there in 1912. “Of course there are more soldiers. Outside of that, and a lack of taxicabs and motorcars, the town has not changed.”
But there was a difference, and a great difference. There was a terrible absence of youth. Not that youth was entirely absent from the tables and the trottoirs; it was visible, putty-faced and unhealthy-looking, afraid to meet the gaze of a man in uniform, the pitiable jeunesse that could not pass the physical examination of the army. Most of the other young men who bent over the tables talking, or leaned back on a divan to smoke cigarettes, were strangers, and I saw many who were unquestionably Roumanians or Greeks. A little apart, at a corner table, a father and mother were dining with a boy in a uniform much too large for him;–I fancied from the cut of his clothes that he belonged to a young squad still under instruction in the garrisons, and that he was enjoying a night off with his family. Screened from the rest by a clothes rack, a larky young lieutenant was discreetly conversing with a “daughter of joy,” and an elderly English officer, severely proper and correct, was reading “Punch” and sipping red wine in Britannic isolation. Across the street an immense poster announced, “Conference in aid of the Belgian Red Cross–the German Outrages in Louvain, Malines, and Liege–illustrated.”
We finished our dinner, which was good and not costly, and started to walk to our hotel. Hardly had we turned the corner of the Place, when the life of Bordeaux went out like a torch extinguished by the wind. It was still early in the evening, there was a sound of an orchestra somewhere behind, yet ahead of us, lonely and still, with its shops closed and its sidewalks deserted, was one of the greater streets of Bordeaux. Through the drawn curtains of second stories over little groceries and baker-shops shone the yellow light of lamps. What had happened to the Jean, Paul, and Pierre of this dark street since the war began? What tragedies of sorrow and loneliness might these silent windows not conceal? And every French city is much the same; one notices in them all the subtle lack of youth, and the animation of the great squares in contrast to the somber loneliness of streets and quarters which once were alive and gay. At the Place de l’Opera in Paris, the whirlpool of Parisian life is still turning, but the great streets leading away from the Place de l’Etoile are quiet. Young and old, laborer and shopkeeper, boulevardier and apache are far away holding the tragic lines.
The next morning at the station, I had my first glimpse of that mighty organization which surrounds the militaire. There was a special entrance for soldiers and a special exit for soldiers, and at both of these a long file of blue-clad poilus waited for the countersigning of their furlough slips and military tickets. The mud of the trenches still stained the bottom edges of their overcoats, and their steel helmets were dented and dull. There was something fine about the faces collectively; there was a certain look of tried endurance and perils bravely borne. I heard those on furlough telling the names of their home villages to the officer in charge,–pleasant old names, Saint-Pierre aux Vignes, La Tour du Roi.
A big, obese, middle-aged civilian dressed in a hideous greenish suit, and wearing a pancake cap, sat opposite me in the compartment I had chosen. There was a hard, unfriendly look in his large, fat-encircled eyes, a big mustache curved straight out over his lips, and the short finger nails of his square, puffy fingers were deeply rimmed with dirt. He caught sight of me reading a copy of an English weekly, and after staring at me with an interest not entirely free from a certain hostility, retreated behind the pages of the “Matin,” and began picking his teeth. Possibly he belonged to that provincial and prejudiced handful to whom England will always be “Perfidious Albion,” or else he took me for an English civilian dodging military service. The French press was following the English recruiting campaign very closely, and the system of volunteer service was not without its critics. “Conscription being considered in England” (On discute la conscription en Angleterre), announced the “Matin” discreetly.
It was high noon; the train had arrived at Angouleme, and was taking aboard a crowd of convalescents. On the station platform, their faces relentlessly illumined by the brilliant light, stood about thirty soldiers; a few were leaning on canes, one was without a right arm, some had still the pallor of the sick, others seemed able-bodied and hearty. Every man wore on the bosom of his coat about half a dozen little aluminum medals dangling from bows of tricolor ribbon. “Pour les blesses, s’il vous plait,” cried a tall young woman in the costume and blue cape of a Red-Cross nurse as she walked along the platform shaking a tin collection box under the windows of the train.
To our compartment came three of the convalescents. One was a sturdy, farmhand sort of fellow, with yellow hair and a yellow mustache–the kind of man who might have been a Norman; he wore khaki puttees, brown corduroy trousers, and a jacket which fitted his heavy, vigorous figure rather snugly. Another was a little soul dressed in the “blue horizon” from head to foot, a homely little soul with an egg-shaped head, brown-green eyes, a retreating chin, and irregular teeth. The last, wearing the old tenue, black jacket and red trousers, was a good-looking fellow with rather handsome brown eyes. Comfortably stretched in a corner, the Norman was deftly cutting slices of bread and meat which he offered to his companions. Catching sight of my English paper, all three stared at me with an interest and friendliness that was in psychological contrast to the attitude of the obese civilian.
“Anglais?” asked the Norman.
The civilian watched for my answer.
“Non–Americain,” I replied.
“Tiens,” they said politely.
“Do you speak English?” asked the homely one.
“Yes,” I answered.
The Norman fished a creased dirty letter and a slip of paper from his wallet and handed them to me for inspection.
“I found them in a trench we shared with the English,” he explained. “These puttees are English; a soldier gave them to me.” He exhibited his legs with a good deal of satisfaction.
I examined the papers that had been given me. The first was a medical prescription for an anti-lice ointment and the second an illiterate letter extremely difficult to decipher, mostly about somebody whom the writer was having trouble to manage, “now that you aren’t here.” I translated as well as I could for an attentive audience. “Toujours les totos,” they cried merrily when I explained the prescription. A spirit of good-fellowship pervaded the compartment, till even the suspicious civilian unbent, and handed round post-card photographs of his two sons who were somewhere en Champagne. Not a one of the three soldiers could have been much over twenty-one, but they were not boys, but men, serious men, tried and disciplined by war. The homely one gave me one of his many medals which he wore “to please the good Sisters”; on one side in an oval of seven stars was the Virgin Mary, and on the other, the determined features of General Joffre.
Just at sundown we crossed the great plain of La Beauce. Distant villages and pointed spires stood silhouetted in violet-black against the burning midsummer sky and darkness was falling upon the sweeping golden plain. We passed hamlet after hamlet closed and shuttered, though the harvests had been gathered and stacked. There was something very tragic in those deserted, outlying farms. The train began to rattle through the suburbs of Paris. By the window stood the Norman looking out on the winking red and violet lights of the railroad yard. “This Paris?” he asked. “I never expected to see Paris. How the war sets one to traveling!”
An Unknown Paris in the Night and Rain
It was Sunday morning, the bells were ringing to church, and I was strolling in the gardens of the Tuileries. A bright morning sun was drying the dewy lawns and the wet marble bodies of the gods and athletes, the leaves on the trees were falling, and the French autumn, so slow, so golden, and so melancholy, had begun. At the end of the mighty vista of the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe rose, brown and vaporous in the exhalations of the quiet city, and an aeroplane was maneuvering over the Place de la Concorde, a moving speck of white and silver in the soft, September blue. From a near-by Punch and Judy show the laughter of little children floated down the garden in outbursts of treble shrillness. “Villain, monster, scoundrel,” squeaked a voice. Flopped across the base of the stage, the arms hanging downwards, was a prostrate doll which a fine manikin in a Zouave’s uniform belabored with a stick; suddenly it stirred, and, with a comic effect, lifted its puzzled, wooden head to the laughing children. Beneath a little Prussian helmet was the head of William of Germany, caricatured with Parisian skill into a scowling, green fellow with a monster black mustache turned up to his eyes. “Lie down!” cried the Zouave doll imperiously. “Here is a love pat for thee from a French Zouave, my big Boche.” And he struck him down again with his staff.
Soldiers walked in the garden,–permissionnaires (men on furlough) out for an airing with their rejoicing families, smart young English subalterns, and rosy-fleshed, golden-haired Flemings of the type that Rubens drew. But neither their presence nor the sight of an occasional mutile (soldier who has lost a limb), pathetically clumsy on his new crutches, quite sent home the presence of the war. The normal life of the city was powerful enough to engulf the disturbance, the theaters were open, there were the same crowds on the boulevards, and the same gossipy spectators in the sidewalk cafes. After a year of war the Parisians were accustomed to soldiers, cripples, and people in mourning. The strongest effect of the war was more subtle of definition, it was a change in the temper of the city. Since the outbreak of the war, the sham Paris that was “Gay Paree” had disappeared, and the real Paris, the Paris of tragic memories and great men, had taken its place. An old Parisian explained the change to me in saying, “Paris has become more French.” Deprived of the foreigner, the city adapted itself to a taste more Gallic; faced with the realities of war, it exchanged its artificiality for that sober reasonableness which is the normal attitude of the nation.
At noon I left the garden and strolled down the Champs Elysees to the Porte Maillot. The great salesrooms of the German motor-car dealers had been given by the Government to a number of military charities who had covered the trade signs with swathes and rosettes of their national colors. Under the banner of the Belgians, in the quondam hop of the Mercedes, was an exhibition of leather knickknacks, baskets, and dolls made by the blind and mutilated soldiers. The articles–children’s toys for the most part, dwarfs that rolled over and over on a set of parallel bars, Alsatian lasses with flaxen hair, and gay tops–were exposed on a row of tables a few feet back from the window. By the Porte Maillot, some of the iron saw-horses with sharpened points, which had formed part of the barricade built there in the days of the Great Retreat, lay, a villainous, rusty heap, in a grassy ditch of the city wall; a few stumps of the trees that had been then cut down were still visible, and from a railroad tie embedded in the sidewalk hung six links of a massive chain. Through this forgotten flotsam on the great shore of the war, the quiet crowds went in and out of the Maillot entrance to the Bois de Boulogne. There was a sense of order and security in the air. I took a seat on the terrace of a little restaurant. The garcon was a small man in the fifties, inclined to corpulence, with a large head, large, blue-gray eyes, purplish lips, and blue-black hair cut pompadour. As we watched the orderly, Sunday crowds going to the great park, we fell into conversation about the calmness of Paris. “Yes, it is calm,” he said; “we are all waiting (nous attendons). We know that the victory will be ours at the finish. But all we can do is to wait. I have two sons at the front.” He had struck the keynote. Paris is calmly waiting–waiting for the end of the war, for victory, for the return of her children.
Yet in this great, calm city, with its vaporous browns and slaty blues, and its characteristic acrid smell of gasoline fumes, was another Paris, a terrible Paris, which I was that night to see. Early in the afternoon a dull haze of leaden clouds rose in the southwest. It began to rain.
In a great garret of the hospital, under a high French roof, was the dormitory of the volunteers attached to the Paris Ambulance Section. At night, this great space was lit by only one light, a battered electric reading-lamp standing on a kind of laboratory table in the center of the floor, and window curtains of dark-blue cambric, waving mysteriously in the night wind, were supposed to hide even this glimmer from the eyes of raiding Zeppelins. Looking down, early in the evening, into the great quadrangle of the institution, one saw the windows of the opposite wing veiled with this mysterious blue, and heard all the feverish unrest of a hospital, the steps on the tiled corridors, the running of water in the bathroom taps, the hard clatter of surgical vessels, and sometimes the cry of a patient having a painful wound dressed. But late at night the confused murmur of the battle between life and death had subsided, the lights in the wards were extinguished, and only the candle of the night nurse, seen behind a screen, and the stertorous breathing of the many sleepers, brought back the consciousness of human life. I have often looked into the wards as I returned from night calls to the station where we received the wounded, and been conscious, as I peered silently into that flickering obscurity, of the vague unrest of sleepers, of the various attitudes assumed, the arms outstretched, the upturned throats, and felt, too, in the still room, the mystic presence of the Angel of Pain.
It was late at night, and I stood looking out of my window over the roofs of Neuilly to the great, darkened city just beyond. From somewhere along the tracks of the “Little Belt” railway came a series of piercing shrieks from a locomotive whistle. It was raining hard, drumming on the slate roof of the dormitory, and somewhere below a gutter gurgled foolishly. Far away in the corridor a gleam of yellow light shone from the open door of an isolation room where a nurse was watching by a patient dying of gangrene. Two comrades who had been to the movies at the Gaumont Palace near the Place Clichy began to talk in sibilant whispers of the evening’s entertainment, and one of them said, “That war film was a corker; did you spot the big cuss throwing the grenades?” “Yuh, damn good,” answered the other pulling his shirt over his head. It was a strange crew that inhabited these quarters; there were idealists, dreamers, men out of work, simple rascals and adventurers of all kinds. To my right slept a big, young Westerner, from some totally unknown college in Idaho, who was a humanitarian enthusiast to the point of imbecility, and to the left a middle-aged rogue who indulged in secret debauches of alcohol and water he cajoled from the hospital orderlies. Yet this obscure and motley community was America’s contribution to France. I fell asleep.
The lieutenant of the Paris Section, a mining engineer with a picturesque vocabulary of Nevadan profanity, was standing in his pajama trousers at the head of the room, holding a lantern in his hand. “Up, birds!” he called again. “Call’s come in for Lah Chapelle.” There were uneasy movements under the blankets, inmates of adjoining beds began to talk to each other, and some lit their bedside candles. The chief went down both sides of the dormitory, flashing his lantern before each bed, ragging the sleepy. “Get up, So-and-So. Well, I must say, Pete, you have a hell of a nerve.” There were glimpses of candle flames, bare bodies shivering in the damp cold, and men sitting on beds, winding on their puttees. “Gee! listen to it rain,” said somebody. “What time is it?” “Twenty minutes past two.” Soon the humming and drumming of the motors in the yard sounded through the roaring of the downpour.
Down in the yard I found Oiler, my orderly, and our little Ford ambulance, number fifty-three. One electric light, of that sickly yellow color universal in France, was burning over the principal entrance to the hospital, just giving us light enough to see our way out of the gates. Down the narrow, dark Boulevard Inkerman we turned, and then out on to a great street which led into the “outer” boulevard of De Batignolles and Clichy. To that darkness with which the city, in fear of raiding aircraft, has hidden itself, was added the continuous, pouring rain. In the light of our lamps, the wet, golden trees of the black, silent boulevards shone strangely, and the illuminated advertising kiosks which we passed, one after the other at the corners of great streets, stood lonely and drenched, in the swift, white touch of our radiance. Black and shiny, the asphalt roadway appeared to go on in a straight line forever and forever.
Neither in residential, suburban Neuilly nor in deserted Montmartre was there a light to be seen, but when we drew into the working quarter of La Chapelle, lights appeared in the windows, as if some toiler of the night was expected home or starting for his labor, and vague forms, battling with the rain or in refuge under the awning of a cafe, were now and then visible. From the end of the great, mean rue de La Chapelle the sounds of the unrest of the railroad yards began to be heard, for this street leads to the freight-houses near the fortifications. Our objective was a great freight station which the Government, some months before, had turned into a receiving-post for the wounded; it lay on the edge of the yard, some distance in from the street, behind a huddle of smaller sheds and outbuildings. To our surprise the rue de La Chapelle was strewn with ambulances rushing from the station, and along two sides of the great yard, where the merchandise trucks had formerly turned in, six or seven hundred more ambulances were waiting. We turned out of the dark, rain-swept city into this hurly-burly of shouts, snorting of engines, clashing of gears, and whining of brakes, illuminated with a thousand intermeshing beams of headlights across whose brilliance the rain fell in sloping, liquid rods. “Quick, a small car this way!” cried some one in an authoritative tone, and number fifty-three ran up an inclined plane into the enormous shed which had been reserved for the loading of the wounded into the ambulances.
We entered a great, high, white-washed, warehouse kind of place, about four hundred feet long by four hundred feet wide, built of wood evidently years before. In the middle of this shed was an open space, and along the walls were rows of ambulances. Brancardiers (stretcher-bearers; from brancard, a stretcher) were loading wounded into these cars, and as soon as one car was filled, it would go out of the hall and another would take its place. There was an infernal din; the place smelled like a stuffy garage, and was full of blue gasoline fumes; and across this hurly-burly, which was increasing every minute, were carried the wounded, often nothing but human bundles of dirty blue cloth and fouled bandages. Every one of these wounded soldiers was saturated with mud, a gray-white mud that clung moistly to their overcoats, or, fully dry, colored every part of the uniform with its powder. One saw men that appeared to have rolled over and over in a puddle bath of this whitish mud, and sometimes there was seen a sinister mixture of blood and mire. There is nothing romantic about a wounded soldier, for his condition brings a special emphasis on our human relation to ordinary meat. Dirty, exhausted, unshaven, smelling of the trenches, of his wounds, and of the antiseptics on his wounds, the soldier comes from the train a sight for which only the great heart of Francis of Assisi could have adequate pity.
Oiler and I went through an opening in a canvas partition into that part of the great shed where the wounded were being unloaded from the trains. In width, this part measured four hundred feet, but in length it ran to eight hundred. In two rows of six each, separated by an aisle about eight feet wide, were twelve little houses, about forty feet square, built of stucco, each one painted a different color. The woodwork of the exterior was displayed through the plaster in the Elizabethan fashion, and the little sheds were clean, solidly built, and solidly roofed. In one of these constructions was the bureau of the staff which assigned the wounded to the hospitals, in another was a fully equipped operating-room, and in the others, rows of stretcher-horses, twenty-five to a side, on which the wounded were laid until a hospital number had been assigned them. A slip, with these hospital numbers on it, the names of the patients, and the color of the little house in which they were to be found, was then given to the chauffeur of an ambulance, who, with this slip in hand and followed by a number of stretcher-bearers, immediately gathered his patients. A specimen slip might run thus–“To Hospital 32, avenue de Iena, Paul Chaubard, red barraque, Jules Adamy, green barraque, and Alphonse Fort, ochre barraque.”
To give a French touch to the scene, this great space, rapidly filling with human beings in an appalling state of misery, as the aftermath of the offensive broke on us, was decorated with evergreen trees and shrubs so that the effect was that of an indoor fair or exhibition; you felt as if you might get samples of something at each barraque, as the French termed the little houses. To the side of these there was a platform, and a sunken track running along the wall, and behind, a great open space set with benches for those of the wounded able to walk. Some fifty great, cylindrical braziers, which added a strange bit of rosy, fiery color to the scene, warmed this space. When the wounded had begun to arrive at about midnight, a regiment of Zouaves was at hand to help the regular stretcher-bearers; these Zouaves were all young, “husky” men dressed in the baggy red trousers and short blue jacket of their classic uniform, and their strength was in as much of a contrast to the weakness of those whom they handled as their gay uniform was in contrast to the miry, horizon blue of the combatants. There was something grotesque in seeing two of these powerful fellows carrying to the wagons a dirty blue bundle of a human being.
With a piercing shriek, that cut like a gash through the uproar of the ambulance engines, a sanitary train, the seventh since midnight, came into the station, and so smoothly did it run by, its floors on a level with the main floor, that it seemed an illusion, like a stage train. On the platform stood some Zouaves waiting to unload the passengers, while others cleared the barraques and helped the feeble to the ambulances. There was a steady line of stretchers going out, yet the station was so full that hardly a bit of the vast floor space was unoccupied. One walked down a narrow path between a sea of bandaged bodies. Shouldering what baggage they had, those able to walk plodded in a strange, slow tempo to the waiting automobiles. All by themselves were about a hundred poor, ragged Germans, wounded prisoners, brothers of the French in this terrible fraternity of pain.
About four or five hundred assis (those able to sit up) were waiting on benches at the end of the hall. Huddled round the rosy, flickering braziers, they sat profoundly silent in the storm and din that moved about them, rarely conversing with each other. I imagine that the stupefaction, which is the physiological reaction of an intense emotional and muscular effort, had not yet worn away. There were fine heads here and there. Forgetful of his shattered arm, an old fellow, with the face of Henri Quatre, eagle nose, beard, and all, sat with his head sunken on his chest in mournful contemplation, and a fine-looking, black-haired, dragoon kind of youth with the wildest of eyes clung like grim death to a German helmet. The same expression of resigned fatalism was common to all.
Sometimes the chauffeurs who were waiting for their clients got a chance to talk to one of the soldiers. Eager for news, they clustered round the wounded man, bombarding him with questions.
“Are the Boches retreating?”
“When did it begin?”
“Just where is the attack located?”
“Are things going well for us?”
The soldier, a big young fellow with a tanned face, somewhat pale from the shock of a ripped-up forearm, answered the questions good-naturedly, though the struggle had been on so great a scale that he could only tell about his own hundred feet of trench. Indeed the substance of his information was that there had been a terrible bombardment of the German lines, and then an attack by the French which was still in progress.
“Are we going to break clear through the lines?”
The soldier shrugged his shoulders. “They hope to,” he replied.
Just beyond us, in one of the thousand stretchers on the floor, a small bearded man had died. With his left leg and groin swathed in bandages, he lay flat on his back, his mouth open, muddy, dirty, and dead. From time to time the living on each side stole curious, timid glances at him. Then, suddenly, some one noticed the body, and two stretcher-bearers carried it away, and two more brought a living man there in its place.
The turmoil continued to increase. At least a thousand motor-ambulances, mobilized from all over the region of Paris, were now on hand to carry away the human wreckage of the great offensive. Ignorant of the ghastly army at its doors, Paris slept. The rain continued to fall heavily.
“Eh la, comrade.”
A soldier in the late thirties, with a pale, refined face, hailed me from his stretcher.
“You speak French?”
“I am going to ask you to do me a favor–write to my wife who is here in Paris, and tell her that I am safe and shall let her know at once what hospital I am sent to. I shall be very grateful.”
He let his shoulders sink to the stretcher again and I saw him now and then looking for me in the crowd. Catching my eye, he smiled.
A train full of Algerian troops came puffing into the station, the uproar hardly rising above the general hubbub. The passengers who were able to walk got out first, some limping, some walking firmly with a splendid Eastern dignity. These men were Arabs and Moors from Algeria and Tunisia, who had enlisted in the colonial armies. There was a great diversity of size and racial type among them, some being splendid, big men of the type one imagines Othello to have been, some chunkier and more bullet-headed, and others tall and lean with interesting aquiline features. I fancy that the shorter, rounder-skulled ones were those with a dash of black blood. The uniform, of khaki-colored woolen, consisted of a simple, short-waisted jacket, big baggy trousers, puttees, and a red fez or a steel helmet with the lunar crescent and “R.F.” for its device. We heard rumors about their having attacked a village. Advancing in the same curious tempo as the French, they passed to the braziers and the wooden benches. Last of all from the train, holding his bandaged arm against his chest, a native corporal with the features of a desert tribesman advanced with superb, unconscious stateliness. As the Algerians sat round the braziers, their uniforms and brown skins presented a contrast to the pallor of the French in their bedraggled blue, but there was a marked similarity of facial expression. A certain racial odor rose from the Orientals.
My first assignment, two Algerians and two Frenchmen, took me to an ancient Catholic high school which had just been improvised into a hospital for the Oriental troops. It lay, dirty, lonely, and grim, just to one side of a great street on the edge of Paris, and had not been occupied since its seizure by the State. Turning in through an enormous door, lit by a gas globe flaring and flickering in the torrents of rain, we found ourselves in an enormous, dark courtyard, where a half-dozen ambulances were already waiting to discharge their clients. Along one wall there was a flight of steps, and from somewhere beyond the door at the end of this stair shone the faintest glow of yellow light.
It came from the door of a long-disused schoolroom, now turned into the receiving-hall of this strange hospital. The big, high room was lit by one light only, a kerosene hand lamp standing on the teacher’s desk, and so smoked was the chimney that the wick gave hardly more light than a candle. There was just enough illumination to see about thirty Algerians sitting at the school desks, their big bodies crammed into the little seats, and to distinguish others lying in stretchers here and there upon the floor. At the teacher’s table a little French adjutant with a trim, black mustache and a soldier interpreter were trying to discover the identity of their visitors.
“Number 2215,” (numero deux mille deux cent quinze), the officer cried; and the interpreter, leaning over the adjutant’s shoulder to read the name, shouted, “Mehemet Ali.”
There was no answer, and the Algerians looked round at each other, for all the world like children in a school. It was very curious to see these dark, heavy, wild faces bent over these disused desks.
“Number 2168” (numero deux mille cent soixante huit), cried the adjutant.
“Abdullah Taleb,” cried the interpreter.
“Moi,” answered a voice from a stretcher in the shadows of the floor.
“Take him to room six,” said the adjutant, indicating the speaker to a pair of stretcher-bearers. In the quieter pauses the rain was heard beating on the panes.
There are certain streets in Paris, equally unknown to tourist and Parisian–obscure, narrow, cobble-stoned lanes, lined by walls concealing little orchards and gardens. So provincial is their atmosphere that it would be the easiest thing in the world to believe one’s self on the fringe of an old town, just where little bourgeois villas begin to overlook the fields; but to consider one’s self just beyond the heart of Paris is almost incredible. Down such a street, in a great garden, lay the institution to which our two Frenchmen were assigned. We had a hard time finding it in the night and rain, but at length, discovering the concierge’s bell, we sent a vigorous peal clanging through the darkness. Oiler lifted the canvas flap of the ambulance to see about our patients.
“All right in there, boys?”
“Yes,” answered a voice.
“Non. Are we at the hospital?”
“Yes; we are trying to wake up the concierge.”
There was a sound of a key in a lock, and a small, dark woman opened the door. She was somewhat spinstery in type, her thin, black hair was neatly parted in the middle, and her face was shrewd, but not unkindly.
“Deux blesses (two wounded), madame,” said I.
The woman pulled a wire loop inside the door, and a far-off bell tinkled.
“Come in,” she said. “The porter will be here immediately.”
We stepped into a little room with a kind of English look to it, and a carbon print of the Sistine Madonna on the wall.
“Are they seriously wounded?” she asked.
“I cannot say.”
A sound of shuffling, slippered feet was heard, and the porter, a small, beefy, gray-haired man in the fifties, wearing a pair of rubber boots, and a rain-coat over a woolen night-dress, came into the room.
“Two wounded have arrived,” said the lady. “You are to help these messieurs get out the stretchers.”
The porter looked out of the door at the tail-light of the ambulance, glowing red behind its curtain of rain.
“Mon Dieu, what a deluge!” he exclaimed, and followed us forth. With an “Easy there,” and “Lift now,” we soon had both of our clients out of the ambulance and indoors. They lay on the floor of the odd, stiff, little room, strange intruders of its primness; the first, a big, heavy, stolid, young peasant with enormous, flat feet, and the second a small, nervous, city lad, with his hair in a bang and bright, uneasy eyes. The mud-stained blue of the uniforms seemed very strange, indeed, beside the Victorian furniture upholstered in worn, cherry-red plush. A middle-aged servant–a big-boned, docile-looking kind of creature, probably the porter’s wife–entered, followed by two other women, the last two wearing the same cut of prim black waist and skirt, and the same pattern of white wristlets and collar. We then carried the two soldiers upstairs to a back room, where the old servant had filled a kind of enamel dishpan with soapy water. Very gently and deftly the beefy old porter and his wife took off the fouled, blood-stained uniforms of the two fighting men, and washed their bodies, while she who had opened the door stood by and superintended all. The feverish, bright-eyed fellow seemed to be getting weaker, but the big peasant conversed with the old woman in a low, steady tone, and told her that there had been a big action.
When Oiler and I came downstairs, two little glasses of sherry and a plate of biscuits were hospitably waiting for us. There was something distinctly English in the atmosphere of the room and in the demeanor of the two prim ladies who stood by. It roused my curiosity. Finally one of them said:–
“Are you English, gentlemen?”
“No,” we replied; “Americans.”
“I thought you might be English,” she replied in that language, which she spoke very clearly and fluently. “Both of us have been many years in England. We are French Protestant deaconesses, and this is our home. It is not a hospital. But when the call for more accommodations for the wounded came in, we got ready our two best rooms. The soldiers upstairs are our first visitors.”
The old porter came uneasily down the stair. “Mademoiselle Pierre says that the doctor must come at once,” he murmured, “the little fellow (le petit) is not doing well.”
We thanked the ladies gratefully for the refreshment, for we were cold and soaked to the skin. Then we went out again to the ambulance and the rain. A faint pallor of dawn was just beginning. Later in the morning, I saw a copy of the “Matin” attached to a kiosk; it said something about “Grande Victoire.”
Thus did the great offensive in Champagne come to the city of Paris, bringing twenty thousand men a day to the station of La Chapelle. For three days and nights the Americans and all the other ambulance squads drove continuously. It was a terrible phase of the conflict to see, but he who neither sees nor understands it cannot realize the soul of the war. Later, at the trenches, I saw phases of the war that were spiritual, heroic, and close to the divine, but this phase was, in its essence, profoundly animal.
The Great Swathe of the Lines
The time was coming when I was to see the mysterious region whence came the wounded of La Chapelle, and, a militaire myself, share the life of the French soldier. Late one evening in October, I arrived in Nancy and went to a hotel I had known well before the war. An old porter, a man of sixty, with big, bowed shoulders, gray hair, and a florid face almost devoid of expression, carried up my luggage, and as I looked at him, standing in the doorway, a simple figure in his striped black and yellow vest and white apron, I wondered just what effect the war had had on him. Through the open window of the room, seen over the dark silhouette of the roofs of Nancy, shone the glowing red sky and rolling smoke of the vast munition works at Pompey and Frouard.
“You were not here when I came to the hotel two years ago,” said I.
“No,” he answered; “I have been here only since November, 1914.”
“You are a Frenchman? There was a Swiss here, then.”
“Yes, indeed, I am Francais, monsieur. The Swiss is now a waiter in a cafe of the Place Stanislas. It is something new to me to be a hotel porter.”
“Tiens. What did you do?”
“I drove a coal team, monsieur.”
“How, then, did you happen to come here?”
“I used to deliver coal to the hotel. One day I heard that the Swiss had gone to the cafe to take the place of a garcon whose class had just been called out. I was getting sick of carrying the heavy sacks of coal, and being always out of doors, so I applied for the porter’s job.”
“You are satisfied with the change.”
“Oh, yes, indeed, monsieur.”
“I suppose you have kinsmen at the front.”
“Only my sister’s son, monsieur.”
“In the active forces?”
“No, he is a reservist. He is a man thirty-five years of age. He was wounded by a shrapnel ball in the groin early in the spring, but is now at the front again.”
“What does he do en civil?”
“He is a furniture-maker, monsieur.”
He showed no sign of unrest at my catechizing, and plodded off down the green velvet carpet to the landing-stage of the elevator. In the street below a crowd was coming out of the silky white radiance of the lobby of a cinema into the violet rays thrown upon the sidewalk from the illuminated sign over the theater door. There are certain French cities to which the war has brought a real prosperity, and Nancy was then one of them. The thousands of refugees from the frontier villages and the world of military officials and soldier workmen mobilized in the ammunition factories had added to the population till it was actually greater than it had been before the war, and with this new population had come a development of the city’s commercial life. The middle class was making money, the rich were getting richer, and Nancy, hardly more than eighteen or nineteen miles from the trenches, forgot its danger till, on the first day of January, 1916, the Germans fired several shells from a giant mortar or a marine piece into the town, one of which scattered the fragments of a big five-story apartment house all over Nancy. And on that afternoon thirty thousand people left the city.
The day on which I was to go across the great swathe of the front to the first-line trenches dawned cool and sunny. I use the word “swathe” purposely, for only by that image can the real meaning of the phrase “the front” be understood. The thick, black line which figures on the war-maps is a great swathe of country running, with a thousand little turns and twists that do not interfere with its general regularity, from the summits of the Vosges to the yellow dunes of the North Sea. The relation of the border of this swathe to the world beyond is the relation of sea to land along an irregular and indented coast. Here an isolated, strategic point, fiercely defended by the Germans, has extended the border of the swathe beyond the usual limits, and villages thirteen and fourteen miles from the actual lines have been pounded to pieces by long-range artillery in the hope of destroying the enemy’s communications; there the trenches cross an obscure, level moor upon whose possession nothing particular depends, and the swathe narrows to the villages close by the lines. This swathe, which begins with the French communications, passes the French trenches, leaps “No Man’s Land,” and continues beyond the German trenches to the German communications, averages about twenty-two miles in width. The territory within this swathe is inhabited by soldiers, ruled by soldiers, worked by soldiers, and organized for war.
Sometimes the transition between civilian life and the life of the swathe is abrupt, as, for instance, at Verdun, where the villages beyond the lines have been emptied of civilian inhabitants to make room for the soldiery; but at other times the change is gradual and the peasants continue to work fields almost in the shadow of the trenches. Since the line of trenches was organized by the Germans only after a series of engagements along the front, during which the battle-line oscillated over a wide territory, the approach to the swathe is often through a region of desolated villages sometimes far removed from the present trenches. Such is the state of affairs in the region of the Marne, the Argonne, and on the southern bank of the Moselle. Moss-overgrown and silent, these villages often stand deserted in the fields at the entrance to the swathe, fit heralds of the desolation that lies beyond.
Imagine, then, the French half of the swathe extending from the edge of the civilian world to the barbed-wire entanglements of No Man’s Land. Within this territory, in the trenches, in the artillery positions, in the villages where troops are quartered (and they are quartered in every village of the swathe), and along all the principal turns and corners of the roads, a certain number of shells fall every twenty-four hours, the number of shells per locality increasing as one advances toward the first lines. There are certain disputed regions, that of Verdun in particular, where literally the whole great swathe has been pounded to pieces, till hardly one stone of a village remains on another, and during the recent offensive in the Somme the British are said to have systematically wiped out every village, hamlet, and road behind the German trenches to a depth of eighteen miles. Yet, protected from rifle bullets and the majority of shells by a great wooded hill, the inhabitants of M——, one mile from the lines of the Bois-le-Pretre, did a thriving business selling fruit to the soldiers, and I once saw an old peasant woman, who was digging potatoes in her garden when a small shell burst about two hundred feet from her, shake her fist toward the German lines, mutter something, and plod angrily home to her cellar. There are rarely any children close to the trenches, but in villages that are only occasionally shelled, the school is open, and the class hurries to the cellar at the first alarm.
The lieutenant of the American Section, a young Frenchman who spoke English not only fluently, but also with distinction, came to Nancy to take me to the front. It was a clear, sunny morning, and the rumble of the commercial life of Nancy, somewhat later in starting than our own, was just beginning to be heard. Across the street from the breakfast-room of the hotel, a young woman wearing a little black cape over her shoulders rolled up the corrugated iron shutter of a confectioner’s shop and began to set the window with the popular patriotic candy boxes, aluminum models of a “seventy-five” shell tied round with a bow of narrow tricolor ribbon; a baker’s boy in a white apron and blue jumpers went by carrying a basket of bread on his head; and from the nearby tobacconist’s, a spruce young lieutenant dressed in a black uniform emerged lighting a cigarette. At nine in the morning I was contemplating a side street of busy, orderly, sunlit Nancy; that night I was in a cellar seeking refuge from fire shells.
“Please give me all your military papers,” said my officer. I handed over all the cards, permits, and licenses that had been given me, and he examined them closely.
“Allons, let us go,” he said to his chauffeur, a young soldier wearing the insignia of the motor-transportation corps.
“How long does it take us to get to the lines, mon lieutenant?”
“About an hour. Our headquarters are thirty kilometres distant.”
The big, war-gray Panhard began to move. I looked round, eager to notice anything that marked our transition from peace to war. Beyond the Nancy, built in the Versailles style by the exiled Stanislaus, lay the industrial Nancy which has grown up since the development of the iron mines of French Lorraine in the eighties. Through this ugly huddle we passed first: there were working men on the sidewalks, gamins in the gutters,–nothing to remind one of the war.
At a turn in the road near the outskirts of the city, a sentry, a small, gray-haired man, had stepped out before the car. From the door of a neighboring wineshop, a hideous old woman, her uncombed, tawny yellow hair messed round her coarse, shiny face, came out to look at us.
“Your papers, please,” said a red-faced, middle-aged sergeant wearing a brown corduroy uniform, who, walking briskly on enormous fat legs, had followed the sentry out into the street. The lieutenant produced the military permit to travel in the army zone–the ordre de mouvement, a printed form on a blue sheet about the size of a leaf of typewriter paper.
“Pass,” said the sergeant, and saluted. The sentry retired to his post on the sidewalk. At the door of the wineshop the woman continued to stare at us with an animal curiosity. Possibly our English-like uniforms had attracted her attention; the French are very curious about les Anglais. Over the roof of an ugly row of working men’s barracks, built of mortar and trimmed with dingy brick, came the uproar of a great industry, the humming clang of saws, the ringing of iron on iron, and the heart-beat thump of a great hammer that shook the earth. In a vast, detached building five great furnaces were crowned with tufts of pinkish fire, workmen were crossing the cindery yard dragging little carts and long strips of iron, and a long line of open freight cars was being emptied of coal.
“They are making shells,” said the lieutenant in the tone that he might have said, “They are making candy.”
Another sentry held us up at the bridge where the road crosses the Moselle as it issues from the highlands to the southwest.
Beyond the bridge, running almost directly north to Metz, lay the historic valley of the Moselle. Great, bare hills, varying between seven hundred and a thousand feet in height, and often carved by erosion into strange, high triangles and abrupt mesas, formed the valley wall. The ground color of the hills was a warm buff-brown with a good deal of iron-red in it, and the sky above was of a light, friendly blue. A strange, Egyptian emerald of new wheat, a certain deep cobalt of cloud shadows, and a ruddy brownness of field and moor are the colors of Lorraine. Here and there, on the meadows of the river and the steep flanks of the hills, were ancient, red-roofed villages. Across the autumnal fields the smoke and flame of squalid Pompey loomed strangely.
There were signs of the war at Marbache, fourteen kilometres from Nancy, slight signs, to be sure, but good ones–the presence of a military smithy for the repair of army wagons, several of which stood by on rusty wheels, and a view of some twenty or thirty artillery caissons parked under the trees. But it was at B——, sixteen kilometres from Nancy, and sixteen from the lines, that I first felt the imminence of the war. The morning train from Nancy had just stopped, to go no farther for fear of shells, and beyond the station the tracks of the once busy Nancy-Metz railroad advanced, rusty, unused, and overgrown with grass, into the danger zone. Far behind now lay civilian Pompey, and Marbache shared by soldiers and civilians. B——was distinctly a village of the soldiery. The little hamlet, now the junction where the wagon-trains supplying the soldiery meet the great artery of the railroad, was built on the banks of a canal above the river. The color of these villages in Lorraine is rather lovely, for the walls of the houses, built of the local buff-yellow stone and ferrous sand, are of a warm, brown tone that goes well with the roofs of claret-red tile and the brown landscape. A glorious sky of silvery white cloud masses, pierced with sunlight and islanded with soft blue, shone over the soldier village. There were no combatants in it when we passed through, only the old poilus who drove the wagons to the trenches and the army hostlers who looked after the animals. There were pictures of soldier grooms leading horses down a narrow, slimy street between brown, mud-spattered walls to a drinking-trough; of horses lined up along a house wall being briskly curry-combed by big, thick-set fellows in blousy white overalls and blue fatigue caps; and of doors of stables opening on the road showing a bedding of brown straw on the earthen floor. There was a certain stench, too, the smell of horse-fouled mud that mixed with that odor I later was able to classify as the smell of war. For the war has a smell that clings to everything miltary, fills the troop-trains, hospitals, and cantonments, and saturates one’s own clothing, a smell compounded of horse, chemicals, sweat, mud, dirt, and human beings. At the guarded exit of the village to the shell zone was a little military cemetery in which rows of wooden crosses stood with the regularity of pins in a paper.
Two kilometres farther on, at Dieulouard, we drew into the shell zone. A cottage had been struck the day before, and the shell, arriving by the roof, had blown part of the front wall out into the street. In the facade of the house, to the left of a door hanging crazily on its hinges, an irregular oval hole, large enough to drive a motor-car through, rose from the ground and came to a point just below the overhang of the roof. The edges of the broken stone were clean and new in contrast to the time-soiled outer wall of the dwelling.
A pile of this clean stone lay on the ground at the outer opening of the orifice, mixed with fragments of red tiles.
“They killed two there yesterday,” said the lieutenant, pointing out the debris.
The village, a farming hamlet transformed by the vicinity of a great foundry into something neither a village nor a town, was full of soldiers; there were soldiers in the streets, soldiers standing in doorways, soldiers cooking over wood fires, soldiers everywhere. And looking at the muddy village-town full of men in uniforms of blue, old uniforms of blue, muddy uniforms of blue, in blue that was blue-gray and blue-green from wear and exposure to the weather, I realized that the old days of beautiful, half-barbaric uniforms were gone forever, and that, in place of the old romantic war of cavalry charges and great battles in the open, a new, more terrible war had been created, a war that had not the chivalric externals of the old.
After Dieulouard began the swathe of stillness.
Following the western bank of the canal of the Moselle the road made a great curve round the base of a hill descending to the river, and then mounted a little spur of the valley wall. Beyond the spur the road went through lonely fields, in which were deserted farmhouses surrounded by acres of neglected vines, now rank and Medusa-like in their weedy profusion. Every once in a while, along a rise, stood great burlap screens so arranged one behind the other as to give the effect of a continuous line when seen from a certain angle.
“What are those for?”
“To hide the road from the Germans. Do you see that little village down there on the crest? The Boches have an observatory there, and shell the road whenever they see anything worth shelling.”
A strange stillness pervaded the air; not a stillness of death and decay, but the stillness of life that listens. The sun continued to shine on the brown moorland hills across the gray-green river, the world was quite the same, yet one sensed that something had changed. A village lay ahead of us, disfigured by random shells and half deserted. Beyond the still, shell-spattered houses, a great wood rose, about a mile and a half away, on a ridge that stood boldly against the sky. Running from the edge of the trees down across an open slope to the river was a brownish line that stood in a little contrast to the yellower grass. Suddenly, there slowly rose from this line a great puff of grayish-black smoke which melted away in the clear, autumnal air.
“See,” said our lieutenant calmly, with no more emotion than he would have shown at a bonfire–“those are the German trenches. We have just fired a shell into them.”
Two minutes more took us into the dead, deserted city of Pont-a-Mousson. The road was now everywhere screened carefully with lengths of light-brown burlap, and there was not a single house that did not bear witness to the power of a shell. The sense of “the front” began to possess me, never to go, the sense of being in the vicinity of a tremendous power. A ruined village, or a deserted town actually on the front does not bring to mind any impression of decay, for the intellect tends rather to consider t\& means by which the destruction has been accomplished. One sees villages of the swathes so completely blown to pieces that they are literally nothing but earthy mounds of rubbish, and seeing them thus, in a plain still fiercely disputed night and day between one’s own side and the invisible enemy, the mind feels itself in the presence of force, titanic, secret, and hostile.
Beyond Pont-a-Mousson the road led directly to the trenches of the Bois-le-Pretre, less than half a mile away. But the disputed trenches were hidden behind the trees, and I could not see them. Through the silence of the deserted town sounded the muffled boom of shells and trench engines bursting in the wood beyond, and every now and then clouds of gray-black smoke from the explosion would rise above the brown leaves of the ash trees. The smoke of these explosions rose straight upwards in a foggy column, such as a locomotive might make if, halted on its tracks somewhere in the wood, it had put coal on its fires.
With the next day I began my service at the trenches, but the war began for me that very night.
A room in a bourgeois flat on the third floor of a deserted apartment house had been assigned me. It was nine o’clock, and I was getting ready to roll up in my blankets and go to sleep. Beneath the starlit heavens the street below was black as pitch save when a trench light, floating serenely down the sky, illuminated with its green-white glow the curving road and the line of dark, abandoned, half-ruinous villas. There was not a sound to be heard outside of an occasional rifle shot in the trenches, sounding for all the world like the click of giant croquet balls. I went round to the rear of the house and looked out of the kitchen windows to the lines. A little action, some quarrel of sentries, perhaps, was going on behind the trees, just where the wooded ridge sloped to the river. Trench light after trench light rose, showing the disused railroad track running across the un-harvested fields. Gleaming palely through the French window at which I was standing, the radiance revealed the deserted kitchen, the rusty stove, the dusty pans, and the tarnished water-tap above the stone sink. The hard, wooden crash of grenades broke upon my ears.
My own room was lit by the yellow flame of a solitary candle, rising, untroubled by the slightest breath of wind, straight into the air. A large rug of old-rose covered the floor, an old-rose velvet canopy draped a long table, hanging down at the corners in straight, heavy creases, and the wallpaper was a golden yellow with faint stripes of silvery-gray glaze. By the side of the wooden bed stood a high cabinet holding about fifty terra-cotta and porcelain figurines, shiny shepherdesses with shiny pink cheeks, Louis XV peasants with rakes on their shoulders, and three little dogs made of a material the color of cocoa. The gem of the collection was an eighteenth-century porcelain of a youth and a maid sitting on opposite sides of a curved bench over whose center rose a blossoming bush. The youth, dressed in black, and wearing yellow stockings, looked with an amorous smile at the girl in her gorgeous dress of flowering brocade.
A marbly-white fireplace stood in the corner, overhung by a great Louis XV mirror with a gilt frame of rich, voluptuous curves. On the mantel lay a scarf of old-rose velvet smelling decidedly musty. Alone, apart, upon this mantel, as an altar, stood a colored plaster bust of Jeanne d’Arc, showing her in the beauty of her winsome youth. The pale, girlish face dominated the shadowy room with its dreamy, innocent loveliness.
There came a knock at the door, and so still was the town and the house that the knock had the effect of something dramatic and portentous. A big man, with bulging, pink cheeks, a large, chestnut mustache, and brown eyes full of philosophic curiosity, stood in the doorway. The uniform that he was wearing was unusually neat and clean.
“So you are the American I am to have as neighbor,” said he.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I am the caporal in charge of the depot of the engineers in the cellar,” continued my visitor, “and I thought I’d come in and see how you were.”
I invited him to enter.
“Do you find yourself comfortable here, son?”
“Yes. I consider myself privileged to have the use of the room. Have a cigarette?”
“Are these American cigarettes?”
“Your American tobacco is fine, son. But in America everybody is a millionaire and has the best of everything–isn’t that so? I should like to go to America.”
“A Frenchman is never happy out of France.”
Comfortably seated in a big, ugly chair, he puffed his cigarette and meditated.
“Perhaps you are right,” he admitted. “We Frenchmen love the good things, and think we can get them in France better than anywhere else. The solid satisfactions of life–good wine–good cheese.” He paused. “You see, son, all that (tout ca) is an affair of mine–in civilian life (dans le civil) I am a grocer at Macon in Bourgogne.”
For a little while we talked of Burgundy, which I had often visited in my student days at Lyons. There came another pause, and the Burgundian said:–
“Well, what do you think of this big racket (ce grand fracas)?”
“I have not seen enough of it to say.”
“Well, I think you are going to get a taste of it to-night. I heard our artillery men (nos artiflots) early this morning firing their long-range cannon, and every time they do that the Boches throw shells into Pont-a-Mousson. I have been expecting an answer all day. If they start in to-night, get up and come down cellar, son. This house was struck by a shell two weeks ago.”
The shadowy, candlelit room and the dark city became at his words more mysterious and hostile. The atmosphere seemed pervaded by some obscure, endless, dreadful threat. It was getting toward ten o’clock.
“Is this the only room you have? I have never been in this suite.”
“No, there is another room. Would you like to see it?”
He followed me into a small chamber from which everything had been stripped except a bedside table, a chair, and a crayon portrait of a woman. The picture, slightly tinted with flesh color, was that of a bourgeoise on the threshold of the fifties, and the still candle-flame brought out in distinct relief the heavy, obese countenance, the hair curled in artificial ringlets, and the gold crucifix which she wore on her large bosom. The Burgundian’s attention centered on this picture, which he examined with the air of a connoisseur of female beauty.
“Lord, how ugly she is!” he exclaimed. “She might well have stayed. Such an old dragon would have no reason to fear the Boches.” And he laughed heartily from his rich lips and pulled his mustache.
“Don’t forget to hurry to the cellar, son,” he called as he went away.
At his departure the lonely night closed in on me again. Far, far away sounded the booming of cannon.
I am a light sleeper, and the arrival of the first shell awakened me. Kicking off my blankets, I sat up in bed just in time to catch the swift ebb of a heavy concussion. A piece of glass, dislodged from a broken pane by the tremor, fell in a treble tinkle to the floor. For a minute or two there was a full, heavy silence, and then several objects rolled down the roof and fell over the gutters into the street. It sounded as if some one had emptied a hodful of coal onto the house-roof from the height of the clouds. Another silence followed. Suddenly it was broken by a swift, complete sound, a heavy boom-roar, and on the heels of this noise came a throbbing, whistling sigh that, at first faint as the sound of ocean on a distant beach, increased with incredible speed to a whistling swish, ending in a HISH of tremendous volume and a roaring, grinding burst. The sound of a great shell is never a pure bang; one hears, rather, the end of the arriving HISH, the explosion, and the tearing disintegration of the thick wall of iron in one grinding hammer-blow of terrific violence. On the heels of this second shell came voices in the dark street, and the rosy glow of fire from somewhere behind. More lumps, fragments of shell that had been shot into the air by the explosion, rained down upon the roof. I got up and went to the kitchen window. A house on one of the silent streets between the city and the lines was on fire, great volumes of smoke were rolling off into the starlit night, and voices were heard all about murmuring in the shadows. I hurried on my clothes and went down to the cellar.
The light of two candles hanging from a shelf in loops of wire revealed a clean, high cellar; a mess of straw was strewn along one wall, and a stack of shovels and picks, some of them wrapped in paper, was banked against the other. In the straw lay three oldish men, fully clad in the dark-blue uniform which in old times had signaled the Engineer Corps; one dozed with his head on his arm, the other two were stretched out flat in the mysterious grossness of sleep. A door from the cellar to a sunken garden was open, and through this opening streamed the intense radiance of the rising fire. At the opening stood three men, my visitor of the evening, a little, wrinkled man with Napoleon III whiskers and imperial, and an old, dwarfish fellow with a short neck, a bullet head, and close-clipped hair. Catching sight of me, the Burgundian said:–
“Well, son, you see it is hammering away (ca tape) ce soir.”
Hearing another shell, he slammed the door, and stepped to the right behind the stone wall of the cellar.
“Very bad,” croaked the dwarf. “The Boches are throwing fire shells.”
“And they will fire shrapnel at the poor bougres who have to put out the fires,” said the little man with the imperial.
“So they will, those knaves,” croaked the dwarf in a voice entirely free from any emotion. “That fire must be down on the Boulevard Ney,” said the bearded man.
“There is another beginning just to the right,” said the Burgundian in the tone of one retailing interesting but hardly useful information.
“There will be others,” croaked the dwarf, who, leaning against the cellar wall, was trying to roll a cigarette with big, square, fumbling fingers. And looking at a big, gray-haired man in the hay, who had turned over and was beginning to snore, he added: “Look at the new man. He sleeps well, that fellow” (ce type la).
“He looks like a Breton,” said the man with the imperial.
“An Auvergnat–an Auvergnat,” replied the dwarf in a tone that was meant to be final.
The soldier, who had just been sent down from Paris to take the place of another recently invalided home, snored on, unconscious of our scrutiny. The light from the fires outside cast a rosy glow on his weather-worn features and sparse, silvery hair. His own curiosity stirred, the corporal looked at his list.
“He came from Lyons,” he announced. “His name is Alphonse Reboulet.”
“I am glad he is not an Auvergnat,” growled the dwarf. “We should have all had fleas.”
A shell burst very near, and a bitter odor of explosives came swirling through the doorway. A fragment of the shell casing struck a window above us, and a large piece of glass fell by the doorway and broke into splinters. The first fire was dying down, but two others were burning briskly. The soldiers waited for the end of the bombardment, as they might have waited for the end of a thunderstorm.
“Tiens–here comes the shrapnel,” exclaimed the Burgundian. And he slammed the door swiftly.
A high, clear whistle cleaved the flame-lit sky, and about thirty small shrapnel shells burst beyond us.
“They try to prevent any one putting out the fires,” said the Burgundian confidentially. “They get the range from the light of the flames.”
Another dreadful rafale (volley) of shrapnel, at the rate of ten or fifteen a minute, came speeding from the German lines.
“They are firing on the other house, now.”
“Who puts out the fires?”
“The territorials who police and clean up the town. Some of them live two doors below.”
The Burgundian pointed down the garden to a door opening, like our own, on to an area below the level of the street. Suddenly, a gate opening on a back lane swung back, and two soldiers entered, one carrying the feet and the other the shoulders of a third. The body hung clumsily between them like a piece of old sacking.
“Tiens–someone is wounded,” said the Burgundian. “Go, thou, Badel, and see who it is.”
The dwarf plodded off obediently.
“It is Palester,” he announced on his return, “the type that had the swollen jaw last month.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s been killed.”
La Foret De Bois-Le-Pretre
Beginning at the right bank of the Meuse, a vast plateau of bare, desolate moorland sweeps eastward to the Moselle, and descends to the river in a number of great, wooded ridges perpendicular to the northward-flowing stream. The town of Pont-a-Mousson lies an apron of meadowland spread between two of these ridges, the ridge of Puvenelle and the ridge of the Bois-le-Pretre. The latter is the highest of all the spurs of the valley. Rising from the river about half a mile to the north of the city, it ascends swiftly to the level of the plateau, and was seen from our headquarters as a long, wooded ridge blocking the sky-line to the northwest. The hamlet of Maidieres, in which our headquarters were located, lies just at the foot of Puvenelle, at a point where the amphitheater of Pont-a-Mousson, crowding between the two ridges, becomes a steep-walled valley sharply tilted to the west.
The Bois-le-Pretre dominated at once the landscape and our minds. Its existence was the one great fact in the lives of some fifty thousand Frenchmen, Germans, and a handful of exiled Americans; it had dominated and ended the lives of the dead; it would dominate the imagination of the future. Yet, looking across the brown walls and claret roofs of the hamlet of Maidieres, there was nothing to be seen but a grassy slope, open fields, a reddish ribbon of road, a wreck of a villa burned by a fire shell, and a wood. The autumn had turned the leaves of the trees, seemingly without exception, to a leathery brown, and in almost all lights the trunks of the trees were a cold, purplish slate. Such was the forest which, battle-areas excepted, has cost more lives than any other point along the line. The wood had been contested trench by trench, literally foot by foot. It was at once the key to the Saint-Mihiel salient and the city of Metz.
The Saint-Mihiel salient–“the hernia,” as the French call it–begins at the Bois-le-Pretre. Pivoting on The Wood, the lines turn sharply inland, cross the desolate plateau of La Woevre, attain the Meuse at Saint-Mihiel, turn again, and ascend the river to the Verdunois. The salient, as dangerous for the Germans as it is troublesome for the French, represents the limit of a German offensive directed against Toul in October, 1914. That the French retreated was due to the fact that the plateau was insufficiently protected, many of the regiments having been rushed north to the great battle then raging on the Aisne.
Only one railroad center lies in the territory of the salient, Thiaucourt in Woevre. This pleasant little moorland town, locally famous for its wine, is connected with Metz by two single-track railroad lines, one coming via Conflans, and the other by Arnaville on the Moselle. At Vilcey-sur-Mad, these lines unite, and follow to Thiaucourt the only practicable railroad route, the valley of the Rupt (brook) de Mad.
Thus the domination of Thiaucourt, or the valley of the Rupt de Mad, by French artillery would break the railroad communications between the troops keeping the salient and their base of supplies, Metz. And the fate of Metz itself hangs on the control of the Bois-le-Pretre.
Metz is the heart of the German organization on the western front: the railroad center, the supply station, the troop depot. A blow at Metz would affect the security of every German soldier between Alsace and the Belgian frontier. But if the French can drive the Germans out of the Bois-le-Pretre and establish big howitzers on the crest the Germans are still holding, there will soon be no more Metz. The French guns will destroy the city as the German cannon destroyed Verdun.
When the Germans, therefore, retired to the trenches after the battles of September and October, 1914, they took to the ground on the heights of the Bois-le-Pretre, a terrain far enough ahead of Thiaucourt and Metz to preserve these centers from the danger of being shelled. On the crest of the highest ridge along the valley, admirably ambushed in a thick forest, they waited for the coming of the French. And the French came.
They came, young and old, slum-dweller and country schoolmaster, rich young noble and Corsican peasant, to the storming of the wood, upheld by one vision, the unbroken, grassy slope that stretched from behind the German lines to the town of Thiaucourt. In the trenches behind the slaty trunks of the great ash trees, Bavarian peasants, Saxons, and round-headed Wurttem-burgers, the olive-green, jack-booted Boches, awaited their coming, determined to hold the wood, the salient, and the city.
A year later the Bois-le-Pretre (the Priest Wood), with its perfume of ecclesiastical names that reminds one of the odor of incense in an old church, had become the Bois de la Mort (the Wood of Death).
The house in which our bureau was located was once the summer residence of a rich ironmaster who had fled to Paris at the beginning of the war. If there is an architectural style of German origin known as the “Neo-Classic,” which affects large, windowless spaces framed in pilasters of tile, and decorations and insets of omelet-yellow and bottle-green glazed brick, “Wisteria Villa” is of that school. It stood behind a high wall of iron spikes on the road leading from Maidieres to the trenches, a high, Germano-Pompeian country house, topped by a roof rich in angles, absurd windows, and unexpected gables. There are huge, square, French-roofed houses in New England villages built by local richessimes of Grant’s time, and still called by neighbors “the Jinks place” or the “Levi Oates place”; Wisteria Villa had something of the same social relation to the commune of Maidieres. Grotesque and ugly, it was not to be despised; it had character in its way.
Our social center was the dining-room of the villa. Exclusive of the kitchen range, it boasted the only stove in the house, a queerly shaped “Salamandre,” a kind of Franklin stove with mica doors. The walls were papered an ugly chocolate brown with a good deal of red in it, and the borders, doors, and fireplace frame were stained a color trembling between mission green and oak brown. The room was rectangular and too high for its width. There were pictures. On each side of the fireplace, profiles toward the chimney, hung concave plaques of Dutch girls. To the left of the door was a yellowed etching of the tower of the chateau of Heidelberg, and to the right a very small oil painting, in an ornate gilt frame three inches deep, of a beach by moonlight. About two or three hundred books, bound in boards and red leather, stood behind the cracked glass of a bookcase in the corner; they were very “jeune fille,” and only the romances of Georges Ohnet appeared to have been read. The thousand cupboards of the house were full of dusty knickknacks, old umbrellas, hats, account-books, and huge boxes holding the debris of sets of checkers, dominoes, and ivory chessmen. An enlarged photograph of the family hung on the walls of a bedroom; it had been taken at somebody’s marriage, and showed the group standing on the front steps, the same steps that were later to be blown to pieces by a shell. One saw the bride, the groom, and about twenty relatives, including a boy in short trousers, a wide, white collar, and an old-fashioned, fluffy bow tie. Anxious to be included in the picture, the driver of the bridal barouche has craned his neck forward. On the evidence of the costumes, the picture had been taken about 1902.
Our bureau in the cellar of Wisteria Villa was connected directly with the trenches. When a man had been wounded, he was carried to the poste de secours in the rear lines, and it was our duty to go to this trench post and carry the patient to the hospital at the nearest rail-head. The bureau of the Section was in charge of two Frenchmen who shared the labor of attending to the telephone and keeping the books.
A hundred yards beyond Wisteria Villa, at a certain corner, the principal road to the trenches divided into three branches, and in order to interfere as much as possible with communications, the Germans daily shelled this strategic point. A comrade and I had the curiosity to keep an exact record of a week’s shelling. It must be remembered that the corner was screened from the Germans, who fired casually in the hope of hitting something and annoying the French. The cannons shelling the corner were usually “seventy-sevens,” the German quick-firing pieces that correspond to the French “seventy-fives.”
Monday, ten shells at 6.30, two at 7.10, five at 11.28, twenty at intervals between 2.15 and 2.45, a swift rafale of some sixteen at 4.12, another rafale of twenty at 8, and occasional shells between 9 and midnight.
Tuesday, two big shells at mid-day.
Wednesday, rafales at 9.14, 11, 2.18, 4.30, and 6.20.
Friday, twelve at intervals between 10.16 and 12.20. Solitary big shell at 1.05. Another big shell at 3. Some fifteen stray shells between 5 and midnight.
Sunday–About five shells an hour between 4 in the afternoon and midnight.
I give the number of shells falling at this corner as a concrete instance of what was happening at a dozen other points along the road. The fire of the German batteries was as capricious as the play of a search-light; one week, the corner and three or four other points would catch it, the next week the corner and another set of localities. And there were periods, sometimes ten days to two weeks long, when hardly a shell was fired at any road. Then, after a certain sense of security had begun to take form, a rafale would come screaming over, blow a horse and wagon to pieces, and leave one or two blue figures huddled in the mud. But the French replied to each shell and every rafale, in addition to firing at random all the day and a good deal of the night. There was hardly a night that Wisteria Villa did not rock to the sound of French guns fired at 2 and 3 in the morning. But the average day at Pont-a-Mousson was a day of random silences. The war had all the capricious-ness of the sea–of uncertain weather. There were hours of calm in the day, during which the desolate silence of the front flooded swiftly over the landscape; there were interruptions of great violence, sometimes desultory, sometimes beginning, in obedience to a human will, at a certain hour. The outbreak would commence with the orderliness of a clock striking, and continue the greater part of the day, rocking the deserted town with its clamor. Hearing it, the soldiers en repos would say, talking of The Wood, “It sings (ca chante),” or, “It knocks (ca tape) up there to-day.” The smoke of the bursting shells hung over The Wood in a darkish, gray-blue fog. But since The Wood had a personality for us, many would say simply, “Listen to The Wood.”
The shell expresses one idea–energy. The cylinder of iron, piercing the air at a terrific speed, sings a song of swift, appalling energy, of which the final explosion is the only fitting culmination. One gets, too, an idea of an unbending volition in the thing. After a certain time at the front the ear learns to distinguish the sound of a big shell from a small shell, and to know roughly whether or not one is in the danger zone. It was a grim jest with us that it took ten days to qualify as a shell expert, and at the end of two weeks all those who qualified attended the funeral of those who had failed. Life at The Wood had an interesting uncertainty.
A quarter of a mile beyond the corner, on the slope of Puvenelle opposite The Wood, stood Montauville, the last habitable village of the region. To the south of it rose the wooded slopes of Puvenelle; to the north, seen across a marshy meadow, were the slope and the ridge of the Bois-le-Pretre. The dirty, mud-spattered village was caught between the leathery sweeps of two wooded ridges. Three winding roads, tramped into a pie of mire, crossed the grassy slope of The Wood, and disappeared into the trees at the top. Though less than a mile from the first German line, the village, because of its protection from shells by a spur of the Bois-le-Pretre, was in remarkably good condition; the only building to show conspicuous damage being the church, whose steeple had been twice struck. It was curious to see pigeons flying in and out of the belfry through the shell rents in the roof. Here and there, among the uncultivated fields of those who had fled, were the green fields of some one who had stayed. A woman of seventy still kept open her grocery shop; it was extraordinarily dirty, full of buzzing flies, and smelled of spilled wine.
“Why did you stay?” I asked her.
“Because I did not want to leave the village. Of course my daughter wanted me to come to Dijon. Imagine me in Dijon, I, who have been to Nancy only once! A fine figure I should make in Dijon in my sabots!”
“And you are not afraid of the shells?”
“Oh, I should be afraid of them if I ever went out in the street. But I never leave my shop.”
And so she stayed, selling the three staples of the French front, Camembert cheese, Norwegian sardines, and cakes of chocolate. But Montauville was far from safe. It was there that I first saw a man killed. I had been talking to a sentry, a small young fellow of twenty-one or two, with yellow hair and gray-blue eyes full of weariness. He complained of a touch of jaundice, and wished heartily that the whole affaire–meaning the war in general–was finished. He was very anxious to know if the Americans thought the Boches were going to win. Some vague idea of winning the war just to get even with the Boches seemed to be in his mind. I assured him that American opinion was optimistic in regard to the chances of the Allies, and strolled away. Hardly had I gone ten feet, when a “seventy-seven” shell, arriving without warning, went Zip-bang, and, turning to crouch to the wall, I saw the sentry crumple up in the mud. It was as if he were a rubber effigy of a man blown up with air, and some one had suddenly ripped the envelope. His rifle fell from him, and he, bending from the waist, leaned face down into the mud. I was the first to get to him. The young, discontented face was full of the gray street mud, there was mud in the hollows of the eyes, in the mouth, in the fluffy mustache. A chunk of the shell had ripped open the left breast to the heart. Down his sleeve, as down a pipe, flowed a hasty drop, drop, drop of blood that mixed with the mire.
Several times a day, at stated hours, the numbers of German missiles