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Title: Dixmude - The epic of the French marines (October 17-November 10, 1914)
Author: Le Goffic, Charles, 1863-1932
Language: English
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  DIXMUDE


  BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER 1914
    From the Swedish of ANTON NYSTROM and with an introduction
    by EDMUND GOSSE, C.B., LL.D. 6s net.

  EUROPE'S DEBT TO RUSSIA
    By DR. CHARLES SAROLEA. Cr. 8vo, 3s 6d net.

  AMONG THE RUINS
    A Volume of Personal Experiences. By GOMEZ CARRILLO.
    Cr. 8vo, 3s 6d net.

  VIVE LA FRANCE
    By E. ALEXANDER POWELL, Author of "Fighting in Flanders."
    Cr. 8vo, Illustrated, 3s 6d net.

  GERMANY'S VIOLATIONS OF THE LAWS OF WAR
    Published under the auspices of the French Government.
    Translated by J. O. P. BLAND. With many documents in facsimile.
    Demy 8vo, 5s net.

  THE SOUL OF THE WAR
    By PHILIP GIBBS. Demy 8vo, 7s 6d net.

  THE POISON WAR
    By A. A. ROBERTS. Demy 8vo, 5s net. Illustrated.

  THE DRAMA OF 365 DAYS
    Scenes in the Great War. By HALL CAINE.
    With a Photogravure Portrait of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. 1s net.

       *       *       *       *       *

  SOLDIERS' TALES OF THE GREAT WAR
       Each Volume cr. 8vo, Cloth, 3s 6d net.

    I. WITH MY REGIMENT. By "PLATOON COMMANDER." [_Ready_

   II. DIXMUDE. The Epic of the French Marines. Oct.-Nov. 1914.
         By CHARLES LE GOFFIC.  _Illustrated_

       To be followed by

  III. IN THE FIELD (1914-15). The Impressions of an Officer
         of Light Cavalry.

   IV. IN THE DARDANELLES AND SERBIA. Notes of a French Army Doctor.
         _Illustrated_

  WILLIAM HEINEMANN
  21 BEDFORD STREET, LONDON, W.C.


  _The most successful war book.
  Forty editions have been sold in France._


[Illustration: Phot. _Excelsior_

FRENCH MARINES MARCHING OUT OF THEIR DÉPÔT AT THE GRAND PALAIS, PARIS]


    DIXMUDE

    THE EPIC OF THE FRENCH MARINES

    (OCTOBER 17--NOVEMBER 10, 1914)

    BY

    CHARLES LE GOFFIC

    TRANSLATED BY FLORENCE SIMMONDS

    _With Maps and Illustrations_

    LONDON

    [Illustration]

    WILLIAM HEINEMANN


    _London: William Heinemann, 1916._



INTRODUCTION


Praise, they say, is stricken dumb by the greatest names, and also, we
may add, by the greatest deeds. It is only by the bare simplicity of
faithful narrative that we can hope not to belittle these.

But yesterday the public had no knowledge of the great, heroic things
accomplished by the Brigade of Marines (_Fusiliers Marins_). They were
hidden under a confused mass of notes, _communiqués_, instructions and
plans of operations, private letters, and newspaper articles. It has
been no easy task to bring them to light--the discreet light permitted
by the censorship. Everything seems simple and obvious to those who can
look at facts in their logical order and regular sequence. The historian
who has to handle new matter knows what a labour it is to introduce, or
rather to re-establish, such order and sequence. History has to be
written before the philosophy of history can be evolved.[1]

Our readers must not be surprised, therefore, to find here only such
considerations as are in direct relation to events. We have been
concerned with facts rather than with ideas. And in the result nothing
will be lost hereby, for we provide materials ready for use in the
establishment of that war mysticism which the sombre genius of Joseph de
Maistre presaged, which Vigny showed at work in certain souls, and which
is marked out as our national religion of to-morrow. It is obvious that
such an immense effort, such prolonged tension, such whole-hearted
sacrifice, as were demanded from the handful of men with whom we are
concerned, could not have been obtained by ordinary methods. A special
compact was required, a peculiar state of grace; the miracle was only
possible as the outcome of a close communion, and, to use the proper
word, of a true spiritual fraternity between men and officers.

True, this fraternity has been manifested in every branch of the service
and on every battlefield during the course of the present struggle; but
nowhere perhaps has it been so absolute as among the Marines. They had,
no doubt, been well prepared. The sea is a perpetual battlefield, and a
trench is hardly more of a prison than a ship. Community of danger soon
creates community of hearts; how otherwise can we account for the fact
that the most turbulent and individualist of men become the most
perfectly disciplined on board ship? This is the case with the Bretons.
At Dixmude under the command of their own officers, retaining not only
the costume, but the soul and the language of their profession, they
were still sailors. Grouped with them were seamen from all our naval
stations, Bayonne, Toulon, Dunkirk, etc., and the battalion of Commander
de Sainte-Marie, formed at Cherbourg, even contained a fair sprinkling
of natives of Les Batignolles. I had opportunities of talking to
several of these "Parigots," and I should not advise anyone to speak
slightingly of their officers before them, though, indeed, so few of
these have survived that nine times out of ten the quip could be aimed
only at a ghost. The deepest and tenderest words I heard uttered
concerning Naval Lieutenant Martin des Pallières were spoken by a Marine
of the Rue des Martyrs, Georges Delaballe, who was one of his gunners in
front of the cemetery the night when his machine-guns were jammed, and
five hundred Germans, led by a major wearing the Red Cross armlet, threw
themselves suddenly into our trenches.

"But why did you love him so?" I asked.

"I don't know.... We loved him because he was brave, and was always
saying things that made us laugh, ... but above all because he loved
us."

Here we have the secret of this extraordinary empire of the officers
over their men, the explanation of that miracle of a four weeks'
resistance, one against six, under the most formidable tempest of
shells of every calibre that ever fell upon a position, in a shattered
town where all the buildings were ablaze, and where, to quote the words
of a _Daily Telegraph_ correspondent, it was no longer light or dark,
"but only red." When the Boches murdered Commander Jeanniot, his men
were half crazy. They would not have felt the death of a father more
deeply. I have recently had a letter sent me written by a Breton lad,
Jules Cavan, who was wounded at Dixmude. While he was in hospital at
Bordeaux he was visited by relatives of Second-Lieutenant Gautier, who
was killed on October 27 in the cemetery trenches.

"Dear Sir," he wrote to M. Dalché de Desplanels the following day, "you
cannot imagine how your visit went to my heart.... On October 19, when
my battalion took the offensive at Lannes, three kilometres from
Dixmude, I was wounded by a bullet in the thigh. I dragged myself along
as best I could on the battlefield, bullets falling thickly all around
me. I got over about five hundred metres on the battlefield and reached
the road. Just at that moment Lieutenant Gautier, who was coming towards
me with a section, seeing me in the ditch, asked: 'Well, my lad, what is
the matter with you?' 'Oh, Lieutenant, I am wounded in the leg, and I
cannot drag myself further.' 'Here then, get on my back.' And he carried
me to a house at Lannes, and said these words, which I shall never
forget: 'Stay there, my lad, till they come and fetch you. I will let
the motor ambulance men know.' Then he went off under the fire. Oh, the
splendid fellow!"

"The splendid fellow!" Jules Cavan echoes Georges Delaballe, the Breton,
the "Parigot." There is the same heartfelt ring in the words of each.
And sometimes, as I muse over these heroic shades, I ask myself which
were the more admirable, officers or men. When Second-Lieutenant Gautier
received orders to take the place of Lieutenant de Pallières, buried by
a shell in the trench of the cemetery where Lieutenant Eno had already
fallen, he read his fate plainly; he said: "It's my turn." And he
smiled at Death, who beckoned him. But I know of one case when, as Death
seemed about to pass them by, the Marines provoked it; when, after they
had used up all their cartridges and were surrounded in a barn, twelve
survivors only remaining with their captain, the latter, filled with
pity for them, and recognising the futility of further resistance, said
to his men: "My poor fellows, you have done your duty. There is nothing
for it but to surrender." Then, disobedient to their captain for the
first time, they answered: "No!" To my mind nothing could show more
clearly the degree of sublime exaltation and complete self-forgetfulness
to which our officers had raised the _moral_ of their men. Such were the
pupils these masters in heroism had formed, that often their own pupils
surpassed them. There was at the Trouville Hospital a young Breton
sailor called Michel Folgoas. His wound was one of the most frightful
imaginable: the whole of his side was shaved off by a shell which killed
one of his comrades in the trenches, who was standing next to him, on
November 2. "I," he remarks in a letter, "was completely stunned at
first. When I came to myself I walked three hundred metres before I
noticed that I was wounded, and this was only when my comrades called
out: 'Mon Dieu, they have carried away half your side.'" It was true.
But does he groan and lament over it? He makes a joke of it: "The Boches
were so hungry that they took a beef-steak out of my side, but this
won't matter, as they have left me a little."

Multiply this Michel Folgoas by 6,000, and you will have the brigade.
This inferno of Dixmude was an inferno where everyone made the best of
things. And the _battues_ of rabbits, the coursing of the red German
hares which were running in front of the army of invasion, the
bull-fights in which our Mokos impaled some pacific Flemish bull
abandoned by its owners; more dubious escapades, sternly repressed, in
the underground premises of the Dixmude drink-shops; a story of two
Bretons who went off on a foraging expedition and were seen coming back
along the canal in broad daylight towing a great cask of strong beer
which they had unearthed Heaven knows where at a time when the whole
brigade, officers as well as men, had nothing to drink but the brackish
water of the Yser--these, and a hundred other tales of the same kind,
which will some day delight village audiences gathered round festal
evening fires, bear witness that Jean Gouin (or Le Gwenn, John the
White, as the sailors call themselves familiarly[2]), did not lose his
bearings even in his worst vicissitudes.

Dixmude was an epic then, or, as M. Victor Giraud proposes, a French
_geste_, but a _geste_ in which the heroism is entirely without
solemnity or deliberation, where the nature of the seaman asserts itself
at every turn, where there are thunder, lightning, rain, mud, cold,
bullets, shrapnel, high explosive shells, and all the youthful gaiety of
the French race.

And this epic did not come to an end at Dixmude. The brigade did not
ground arms after November 10. The gaps in its ranks being filled from
the dépôts, it was kept up to the strength of two regiments, and reaped
fresh laurels. At Ypres and Saint Georges it charged the troops of
Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria and the Duke of Würtemberg in succession.
Dixmude was but one panel of the triptych: on the broken apex of the
black capital of the Communiers, on the livid backgrounds of the flat
country about Nieuport, twice again did the brigade inscribe its stormy
silhouette.

But at Ypres and Saint Georges the sailors had the bulk of the
Anglo-French forces behind them; at Dixmude up to November 4 they knew
that their enterprise was a forlorn hope. And in their hands they held
the fate of the two Flanders. One of the heroes of Dixmude, Naval
Lieutenant Georges Hébert, said that the Fusiliers had gained more than
a naval battle there. My only objection to this statement is its
modesty. Dixmude was our Thermopylæ in the north, as the Grand-Couronné,
near Nancy, was our Thermopylæ in the east; the Fusiliers were the first
and the most solid element of the long triumphant defensive which will
one day be known as the victory of the Yser, a victory less decisive and
perhaps less brilliant than that of the Marne, but not less momentous in
its consequences.

The Generalissimo is credited with a dictum which he may himself have
uttered with a certain astonishment:

"You are my best infantrymen," said he to the Fusiliers.

We will close with these simple, soldierly words, more eloquent than the
most brilliant harangues. The brigade will reckon them among their
proudest trophies to all time.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] We may perhaps be allowed to note that _Dixmude_ appeared in the
_Revue des Deux Mondes_, March 1 and 15, before any other study on the
subject.

[2] "When we passed through the streets of Ghent they were full of
people shouting, 'Long live the French!' I heard one person in the crowd
call out, 'Long live Jean Gouin!' He must have known them well." (Letter
of Fusilier F., of the island of Sein.) Le Gwenn, which has been
corrupted into Gouin, is a very common name in Brittany. [Compare the
current English nickname "Jack Tar."--TR.]



NOTE


The sources drawn upon in the following narrative are of various kinds:
official _communiqués_, French and foreign reports, etc. But the
majority of our information was derived from private letters, collected
by M. de Thézac, the modest and zealous founder of the _Abris du Marin_
(Seamen's Shelters), from note-books kindly lent by their owners, and
from oral inquiries addressed to the survivors of Melle and Dixmude.
Whenever possible, we have let our correspondents speak for themselves.
We regret that the strictest orders have compelled us to preserve their
anonymity, which, however, we hope may be merely temporary.



    CONTENTS

                                             PAGE

        INTRODUCTION                        i--xv
     I. TOWARDS GHENT                           1
    II. THE BATTLE OF MELLE                    11
   III. RETREAT                                29
    IV. ON THE YSER                            35
     V. DIXMUDE                                42
    VI. THE CAPTURE OF BEERST                  52
   VII. THE FIRST EFFECTS OF THE BOMBARDMENT   70
  VIII. THE INUNDATION                         94
    IX. THE MURDER  OF  COMMANDER JEANNIOT     99
     X. IN THE TRENCHES                       117
    XI. THE ATTACK ON THE CHÂTEAU DE WOUMEN   133
   XII. THE DEATH OF DIXMUDE                  142



    LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


                                      FACING PAGE

  FRENCH MARINES MARCHING OUT OF THEIR DÉPÔT _Frontispiece_
  THE FLAG OF THE BRIGADE                       4
  LA GRAND' PLACE, DIXMUDE                     36
  THE PAPEGAEI INN                             42
  THE BÉGUINAGE AT DIXMUDE                     48
  THE BRIDGE AND FLOUR FACTORY                 54
  BELGIAN ARMOURED CAR RECONNOITRING           60
  THE PARISH CHURCH AFTER THE FIRST DAYS
     OF THE BOMBARDMENT                        76
  THE TOWN-HALL AND BELFRY AFTER THE
     FIRST DAYS OF THE BOMBARDMENT             92
  THE "KIEKENSTRAAT" (CHICKEN STREET)
     AFTER THE FIRST DAYS OF THE BOMBARDMENT  140
  OLD HOUSES ON THE HANDZAEME CANAL           150
  THE INUNDATION. OLD MILL AND FARMS ON
     THE YSER                                 162
  PLAN OF ATTACK ON DIXMUDE ON NOVEMBER
     10, 1914                         _page_  165
  MAP OF OPERATIONS ROUND DIXMUDE
                               _At end of volume_



I. TOWARDS GHENT


On the morning of October 8 two troop trains passed each other in the
station of Thourout. One contained Belgian Carabiniers; the other,
French Marines. They exchanged greetings from their respective lines.
The Carabiniers waved their little yellow-bound caps and cried: "Long
live France!" The sailors replied by hurrahs in honour of Belgium.

"Where are you going?" asked a Belgian officer.

"To Antwerp. And you?"

"To France."

He explained that the Carabiniers were recruits from La Campine, who
were being sent to our lines to finish their training.

"You'll soon get them into shape, won't you?" said a sailor to the
officer. And shaking his fist at the horizon, he added:

"Don't you worry, Lieutenant! We shall get at the scum some day, never
fear."

The Belgian officer who describes the scene, M. Edouard de Kayser,[3]
had left Antwerp during the night. He did not know that the defence was
at its last gasp, and that the evacuation had begun. Our sailors were no
better informed. Rear-Admiral Ronarc'h, who was in command, thought that
he was taking his brigade to Dunkirk; he had been given a week to form
it and organise it on the footing of two regiments (six battalions and a
machine-gun company). Everything had to be evolved: the complement of
officers, the men, the auxiliary services. This arduous task was
complicated by the lack of cohesion among the elements of the brigade
and perpetual changes of quarters (Creil, Stains, Pierrefitte, etc.).
But the idea of forming infantry brigades with sailors was an
after-thought. Article 11 of the Law of August 8, 1913, certainly
permitted any surplus men in the navy to be used for service in the
field, but the manner in which these contingents were to be employed had
never been clearly defined. Would they be linked to existing bodies, or
would they be formed into separate units? The latter alternative, by far
the most reasonable, which effected a gradual transition, and, while
connecting the naval combatant with the land forces, preserved his
somewhat jealous but very stimulating _esprit de corps_, was by no means
unanimously approved. The Minister overruled objections, and he was well
advised. The glorious lessons of 1870, of Le Bourget and Le Mans, had
taught him what to expect from the co-operation of navy and army. Some
preparation was of course necessary. Strictly speaking, a navy is made
to navigate, and this explains a certain neglect of drill; these men in
new clothes, "_capelés_" (cloaked), as they say, in the new fashion,
their caps bereft of pompons,[4] their collarless tunics buttoned up to
the throat, had be transformed into soldiers. Handy as sailors
proverbially are, a certain stiffness of movement in the early days
betrayed the inexperience of these sea-birds, whose wings had been
clipped; they were further hampered by heavy infantry overcoats. The
brigade was sent almost immediately to the entrenched camp of Paris.[5]
Scarcely had it settled into its quarters when its commander received
orders to be ready to start for Dunkirk, where a new army was being
formed. Dunkirk was not yet threatened; the brigade would be able to
complete its organisation there. The order was dated October 4. On the
morning of the 7th the brigade entrained at Saint Denis and at
Villetaneuse with its convoys.

[Illustration: Phot. _Excelsior_

THE FLAG OF THE BRIGADE]

"We are comfortably installed in cattle-trucks," notes Fusilier R. in
his pocket-book. "At Creil we see houses that were burnt by the Germans.
Night comes; we try to sleep, but in vain. It is very cold. We shiver in
our trucks." But over the dunes, along which the train had been running
since it left Boulogne, a patch of purple light appeared; then other
fires twinkled, green and red, and the keen breath of the open sea made
itself felt--Dunkirk. Here a surprise awaited the brigade: a change in
the orders; it was not to turn out, but the trains were to go on
"towards Belgium, towards the enemy," to Antwerp, in short.

The men stamped with joy. They hung over the doors of the trucks, waving
their caps in greeting to Belgian territory.[6] The Admiral went off in
the first train with his staff. On the afternoon of the 8th he found
General Pau on the platform at Ghent. The great organiser of the
connections between the Allied Armies had just left Antwerp, where he
had been to plan out the retreat of the Belgian army with King Albert.
He informed the Admiral that the railway had been cut above the town,
and that the six divisions which were defending Antwerp had begun to
fall back upon Bruges; two divisions were echeloned to the west of the
Terneusen Canal, and three to the east. Only one division was still in
Antwerp, with 10,000 English troops.[7] The Belgian cavalry was covering
the retreat on the Scheldt, to the south of Lokeren. There was no longer
any question of entering Antwerp; the contingent was to co-operate in
the retreating movement with the English reinforcements which were
expected, and with the troops of the garrison at Ghent; everything
seemed to indicate that the enemy would try to gain ground in the west,
and to invest the Belgian army, exhausted by two months of incessant
fighting, and the forces from Antwerp that were supporting it at
intervals along the Dutch frontier. But, to ensure the success of this
enveloping manoeuvre, the Germans would first be obliged to take Ghent
and Bruges, which they might so easily have done a month earlier; they
had deliberately neglected this precaution, feeling confident that they
would be able to occupy them at their own time without firing a shot.

By the end of August, indeed, General von Boehn's Army Corps had
advanced to Melle, within a few miles of Ghent. Although no resistance
had been offered, Melle had been partially burnt and pillaged; the
Germans had spared only the distillery where their troops were
quartered, which belonged to a naturalised Bavarian. To save the town
from effective occupation by the enemy, the Burgomaster, M. Braun, had
agreed with General von Boehn to undertake the victualling of the German
troops stationed at Beleghem. The requisition was not a very harsh one
for war time. But the foes were to meet again; on August 25, the morrow
of Charleroi, the Kaiser would have cashiered a general as duly
convicted of imbecility who had ventured to suggest that in October
France, supposing her to be still alive, would have had strength enough
in her death-throes to detach units and send them to the help of
Belgium. Be this as it may, it is certain that the Belgian army owed its
salvation to this erroneous calculation, or foolish presumption.

The effort the enemy had scorned to make in August against Ghent and
West Flanders was now determined upon in October, after the fall of
Antwerp. The conditions seemed to have changed but little. Ghent, an
open town, spread over an alluvial plain at the confluence of the
Scheldt and the Lys, which branch off here into innumerable canals, is
open on every side to sudden assault. It has neither forts nor
ramparts. We could only rely upon improvised defences to check the
advance of the enemy. The garrison, under the command of General
Clothen, was reduced to eight squadrons of cavalry, a mixed brigade, a
volunteer brigade, and two line regiments, none of them up to full
strength. However, with our 6,000 rifles, they would suffice to deploy
in the loop of the Scheldt, and on the space between the Scheldt and the
Lys to the south of the town, which seemed to be specially threatened.
If the English 7th Division arrived in time on the following day, it
would reinforce the front, which it would be unnecessary to extend
further for the purposes of a purely temporary defence, designed to give
the army in Antwerp an additional day or two. The fighting would
probably be very severe; neither General Pau, who was responsible for
the plan, nor Admiral Ronarc'h, who was to direct the principal effort,
had any illusions on this score.

"Salute these gentlemen," said the General to his Staff, pointing to
the naval officers; "you will not see them again."[8]

The rest of the brigade followed hard upon the Admiral. The last trains
arrived at Ghent during the night. The whole population was astir,
cheering the sailors as they marched through the town to their
respective barracks: the Léopold Barracks, the Circus, and the Théâtre
Flamand. The officers and the Admiral were lodged at the Hôtel des
Postes.[9] The reveillé was sounded at 4.30 a.m. The men drank their
coffee and set off for Melle, where the Belgians had prepared trenches
for them.

FOOTNOTES:

[3] _Revue Hebdomadaire_ of January 9, 1915. These were the same
recruits which the last trains of Marines passed in Dunkirk station.
"October 8, 4 p.m. Arrived at Dunkirk. Passed the Belgian class 1914.
Many cries of 'Long live France!'" (Second-Lieutenant Gautier's
pocket-book. See also p. 5, n.).

[4] The pompons were restored after a time; at first they were
considered too conspicuous; but regrettable mistakes had been made, and
in the distance the headgear of our men was too much like the German
caps.

[5] A certain number of the men were there already. "For weeks we
bivouacked in the entrenched camp [of Paris], marching and
countermarching to accustom the men to the novel weight of the knapsack.
We spent the glorious days of the Marne as second line reserves and saw
nothing." (Interview with Naval Lieutenant G. Hébert, by R. Kimley,
_Opinion_, December 19, 1914.)

[6] "At every station the inhabitants were massed on the platforms. Loud
cheers were raised, and our compartments were literally filled with
fruit, sandwiches, cigars, cigarettes, etc. Beer, tea, and coffee flowed
freely. You can picture the delight of our Marines, who imagined
themselves in the Land of Promise." (Note-book of Dr. L. F.)

[7] A Royal Naval Brigade and 6,000 volunteers from the Naval Reserve.
These forces had only been in Antwerp, where they were preceded by Mr.
Winston Churchill, since October 4. They fought very gallantly during
the last days of the siege and gave most valuable support to the Belgian
troops. In the course of the retreat which they helped to secure, a
portion of them only was pressed back into Dutch territory and there
interned.

[8] Cf. Jean Claudius, "_La Brigade Navale_." (_Petite Gironae_ of
February 1, 1915.)

[9] "I shared a room with the naval Lieutenant Martin des Pallières, and
before going to bed we refreshed ourselves by a general toilet, our last
ablutions during our stay in Belgium, and the last of all for my poor
companion, who was killed at Dixmude." (Note-book of Dr. L. F.)



II. THE BATTLE OF MELLE


The little lace-making town, the younger sister of Mechlin and Bruges,
had not suffered as much as we had feared. The rattle of the bobbins was
no longer to be heard on the doorsteps; certain houses showed the
stigmata of preliminary martyrdom in their empty window-frames and
blackened façades. But her heart beat still, and around her, in the
great open conservatory which forms the outskirts of Ghent, Autumn had
gathered all her floral splendours. "We marched through fields of
magnificent begonias, among which we are perhaps about to die," wrote
Fusilier R. To die among flowers like a young girl seems a strange
destiny for the conventional sailor--the typical sea-dog with a face
tanned by sun and spray. But the majority of the recruits of the brigade
bore little resemblance to the type. Their clear eyes looked out of
faces but slightly sunburnt; the famous "Marie-Louises" were hardly
younger.[10] Their swaying walk and a touch of femininity and coquetry
in the precocious development of their muscular vigour explain the
nickname given them by the heavy Teutons, to whom they were as
disconcerting as an apparition of boyish Walkyries: _the young ladies
with the red pompons_! The Admiral, who had just reconnoitred the
position, was conferring with his lieutenants on the spot; a fraction of
the 2nd Regiment, under Commander Varney, was to take up a position
between Gontrode and Quatrecht, leaving a battalion in reserve to the
north of Melle; a fraction of the 1st Regiment, under Commander Delage,
was to advance between Heusden and Goudenhaut, and to leave a battalion
in reserve at Destelbergen. He himself would keep with him as general
reserve, at the cross-roads of Schelde, which was to be his post of
command, the rest of the brigade, that is to say, two battalions and the
machine-gun company.

The convoys, with the exception of the ambulances commanded by
Staff-Surgeon Seguin, were to stay in the rear, at the gates of Ghent.
This was an indispensable precaution in view of a rapid retreat, which,
however, the Admiral had no intention of carrying out until he had
sufficiently broken the shock of the enemy's onslaught.

Thanks to our reinforcements, the Belgian troops were able to extend
their front as much as was necessary by occupying Lemberge and
Schellerode. The artillery of the 4th mixed Brigade, emplaced near
Lendenhock, commanded the approaches of the plain. No trace of the enemy
was to be seen. But the Belgian cyclist scouts had brought in word that
the German vanguard had crossed the Dendre. We had only just time to
occupy our trenches; in the last resort, if it should be necessary to
fall back on Melle, we should find a ready-made epaulement in the
railway embankment near the station bridge.

Antwerp was burning, and the civic authorities were parleying over its
surrender; the English forces and the last Belgian division had
fortunately been able to leave the town during the night; they blew up
the bridges behind them, and made for Saint Nicolas by forced marches,
arriving there at dawn. They hoped to reach Eeclo by evening. But the
enemy was hard in pursuit; a party of German cavalry was sighted at Zele
and near Wetteren, where they crossed the Scheldt on a bridge of boats.
At the village of Basteloere they fell in with the Belgian outposts,
whose artillery stopped them for the time; other forces, further to the
north, advanced in the district of Waïs as far as Loochristi, 10
kilometres from Ghent. Part of these came from Alost, the rest from
Antwerp itself; but the bulk of the German troops remained at Antwerp,
to our great satisfaction.

An enemy less arrogant or less bent on theatrical effect would
undoubtedly have thrown his whole available forces on the rear of the
retreat; the Germans preferred to make a sensational entry into
Antwerp, with fifes sounding and ensigns spread.[11]

Simultaneously, the troops they had detached at Alost had their first
encounter with the 2nd Regiment of the Brigade. They were expected, and
a few well-directed volleys sufficed to check their ardour. To quote one
of our Fusiliers, "they fell like ninepins" at each discharge. "There
was plenty of whistling round our heads, too," writes another of the
combatants, who expresses his regret at having been unable "to grease
his bayonet in the bellies of the Germans." He had his chance later. The
enemy returned in force, and Commander Varney thought it advisable to
call up his reserve, which was at once replaced at Melle by a battalion
of the general reserve. "There was," says Dr. Caradec, "a certain gun
which was run up by the Germans about 800 metres from the trenches; it
had only just fired its fourth shot when we blew up its team and its
gunners. They were not able to get it away till nightfall." Indeed,
generally speaking, the enemy's fire, which was too long in range, did
very little damage to us in the course of this battle; the town did not
suffer appreciably, and only three shells struck the church. Towards six
o'clock the attack ceased. Night was falling; a slight mist floated over
the fields, and the enemy took advantage of it to solidify his position.
Pretending to retire, he remained close at hand, occupying the woods,
the houses, the hedges, the farmyards, and every obstacle on the ground.
These were unequivocal signs of a speedy resumption of the offensive.
Commander Varney, whose contingents bore the brunt of the pressure, was
not deceived and kept a sharp look-out. The men were forbidden to stir;
they were told that they must eat when they could. Besides, they had
nothing for a meal. "It was not until midnight," says Fusilier R., "that
I was able to get a little bread; I offered some of it to my Commander,
who accepted it thankfully." The mist lifted, but it was still very
dark. Black night on every hand, save down by Quatrecht, where two
torches were blazing, two farms that had been fired. The men listened,
straining their ears. It was just a watch, on land instead of at sea.
But nothing stirred till 9 o'clock. Then suddenly the veil was rent:
shells with luminous fuses burst a few yards from the trenches; the
enemy had received artillery reinforcements; our position was soon to
become untenable. "We saw the Boches by the light of the shells,
creeping along the hedges and houses like rats. We fired into the mass,
and brought them down in heaps, but they kept on advancing. The
Commander was unwilling for us to expose ourselves further; he gave
orders to abandon Gontrode and fall back a little further upon Melle,
behind the railway bank."[12]

We lost a few men in the retreat. But our position was excellent.
About 60 metres from the trenches our machine-guns poured out hell-fire
on the enemy, whom we had allowed to approach. A splendid charge by the
Fusiliers completed his discomfiture. It was four in the morning. At 7
a.m. our patrols brought us word that Gontrode and Quatrecht were
evacuated; the Germans had not even stopped to pick up their wounded.

The Fusiliers did this good office for them when they went to reoccupy
Gontrode, taking the opportunity to collect a good number of German
helmets.[13] Meanwhile the brigade had passed under the command of
General Capper, of the 7th English Division, who had just arrived at
Ghent, where his men received an ovation like that bestowed on our own
sailors. Indeed, there is a strong likeness between them. The Englishmen
in their dark dun-coloured uniform, with their clear eyes and rhythmic
gait, are also of an ocean race, and do not forget it. They swung along,
their rifles under their arms, or held by the barrel against their
shoulders like oars, singing the popular air adopted by the whole
British army:

         _It's a long, long way to Tipperary._

Apparently Ghent lies on the road to this goal, for the _Tommies_ can
never have been gayer. These fine troops, which advanced to the firing
line as if they had been going to a Thames regatta, were the admiration
not only of the citizens of Ghent, but of our own sailors, who felt an
unexpected tenderness for them. Had not the hereditary foe become our
staunchest ally? "We look upon them as brothers," wrote a sailor of the
Passage Lauriec to his family next day.

Reinforced by two of their battalions and the Belgian troops of the
sector, we were ordered to hold our former positions in the loop of the
Scheldt. But towards noon, after a visit from a Taube, the enemy
developed such a fierce attack upon Gontrode and Quatrecht that at the
end of the day we had to repeat the manoeuvre of the preceding day and
fall back upon the railway bank. Here at least the German offensive
spent itself in vain upon the glacis of this natural redoubt, defended
with conspicuous gallantry by Commander Varney's three battalions. The
rest of the night was quiet; the reliefs came into the trenches normally
at dawn, and those who wished were free to go to church. It was a
Sunday. "I have been to mass in a very pretty little church," wrote
Seaman F., of the Isle of Sein. The day passed very well. In the evening
after supper we went to bed. Scarcely had we lain down upon the straw
when the order was given to turn out again.

We were to beat a retreat, and it was time. The apparent inactivity of
the enemy during this day of the 11th of October was explained by his
desire to turn our position and surround us with all his forces in the
loop of the Scheldt. On both banks of the river, down-stream and to the
south, long grey lines were writhing. It was a question whether it would
be wise to expose ourselves further, and to give the enemy a pretext for
bombarding Ghent, an open town, which we had decided not to defend. Had
we not achieved our main object, since our resistance of the previous
days had given the Belgian army forty-eight hours' start? Headquarters
acknowledged that we had carried out our mission unfalteringly. From the
moment when they first came into touch with the enemy the Naval
Fusiliers had behaved with the firmness and endurance of tried troops,
like "old growlers," as Fusilier R. said. Twice the German infantry had
given way to their irresistible charge. This gave good hope for the
future.

Our own casualties had been inconsiderable. Ten of our men had been
killed, among them Naval Lieutenant Le Douget, who had been in the
trenches, with his company, and who had been mortally wounded by a
bullet as he was falling back on the railway embankment; we had 39
wounded and one missing, whereas, according to the official
_communiqué_, the enemy's losses were 200 killed and 50 prisoners.[14]

Melle was not a great battle, but it was a victory, "our first victory,"
said the men proudly, the first canto of their Iliad. And the troops
which gained this victory were under fire for the first time. They came
from the five ports, mainly from Brittany, which provides four-fifths of
the combatants for naval warfare. And the majority of them, setting
aside a few warrant-officers, were young apprentices taken from the
dépôts before they had finished their training, but well stiffened by
non-commissioned officers of the active list and the reserve. The
officers themselves, with the exception of the commanders of the two
regiments (Captains Delage and Varney), who ranked as colonels, and the
battalion commanders (Captains Rabot, Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, and De
Kerros, 1st Regiment; Jeanniot, Pugliesi-Conti, and Mauros, 2nd
Regiment), belonged for the most part to the Naval Reserve. It was, in
fact, a singular army, composed almost entirely of recruits and
veterans, callow youths and greybeards. There were even some novices of
the Society of Jesus, Father de Blic and Father Poisson,[15] serving as
sub-lieutenants, and a former Radical deputy, Dr. Plouzané,[16] who
acted as surgeon. The percentage of casualties was very high among the
older men at the beginning of the campaign, and this has been made a
reproach to them. If a great many officers fell, it was not due to
bravado, still less to ignorance of the profession of arms, as has been
suggested[17]; but leaders must preach by example, and there is only one
way of teaching others to die bravely. We must not forget that their men
were recruits, without homogeneity, without experience, almost without
training. The _moral_ of troops depends on that of their chiefs. "If you
go about speaking to no one, sad and pensive," said Monluc, "even if all
your men had the hearts of lions, you would turn them into sheep." This
was certainly the opinion of the officers of the brigade, and notably of
him who commanded the 2nd Regiment, Captain Varney, "always in the
breach," according to an eye-witness, "going on foot to the first lines
and the outposts and even beyond them, as at Melle. Here," adds the
narrator, "he was on an armoured car, but ... on the step, entirely
without cover, to give confidence to his men." One of the officers of
his regiment, Lieutenant Gouin,[18] wounded in the foot in the same
encounter, refused to go to the ambulance until the enemy began to
retreat; Second-Lieutenant Gautier,[19] commanding a machine-gun
section, allowed a German attack to advance to within 60 metres, "to
teach the gunners not to squander their ammunition," and when wounded in
the head, said: "What does it matter, since every one of my 502 bullets
found its billet?"

Moreover, the chief of these gallant fellows, Rear-Admiral Ronarc'h,
had proved himself a strategist on other battle-fields; the Minister's
choice was due neither to complaisance nor to chance.

Admiral Ronarc'h is a Breton; his guttural, sonorous name is almost a
birth-certificate. And physically the man answers exactly to the image
evoked by his name and race. His short, sturdy, broad-shouldered figure
is crowned by a rugged, resolute head, the planes strongly marked, but
refined, and even slightly ironical; he has the true Celtic eyes,
slightly veiled, which seem always to be looking at things afar off or
within; morally he is, as one of his officers says: "a furze-bush of the
cliffs, one of those plants that flourish in rough winds and poor soil,
that strike root among the crevices of granite rocks and can never be
detached from them: Breton obstinacy in all its strength, but a calm,
reflective obstinacy, very sober in its outward manifestations, and
concentrating all the resources of a mind very apt in turning the most
unpromising elements to account upon its object."[20] It is rather
remarkable that all the great leaders in this war are taciturn and
thoughtful men; never has the antithesis of deeds and words been more
strongly marked. It has been noted elsewhere that Admiral Ronarc'h,
though a very distinguished sailor,[21] seems destined to fight mainly
as a soldier in war; as a naval lieutenant and adjutant-major to
Commander de Marolles, he accompanied the Seymour column sent to the
relief of the European Legations when the Boxers besieged them in Pekin.
The column, which was too weak, though it was composed of sailors of the
four European naval divisions stationed in Chinese waters, was obliged
to fall back hurriedly towards the coast. It was almost a defeat, in the
course of which the detachments of the Allied divisions lost a great
many men and all the artillery they had landed. The French detachment
was the only one which brought off its guns. The author of this fine
strategic manoeuvre was rewarded by promotion to the command of a
frigate; he was then 37 years old. At the date of his promotion (March
23, 1902) he was the youngest officer of his rank. At 49, in spite of
his grizzled moustache and "imperial," he is the youngest of our
admirals. He attained his present rank in June, 1914, and was almost
immediately called upon to form the Marine Brigade.

FOOTNOTES:

[10] Napoleon's young recruits of 1813, who called themselves after the
Empress.

[11] As a matter of fact, this triumphal entry, followed by a review of
the investing army with massed bands, did not take place till the
afternoon of the following Sunday. But the criticism holds good: only a
portion of the German forces went in pursuit of the Belgian army after
repairing the bridge across the Scheldt; 60,000 men remained in Antwerp.

[12] Fusilier Y. M. J., _Correspondence_. See also the letter of the
sailor P. L. Y., of Audierne; "Then, seeing that they were advancing
against us in mass (they were a regiment against our single company), we
were obliged to fall back 400 metres, for we could no longer hold them.
I saw the master-at-arms fall mortally wounded, and four men wounded
when we got back to the railway line. There we stayed for a day and a
night to keep the Boches employed, sending volleys into them when they
came too near and charging them with the bayonet. It was fine to see
them falling on the plain at every volley. We ceased firing on the 10th,
about 4 a.m."

[13] "This morning we made a fine collection of dead Germans from 50 to
100 metres from our trenches. We have a few prisoners." (Letter from
Second-Lieutenant Gautier.)

[14] According to _Le Temps_ of October 18, the German losses were very
much greater: "800 Germans killed." The hesitation and want of vigour
shown in the attack seem surprising. They are perhaps to be explained by
the following passage, written by Second-Lieutenant de Blois: "The
Germans had not expected such a resistance, and even less had they
thought to find us in front of them. They suspected a trap, and this
paralysed their offensive, though our line was so thin that a vigorous
onslaught could not have failed to break it. This they did not dare to
make; several times they advanced to within a few metres of our trenches
and then stopped short. We shot them down at our ease. Yet our positions
were far from solid; we were on the railway embankment, and the trenches
consisted of a few holes dug between the rails; the bridge had not even
been barricaded by the Belgian engineers, and nothing would have been
simpler than to have passed under it. When night came, Commander Conti
ordered me to see to it. I turned on a little electric pocket light; the
bullets at once began to whistle about my ears; the Germans were only
about 20 metres from the bridge, but they made no attempt to pass!"

[15] The first killed and the second wounded at Dixmude. Both received
the Legion of Honour.

[16] He also received the Legion of Honour.

[17] Cf. Dr. Caradec, "_La Brigade des Fusiliers Marins de l'Yser_"
(_Dépêche de Brest_ for January 19, 1915).

[18] Killed at Dixmude.

[19] Killed at Dixmude.

[20] Dr. L. G., private correspondence.

[21] He won his stars as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, and has
invented a mine-sweeper adopted by the British navy.



III. RETREAT


How was the retirement to be carried out?

The operation seemed to be a very delicate one. The enemy was watching
us on every side. General Capper's orders were to disengage ourselves by
a night march to Aeltre, where the roads to Bruges and Thielt intersect.
The retreat began very accurately and methodically, facilitated by the
precautionary arrangements the Admiral had made: first, our convoys;
then, half an hour later, our troops, which were replaced temporarily in
their positions by the English units. "As we passed through Ghent,"
writes Fusilier B., "we were heartily cheered again, the more so as some
of us had taken Prussian helmets, which they showed to the crowd. The
enthusiasm was indescribable. The ladies especially welcomed us warmly."
Fair Belgium had given us her heart; she did not withdraw it, even when
we seemed to be forsaking her. Covered by the English division which
followed us after the space of two hours, we passed through
Tronchiennes, Luchteren, Meerendré, Hansbeke, and Bellem, a long stretch
of eight leagues, by icy moonlight, with halts of ten minutes at each
stage. The motor-cars of the brigade rolled along empty, all the
officers, even the oldest of them, electing to march with their men.
Aeltre was not reached till dawn. The brigade had not been molested in
its retreat; we lost nothing on the way, neither a straggler nor a
cartridge. And all our dead, piously buried the night before by the
chaplain of the 2nd Regiment, the Abbé Le Helloco, with the help of the
curé and the Burgomaster, were sleeping in the little churchyard of
Melle.

After snatching a hasty meal and resting their legs for a while, the men
started for Thielt. "Twenty-five kilometres on top of the forty we had
done in the night," says a Fusilier, somewhat hyperbolically. "And they
say sailors are not good walkers!"[22]

To avoid corns, they marched bare-footed, their boots slung over their
shoulders. And they had to drag the machine-guns, for which there were
no teams. But Aeltre, the kindness of its inhabitants, the good coffee
served out, and laced by a generous municipal ration of rum, had revived
them. "What good creatures they are!" said a Fusilier. "They receive us
as if we were their own children!"

The brigade reached Thielt between four and five in the afternoon; the
English division arrived at six, and we at once went into our temporary
quarters; the roads were barricaded, and strong guards were placed at
every issue. Fifty thousand Germans were galloping in pursuit of us. If
they did not catch us at Thielt, we perhaps owed this to the Burgomaster
of one of the places we had passed through, who sent them on a wrong
track. His heroic falsehood cost him his life, and secured a good
night's rest for our men. For the first time for three days they were
able to sleep their fill on the straw of hospitable Belgian farms and
make up for the fatigues of their previous vigils. A Taube paid an
unwelcome visit in the morning, but was received with a vigorous
fusillade, and the "beastly bird" was brought down almost immediately,
falling in the English lines, to the great delight of our men. Shortly
afterwards we broke up our camp and set out for Thourout, which we
reached at 1 p.m. Here the English division had to leave us, to march
upon Roulers, and the brigade came under the command of King Albert,
whose outposts we had now reached.

The Belgian army, after its admirable retreat from Antwerp, had merely
touched at Bruges, and deciding not to defend Ostend, had fallen back by
short marches towards the Yser. All its convoys had not yet arrived. To
ensure their safety, it had decided, in spite of its exhausted state, to
deploy in an undulating line extending from Menin to the marshes of
Ghistelles; the portion of this front assigned to the Fusiliers ran from
the wood of Vijnendaele to the railway station of Cortemarck. On the
14th, in a downpour of rain, the brigade marched to the west of
Pereboom, and took up a position facing east. It was the best position
open to them, though, indeed, it was poor enough, by reason of its
excentricity. The enemy, who had finally got on our track, was reported
to be advancing in dense masses upon Cortemarck. The 6,000 men of the
brigade, however heroic they might prove themselves, could not hope to
offer a very long resistance to such overwhelming forces on a position
so difficult to maintain, a position without natural defences, without
cover on any side, even towards the west, where the French troops had
not yet completed their extension. It was the Admiral's duty to report
to the Belgian Headquarters Staff on these tactical defects; the reply
was an order to make a stand "at all costs," a term fully applicable to
the situation; but this was rescinded, and at midnight on October 15 the
retreat was resumed.

It ceased only on the banks of the Yser.

FOOTNOTE:

[22] This was one of the first questions General Pau put to the Admiral:
"Are your men good walkers?" He foresaw that they might have to execute
a very rapid retreat. Our officers felt some anxiety on this score.
"When not in danger," says Dr. L. F. in his note-book, "the sailor gets
rusty. At the beginning of October all of us, officers and men alike,
had received the blue infantry overcoat, which was obligatory. The men
shouldered knapsacks (not without grumbling), and we were transformed
into troopers, nothing left of naval uniform but our caps.... This part
of the foot-soldier assigned to them seems an inferior one to our men,
and they accept it unwillingly, especially when it entails military
marches with great-coats and haversacks. We had innumerable limpers and
laggards on our marches in the environs of Paris. The contrast was very
striking to those who saw our men afterwards in Belgium. It was a proof
of the marvellous resilience of our race, and more particularly of our
Bretons, who are always in the majority in the brigade."



IV. ON THE YSER


Our columns started at 4 a.m., while it was still quite dark, but the
roads were good in spite of the rain which had been falling incessantly
all night.

The route was through Warken, Zarren, and Eessen, with Dixmude as its
final point. The first battalion of the 2nd Regiment and the three
Belgian batteries of the Pontus group brought up the rear. The advance
was hampered by the usual congestion of the roads, refugees fleeing
before the invaders, dragging bundles containing all their worldly
goods. These miserable beings seemed to be moving along mechanically,
their legs the only part of them that showed any vitality. They halted
by the roadside, making way for us, staring at us dully, as if they had
left their souls behind them with all the dear familiar things of their
past lives. Our men called out to them as they passed: "Keep your hearts
up. We'll come back."

They made no answer. It was still raining, and the water was streaming
off the great-coats. Near Eessen we left Commander de Kerros with the
second battalion of the 1st Regiment, to hold the roads of Vladsloo,
Clercken, and Roulers; the third battalion of the 2nd Regiment, under
Commander Mauros, pushed on in the direction of Woumen, to bar the way
to Ypres. We had a fine front, though the Admiral thought it rather too
wide for our strength. The four other battalions and the machine-gun
company entered Dixmude about noon, and at once took up a position
behind the Yser after detaching a strong outpost guard on the north,
near the village of Beerst, on the Ostend road, by the side of which
runs a little light railway for local transport. The Admiral, who had
been anxiously looking out for some undulation in this desperately flat
landscape where he could place his artillery, found a suitable spot at
last to the south of the Chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, half-way
to Eessen. He chose the chapel itself for his own headquarters. All
these arrangements were made immediately, and the men had scarcely got
into their quarters, when they were sent out with spades and picks,
together with a company of the Belgian Engineers, to put the outskirts
of the town into a state of defence. They had to be content with
measures of the greatest urgency alone, for the enemy was pressing in
upon us and creeping up to Dixmude. A few shrapnel shells had already
fallen upon the town, the inhabitants of which began to decamp hastily.
However, the railway was still intact, and we were expecting the last
trains of material from Antwerp. "At all costs"--this is a phrase that
recurs very often in orders from the Staff, and one which the brigade
accepted unmurmuringly--the line was to be protected and the enemy held.
Two, three, trains passed, and strange ones they were. They continued to
run in until night; the fires were covered up; the engine-drivers never
whistled; all that was heard was the muffled pant of the engine, like a
great sigh rising from the devastated plains.

[Illustration: LA GRAND' PLACE, DIXMUDE

(From a picture by M. Léon Cassel)]

That same evening our outposts on the Eessen road were attacked by an
armoured car and 200 German cyclists; they repulsed the attack; but we
were really too much exposed in our position. The Admiral decided that
it was imprudent to maintain such a wide front with troops numerically
so weak, but which it would take a long time to move off. At Dixmude, on
the other hand, where the Yser begins to curve towards the coast, and
forms a re-entrant confronting the enemy, there was a position which
would permit of a concentric fire from our artillery, particularly
favourable to the defensive attitude we were to assume. The
considerations which had forced us to extend our front had no longer any
weight; all the transports from Antwerp had got in in time. The safety
of the Belgian army was assured; its material had reached it, and, with
the exception of certain units which had been made prisoners in the
evacuation of Antwerp or had been driven into Holland, and the
divisions which continued our line to the North Sea, it was in shelter
behind the Yser, in touch with the English corps and the army of General
d'Urbal. The brigade might therefore very properly concentrate its
defensive round Dixmude.

The Belgian command, which had passed into the hands of General Michel,
readily accepted these arguments, and the operation was agreed upon for
the next day. "The Boches were there twenty-four hours after us," says a
sailor's letter. "We hoped they were eight kilometres from the town. We
were all dead tired, but standing firm." The evacuation of these
dangerous outposts on flat, open ground, where scattered farms,
occasional stacks of straw, and the poplars along the roadside were the
only available cover, was carried out with very trifling loss, and we at
once organised our defences round Dixmude.

"The Admiral has cast anchor here," wrote a warrant officer of Servel on
October 18. "I don't expect we shall weigh it again just yet."

The image was very appropriate. Dixmude, especially when its eastern
outskirts were under water, was not unlike a ship anchored fore and aft
at the entrance of an inland sea. But this ship had neither armour
plates, quarter-netting, nor portholes. The trenches that had been
hastily dug round the town could not have been held against a strong
infantry attack; the first rush would have carried them. A whole system
of defence had to be organised, and all had to be done in a few hours,
actually under the enemy's fire. All honour to the Admiral for having
attempted it, and for holding on to Dixmude as he would have done to his
own ship! No sooner had he recognised the importance of the position
than he set to work to increase its defensive value; he was not to be
seduced by the feints of the enemy and the temptations offered to
beguile him into deploying. Crouching upon the Yser, his head towards
the enemy, he only left his lines three times: to support a French
cavalry attack upon Thourout, to draw back the enemy, who was
concentrating in another direction, and was diverted by fears for
Woumen, and finally to co-operate in the recapture of Pervyse and
Ramscappelle. But meanwhile, even when he thus detached units and sent
them some distance from their base, he kept the whole or a part of his
reserves at Dixmude; he clung to his re-entrant--he kept his watch on
the Yser.



V. DIXMUDE


On October 16, 1914, Dixmude (in Flemish Diksmuiden) numbered about
4,000 inhabitants. The _Guides_ call it "a pretty little town," but it
was scarcely more than a large village. "It is a kind of Pont-Labbé,"
wrote one of our sailors, but a Flemish Pont-Labbé, all bricks and
tiles, dotted with cafés and nunneries, clean, mystical, sensuous, and
charming, especially when the rain ceased for a while, and the old
houses, coloured bright green or yellow, smiled at the waters of the
canal behind their screen of ancient limes, under a clear sky. From the
four points of the horizon long lines of poplars advanced in procession
to the fine church of Saint Nicolas, the pride of the place. The
graceful fifteenth-century apse was justly praised; but after having
admired this, there were further beauties to enjoy in the interior,
which contained a good Jouvenet, Jordaens' _Adoration of the Magi_, a
well-proportioned font, and one of the most magnificent rood-screens of
West Flanders, the contemporary and rival of those of Folgoët and
Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.

[Illustration: THE PAPEGAEI INN

(From a picture by M. Léon Cassel)]

This stately church, the exquisite Grand' Place of the Hôtel de Ville,
the "Roman" bridge of the canal of Handzaeme, the slender silhouette of
the Residencia (the house of the Spanish Governors), and five or six
other old-time dwellings, with crow-stepped or flexured gables, like the
hostelry of _Den Papegaei_ (The Parrot), which bore the date of its
foundations in huge figures upon its bulging front, hardly sufficed to
draw the cosmopolitan tourist tide towards Dixmude. Travellers neglected
it; historians ignored it. The capital of an essentially agricultural
district, at the confluence of two industries, and astride, so to speak,
upon the infinity of beetroot-fields and the infinity of meadows to
which the Yser serves as the line of demarcation, Dixmude showed a
certain animation only on market-days; then it appeared as the
metropolis of the vast flat district, streaked with canals and more
aquatic than terrestrial, where innumerable flocks and herds pastured
under the care of classic shepherds in loose grey coats. The salt
marsh-mutton of Dixmude and its butter, which was exported even to
England, were famous. A peaceful population, somewhat slow and stolid,
ruddy of complexion, husky and deliberate of speech, led lives made up
of hard work, religious observance, and sturdy drinking bouts in the
scattered farms about the town. The Flemish plains do not breed
dreamers. When, like those of Dixmude, such plains are amphibious, half
land, half water, they do not, as a rule, stimulate the fighting
instinct; their inhabitants are absorbed in domestic cares, battling
unceasingly for a livelihood with two rival elements.

Such were the only battles that they knew; no invader had ever ventured
among them. Invasion, indeed, seemed physically impossible. The whole
country between the hills of Cassel, Dixmude, and the line of sand-hills
along the coast is but a vast _schoore_, a huge polder snatched from
the sea, and almost entirely below the sea-level, owing to the deposits
of mud left high and dry on the shore. Down to the eleventh century it
was still a bay into which the _drakkars_ of the Norse pirates might
venture. If Dixmude, like Penmarc'h and Pont-Labbé, had retained its
maritime character, we might have found on the fronts of its riverside
houses the rusty iron rings to which barques were once moored. To
safeguard the tenure of this uncertain soil, slowly annexed by centuries
of effort, conquered, but not subdued, and always ready to revert to its
former state, it was not enough to thrust back the sea, which would have
overflowed it twice a day at high tide; it was further necessary to
drain off the fresh water, which streams down into it from the west and
the south, mainly from the stiff clay of the Dutch hills, floods the
meadows, cuts through the roads, and invades the villages. The struggle
is unintermittent. Such country, threatened on every side, is only
habitable by virtue of incessant precautions and watchfulness. The sea
is kept under control by Nieuport, with its formidable array of sluices,
locks, chambers, water-gates, and cranks; the fresh water, which oozes
out on every hand, spangling the rough homespun of the glebe with
diamond pools from the beginning of autumn to long after the end of
winter, is dealt with by a methodical and untiring system of drainage
directed, under State control, by associations of farmers and landowners
(_gardes wateringues_). Hence the innumerable cuttings (_watergands_)
along the hedges, the thousands of drains that chequer the soil, the
dykes, several metres high, which overhang the rivers--the Yser, the
Yperlee, the Kemmelbeck, the Berteartaart, the Vliet, and twenty other
unnamed streams of inoffensive aspect--which, when swelled by the autumn
rains, become foaming torrents rushing out upon the ancient _schoore_ of
Dixmude. The roads have to be raised very high in this boundless marsh
land, the depressed surface of which is broken only by sparse groups of
trees and the roofs of low-lying farms. They are few in number, only
just sufficient to ensure communication, and they require constant
repair. Torn up by shells and mined by the huge German explosives, the
"saucepans" (_marmites_) and "big niggers" (_gros noirs_), as the
sailors call them, our company of French and Belgian road-menders had to
work day and night throughout the operations to keep them open.

Other roads that meander across the plain are negligible. They are mere
tracks, most of which are obliterated when the subterranean waters rise
in the autumn. For in these regions the water is everywhere: in the air,
on the earth, and under the earth, where it appears barely a metre
beneath the surface as soon as the crust of soft clay that it raises in
blisters is lifted. It rains three days out of four here. Even the north
winds, which behead the meagre trees and lay them over in panic-stricken
attitudes, bring with them heavy clouds of cold rain gathered in
hyborean zones. And when the rain ceases, the mists rise from the
ground, white mists, almost solid, in which men and things take on a
ghostly aspect. Sometimes indeed the _schoore_ lights up between two
showers, like a tearful face trying to smile, but such good moments are
rare. This is the country of moisture, the kingdom of the waters, of
fresh water, that bugbear of sailors. And it was here that fate called
upon them to fight, to make their tremendous effort. For nearly four
weeks, from October 16 to November 10 (the date of the taking of
Dixmude), they, with their Admiral, clung desperately to their raft of
suffering at the entrance to the delta of marshes, watched over by
ancient windmills with shattered wings. One against six, without socks
and drawers, under incessant rain, and in mud more cruel than the
enemy's shells, they accomplished their task, barring the road to
Dunkirk, first ensuring the safety of the Belgian army and then enabling
our own Armies of the North to concentrate behind the Yser and dissipate
the shock of the enemy's attack. "At the beginning of October," says the
_Bulletin des Armées_ of November 25, 1914, which sums up the
situation very exactly, "the Belgian army quitted Antwerp too much
exhausted to take part in any movement.[23] The English were leaving the
Aisne for the north; General Castelnau's army had not advanced beyond
the south of Arras, and that of General Maudhuy was defending itself
from the south of Arras to the south of Lille. Further off we had
cavalry, Territorials, and Naval Fusiliers." For the moment at Dixmude,
the most exposed point of all, we had only the Fusiliers and a few
Belgian detachments, who were putting forth their remaining strength in
a supreme effort to co-operate in the defence.

[Illustration: THE BÉGUINAGE AT DIXMUDE

(From a picture by M. Léon Cassel)]

The Admiral had said to them: "The task given to you is a solemn and a
dangerous one. All your courage is needed. Sacrifice yourselves to save
our left wing until reinforcements can come up. Try to hold out for at
least _four days_."[24]

At the end of a fortnight the reinforcements had not yet arrived, and
the Fusiliers were still "holding out." These men had no illusions as to
the fate awaiting them. They knew they were doomed, but they understood
the grandeur of their sacrifice. "The post of honour was given to us
sailors," wrote Fusilier P., of Audierne, on November 5; "we were to
hold that corner at all costs and to die rather than surrender. And
indeed we did stand firm, although we were only a handful of men against
a force six times as large as ours, with artillery." They numbered
exactly 6,000 sailors and 5,000 Belgians, under the command of Colonel
(acting General) Meiser, against three German army corps. Their
artillery was very insufficient, at least at the beginning. They had no
heavy guns and no air-planes,[25] nothing to give them information but
the reports of the Belgian cyclists and the approximate estimates of the
men in the trenches.

"How many of you were there?" asked a Prussian major who had been taken
prisoner, speaking the day after the fall of Dixmude. "Forty thousand,
at least!"

And when he heard that there had been only 6,000 sailors, he wept with
rage, muttering:

"Ah! if we had only known!"

FOOTNOTES:

[23] In spite of this, four Belgian divisions held the road from Ypres
to Ostend, between Dixmude and Middelkerke, unaided, till October 23,
and then the line of the Yser from Dixmude to Nieuport.

[24] Pierre Loti, _Illustration_ for December 12, 1914.

[25] But this was not due to defective organisation. It must be
remembered that the brigade was destined for Antwerp, and that
unforeseen circumstances had caused it to become a detached corps,
operating far from our bases.



VI. THE CAPTURE OF BEERST


Save for an unimportant suburb beyond the Handzaeme Canal, Dixmude lies
entirely on the right bank of the Yser. Nevertheless, our general line
of defence on October 16, both up and down stream, went beyond the line
traced by the course of the river. From Saint-Jacques-Cappelle to the
North Sea, by way of Beerst, Keyem, Leke, Saint-Pierre, etc., little
rural settlements but yesterday unknown, drowsing in the gentle Flemish
calm, the arc of the circle it described followed, almost throughout its
course as far as Slype, the roadside light railway from Ypres to Ostend.
The Fusiliers flanked this front from Saint-Jacques to the confluence of
the Vliet. The 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th Belgian Divisions occupied the
rest of the horse-shoe, but the effectives of these reduced divisions
had not been made up; some of the regiments had been reduced from 6,000
to 2,000 men; whole companies had melted away. The remnants continued
to stand their ground with fine courage. Until when? They had been
asked, like our Fusiliers, to hold out for four days, and it was not
until October 23, at the end of nine days, that General Grossetti and
his reinforcements arrived.[26]

The Admiral had divided the defence of Dixmude into two sectors, cut by
the road of Caeskerke; the north sector was entrusted to the 1st
Regiment, under Commander Delage, the south to the 2nd Regiment, under
Commander Varney. His Command Post he established at Caeskerke station,
at the junction of the lines of Furnes and Nieuport, keeping only a
battalion of the 2nd Regiment at his own disposal. Of the two batteries
of the Belgian group, one was sent to the south of the second level
crossing of the Furnes railway, the other to the north of Caeskerke. A
telephone line connected them with the great flour factory of Dixmude,
at the head of the High Bridge. A platform of reinforced cement
belonging to this factory provided us with an excellent observatory. The
thickness of this mass of concrete, as costly as it was incongruous with
the importance of the establishment, but very well adapted for heavy
guns, which would command the whole valley of the Yser, did not fail to
suggest certain reflections. This was perhaps one of the few instances
in which ante-bellum preparations had turned against their authors. The
machine-gun company was stationed at the intersection of the roads to
Pervyse and Oudecappelle; in the trenches of the Yser we had mainly
Belgian troops; finally, to the south, debouching from the forest of
Houthulst with four divisions of cavalry, General de Mitry threw out a
bold advance post towards Clercken, and relieved us a little on that
side, although he was unable to control the German offensive, which
began in force at 4 p.m.[27]

[Illustration: THE BRIDGE AND FLOUR FACTORY

(From a picture by M. Léon Cassel)]

The enemy had begun in his customary manner by preparing the ground with
his artillery, which from the hollow where it was posted, near Eessen,
to the east of Dixmude, rained projectiles upon us from 10 and
15-centimetre guns. Scarcely had the last smoke clouds of the German
batteries lifted, when the infantry advanced to the attack. The action
was very hot, and was prolonged throughout the night and the morning of
the 17th, with violent alternations of advance and retreat. The enemy,
anxious to deal a decisive blow, came on in compact masses, in which
our machine-guns and rifle fire tore bloody breaches. These mobile
bastions wavered for a few seconds, filled up the breaches, and then
returned to the charge in the same close formation as before. No network
of barbed wire protected the approach to our trenches; most of them had
neither roofs nor parapets. In these haphazard defences, successful
resistance depended solely on the intrepidity of the men and the skill
of the commander. Certain "elements" were taken, retaken, lost, and
retaken again. But as a whole our line held; the enemy failed to break
through it. At dawn, discouraged, he suspended his attack, but, like a
dog who makes off growling, he never ceased shelling us till 11 a.m.
"After this," notes Fusilier B., "all noise ceased. Dixmude has not
suffered much. The damage caused by the shells is insignificant." True,
the enemy had not yet received his heavy artillery.

We profited by the respite granted us to repair the trenches of the
outskirts, which were somewhat damaged, and begin the organisation of
the others. This work, indeed, was resumed whenever there was a lull,
but it was carried on chiefly at night, and in the morning, from 5 to 9
o'clock, until the mists lifted. At this hour and the coming of light
the German batteries generally awoke. We had not enough guns to reply
efficaciously to the enemy. The brigade was therefore greatly rejoiced
by the reinforcements it received during the day of the 17th: five
batteries of the 3rd Regiment of Belgian Artillery (Colonel de
Weeschouwer), which, added to the Pontus group, gave the defenders of
Dixmude the respectable total of 72 guns. Unhappily their range was not
very great, and the metal of which they were made was not strong enough
to bear the strain of our .75 shells. Such as they were, however, our
front was in much better case when they had been distributed from
Caeskerke to Saint-Jacques-Cappelle. The Admiral, who wished to direct
their operations himself, had these batteries connected by telephone
with his quarters; a battle is directed from a study-table nowadays.
Nevertheless, he gave a standing order that the batteries were to open
fire instantly, whether by day or night, on the approaches to Dixmude,
whenever rifle fire or the sound of machine-guns indicated that an
infantry attack threatened our trenches.

The check received on October 16 had perhaps made the enemy more
cautious. He had allowed us breathing time in the afternoon of the 17th,
and he gave us a quiet day on Sunday, the 18th. Only two or three
cavalry patrols were reported near Dixmude, and these were rapidly
dispersed by a few salvoes. That day, too, our Fusiliers had a pleasant
surprise. A tall, silent officer, with serious eyes, in a closely
buttoned black dolman, came to visit the trenches of the Yser with the
Admiral. His inspection seemed satisfactory to him. He pressed the
Admiral's hand, and when he had regained the river bank, he paused a
moment, gazing at the triangle of marshes, all that remained to him of
his kingdom. It was Albert I.[28]

Other news from the front arrived, and gave us confidence. In spite of
the fall of Lille, our Armies of the North had taken the offensive with
marked success from Roye to the Lys. Orders had come from the English
headquarters to the 1st Corps to concentrate at Ypres, whence it was to
attempt to advance towards Bruges.[29] This strategic movement had even
been initiated, and the French cavalry which had just seized Clercken
might be considered the advance guard of Sir Douglas Haig's corps. It
asked the Admiral to support it in flank, to enable it to push on to
Zarren and Thourout. He at once sent forward Commander de Kerros with a
battalion of the 1st Regiment and two Belgian armoured cars towards
Eessen.[30] The road was free; it was strewn with the carcases of dead
horses, and even with dead soldiers, as if there had been a precipitate
retreat. The enemy seemed to have evaporated. But the church of Eessen,
which he had turned into a stable, just as afterwards he turned the
church of Vladsloo into a cesspool, with the immemorial Teuton taste for
sacrilege, showed evidences of his recent passage. These tracks of the
beast did not, however, tell us which way he had gone. Several roads lay
open to him. It seemed most probable that, hearing of the movement of
the French cavalry, he was retiring upon Bruges by way of Wercken or
Vladsloo. Taking his chance, Commander de Kerros had installed himself
to await the morning, while two Turco regiments,[31] which had been
placed at the Admiral's disposal and ensured his _liaison_ with the main
body operating on Thourout, set out as foragers towards Bovekerke and
the woods of Couckelaere. Morning dawned, and the execution of the
French plan seemed about to be realised normally, when a terrible thrust
by the enemy at a wholly unexpected point suddenly upset all
calculations.

[Illustration: Cl. Meurisse

BELGIAN ARMOURED CAR RECONNOITRING IN THE PLAIN OF DIXMUDE]

In reality the Germans had not retreated at all, or rather they had only
retired to come into touch again under more favourable conditions.
Knowing the sort of reception that awaited them at Dixmude, they had
decided to try another point on the front, in the hope that "the little
Belgians" would be easier to deal with than the "young ladies with red
pompons." About 9 o'clock on the morning of the 19th they threw
themselves in three simultaneous leaps, at Leke, Keyem, and Beerst, upon
the thin Belgian line, which staggered under the shock. The question was
whether we should be able to reinforce it in time. If it were broken,
the road would lie open to the Yser, the Yser would perhaps be seized,
and Dixmude taken in the rear. The Admiral did not hesitate; the whole
brigade should go if necessary. He sent forward two of his reserve
battalions by forced marches on the road to Ostend, another, under
Commander Mauros, towards Vladsloo and Hoograde in flank. The artillery
supported the movement, which began at 10 o'clock. But we did not know
whether Keyem and Beerst were in the hands of the Belgians or of the
Germans, and in this uncertainty we dared not open fire upon them. The
two villages were wrapped in ominous silence. Commander Jeanniot and
Commander Pugliesi-Conti, who were marching upon Keyem with the first
and second battalions of the 2nd Regiment, made their arrangements
accordingly. While the sixth company of the second battalion advanced
towards Keyem, with Lieutenant Pertus, the fifth company, under
Lieutenant de Maussion de Candé, received orders to make for Beerst. De
Maussion put his company into line of sections in fours. On approaching
the village he was received by a salvo of machine-guns. The Germans were
entrenched in the houses and the church, whence they poured a withering
fire upon our troops. The attack was made peculiarly difficult by the
nature of the ground, which was completely flat, and afforded no cover
save the irrigation ditches and a few leafless hedges; the only possible
method of advance was crawling. We lost a good many men in this
deploying manoeuvre, so ill adapted to the impulsive nature of sailors;
every head that was raised became a target. De Maussion, who had stood
up to inspect the enemy's position, was struck down. Every moment one of
our men rolled over among the beetroots. Would the charge never sound?
It would, but not yet. Pertus fell first, his leg shattered at the
moment when he was carrying a group of farms close to Keyem; Lieutenant
Hébert was sent with the eighth company to support him. But the ditches
on the road were already occupied by the men of the first battalion, and
Hébert had to cut across fields to avoid this encumbered road. The fire
directed against us had become very hot. It took us in flank, and we ran
the risk of being wiped out before we had reached our objective. The
Hébert company accordingly swerved to the right, and marched to the
edge of the woods and the houses situated between Beerst and Keyem,
where the enemy's artillery and infantry seemed to be posted.[32] Hébert
took up a position in a farm with the third section; Second-Lieutenant
de Blois and Boatswain Fossey with the first and second sections
deployed to act as marksmen, facing the wood. Creeping from hedge to
hedge and from _watergand_ to _watergand_, supported by Lieutenant de
Roncy's machine-guns, they arrived to within 500 metres of the enemy's
position in connection with Commander Jeanniot, who had arrived at the
same point on the left by a similar manoeuvre.

"I think this is our moment," said the commander.

"Forward!" cried De Blois to his men.

Fossey gave the same order; the two sections sprang out of their
temporary trenches under a hail of bullets. Fossey was killed, De Blois
severely wounded in the head and leg.[33] The rest of the sections
found their way to the farm where Hébert was making an attempt to check
the enemy's counter-attack by fire from the loopholes that had been
stopped up by the former occupants of the upper storeys, but which he
had succeeded in opening. His exertions were cut short by an invisible
battery, which broke down the walls, wounded his two lieutenants, and
obliged him to fall back. He himself was wounded twice as he crept
through the ditches.[34] Second-Lieutenant de Réau, who came out of
cover to advance, had his shoulder shattered. The casualties in the
Jeanniot battalion, whose sections continued the attack, leaving 110 of
their number on the field, soon became so serious that they had to be
brought back to the rear. It was then that the "Colonel" of the 2nd
Regiment, rallying the remnants of the companies engaged, and continuing
to cover them towards Keyem, massed his forces, put himself at their
head, and, after crawling up to within two hundred yards of the
position, hurled himself upon Beerst. His example electrified his men.
This time they would have allowed themselves to be cut to pieces sooner
than give way. Some of them had thrown off their great-coats that they
might move more freely. The old corsair blood was boiling in their
veins. It was no longer a charge, but a boarding of the enemy's ships,
and, as in the heroic days, the first who sprang upon the deck, pistols
in hand and sword between teeth, was the chief. The whole crew rushed
after the "Colonel" of the 2nd Regiment, who had become Commander Varney
again. But as soon as one house was captured the next had to be taken by
assault. Nevertheless, the attack progressed. To keep it in heart, the
Admiral sent forward the second battalion of the 1st Regiment, under
Commander Kerros, to support it, and withdrew the sorely tried Jeanniot
battalion to Dixmude. The Mauros battalion debouched simultaneously from
Vladsloo, whence it had dislodged the enemy, with the help of the
Belgian Brigade and their armoured cars; the 5th Allied Division
prolonged the fighting line to the right and in the rear. The effects of
this successful tactical arrangement were at once felt: the enemy, who
had brought his artillery into action, was groping about in search of
the guns we had brought along to the north of Dixmude; at 5 o'clock in
the afternoon we were in possession of Beerst. The bayonets were able to
take a rest; they had done yeoman's service; in the streets and in the
farmyards, the ground was paved with corpses. But night was falling. The
Admiral, who had come up to the firing line, ordered Commander Varney to
put the approaches to the village into a state of defence at once in
view of a possible offensive return of the enemy. The men obeyed gaily;
they were still in the full flush of their costly victory.[35] They had
scarcely begun to wield their picks, when a counter-order came from
Belgian Headquarters: we were to fall back upon our former positions! At
11 o'clock that night the brigade returned to its quarters at Caeskerke
and Saint-Jacques-Cappelle. The horizon was aflame behind it: Hoograde,
Beerst, and Vladsloo had been re-occupied by the enemy, who were
"setting the red cock up" on the roofs (_i.e._, firing them).

FOOTNOTES:

[26] The Belgian detachments which co-operated with us in the defence of
Dixmude showed themselves no whit inferior to those of the Lower and the
Middle Yser, and if we were writing a general account of the operations,
and not a chapter in the history of the Naval Brigade, the most
elementary justice would require us to give these troops their due for
the part they took in the defence. This was so admirable, that the
Generalissimo commissioned General Foch to present General Meiser, whose
brigade had specially distinguished itself at Dixmude, with the cravat
of Commander of the Legion of Honour, while two of the colours of this
brigade, the 11th and the 12th, were decorated by the King and
authorised to inscribe the glorious name of the town on their folds. The
few hundred Senegalese who reinforced the Fusiliers towards the end also
gave us very active and brilliant support, on which, for similar
reasons, we have not insisted in our narrative.

[27] It was General de Mitry's corps which guarded the Yser towards Loo.
With magnificent audacity, General d'Urbal had thrown it upon the forest
of Houthulst before he had all his forces in hand. Here it was to
dislodge the Germans, and then march upon Thourout and Roulers while Sir
Henry Rawlinson marched upon Menin.

[28] "He's a model king: I saw him visiting the trenches; he's a man, if
you like." (Letter of a sailor, A. C., October 30.)

[29] Cf. Sir John French's report. As is well known, this movement,
which began on October 21, was stopped on the line
Zonnebeke-Saint-Julien-Langermack-Bixschoote.

[30] Commander de Kerros had made an offensive reconnaissance in this
direction the day before.

[31] Under Colonel du Jonchay. Abd-el-Kader's grandson was with them.

[32] The woods in question were the Praetbosch.

[33] Under the pseudonym of D'Avesnes, the Comte de Blois has published
some notes of travel, various stories, and a naval novel, _La Vocation_,
remarkable for their delicate sentiment and subtlety of analysis. It is
bare justice to record here the gallantry of Quartermaster Echivant, who
carried his wounded officer off to the rear under a heavy fire.

[34] "We were able to get away by creeping through the ditches, but
picked marksmen concealed in the trees decimated us. Suddenly my left
arm began to hurt me horribly. A bullet had torn the muscles from elbow
to wrist. A second bullet, aimed at my heart, went through a note-block
and a war manual, and was stopped by my pocket-book. I fell. My men
carried me off under fire. The last thing I remember seeing was a
captive balloon which was hovering over the woods directing the fire of
the enemy's battery." (R. Kimley, _op. cit._) M. Hébert is the famous
inventor of the system of naval athletics which bears his name.

[35] "Monday, October 19, bayonet attack on Beerst. Several officers
killed and wounded." (Note-book of Second-Lieutenant X.) "We have been
fighting for five days," wrote Second-Lieutenant Gautier on October 22.
"The day before yesterday we resumed the offensive. It was a bit stiff.
Don't be too much upset by the casualty lists. I should not have said
anything about them, but as you will see them in the papers, I would
rather tell you of them myself. Le Douget, who was in the training
companies at Lorient, was killed at Ghent; De Maussion was killed the
day before yesterday; Hébert, Pertus, and De Mons are wounded." In his
note-book, under date of the 18th, Gautier adds the names of
Second-Lieutenants de Blois and de Roussille as among the wounded. He
gives some interesting details of the affair itself. A little incident
reported by the Abbé Le H. bears witness to the heroism and
self-sacrifice of the men. "It was at Beerst. A quartermaster had his
leg broken by a bullet in the temporary trench he was occupying with his
company. He went on fighting. His comrades were obliged to fall back
under a tremendous fire. He refused to be carried away, and crawled into
a ditch, where he killed three Germans who came creeping up to take him
prisoner. Fortunately, a young Marine, who had been trained by him at
Lorient, could not make up his mind to abandon the quartermaster. By
dint of extraordinary efforts, he managed to reach him and succeeded in
dragging him some three hundred yards to a house, where he left him
under shelter. As he left this house he himself was wounded in the arm
by a bullet. Night was falling. He came to the dressing-station to have
his wound attended to. I was there. He told me his story with such
infectious emotion that I proposed he should act as guide to two
stretcher-bearers and myself for the purpose of bringing in the
quartermaster. Without a moment's hesitation, he set out in front of us,
heedless of the very real danger. After a difficult pilgrimage over open
ground swept by the German machine-guns, we were lucky enough to find
the quartermaster and to bring him back into our lines. I notified the
conduct of these two brave fellows to the commanding officer that same
evening, and I hope they received the reward they deserved."



VII. THE FIRST EFFECTS OF THE BOMBARDMENT


The Belgian Headquarters Staff had probably decided that its front on
the Ostend road was too excentric, and that the line of the Yser would
form a more solid epaulement. And in this case our diversion on Beerst
was not quite useless, since it had secured the orderly retreat of the
Belgian troops; but, on the other hand, as a result of this diversion
and of the reinforcement of the German troops, De Mitry had been unable
to maintain himself at Thourout; the Turcos had returned to Loo, and the
rest of the French cavalry was obliged to follow the movement. The whole
of the ground in front of Dixmude lay open to the enemy, who, reinforced
by fresh contingents and the heavy artillery from Antwerp, released by
the capitulation of the city, prepared in all security to renew the
attack upon our positions in combination with a parallel action on the
lines of the Lower and Middle Yser. In order to understand clearly what
follows, it will be necessary to remember that the defence of Dixmude
and of the Yser, and, in the event of the forcing of the Yser, the
defence of the railway from Caeskerke to Nieuport were closely
connected, and that Pervyse and Ramscappelle lead to Furnes as well as
Dixmude, Pollinchove, or Loo.

A new disposition of the Allied forces was required under the new
conditions. During the night of October 19 the Belgian Meiser Brigade
passed under the Admiral's orders; on the 20th at 11 o'clock the first
"saucepan" fell upon Dixmude. "Up to this date," writes Captain X., "77
shrapnel, with their queer caterwaulings, were the only presents the
enemy had sent us. But during the course of the 20th the big shells
began to rain upon us, and their first objective was, of course, the
church. At the fifth or sixth the beautiful building was on fire."[36]
And we had no observer there. In preparation for the bombardment, we had
worked all night at the trenches. Those nearest to the enemy had been
provided with parapets and barbed wire entanglements, dug down to a
depth of I metre 70 cm., and strongly roofed. But all the internal
defences remained to be organised, notably the railway embankment, where
the "big niggers" were falling in showers. One evening when his company
was in reserve, after forty-eight hours in the trenches, Lieutenant A.
was ordered to take up a position there. He had been on guard there
three nights before; he knew by experience how dangerous this spot was,
and, less for his own sake than for the 250 men under his charge, he
thought it his duty to speak out.

"'There are no trenches on the railway slope, Commander,' he remarked
to Captain V.

"'I know that.'

"'Oh, very well, sir.'

"And smiling to encourage his men," added the eye-witness who reported
this dialogue, "he went off to a post as exposed as a glacis."

With such officers, Dixmude was better defended than if it had had a
triple line of blockhouses. The men, who were worthy of their leaders,
had soon grown used to the racket of the shells. The damage they do is
not in proportion to the noise they make, "for one can see them coming,
and they are heralded by a creaking sound, as of ungreased pulleys,"[37]
wrote a Marine to his family, adding ingenuously: "All the same, anyone
who wants to hear guns has only to come here." Indeed, the noise was
stupendous: 420, 305, and 77 were thundering in unison. As we had no
heavy artillery to reply, we had to wait patiently for the inevitable
attack which follows after the ground is cleared. Then the 72-m. guns of
our six groups would be able to have their say. Unfortunately on our
right the ravages caused in the Belgian trenches by the storm of German
artillery had made it impossible for our allies to hold their position;
this being duly notified in time, the Admiral sent four of our companies
to replace them. Scarcely were they installed, when the German attack
began. Sure of themselves and of victory, they had adopted the close
formation of their first onslaught, with machine-guns in the rear, the
veterans on the two wings, the conscripts in the centre and in front,
the latter with rapt, ecstatic faces, the former swelling with the pride
of former victories, all united by the same patriotic ideal, marching
rhythmically, and singing hymns to the national God. The majority were
young men, hardly more than boys. Later, in the trenches, when the
Marines fell upon them, they knelt down, clasping their hands, weeping,
and begging for quarter. But here, in the excitement of the _mêlée_,
elbow to elbow and sixteen ranks deep, they had but one colossal and
ferocious soul. They were swinging along with a slightly undulating
movement when the fire of our machine-guns struck them, true sons of
those other barbarians who linked themselves together with chains, that
they might form a solid block in death or in victory. An aroma of
alcohol, ether, and murder preceded them, as it had been the breath of
the blood-stained machine. Our men allowed them to approach within a
hundred yards. To the shouts of _Vorwärts!_ ("Forward!") from the
enemy's ranks we answered abruptly by the orders "Independent fire!
Continuous fire!" given by officers and petty officers. Behind their
parapets, amidst the buzz of bullets and the bursting of shrapnel, the
Marines did not miss a single shot. "We'll do for you!" yelled the
gunners, catching the contagious fever of battle. The Germans came on
steadily, but the mass was no longer solid. The dislocated machine was
working with difficulty. It uttered its death-rattle at the foot of the
trenches in the network of barbed wire where the survivors had rolled
over. At 8 o'clock in the evening three blasts on a whistle, strident as
a factory hooter, put an end to the work of the monstrous organism.

The battle had been raging for six hours in the night. Once more we
were the victors, but at what a price! Dixmude, which the enemy's heavy
artillery had battered incessantly during the attack, was not yet the
"heap of pebbles and ashes," the line of blackened stones, it was
presently to become, but its death agony had begun. Innumerable houses
had been gutted. The entire quarter round the church was on fire. The
rain, heavy as it was, could not extinguish the flames kindled by
incendiary bombs. A projectile struck the belfry of Saint Nicolas at the
hour of the Angelus; the great bell, mortally wounded, uttered a kind of
dying groan, the vibrations of which quivered long in space. "Poor
Dixmude!" cried a sailor; "your passing bell is tolling." Happily, the
population was no longer on the spot. The Burgomaster had given the
signal of exodus, and all had obeyed it, stricken to the heart, with the
exception of the Carmelites and some dozen laggards and stubborn
spirits, such as the old beadle described by M. T'Serstevens, who lived
in a little gabled house with barred windows on the Grand' Place, and
who, pipe in mouth, used to bring the keys of the church to visitors. He
mumbled the rude Flemish dialect of the coast, and was tanned by the
sea-wind. "The church, the house, the Place, the old man, were all in
harmony: all embodied the unique soul of Mother Flanders," and all were
destroyed at the same time; the old man was unable to disengage himself
from his house, of which he seemed but a more animated stone than the
rest.

[Illustration: (Newspaper Illustrations)

THE PARISH CHURCH AFTER THE FIRST DAYS OF THE BOMBARDMENT]

In spite of the retreat of the enemy, the four companies of Marines had
been left at their posts as a precautionary measure. An intermittent
fusillade to the north of the Yser during the night suggested a renewed
offensive. The only attack of any moment took place at 3 o'clock in the
morning, "but we repulsed it easily," notes the Marine R., "for in our
covered trenches we are invulnerable." Disappointed, the enemy turned
again towards the town, which he began to bombard once more at dawn. It
chanced that the weather had cleared. The _schoore_ smiled; the larks
were singing; weary of lowing for their sheds, or already resigned to
their forsaken condition, the cattle were ruminating in the sun[38]: and
the interminable line of canals, the silvery surfaces of the
_watergands_, shone softly on the brown velvet of the marsh. The sky,
however, as says the Psalmist, armed itself with thunders and
lightnings. The bombardment became particularly violent in the
afternoon. "At given moments the whole town seemed about to crumble,"
writes an officer. "The Germans had first attacked it with 10-centimetre
guns, then with 15, and then with 21-centimetre; but as this was no
good, they determined to finish off these infernal sailors in grand
style with their 305 and 420-mm."[39] Our reserves in Dixmude were of
course sorely tried by this terrible fire, which it was difficult to
locate and still more difficult to silence with defective guns. To add
to the complexities of the situation, we learned suddenly that at 4
o'clock the enemy had taken one of the trenches on the outskirts to the
south of the town. Surprised by an attack in force, the Belgian section
which occupied it gave way after a spirited resistance, involving the
supporting section of Marines in their rear in their retreat. Only
Lieutenant Cayrol remained at his post, revolver in hand, to enable his
men to carry off the machine-guns.[40] Three companies at once crept
along towards the captured trenches after our guns had cleared the
approaches a little.

"We tried our hands as marksmen," writes one of the actors in this
scene, "and while the Boches were trying to re-form, before they had
recovered from their surprise, we fired into them at 50 metres, and then
charged them with the bayonet. You should have seen them run like hares,
throwing away their arms and all their equipment. What a raid it was,
five to six hundred dead and wounded and forty prisoners, among them
three officers! We reoccupied the trenches, and I spent the night in the
company of a dead Belgian and a wounded German, who, when he woke up,
exclaimed: 'Long live France!' lest we should run him through. When day
came, and we could behold our work ... (Here an interval. A shell burst
just over my head, smashed a rifle, and threw a handful of earth in my
face. It was slightly unpleasant. I continue.) It was a pretty sight.
All day long stretcher-bearers were picking up the dead and wounded,
while we continued to fire from time to time. All the wounded we have
picked up are young men, sixteen to twenty years old, of the last levy.

"The next night there was a repetition of these experiences, only this
time it was the northern trenches that failed. As always, it was the
sailors who had to recapture them. For lack of available forces, we were
obliged to send two companies of the 2nd Regiment, which had been set
aside to act as reliefs; they put matters right by a little bayonet
play."

"You might have supposed that after this dance we had claims to a turn
at the buffet," writes a second quartermaster. "Not a bit of it! My
company had been set aside for relief, and it carried out the relief. It
would be untrue to say that we are not all a bit blown; but we are
holding out all the same. We called the roll; there were some who did
not answer to their names, and who will not see their mammies again....
If only we could move about a bit to stretch our legs! But we are packed
together in the mud like sardines in their oil. In the morning the
hurly-burly began again, first a few shrapnel, then from 12 to 1 a
perfect whirlwind of shells of every imaginable calibre. How they lavish
their munitions, the brutes!"

This defence of the Yser was, to quote the words of Dr. L., "an eternal
Penelope's web." Scarcely had it been mended, when the fabric gave way
at another point. Thanks to the reinforcements the enemy had received,
his pressure became more violent every day. Reduced to impotence on the
flank of the defence, where the vigorous attitude of our sailors deluded
him into the belief that he had to deal with superior numbers, the foe
pushed forward his centre. He succeeded in driving in a wedge on October
22,[41] occupying Tervaete and gaining a footing "for the first time on
the left bank of the Yser."[42] The 1st Belgian Division, thrown back,
but not broken, sent us word that it would attack next day, supported by
our artillery. We were further to send them one or two of our reserve
battalions. But the next day Dixmude and our outer trenches were so
furiously bombarded that we required our total strength to resist. The
Germans were evidently using their biggest calibres, 21 and perhaps
28-cm. In spite of all this, their infantry could not get into our
trenches. We had a few casualties, both killed and wounded, among the
latter Commander Delage, "Colonel" of the 2nd Regiment, who, when his
wound was dressed, would not stay in the ambulance, but resumed his
command before he was cured. But things had not been going so well with
our allies at Tervaete. Checked in a first attempt, a second and more
vigorous counter-attack succeeded in driving the Germans into the river
or upon the other bank; but this, as the _Courrier de l'Armée Belge_
admitted, "was a transitory success, for the same evening German
reinforcements renewed the attack, and carried Tervaete." Our artillery
had done its best under the circumstances; but, shouted down by the
clamour of the big German guns, it was not able to keep up the
conversation. "We still have nothing but the little Belgian guns," wrote
Second-Lieutenant M. on the morning of the 22nd. "However, we are
promised two batteries of short 155-mm. and two of long 120-mm. They
arrived in the course of the evening. That's all right! Now perhaps we
shall be able to have a little talk with the Boches!"

But was it not already too late? Dixmude was impregnable only so long as
it was not taken in the rear; and the enemy, having finally occupied
the whole of the Tervaete loop, was gradually penetrating into the
valley of the Yser. The last news was that he had arrived at
Stuyvekenskerke. The 42nd French Infantry Division, under General
Grossetti, which was to replace the 2nd Belgian Division, now reduced to
a fourth of its original strength, on the Yser, had not yet had time to
come up into line. At Dixmude itself the pressure was formidable; shells
were falling on us from every side, from Vladsloo, from Eessen, and from
Clercken, whither the Germans had removed their heavy artillery. And at
the same time the enemy's infantry attacked our trenches regularly at
intervals of an hour, with the stubbornness of a ram butting at an
obstacle, preceding every attack by a few big shells. It looked as if
they were trying to divert our attention, to prevent us from noticing
what was going on down below in the hollow of the Yser, where a grey
surge seemed to be seething, and where the _schoore_ appeared to be
moving towards Oud Stuyvekenskerke. But the movement had not escaped
the Admiral, who was watching it from Caeskerke. Whence had these troops
come--from Tervaete, from Stuyvekenskerke, or elsewhere? We could not
say, and it mattered little. At whatever point a breach had been made in
the defences of the Middle Yser, the German tide had crept up to us:
Dixmude was turned.

In this, the most critical situation in which the brigade had yet been
placed, the Admiral had only his reserves and a few Belgian contingents
at his disposal. To bar the way to the bridges of Dixmude, Commander
Rabot, with a battalion, hurried to the support of the left wing of the
front. Commander Jeanniot, with another battalion, crept up towards Oud
Stuyvekenskerke, to support the Belgians, having received orders to
occupy the outskirts at least. The manoeuvre was a peculiarly difficult
one to carry out, under a raking fire, and with men already dropping
with fatigue and perishing with cold and drowsiness. But these men were
sailors.

"On October 24," writes the Marine F., of the island of Sein, "we had
spent a day and a night in the first line. That night we had two men
killed in our trench and four wounded by a shell, and we were going to
the rear for a little well-earned rest. Scarcely had we swallowed our
coffee, when the order came to clear the decks, as we say on board ship,
and shoulder our knapsacks. When we got nearer, the bullets began to
whistle. We crawled on all fours over the exposed ground, without a
shred of cover. Those who ventured to raise their heads were at once
wounded, though we could see nothing of the Germans. We got so
accustomed to the bullets whizzing past our ears that we lost all fear
and advanced steadily."

That day, however, our worthy Marine got no further. In the thick of the
firing, a bullet broke his leg, and sent him rolling over into a pool.
But as he was a Breton, with a great respect for Madame Saint Anne of Le
Porzic, he made a vow that if he got off without further damage, he
would give her on the day of her "pardon" a fine white marble ex-voto,
with "Thanks to Saint Anne for having preserved me" engraved upon it.

All his comrades were not so fortunate, and at the close of the day the
majority of the officers engaged, notably those of the second and third
battalions of the 1st Regiment, were _hors de combat_. But we held the
outskirts of Oud Stuyvekenskerke; Commander Jeanniot and the Belgian
troops, with Commander Rabot, had succeeded, according to the Admiral's
instructions, in forming a line of defence facing north, which bid
defiance to the enemy's attacks. Moreover, heavy as our losses were,
they were nothing as compared with those of the Germans. The following
dispirited comments were found in the note-book of a German officer of
the 202nd Regiment of Infantry killed at Oud Stuyvekenskerke the
following day:--

"We are losing men on every hand, and our losses are out of all
proportion to the results obtained. Our guns do not succeed in silencing
the enemy's batteries; our infantry attacks are ineffectual: they only
lead to useless butchery. Our losses must be enormous. My colonel, my
major, and many other officers are dead or wounded. All our regiments
are mixed up together; the enemy's merciless fire enfilades us. They
have a great many _francs-tireurs_ with them."

_Francs-tireurs!_ We know what the Germans understand by this term,
which merely means skilled marksmen.[43] If our sailors had not been so
hitherto, the night attack which crowned this tragic day showed that
they had become so. The attack was unprecedented and of unparalleled
fury. Between 5 p.m. and midnight we and the Belgians had to repulse no
less than fifteen attacks on the south sector of the defence, and eleven
on the north and east sectors. The enemy charged with the cries of wild
beasts, and for the first time our men saw the brutish face of War. The
next day, as soon as the mists lifted, the battle began again along the
whole line. The town was bombarded, the outer trenches, the trenches of
the Yser, and, above all, the railway station at Caeskerke, where the
Admiral was. He had to resign himself to a change of quarters without
gaining much in the way of safety. The enemy had spies in Dixmude
itself. "The houses of the Staff were spotted one after the other as
soon as any change was made," writes an officer; "and every day at noon,
when we were at our midday meal, we were greeted by four big shells.
Scarcely had a heavy battery been in position for five minutes, when the
position became untenable: a man in a tree a hundred yards off was
quietly making signals."

In the north alone a certain relaxation of the enemy's pressure was
noted. Abandoning the attempt to turn Dixmude by way of Oud
Stuyvekenskerke, the Germans seemed anxious to push on to Pervyse and
Ramscappelle, from which they were only separated by the embankment of
the Nieuport railway. The Grossetti Division endeavoured to stop the way
with the remnant of the Belgian divisions, and sent a battalion of the
19th Chasseurs to relieve us at Oud Stuyvekenskerke. Commander Jeanniot
at once went into the reserve trenches of the sector. His men were
utterly worn out. The companies which had occupied the outer trenches of
the defence, and which had not been relieved for four days, were not
less exhausted. The enemy's fire on the Dixmude front never ceased, the
town heaved and shuddered at every blast, the paving stones were
dislodged, every window was shattered, houses were perpetually crumbling
into heaps of rubble, and after each explosion immense spirals of black
smoke rose as high as 100 metres above the craters made by the shells.
"During the night of Sunday, the 25th," notes the Marine R., on duty
with Commander Mauros, of the third battalion, "we were thrice obliged
to evacuate the houses in which we were, as they fell in upon us."
"Dixmude is gradually crumbling away," wrote Lieutenant S. on the
following day. The Carmelites had left on October 21; their monastery,
where the chaplains of the brigade[44] continued to officiate
imperturbably, had received three big shells during the day. The belfry
still held, but it had lost three of its turrets, and the charming
Gothic façade of the town-hall had a great hole in the first storey. It
looked like a piece of lace through which a clumsy fist had been thrust.
The enemy did not even spare our ambulances. "A chapel in the middle of
the town, protected by the Red Cross (Hospital of St. John), was shelled
from end to end," says Marine F. A., of Audierne; "not a single one of
the surrounding churches and belfries has been left standing."[45] The
worst of it was that our forces, greatly tried in the last encounters,
no longer sufficed for the exigencies of the defence. We had to be
making constant appeals to the dépôts. The winter rains had begun,
flooding the trenches. If it had not been for the heavy cloth overcoats
insisted on by a far-seeing administration, the men would have died of
cold. Many who through carelessness, or in the hurry of departure, had
left their bags at Saint-Denis, went shivering on guard in cotton vests,
their bare feet in ragged slippers. All their letters are full of
imprecations against the horrible water that was benumbing them,
diluting the clay, and encasing them in a shell of mud.

[Illustration: (Newspaper Illustrations)

THE TOWN-HALL AND BELFRY AFTER THE FIRST DAYS OF THE BOMBARDMENT]

But their salvation was to come from this hated water.

FOOTNOTES:

[36] Cf. Dr. Caradec, _op. cit._, also the note-book and letters of
Second-Lieutenant Gautier: "11 o'clock, the church on fire.... Sailors
are queer creatures. Yesterday, while the church was being bombarded
they exclaimed: 'Oh, the brutes! I wish I could get hold of one of them
and break his jaw!' This morning we took a wounded prisoner. There was
not a word of hatred, not an insult, as he passed. Two sailors were
helping him along. He said: 'Good-day. War is a terrible thing.' And our
men answered. They are more French than they think."

[37] "At first the big shells give one a very unpleasant sensation, but
one gets used to them, and learns to guess from the whistling noise they
make where they are likely to fall." (Second-Lieutenant Gautier's
note-book.)

[38] "The cattle are running about on all the roads and in all the
fields. No one attends to them." (Letter of the Marine E. T.) See also
below, De Nanteuil.

[39] Cf. Dr. Caradec, _op. cit._

[40] The note which furnishes this information as to the heroic conduct
of Lieutenant Cayrol adds: "Received a bullet in the middle of his
forehead. Brought into the dressing-station by his men, where he gave an
account of the incident and of the bravery of his men. He would not
consent to be removed until he had been assured that his machine-guns
were saved. Has come back to the front."

[41] Second-Lieutenant Gautier's note-book has the following under date
of October 22: "Cannonade still lively. One of our convoys blown to
pieces." The incident took place the day before, and is evidently
identical with that mentioned by Second-Lieutenant X. under date of
October 21: "Intensive shelling, a good deal of damage. De Mons and
Demarquay, naval lieutenants, wounded. The church on fire. In the
afternoon a German airship spotted an important convoy (provisions,
ambulances, munitions, etc.) on the road from Caeskerke to Oudecappelle.
The convoy was shelled."

[42] _Courrier de l'Armée Belge._ The pressure, says this official
_communiqué_, was very strong, had been very strong ever since the 20th.
On that day "a furious bombardment by guns of every calibre had been
kept up upon the Belgian lines. A farm situated in the front of the 2nd
Division was taken by the Germans, retaken by the Belgians, and again
lost." On the 21st a German attack upon Schoorbakke, combined with an
attack upon Dixmude, failed signally. But the Belgians were becoming
worn out.

[43] R. Kimley (_op. cit._), quoting Lieutenant Hébert, offers another
and perhaps a more acceptable explanation. In their dark blue overcoats
and their caps with red pompons, the sailors looked strange to the
Germans, who took them for _francs-tireurs_. The terror they inspired
was aggravated by this idea.

[44] The Abbés Le Helloco and Pouchard. We have spoken more than once of
the former, a man of great intelligence and of a self-abnegation
carried, in the words of Saint Augustine, _usque ad contemptum sui_. His
_confrère_ was equally devoted.

[45] "There is not a single uninjured church in the deanery," declared
the Abbé Vanryckeghem, Vicaire of Dixmude. "Nearly forty churches
between Nieuport and Ypres have been destroyed."



VIII. THE INUNDATION


A new actor was about to appear on the scene, a new ally, slower, but
infinitely more effectual, than the best reinforcements.

Last November the _Moniteur Belge_ published a royal decree conferring
the Order of Leopold upon M. Charles Louis Kogge, _garde wateringue_ of
the north of Furnes, for his courageous and devoted services in the work
of inundation in the Yser region.

It was, we have been told, this M. Kogge who first conceived the idea of
calling the waters to our aid. A more romantic version has it that the
notion was suggested to the Headquarters Staff by the singularly
opportune discovery of a bundle of old revolutionary documents bearing
upon the action brought in 1795 by a Flemish farmer against his landlord
"to recover damages for the loss he had suffered through the inundation
of his land during the defence of Nieuport." Be this as it may, on the
evening of October 25 the Belgian General Headquarters Staff informed
the Admiral that it had just taken measures to inundate the left bank of
the Yser between that river and the railway line from Dixmude to
Nieuport.

The effects of this inundation could not, however, be felt for the first
day or two, or even for those immediately following. The word inundation
generally suggests to the mind the image of a torrential rush of water,
a great charge of marine or fluvial cavalry which sweeps all before it.
There was nothing of the sort in this case. We were in Western Belgium,
in an invertebrate country, without relief of any sort, where everything
proceeds slowly and phlegmatically, even cataclysms. It is, perhaps, a
pity that there is not another word in the language to describe the
hydrographic operation we were about to witness; but in default of a
substantive there is a verb, which surprised most readers of the
_communiqués_ as a neologism, but which, as a fact, has been used in
Flanders from time immemorial, and has the advantage of expressing the
nature of the operation most admirably. It is the verb _tendre_ (to
spread or stretch). They _spread_ an inundation there as fishermen
spread a net. No image could be more exact. The _spreader_, in this
case, was at the locks of Nieuport. He is a head _wateringue_,
commanding a dozen men armed with levers to manipulate the
lifting-jacks. At high tide he had the flood-gates raised; the sea
entered, forcing back the fresh water of the canal and its tributaries;
and the sea did not run out again, for the flood-gates had been lowered.
Henceforth the fresh water which flowed on every side into the basin of
the Yser will find no outlet; "without haste and without rest" it will
add its contribution to that of the tide; it will gradually overflow the
dykes of the collecting canals, will reach the _watergands_, and cover
the whole _schoore_ with its meshes. Slily, noiselessly, unceasingly, it
will rise on a soil already saturated like a sponge and incapable of
absorbing another drop of water. All that falls there, whether it come
from the sky in the form of rain, or from the hills of Cassel in the
form of torrents, will remain on the surface. There is no way of
checking the inundation as long as the flood-gates are not raised. He
who holds Nieuport holds the entire district by means of its locks. This
explains the persistence of the Germans in their attempts to capture it.
Fortunately, these attempts were somewhat belated; they tried a surprise
by the dunes of Lombaertzide and Middelkerke, which might perhaps have
succeeded but for the timely co-operation of the Anglo-French fleet with
the Belgian troops: the German attack was driven back by the fire of the
monitors, and failed to carry the locks of Nieuport. The inundation
continued. When its last meshes were woven and all its web complete, it
was to spread in a semicircle on a zone of 30 kilometres, and this
immense artificial lagoon, from four to five kilometres wide and from
three to four feet deep, in which light squadrons and batteries might
have engaged if hard pressed, but for the abrupt depressions of the
_watergands_ and collecting canals, forming invisible traps at every
step, was to constitute the most impregnable defensive front, a liquid
barrier defying all attacks. Dixmude, at the extremity of this lagoon,
in the blind alley here formed by the Yser, the Handzaeme Canal, and the
railway embankment, might aptly be compared to Quiberon; like Quiberon,
it would be, were its bridges destroyed, a sort of thin, low peninsula;
but it is a Flemish Quiberon anchored upon a motionless sea, without
waves and without tides, studded with tree-tops and telegraph poles, and
bearing on its dead waters the drifting corpses of soldiers and animals,
pointed helmets, empty cartridge-cases and food-tins.



IX. THE MURDER OF COMMANDER JEANNIOT


On October 25 we had not yet received any help from the inundation. Our
troops were in dire need of rest, and the enemy was tightening his grip
along the entire front. New reinforcements were coming up to fill the
gaps in his ranks; our scouts warned us that fresh troops were marching
upon Dixmude by the three roads of Eessen, Beerst, and Woumen.[46] We
had to expect a big affair the next day, if not that very night. It came
off that night.

About 7 o'clock the Gamas company went to relieve the men in the
southern trenches. On their way, immediately outside the town, they fell
in with a German force of about the same strength as themselves, which
had crept up no one knew how. There was a fusillade and a general
_mêlée_, in which our sailors opened a passage through the troop with
bayonets and butt-ends, disposing of some forty Germans and putting the
rest to flight.[47] Then there was a lull. The splash of rain was the
only sound heard till 2 a.m., when suddenly a fresh outbreak of
rifle-fire was heard near the Caeskerke station, right inside the
defences. It was suggested that our men or our allies, exasperated by
their life of continual alarms, had been carried away by some reckless
impulse. The bravest soldiers admit that hallucinations are not uncommon
at night in the trenches. All the pitfalls of darkness rise before the
mind; the circulation of the blood makes a noise like the tramp of
marching troops; if by chance a nervous sentry should fire his rifle,
the whole section will follow suit.

Convinced that some misunderstanding of this kind had taken place, the
Staff, still quartered at the Caeskerke railway station, shouted to the
sections to cease firing. As, however, the fusillade continued in the
direction of the town, the Admiral sent one of his officers, Lieutenant
Durand-Gasselin, to reconnoitre. He got as far as the Yser without
finding the enemy; the fusillade had ceased; the roads were clear. He
set out on his way back to Caeskerke. On the road he passed an ambulance
belonging to the brigade going up towards Dixmude, which, on being
challenged, replied: "Rouge Croix."[48] Rather surprised at this
inversion, he stopped the ambulance; it was full of Germans, who,
however, surrendered without offering any resistance. But this capture
suggested a new train of thought to the Staff: they were now certain
that there had been an infantry raid upon the town; the Germans in the
ambulance probably belonged to a troop of mysterious assailants who had
made their way into Dixmude in the night and had vanished no less
mysteriously after this extraordinary deed of daring. One of our
covering trenches must have given way, but which? Our allies held the
railway line by which the enemy had penetrated into the defences,
sounding the charge.... The riddle was very disturbing, but under the
veil of a thick damp night, which favoured the enemy, it was useless to
seek a solution. It was found next morning at dawn, when one of our
detachments on guard by the Yser suddenly noticed in a meadow a curious
medley of Belgians, French Marines, and Germans. Had our men been made
prisoners? This uncertainty was of brief duration. There was a sharp
volley; the sailors fell; the Germans made off. This was what had
happened:

Various versions have been given of this incident, one of the most
dramatic of the defence, in the course of which the heroic Commander
Jeanniot and Dr. Duguet, chief officer of the medical staff, fell
mortally wounded, with several others. The general opinion, however,
seems to be that the German attack, which was delivered at 2.30 a.m.,
was closely connected with the surprise movement attempted at 7 o'clock
in the evening on the Eessen road and so happily frustrated by the
intervention of the Gamas company. It is not impossible that it was
carried out by the fragments of the force we had scattered, reinforced
by new elements and charging to the sound of the bugle. This would
explain the interval of several hours between the two attacks, which
were no doubt the outcome of a single inspiration.

"The night," says an eye-witness, "was pursuing its normal course, and
as there were no indications of disturbance, Dr. Duguet took the
opportunity to go and get a little rest in the house where he was
living, which was just across the street opposite his ambulance. The
Abbé Le Helloco, chaplain of the 2nd Regiment, had joined him at about
1.30 a.m. The latter admits that he was rather uneasy because of the
earlier skirmish, in which as was his habit, he had been unremitting in
his ministrations to the wounded. After a few minutes' talk the two men
separated to seek their straw pallets. The Abbé had been asleep for an
hour or two, when he was awakened by shots close at hand. He roused
himself and went to Dr. Duguet, who was already up. The two did not
exchange a word. Simultaneously, without taking the precaution of
extinguishing the lights behind them, they hurried to the street.
Enframed by the lighted doorway, they at once became a target; a volley
brought them down in a moment. Dr. Duguet had been struck by a bullet in
the abdomen; the Abbé was hit in the head, the arm, and the right thigh.
The two bodies were touching each other. 'Abbé,' said Dr. Duguet, 'we
are done for. Give me absolution. I regret ...' The Abbé found strength
to lift his heavy arm and to make the sign of the cross upon his dying
comrade. Then he fainted, and this saved him. Neither he nor Dr. Duguet
had understood for the moment what was happening. Whence had the band of
marauders who had struck them down come, and how had they managed to
steal into our lines without being seen? It was a mystery. This
fusillade breaking out behind them had caused a certain disorder in the
sections nearest to it, who thought they were being taken in the rear,
and who would have been, indeed, had the attack been maintained. The
band arrived in front of the ambulance station at the moment when the
staff (three Belgian doctors, a few naval hospital orderlies, and
Quartermaster Bonnet) were attending to Dr. Duguet, who was still
breathing. They made the whole lot prisoners and carried them along in
their idiotic rush through the streets. Both officers and soldiers must
have been drunk. This is the only reasonable explanation of their mad
venture. We held all the approaches to Dixmude; the brief panic that
took place in certain sections had been at once controlled. The
improbability of a night attack inside the defences was so great that
Commander Jeanniot, who had been in reserve that night, and who, roused
by the firing like Dr. Duguet and Abbé Le Helloco, had gone into the
street to call his sector to arms, had not even taken his revolver in
his hand. Mistaking the identity and the intentions of the groups he saw
advancing, he ran towards them to reassure them and bring them back to
the trenches. This little stout, grizzled officer, rough and simple in
manner, was adored by the sailors. He was known to be the bravest of the
brave, and he himself was conscious of his power over his men. When he
recognised his mistake it was too late. The Germans seized him, disarmed
him, and carried him off with loud '_Hochs!_' of satisfaction. The band
continued to push on towards the Yser, driving a few fugitives before
them, and a part of them succeeded in crossing the river under cover of
the general confusion. Happily this did not last long. Captain Marcotte
de Sainte-Marie, who was in command of the guard on the bridge,
identified the assailants with the help of a searchlight, and at once
opened fire upon them.[49] The majority of the Germans within range of
our machine-guns were mown down; the rest scattered along the streets
and ran to cellars and ruins to hide themselves. But the head of the
column had got across with its prisoners, whom they drove before them
with the butt-ends of their rifles.[50] For four hours they wandered
about, seeking an issue which would enable them to rejoin their lines.

It was raining the whole time. Weary of wading through the mud, the
officers stopped behind a hedge to hold a council. A pale light began to
pierce the mist; day was dawning, and they could no longer hope to
regain the German lines in a body. Prudence dictated that they should
disperse until nightfall. But what was to be done with the prisoners?
The majority voted that they should be put to death. The Belgian doctors
protested. Commander Jeanniot, who took no part in the debate, was
talking calmly to Quartermaster Bonnet. At a sign from their leader the
Boches knelt and opened fire upon the prisoners. The Commander fell, and
as he was still breathing, they finished him off with their bayonets.
The only survivors were the Belgian doctors, who had been spared, and
Quartermaster Bonnet, who had only been hit in the shoulder. It was at
this moment that the marauders were discovered. One section charged them
forthwith; another fell back to cut off their retreat. What happened
afterwards? Some accounts declare that the German officers learned what
it costs to murder prisoners, and that our men despatched the dogs there
and then; but the truth is, that, in spite of the general desire to
avenge Commander Jeanniot, the whole band was taken prisoner and brought
before the Admiral, who had only the three most prominent rascals of the
gang executed."

Another very interesting account of this episode has been communicated
to us by M. Charles Thomas Couture, chauffeur to Commander Varney.

     AN UNPUBLISHED ACCOUNT OF THE MURDER OF COMMANDER JEANNIOT.

     DIXMUDE, _Monday, October 26, 1914_.

     Yesterday we were informed that a certain number of Germans,
     slipping between the trenches, had managed to get into Dixmude.
     Search was made in the houses and cellars, and we collected a few
     prisoners.

     This incident caused us some uneasiness, and as the bombardment,
     which generally ceased at night, continued persistently, I
     hesitated to go to bed. Shells were bursting quite close to our
     inn, the front of which was peppered with bullets. Fortunately, the
     shells were shrapnel, annoying rather than deadly, and as I was
     very tired, I made up my mind to get a sleep about 10 o'clock. But
     I lay down fully dressed and armed; I did not even lay aside my
     revolver.

     One after the other the inhabitants of the inn followed my example.
     There were four of us: Commander Varney, Captain Monnot, Lieutenant
     Bonneau, and myself. Dr. Duguet and Abbé Le Helloco, who generally
     shared our straw, were detained at the ambulance by some severe
     cases, and were not expected to come in before 1 o'clock in the
     morning. By this time all was quiet, and the bombardment had
     ceased.

     At 3 a.m. a cyclist rushed in, crying: "Get up! The Boches are
     coming!" I did not for a moment imagine that the enemy had crossed
     the bridge over the Yser, which was some 80 or 100 metres in front
     of us. I thought that the Germans had forced the sailors' trenches
     in front of Dixmude, that they had entered the town in force, and
     that the line of defence was to be brought back to the canal. If
     such were the case, it was necessary to get my car ready to start
     immediately. As soon as I was awake I accordingly went out by the
     front door of the inn, and going to my car, I began to pump up the
     petrol. Commander Varney had come out at the same time.

     Our common living-room was feebly lighted by a lantern, but this
     sufficed to throw the figures of those who passed into the
     embrasure of the door into strong relief. This was the case a few
     minutes later when Dr. Duguet and Abbé Le Helloco emerged. I was
     bending down over my car, quite in the dark.

     At this moment a body of brawlers passed along the road, coming
     from the bridge and going towards the level crossing. They were
     preceded by a bugler, very much out of tune. In spite of the lights
     and the reports of firearms among the band, I only realised after
     they had passed that they were the enemy.

     But as soon as I grasped the fact I recognised that there was no
     question of getting out the car just then, so I followed Commander
     Varney, who was near me. "What shall I do, Commander?" "Above all
     things, don't let them take you prisoner." Subsequent events made
     me appreciate the wisdom of this order.

     The Commander disappeared in the night, going towards the Yser to
     see what was happening. I went back into the inn by the back door,
     and there, stretched on the ground side by side, I found the doctor
     and the Abbé, on whom the Germans had fired at very short range.
     Both were wounded in the abdomen. Probably the same bullets went
     through them both. The doctor murmured: "I am hit in the loins; I
     can't move my legs." The Abbé seemed to have but one thought: "I
     won't fall into the hands of the Germans alive." But he managed to
     give absolution to our poor doctor.

     I went out of the inn again, and back to the motors, to see what
     was happening. I found the cook and the orderlies there; they had
     taken their rifles and were awaiting events. I joined them, holding
     my revolver in my hand.

     What gave me most anxiety was that not a sound came from the line
     of the trenches. The rifles were all silent; no night had been so
     calm. I began to wonder if by some extraordinary surprise all the
     sailors had been taken prisoners.

     As we knew that the enemy troop had passed us and gone towards the
     level crossing, we took our stand, in view of their possible
     return, at the corner of a neighbouring house, where the Belgian
     soldiers were quartered.

     Captain Ferry, who had been wounded a few days before and had his
     left arm in a sling, joined us.

     A suspicious rumbling was heard on the road. Captain Ferry advanced
     completely out of cover to reconnoitre. He found himself face to
     face with a band of Germans who barred the road level with the
     other corner of the Belgians' house.

     "Halt!" cried the captain; "you are my prisoners."

     "Not at all," replied a voice in guttural French. "It's you who are
     our prisoners."

     This somewhat comic dialogue was not continued, for the sailors
     Mazet and Pinardeau fired. The Germans never even attempted to
     retort; they allowed Captain Ferry to rejoin us quietly, and
     disappeared into the ditch by the road.

     It was now half-past three. The alarm was over, and had lasted
     barely half an hour. Our little party took refuge in the cowshed,
     for the German guns had begun to send us shrapnel shells, which
     exploded high in the air, but nevertheless covered us with
     fragments. All we could do was to wait for the day, which at this
     date broke about half-past four. Lieutenant Bonneau had brought a
     half-section of sailors to our inn, and these began to explore the
     neighbourhood.

     Some Belgian soldiers joined the sailors, and a _battue_ of Boches
     began in the marshy meadows. We heard cries of "There they are!
     There they are!" and shots were fired; then "Don't fire, they are
     sailors." Presently it was all over, and prisoners passed on their
     way to the Admiral, who was installed at the level crossing.

     We then heard that nothing at all had happened in the trenches. The
     troop that had attacked us was composed of Boches who had managed
     to creep into the town secretly. Led by one or two officers, they
     had crossed the bridge over the canal, killing the sentries,
     seriously wounding Lieutenant de Lambertye, and then pushing
     forward. As they passed they went into the houses that showed
     lights, notably that occupied by the staff of the 1st Regiment,
     where they killed two cooks and wounded a chauffeur. As we have
     seen, they then shot our doctor and our chaplain, and their
     military operations ended herewith, for their subsequent deeds were
     murder pure and simple.

     I was told the story at dawn, when I found myself face to face with
     Quartermaster Bonnet, chauffeur to the adjutant-major, who, to my
     great surprise, had his right arm in a sling. "Well, M. Couture,"
     he said, "I shan't be able to drive Captain Monnot any more." I
     questioned him, and he then told me that he, assisted by some
     Belgian orderlies and doctors, had gone out to take Dr. Duguet to
     the ambulance. Suddenly the party found themselves face to face
     with the German troop, which was returning. The Boches seized the
     stretcher-bearers, and the doctor was left by the side of the
     ditch. Perhaps he was finished off there.

     The Germans had several other prisoners, notably Commander
     Jeanniot. This remarkable man, who was no less beloved than
     esteemed, was with the first battalion, which he commanded, in
     reserve some distance to the rear. The noise and the shots awoke
     him, and he came out alone upon the road to see what was happening.
     The Germans crouching in the ditches had no difficulty in seizing
     him, and his five stripes made them realise the importance of their
     capture.

     In all there were some dozen prisoners, whom the Germans carried
     along with them across the fields, and whom they did not scruple to
     put in front of them during the firing. This explains the
     hesitation shown during the chase. Seeing that they were caught,
     the German officers were not long in making up their minds. "Shoot
     the prisoners!" It must be noted that there was a certain
     reluctance in the German ranks, perhaps even a certain opposition
     to this barbarous order. We learned later that the recalcitrants
     were Berlin students who had volunteered for service. Was this a
     movement of humanity or merely a measure of precaution taken with a
     view to their own fate?

     However, there are always some ready to carry out brutal orders.
     The Mausers were fired at the heads of the prisoners. Commander
     Jeanniot was struck by several bullets, the whole of the front of
     his skull being blown off. Several of the Belgians fell. My comrade
     Bonnet, if I understood him aright, made the movement of a child
     who dodges a box on the ear. That saved him; the bullet aimed at
     his head went into his right shoulder. At this moment he saw our
     sailors and the Belgians coming up, and running as fast as he could
     lay legs to the ground, he called to them: "Go at them; there are
     only about forty of them left." The rest had made off across the
     fields.

     At 7 a.m. they were all prisoners.

     The Admiral at once decided that the murderers should be shot there
     and then. But as Frenchmen are not given to wholesale executions,
     the prisoners who had been rescued were called upon to point out
     the ringleaders.

     A few seconds later four volleys told me that military justice had
     taken its rapid course.

     Almost at the same moment the body of Commander Jeanniot was
     carried in. His cyclists and his chauffeur would not allow anyone
     but themselves to render him this last service. They carried their
     chief on a stretcher borne on their shoulders, and all had tears in
     their eyes.

     The rest of the morning was quiet. A German effort was being made
     further to the north, where we heard furious fighting.

     As we were drinking our coffee the Senegalese riflemen arrived to
     support the sailors. They were received with joy, for the brigade
     was much exhausted.

FOOTNOTES:

[46] "Germans of the regular army coming from the direction of Reims.
The Boches we had had to deal with so far had been volunteers or
reservists." (Second-Lieutenant X.'s note-book.)

[47] Not without losses on our side. "Saw Gamas, who has had fourteen of
his men killed to-night, among them his boatswain Dodu."
(Second-Lieutenant Gautier's note-book.)

[48] _I.e._, instead of "Croix Rouge," the usual French locution.

[49] We should add, by order of Commander Varney, who, warned by Dr. de
Groote, had at once taken the necessary measures. Second-Lieutenant X.'s
note-book gives more precise details: "We had succeeded in placing
machine-guns on each side of the bridge, which was a revolving bridge,
and had just been opened by Commander Varney."

[50] Here there seems to have been some confusion in the eye-witness's
account. He leads us to suppose that Dr. Duguet's ambulance was in the
town, and that the Germans who killed him and wounded the Abbé Le
Helloco went on afterwards to the bridge with their prisoners. "As a
fact," we are now told, "the affair took place between the bridge--which
the head of a column had crossed by surprise, driving before them a
number of Belgians, sailors, and perhaps some marauders--and the level
crossing near the station of Caeskerke where the column was finally
stopped. It was in this part of the street that Dr. Duguet had his
dressing-station; and it was there, too, that Commander Jeanniot, whose
reserve post was at Caeskerke, came out to meet the assailants. And it
was the fields near the south bank of the Yser to which the column
betook itself, dragging its prisoners with it, when it found the road
barred." (See M. Thomas Couture's narrative at the end of this chapter.)



X. IN THE TRENCHES


Thus ended this dramatic episode, of which neither the genesis nor the
results have been fully elucidated so far. Did the German troop which
overran the town during the night, and of which only a portion got away
to the meadows with the prisoners, consist of a battalion or a
half-battalion? The fire of Captain Marcotte de Sainte-Marie's guns had
laid a good many of the enemy low. "We were walking over their corpses
in the street," wrote Marine H. G.[51] The next day we turned a fair
number of the assailants out of the cellars where they had hidden. But
the majority, aided by mysterious accomplices, certainly managed to
escape.

In any case, the surprise had been a sharp lesson, showing us how
necessary it was that our positions should be immediately reinforced.
The Admiral represented this to Headquarters, and two battalions of
Senegalese were despatched from Loo. Meanwhile the bombardment had been
resumed. It became very intense between eleven and three o'clock, and
was directed mainly to the bridges of Dixmude and the trenches in the
cemetery. We had some heavy casualties there, notably Lieutenant Eno[52]
and part of the seventh company of the second battalion. But the _moral_
of the men was perfectly maintained. We may cite the case of
Quartermaster Leborgne, wounded in the head and taken to the
dressing-station during a lull in the fighting, who escaped when he
heard the cannonade resumed and came back to die at his post, or the
bugler Chaupin, who, seeing the recruits arching their backs under the
hail of bullets, cried, "Look at me, little ones," and drawing himself
up to his full height with magnificent bravery, crossed the danger zone,
carrying his comrades along in the wake of his heroism.[53] Thanks to
the reconnaissances of his airmen and the spies he had in the town, the
enemy's fire was surprisingly accurate. "In the space of two hours, from
half-past ten to half-past twelve in the morning," wrote one of the
officers who commanded a much-exposed section, Second-Lieutenant T. S.,
"some fifty shrapnel shells fell round us. At one o'clock a quarter of
my men were out of action. I asked for reinforcements and provisions; we
had been in the firing line for sixty hours. The Commander gave me a
verbal order to fall back. I consulted my petty officers and my men.
'Shall we fall back without being relieved?' 'We can't do it,
Lieutenant.' An hour later I received a written order to abandon the
trench. I had to obey, after we had buried our dead and carried off our
wounded. You see, dear parents, what our sailors will do: they will hold
out to the last gasp. That same evening the trench was occupied by
another section of the brigade."

And that same evening of October 26 this trench--or another--was again
attacked, and was only saved for us by a prodigy of heroism. The enemy
had advanced to within a few yards, and charged, shouting "Hurrah!" Our
machine-guns were very dirty and would not work.[54] But Lieutenant
Martin des Pallières was in command of the section. It was holding the
road to Woumen, between the wall of the cemetery and a trench dug on the
other side in a beetroot field. Des Pallières sprang upon the parapet.

"Boys," he cried, "we must receive these gentry with cold steel. Fix
bayonets!"

And when one of the Marines, a Parisian, who had charged too vigorously,
lamented the loss of his "hat-pin" (his bayonet), which he had left in a
German hide, Des Pallières replied: "Do as I do; charge with your
head."[55] The next day he was killed by a shell.

Meanwhile the brigade had passed under the command of General Grossetti,
who had undertaken the defence of the line of the Yser as far as, and
inclusive of, Dixmude (detachment of the army of Belgium under General
d'Urbal). The day of the 27th passed without an attack in force; the
enemy merely bombarded us. He gave us time to breathe the following
night and morning till 9 a.m. Then the hurly-burly began again. An
officer of the Naval Reserve who received his baptism of fire that day,
Lieutenant Alfred de la Barre de Nanteuil, grandson of General Le Flô,
wrote to his family that he had been specially favoured. "It was a fine
christening, plenty of sweetmeats, the whole show, bullets, shrapnel,
and, above all, the famous 'saucepans' (_marmites_). Chance treated me
well." In his section alone there were four killed, twelve wounded, and
eleven missing. This was the prelude to a sudden attack, directed
against the trenches in the cemetery, to which the enemy paid particular
attention. But we knew this, and had put our steadiest troops there. The
attack was again repulsed, thanks mainly to the firmness of the first
musketry instructor, Le Breton, who had already been wounded on the
24th, and who took command of the company when all the officers had been
put out of action.[56]

Our allies were less fortunate on the line from Dixmude to Nieuport,
where the 4th Belgian Division, overwhelmed by superior numbers, had to
fall back beyond Ramscappelle and Pervyse. The strategic importance of
these two villages made it imperative to retake them immediately. Every
available man was sent from the brigade on the evening of the 29th. This
did not prevent the enemy from continuing his bombardment of Dixmude, to
which this time we were able to reply very efficaciously with our heavy
artillery. This secured us a fairly quiet night. Such nights were few
and far between in the brigade. "We don't know what it is to sleep,"
wrote a sailor. "We haven't closed our eyes for ten days." Perhaps the
enemy was as weary as our men. His sole manifestation that night was to
send a few shrapnel shells upon Caeskerke and the cross-roads where the
Admiral had taken up his position. Perhaps, too, he was less interested
in Dixmude than in Ramscappelle and Pervyse at this stage of the
operations. At dawn he rushed Ramscappelle, but he was repulsed at
Pervyse, which the two companies of Rabot's battalion defended with
their accustomed vigour. The night before, however, the railway bridge
of Dixmude had been demolished by a big shell.

In the brief intervals of this exhausting struggle, the eyes of the
defenders were turned inquiringly on the _schoore_ of the Yser. How
slowly the inundation announced by the Belgian Headquarters Staff on the
25th seemed to be spreading! The progress it had made in five days was
almost imperceptible. And yet surely it was advancing now on the great
level plain; the _watergands_ were overflowing; the meshes of the watery
net were drawing together and encircling villages and farms. Near
Ramscappelle and Pervyse it had already formed a large continuous
expanse.

That day the first tactical effects of the inundation made themselves
felt on our north. Ramscappelle had been retaken by the 42nd Division
in a brilliant bayonet charge; the enemy had been driven back behind the
embankment of the Dixmude-Nieuport railway, whence he had almost
immediately retired upon the Yser: he was falling back not only before
our troops, but before the insidious rising of the waters. The plan of
the German General Staff was foiled. In their attempt upon Dunkirk they
had not reckoned upon the intervention of the Anglo-French fleet, which
prevented them from making their way along the dunes of the seashore,
nor upon the advantages offered to the defence by the inundation of the
basin of the Yser. The key of the position was neither at Dixmude,
Pervyse, Ramscappelle, nor Ypres, as they had supposed, but in the
pocket of the head _wateringue_ in charge of the locks at Nieuport.

At this moment of the crisis a certain vacillation seemed to prevail in
the councils of the enemy. The German Staff, though they had not
forgotten Dixmude, were apparently casting their eyes in other
directions. On the 30th and 31st they barely sent their daily ration of
shrapnel and big shells to our trenches in the cemetery and the houses
near the bridge. It had been raining incessantly for three days; our men
were standing half-way up their legs in water in the trenches. What had
become of the spruce "young ladies with the red pompons" of the early
days? "You should see us walk," wrote a sailor, one L., of Audierne. "We
are like old fellows of seventy. I have no feeling in my poor knees and
elbows." But the most severe suffering was caused by want of socks; the
men could hardly stand on their naked feet, purple with cold, in their
hard boots. "This is the campaign of frozen toes," says one of the
sufferers. Inured to discipline and naturally fatalistic, they did not
complain, and looked to their families to help them in their trouble.
"Do send me some socks. I have to go barefoot, and it is very cold,"
wrote one sailor, J. F., of Le Passage Lauriec; and in his next letter
he repeats: "I can tell you, my dear parents, that the weather is very
bad here, rain and wind every day, and the cold! Sleeping in the
trenches is not very easy. I have not closed my eyes for a fortnight,
what with the cold and the shells and bullets. Still I keep a good
heart. My feet are bare in my shoes, and they are always icy cold. If
you send me some socks, will you put some tobacco in with them?" Another
letter is in the same strain: "Dear mother, you say my brother is still
drinking, and this is very wrong of him, but that he took the socks off
his own feet to send them to me. I thank him very much, for I did want
them badly." The Breton drunkard can be generous!

There were lucky ones here as elsewhere. Such was H. L., who made
himself some mittens with a pair of old socks found in a German trench.
Men are not very squeamish in war-time, when they have been wearing the
same ragged filthy garments for a month. "You could not touch my vest
with a pair of tongs, it is so dirty," wrote the same H. L. to his
sister. The officers were no better off, except that they had socks.
"We never change; we never wash; we never brush our hair," wrote Alfred
de Nanteuil. "I have been living in the same grime ever since I left
Brest. The only things I have changed are my socks. All my ideas of
hygiene are upset, for, on the whole, I have never felt so well." Some
few complain of the food. "I have been three days in the trenches
without enough to eat," grumbles one sailor J. L. R. But the majority
declare that the tinned meat was not bad, especially when it was warmed,
and that, on the whole, they got enough.[57] As for drink, with the
exception of the coffee, pronounced "famous," the unanimous verdict was
that it was execrable, neither wine nor beer, only stagnant water; "and
they say, besides, that the Boches have poisoned it." The men were
recommended only to drink it in their coffee, well boiled. "I lived for
days on bread and sugar, with a cup of coffee for an occasional treat,"
wrote Alfred de Nanteuil. "All the water in the district is polluted. So
I go very well for a week without drinking anything but coffee."
François Alain, for one, was four days without food or drink, lying
among the straw in a barn where twenty-seven of his comrades had been
bayoneted. How did this nineteen-year-old conscript escape the Boches
who had remained in the neighbourhood? Through a little hole he had made
with his knife in one of the tiles of the roof he observed all their
movements, and took note of their trenches and the emplacements of their
cannon and their machine-guns; and one fine night, when there was not
too much moonlight, he crawled out, killing a German officer who was
reconnoitring the French positions, and got back into our lines with a
cargo of precious information, a thick coating of mud, and teeth
sharpened by a fast of ninety-six hours.[58] And these men, dripping
with wet, with empty stomachs and burning heads, never lost heart for a
moment. The same note recurs in all their letters: "In spite of this,
all goes well, and we are not downhearted, especially when we can have a
go at the Boches." The one thing consoles them for the other. They know
the perils of the trenches, and they prefer them to the inactivity of
being kept in reserve. "We have had twelve days of fighting now," wrote
the Marine C., of Audierne, "and this evening, I am glad to say, we are
to be in the first line, for it is better to be under fire than
resting." Was this paradox or braggadocio? Not at all. They spoke as
they thought. They courted danger as other men shun it.

FOOTNOTES:

[51] "Blood ran in the streets like water," said Jean Claudius still
more emphatically, according to a witness. This was probably the origin
of the fantastic accounts which appeared in the press at this period,
most of them purely imaginary.

[52] We must quote this short passage from the eloquent speech made at
the funeral of this brave officer at Lannion by Second-Lieutenant de
Cuverville, representing Admiral Berryer: "The order to mobilise found
Ernest Eno at Brest, engaged in training those very battalions he was
later to lead against the enemy; and no one could have been better
qualified than he to give our young recruits not only professional
instruction, but those lessons of manliness and patriotism which go to
the heart, and make men strong and courageous. For he was himself a
hero. A self-made man, he had raised himself step by step on the steep
ladder of his calling. He was a true sailor. He went off with the 1st
Regiment of Marines on August 13.... He fell at the head of his men
under intense fire round the cemetery of Dixmude, his thigh fractured by
a fragment of shell. He was not fated to recover from his terrible
wound. He died, uniting in his last prayers to God his dear ones and his
beloved Brittany, which he was to see no more." An operation had been
performed on Eno on the battlefield by his fellow-citizen and friend Dr.
Taburet, one of the doctors of the brigade, who showed the most supreme
contempt of danger under fire in attendance on our wounded.

[53] Dr. Caradec, _op. cit._

[54] In less critical circumstances the same accident had happened to
Second-Lieutenant Gautier, and was the occasion of an amusing little
scene, which might have been taken from Léonec and Gervèze's sketches of
Marines: "Yesterday I was going at the Germans with machine-guns at
1,200 metres on a road from which I finally cut them off. All of a
sudden the guns jammed. I yelled from my blockhouse: 'What's the
matter?' 'Guns jammed.' 'Tell the gunner from me that he's an ass.' The
communicator, a worthy Breton fisherman, repeated gravely: 'The
Lieutenant says that the gunner is an ass.' The gunner was one Primat. A
few days later, on November 10, in submerged Dixmude, this same Primat
(the orderly of the Second-Lieutenant), who had survived his officer,
used his machine-guns with such skill and coolness against a German
column that he stopped it dead, mowing down three sections."

[55] This story is told by the Marine Georges Delaballe. Such was the
ardour communicated by Des Pallières to his men, that the next day a
Marine and a Boche were found "lying dead one upon the other, the
Marine's fingers thrust through the German's cheek, and still clutching
it." A stray bullet had killed them both. What had exasperated the
Marines was that the major who led the attack wore a large Red Cross
armlet. Their native honesty was revolted by this constant recourse to
ignoble ruses, by which our enemies have dishonoured even their own
heroism. Martin des Pallières was the nephew of the Admiral who
commanded the Marines in 1870. "He was a brave man, whose courage was
combined with great simplicity and gaiety. He was killed by a big shell
in the middle of the group of machine-guns he was working under a
furious fire," writes a correspondent. Dr. Caradec points out that this
night of October 26 was particularly tragic; and in support of this
statement he quotes an incident horrible enough, indeed, from the
narrative of the naval mechanician Le L.:--

"The Germans had taken some French trenches, and shells were raining
thickly upon us. All of a sudden some of our men were engulfed in a mass
of _débris_. As one of my friends was half buried in the earth, I and
another went to help him; but a shell fell right upon him, and I in my
turn was buried up to the neck. Night was coming on fast. I spent
fourteen hours of anguish in this position. Furious fighting was going
on. Two friends were moaning near me. The one nearest begged me to help
him, but I was held fast as in a vice, and had to look on helpless as he
died. My own strength began to fail. I became unconscious a few hours
after I had been buried. What made me suffer most was to see the Germans
a few yards from me. I could see all they were doing, all their
death-dealing preparations. During the night the Senegalese riflemen
retook our lost trenches; they set to work to clear away the rubbish and
found my two dead friends near me. One of the Senegalese stepped on my
head. Feeling something under his feet, he bent down and saw me. They
got me out and took me to the first ambulance. In a few hours I was
fully conscious again. You can imagine how I rejoiced to find myself
among friends. I felt like one risen from the dead."

[56] Among them was Second-Lieutenant Gautier. The following order,
communicated to us by his family, was found with his papers: "Monsieur
Gautier,--By superior orders, I am sending a section to relieve you, and
to instruct you to go with your section near the cemetery, behind the
wall or on the railway embankment, as may seem best to you and to the
officer in the adjoining trenches. Des Pallières' section, which was in
the cemetery, has been annihilated, Des Pallières himself killed and
buried in the _débris_ of the trench." Second-Lieutenant Gautier was
killed at 9 o'clock in the evening. "We were having our dinner in the
trench," wrote Lieutenant Gamas a few days later, "when the order came
for him to go to a dangerous position to replace Des Pallières, who had
just been killed there. The last words your son-in-law said to me were:
'Captain, it's my turn.' We shook hands warmly, looking affectionately
at each other. The next day I heard that my poor friend was dead. He had
been hit in the forehead by a German bullet at the moment when, attacked
by very superior numbers with three machine-gun sections, he had put his
head out in order to regulate his fire and do his duty thoroughly. He
fell nobly, leaving a glorious and honoured name to his wife and
children."

[57] All the officers we have seen or who have written to us declare
that the transport service was excellent throughout the defence, in
spite of the greatest difficulties, and that the naval commissariat was
irreproachable.

[58] He was decorated with the military medal by General Foch in person.



XI. THE ATTACK ON THE CHÂTEAU DE WOUMEN


All Saints' Day was nearly as quiet as the preceding forty-eight hours.
We re-established our trenches, and the Admiral reorganised his
regiments and transferred his headquarters to Oudecappelle. In his
journal Alfred de Nanteuil, who had been with our second line from the
day before, notices the truce from _marmites_, if not from shrapnel and
bullets, "singing past a little like summer flies." But farms were
blazing all round the vast horizon, lighting up the November night and
accentuating the fact that, although the enemy's attentions had changed
in form, they had put on no amenity. "One of my men," says De Nanteuil,
"found the severed hand of a small child in a German's knapsack...." And
at Eessen, where the _vicaire_ was a young priest of twenty-eight, the
Abbé Deman, his murderers amused themselves by forcing him to dig his
own grave before they shot him in the graveyard of his own church.[59]

A day later the temporary inertia of the enemy was explained. A few
_marmites_ on our trenches and on the farms occupied by our supply
services were not enough to deceive us. We had been aware for several
days of a continuous growling in the south-west, on the Ypres road. The
enemy had transferred a part of his forces towards Mercken, where he was
seeking contact with our Territorials and with the British troops. It
seemed a good opportunity to break the iron girdle which held us and to
afford some relief to our positions. The _moral_ of our men had never
been better. Rumours of a general offensive were current in the brigade,
and nothing stimulates the French soldier more than the hope of an
advance. On November 3 French aeroplanes passed over Dixmude, towards
the German lines, and a balloon was hanging in the sky towards the west.


"Happy omen!" wrote De Nanteuil. "We have been without such
encouragements all through the long defence.... Now my spirits rise.
Everything points to an advance. The _marmites_ have disappeared, for
which no one is sorry. I have been in the first line since last night.
The sun is shining; the lark is singing; the mud is drying. We are
fearful to behold. Relieved by the Belgians in the night, I have to find
and guide those who have to take the place of my company. On my way
back, worn out, I stop a barrel of Belgian soup and have a delicious
pull at it. My battalion is in reserve since last night. Passed the
night in a barn, men in the trench. To-day it has been a case of 'packs
on' ever since the morning."

"Where are we off to?" said this intrepid officer to himself. "Perhaps,"
he thought, "nowhere! Anyway, the guns are raging, and this time it is
our own beloved guns, which we have awaited so impatiently. I cannot
hear the others; I think it is all right."

Alfred de Nanteuil was not mistaken. This time it was our 75's which led
the dance. The General had decided that an attack should debouch from
the town "supported by a powerful mass of artillery and having for main
objective the Château on the road to Woumen, about a kilometre from
Dixmude." The attack was to be made by four battalions of infantry of
the 42nd Division, a Marine battalion under Commandant de Jonquières
acting as support, and the rest of the brigade as reserve. The whole was
under the command of General Grossetti--Grossetti the invulnerable, as
he had been called ever since his splendid defence of Pervyse, where he
faced the shells sitting on a camp-stool.

The attack began about eight o'clock by an energetic clearing of the
whole position. There was, perhaps, some little hesitation in the
movements which followed. The fact is that by not moving off until
half-past eleven in the morning our infantry lost much of the advantage
given by the artillery preparation. The enemy had had time to pull
himself together. The eighth battalion of Chasseurs could not debouch
from the cemetery by the Woumen road until supported by the De
Jonquières battalion. Then it was checked at the end of 200 metres. At
the same time the 151st Infantry had made good a similar advance on the
Eessen road. That was the total gain of the day. We renewed the
offensive at 3 next morning, but with no more success than the day
before. The attack always lacked "go." We scarcely advanced at all, well
supported as we were by our 75's, which once more showed their
superiority over the German artillery. The General now determined to
reinforce the attack with the whole 42nd Division and two fresh
battalions of Marines. A day was taken up by preparations for the
passage of the Yser, a kilometre below Dixmude. For this purpose two
flying bridges were brought down from the town. There was a thick fog,
the best sort of weather for such an operation. One of the Marine
battalions was directed to attack on a line parallel to the Yser. The
remaining two, crossing higher up, were to make straight for the
Château, while the 8th Chasseurs were to prolong the attack to the
north. Fifty guns concentrated their fire on the buildings and the
ground immediately about them. But this enchanted castle, with its
fougasses, its deep trenches, its lines of barbed wire, its loopholed
walls, its machine-guns on every storey, and its flanking fire, gave out
a sort of repelling electricity which had the effect, if not of
destroying the _élan_ of our troops, at least of curiously blunting it.
The ground, seamed with watercourses, was unfavourable, and trouble
brooded in the fog. In short, when night fell we were still a quarter of
a mile from the Château; we had not even reached the park. On the Eessen
side we had made no progress. Finally, the Belgians near Beerst, who
were defending the north front of Dixmude, sent word that they were no
longer enough to man the trenches, and the Admiral had to send to their
help two companies of the De Kerros battalion from the first reserve.
This unwelcome necessity was made up for by the arrival of two long
120-mm. pieces, which were at once put in battery south of the level
crossing at Caeskerke.

However, the night of November 5 was quiet all round Dixmude; but at
dawn the attack was renewed. This time we had good reason to hope for
success. Rising from the provisional trenches, our battalions moved
simultaneously in echelon across the plain. The charge sounded, shouts
of "Vive la France!" broke out, and, in spite of terrible machine-gun
and rifle fire, the farm and the park were carried with a rush. Our men
were at the foot of the Château. But there the rush was stopped.
Contrary to report, the Château was not taken. The internal defences had
been organised in the most formidable way, perhaps even before the war
began. The enemy left in our hands some hundred prisoners, who had been
barricaded in the pavilion at the main gate.[60] At nightfall the order
was given to retire. The De Jonquières battalion returned to its
billets. The 42nd Division went off in another direction,[61] and the
brigade was again left alone at Dixmude with a handful of Senegalese and
the Belgians.[62]

[Illustration: (Newspaper Illustrations)

THE "KIEKENSTRAAT" (CHICKEN STREET) AFTER THE FIRST DAYS OF THE
BOMBARDMENT]

"We don't budge," writes De Nanteuil on November 6. "Our reinforcements
are being sent back. Visited the church and Hôtel de Ville of Dixmude.
Frightful! They are nothing but shapeless ruins. There is not a whole
house left. Certain quarters are destroyed down to their very
foundations; they are nothing but heaps of stone and bricks.... Messina
is in better case than this unhappy town."

FOOTNOTES:

[59] Declaration of the Abbé Vanryckeghem, who affirms that the _curés_
of Saint Georges, of Mannekensverke, and of Vladsloo were also executed.

[60] This, however, is not certainly established. For this account of
the closing scenes of the attack we have followed the narrative of the
correspondent of _La Liberté_, which appeared to us trustworthy. This
correspondent says, "They [the prisoners] had no time to retreat, so
sudden and furious was the attack. Carried away by their excitement, the
Marines never saw that the pavilion was full of Germans. It was not
until three hours later that a Prussian non-commissioned officer walked
unarmed out of the building and surrendered with his party to the first
French officer he met." We have been authoritatively told that nothing
of the kind took place. "The attack reached the Château, but failed to
carry it."

[61] At Dixmude the 4th and 5th had passed in comparative tranquillity.
"It rains," writes Alfred de Nanteuil on the 4th, "five hours drawn up
on the road, fully accoutred. Mud frightful. Walked through Dixmude--a
vision of horror, lights of pillagers, carcases, indescribable ruins....
Passed the night at a deserted farm, full of corpses, utterly sacked and
ruined. Plenty of evidence that the owners were well-behaved, pious, and
honest Belgian cultivators. The night fairly calm, so we had six hours
of sleep in our wet clothes. Impossible to change." The 5th: "To-day the
weather beautiful, the sun shining. Everything calm. In the watercourses
we see reflected the vaporous landscapes of the great Flemish masters.
The cattle which have escaped the bombardment stand about on the dykes.
At last one is able to breathe, ... to be glad one lives. I begin to
think we shall be here for a long time."

[62] It came at this juncture under the command of General Bidon.
Shortly before it had received an interesting visit. On November 2 a
naval lieutenant, De Perrinelle, writes in his diary that Colonel Seely,
sometime Minister of War in England, had visited this front and had told
them that they had saved the situation by their vigorous resistance.



XII. THE DEATH OF DIXMUDE


She is not quite dead yet, however. Scalped, shattered, and burnt as she
is, she still holds a spark of life as long as we are there. This
charnel-house in which we are encamped, with its streets, which are
nothing but malodorous paths winding among corpses, heaps of broken
stone and brick, and craters opened by the Boche _marmites_, still beats
with life in its depths. Existence has become subterranean. Dixmude has
catacombs into which our men pour when they leave the trenches. And they
are not all soldiers who explore the recesses of these vaults and
cellars. The suspicious lights alluded to by Alfred de Nanteuil are not,
perhaps, always carried by pillagers. Mysteriously enough, one house in
the town has escaped the bombardment. It is the flour factory near the
bridge, and its cement platform still dominates the valley of the Yser.

The 42nd Division left us two of its batteries of 75's when it moved
off. That was something, of course, though not enough to make up for the
disablement of 58 out of the 72 guns we originally had for the defence
of our front. The only formidable guns we have are the heavy ones, but
they are without the mobility of the 75's. And now apparently our attack
on the Château of Woumen has disquieted the Germans, who are again in
force before Dixmude. The bombardment of the town and of the trenches
has recommenced, and last night we had to repulse a pretty lively attack
on our trenches at the cemetery. There is also pressure along the Eessen
road, with considerable losses at both points. A renewal of the attack
to-night seems probable. And our ranks are already thin![63]

"Mother," writes a Marine from Dixmude on November 7, "it is with my
cartridge belt on my back and sheltered from the German machine-guns
that I send you these few lines to say that my news is good, and that I
hope it is the same with you and the family. But, mother, I don't expect
that either you or the family will ever see me again. None of us will
come back. But I shall have given my life in doing my duty as a French
soldier-sailor. I have already had two bullets, one in the sleeve of my
great-coat, the other in my right cartridge case. The third will do
better."

On the same day another Marine writes home: "Out of our squad of 16, we
still have three left." However, the night of the 6th and the day which
followed were quiet enough. The disappointment caused by the failure of
our attack on the Château was already almost forgotten, and our hopes
were again rising.

"I think," wrote Alfred de Nanteuil, "that my company will not stir from
this for some time. I have to furnish reinforcing parties as they are
wanted, the rest of my men and myself staying in the trench, which we
are always improving. We have a farmhouse near by which allows us to eat
in comfort. And we have plenty of straw."

The general impression is that we are held from one end of the front to
the other. "Bombardment always and musketry, a siege war, in short. It
will come to an end some day. Meanwhile," says De Nanteuil, gaily, "our
spirits and health are good." But this very afternoon certain suspicious
movements were descried on the further bank of the Yser. As it was easy
to bombard this part of the hostile front, a gun was promptly trained in
that direction. Was it a decoy, or was some spy from behind sending
signals? The gun no sooner came into action than a German battery was
unmasked upon it, killing Captain Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, who was
controlling the fire.[64]

Thenceforward attacks never ceased. The night between the 7th and 8th
was nothing but a long series of attempts on our front, which were all
repulsed. They began again at daylight against the trenches at the
cemetery. There the enclosing wall had been battered down for some time
past by the German artillery. Through the loopholes in our parapets one
could see the wide stretch of beetroots on the edge of which we were
fighting, our backs to Dixmude. Away on the horizon the Château of
Woumen, on its solitary height, rose from the surrounding woods and
dominated the position. Little clouds of white smoke hung from the
trees, which seemed to be shedding down. In his invariable fashion, the
enemy was preparing his attacks by a systematic clearing of the ground;
shrapnel and _marmites_ were smashing the tombstones, decapitating the
crosses, breaking up the iron grilles, the crowns of _immortelles_, and
the coffins themselves. The Flemish subsoil is so permeable that coffins
are not sunk more than a couple of feet below the surface, so that
their occupants were strewn about in a frightful way. Several Marines
were wounded by splinters of bone from these mobilised corpses.... In
the fogs of Flanders, when the mystery of night and the great disc of
the moon added their phantasmagoria to the scene, all this surpassed in
_macabre_ horror the most ghastly inventions of romantic fiction and
legend. Familiar as our Bretons were with supernatural ideas, they
shivered at it all, and welcomed an attack as a relief from continual
nightmare.[65]

"Although we did not give way at all," writes a Marine, "we understood
that everyone was not made like ourselves and the Senegalese. We took
pity on the poor worn-out Belgians, who had come to the end of their
tether, especially their foot Chasseurs,[66] and we took their places in
the trenches. We had three _aviatiks_ continually hanging over us,[67]
at which we fired in vain. They returned every day at the same hour, as
surely as poverty to the world. As soon as they had gone back we knew
what to expect. Down came the _marmites_ on our devoted heads!"

And their music, compared to the gentle coughing of our little Belgian
guns! At last a dozen new 75's appeared on the scene and relieved these
poor asthmatics. They were distributed between Caeskerke and the Yser.
Our grim point was the cemetery. There one of our trenches had been
taken by the Germans, but a vigorous counter-attack, led by
Second-Lieutenant Melchior, soon turned them out. "Exasperated by so
many sterile efforts," writes Lieutenant A., "the enemy decided, on
November 10, to make a decisive stroke. Towards ten in the morning began
the most terrible bombardment the brigade had yet had to suffer. The
fire was very accurate, destroying the trenches and causing great
losses."[68] At 11 o'clock 12,000 Germans, Mausers at the charge,
advanced against Dixmude.[69]

This attack repeated the tactics of the early days of the siege. The
Germans came on in heavy masses, reinforced by fresh troops. They had
also learnt the weak points of their opponents. And yet it is not
certain that the attack would have succeeded had it not been for the
unexpected giving way of our positions on the Eessen road.[70] This was
the only part of the southern sector not defended by Marines. It must
have been entirely smashed up, with the Senegalese who flanked it on
both wings. As a fact, the enemy's fire was so intense along the whole
line and our reply so feeble, that Alfred de Nanteuil, who occupied a
trench in rear of the northern sector, had to withdraw his men behind a
haystack. "Impossible to lift one's nose above the ground," writes an
officer, "so thick and fast came the shells." The attacking column was
thus enabled to pass the canal at Handzaeme and to fall upon the flank
of the trenches occupied by the eleventh company. This company had been
engaging the batteries at Korteckeer and Kasterthoeck, on their left,
and a violent rifle and machine-gun fire from a group of farms higher up
the canal. What was left of it had barely time to fall back upon its
neighbours, the ninth and tenth companies. A hostile detachment,
creeping along the canal, had contrived to push as far as the command
post of the third battalion, taking possession on the way of Dr.
Guillet's ambulance, which had been established at the end of the Roman
bridge. Our trenches were not connected by telephone, and communications
had broken down. Four marines only, out of the 60 in the reserve of
Commander Rabot, succeeded in escaping. The sentry on the roof of the
farm in which they were waiting saw the enemy coming and gave the alarm:
"The Boches--quarter of a mile away!" "To arms!" shouted De Nanteuil.
"Into the trenches!"

[Illustration: OLD HOUSES ON THE HANDZAEME CANAL]

He himself went to an exposed point to observe the enemy. There a bullet
hit him in the neck, striking the spinal marrow. How his men contrived
to bring him off it is difficult to say. He remained conscious and had
no illusions as to his state. All his energy seemed concentrated on the
desire to die in France. He had his wish.[71]

Then came the final defeat. The lines on the Eessen road driven in, the
dyke pierced at the centre, the northern sector cut off from the south,
the German wave flowed over us. The enemy had penetrated to the heart of
our defence, and, being continuously reinforced, swept round our flanks
and took us in reverse. One after another our positions gave way.
Already the first fugitives were arriving before Dixmude.

"Where are you off to?" cries an officer as he bars the way to a sailor.

"Captain, a shell has smashed my rifle. Give me another, and I'll go
back."

They give him one, and he returns to the inferno. Another, wandering on
the field like a soul in torture, replies to the inquiry of an officer
that he is "looking for his company. There cannot be much of it left,
but," straightening himself, "that does not matter: _they_ shall not get
through!"[72]

And they do not get through. But it was too late to stop them from
entering Dixmude. Their musketry was all round us, a rifle behind every
heap of rubble, a machine-gun at every point of vantage. The sharp note
of the German trumpet sounded from every side. It is possible that a
certain number of the enemy who had lain hidden in the cellars of
Dixmude ever since the fighting on the 25th now came out of their earth
to add to the confusion. The truth of this will be known some day. We
were under fire in the town, outside the town, on the canal, on the
Yser. It was street fighting, with all its ambuscades and surprises.
What had become of the covering troops in the cemetery and on the Beerst
road? Of the reserve under Commander Rabot, driven from ditch to ditch,
its commander killed or missing,[73] only fifteen men were left. These
were rallied by Lieutenant Sérieyx in a muddy ditch, where they fought
to the last man. Surrounded and disarmed, Sérieyx and some others were
forced to act as a shield to the Germans who were advancing against the
junction of the canal and the Yser. "Abominable sight," says Lieutenant
A., "French prisoners compelled to march in front of Boches, who knelt
behind them and fired between their legs!" Our men beyond the Yser could
not reply.

"Call to them to surrender," ordered the German major to Sérieyx.

"Why should you think they will surrender? There are ten thousand of
them!"[74]

There were really two hundred!

At this moment a sudden burst of fire on the right distracted the
enemy's attention. With a sign to the others, Sérieyx, whose arm had
already been broken by a bullet, threw himself into the Yser, succeeded
in swimming across, and at once made his way to the Admiral to report
what was happening.

A counter-attack ordered by the officer in command of the defence and
led by Lieutenant d'Albia had covered his escape. The eighth company, in
reserve, reinforced by a section of the fifth company of the 2nd
Regiment, under Commander Mauros and Lieutenant Daniel, entrenched
itself behind the barricade at the level crossing on the Eessen
road.[75] On all the roads leading to the Yser, and especially at the
three bridges, sections strongly established themselves or helped to
consolidate sections already there. Would these dispositions, hastily
taken by Commandant Delage, be enough to save Dixmude? At most they
could only prolong the agony. Her hours were numbered. After having
driven its way through the hostile column which had reached the Yser,
Lieutenant d'Albia's section encountered more Germans debouching from
the Grand' Place and neighbouring streets. Germans and Frenchmen now
formed nothing but a mass of shouting men. They shot each other at close
quarters; they fought with their bayonets, their knives, their clubbed
rifles, and when these were broken, with their fists, with their feet,
even with their teeth. By three in the afternoon we had lost one half of
our men, killed, wounded, or prisoners. The German columns were still
pouring into Dixmude through the breaches in the defence. They pushed us
back to the bridges, which we still held, which we were indeed to hold
to the end. They were going to take Dixmude, but the little sailor was
right: they were not going to pass the Yser. One more attack was
organised to bring off the Mauros company, which was retiring under a
terrible fire. The remains of several sections were brought together,
and, led by their officers, they charged into the _mêlée_ in the
streets. One purple-faced, sweating Marine, who had seen his brother
fall, swore he would have the blood of twenty Boches. He went for them
with the bayonet, counting "One! two! three!" etc., till he had reached
twenty-two. After that he returned to his company, a madman.

But what could the finest heroism do against the swarms of men who
rose, as it were, from the earth as fast as they were crushed? "They are
like bugs," sighed a quartermaster, and night was coming on. Dixmude had
ceased to give signs of life. For six hours fighting had gone on over a
dismembered corpse. Not a gable, not a wall, was left standing, except
those of the flour factory. To hold these heaps of rubbish, which might
turn into a focus of infection, was not worth the little finger of one
of our men. At 5 o'clock in the evening, after blowing up the bridges
and the flour factory, the Admiral retired behind the Yser.[76]

"Dear mother," wrote a Marine a few days later from Audierne, "I have to
tell you that on the 10th of this month I was not cheering much at
Dixmude, for out of the whole of my company only 30 returned. I never
expected to come out, but with a stout heart I managed to get away. I
had a very bad time. Many of us had to swim to save ourselves." These,
no doubt, were the prisoners who had thrown themselves into the canal
with the heroic Sérieyx.

All this time Lieutenant Cantener, who had taken command on the death of
his senior officer, had been maintaining himself on the Beerst road,
with three companies of Marines. At nightfall he had the
satisfaction--and the credit--of bringing nearly the whole of his
command safely into our lines. They had made their way by ditches full
of water and mud up to their waists. They were 450 in all--450 blocks of
mud--and they were not, as has been said, worn out and without arms and
equipment, but steadily marching in fours, bayonets fixed, and as calm
as on parade. They had their wounded in front, and each company had its
rear-guard.[77]

Too many of our men were left beneath the ruins of the town or in the
hands of the enemy, but they had not been vainly sacrificed.[78] After
losing some 10,000 men,[79] the Germans found themselves in possession
of a town reduced to mere heaps of rubbish with an impregnable line
beyond. Our reserve lines had become our front, well furnished with
heavy guns, and punctually supported by the inundation which stretched
its impassable defence both to north and south. The whole valley of the
Lower Yser had become a tideless sea, out into which stood Dixmude, like
a crumbling headland. In taking it the Germans had simply made
themselves masters of two _têtes de pont_. Even that is saying too much,
for we still commanded the place from the northern bank of the Yser, and
our artillery, under General Coffec, frustrated all attempts to organise
their capture. Meanwhile thousands of Germans, between the Yser and the
embankment of the Nieuport railway, watched with apprehension the water
rising about the mounds up which they had hauled their mortars and
machine-guns. In the immediate neighbourhood of Dixmude, where the
Admiral had caused the sluice at the sixteenth milestone to be blown
up,[80] a hostile column of some fifteen hundred men was overwhelmed by
the water together with the patch of raised ground on which it had taken
refuge.[81] A fresh inundation added greatly to the extent of the
floods, and practically reconstituted the old _schoore_ of Dixmude. All
danger of the enemy's making good the passage of the river had finally
passed away.

[Illustration: THE INUNDATION. OLD MILL AND FARMS ON THE YSER]

FOOTNOTES:

[63] For the period between October 24 and November 6 the names of the
following officers who fell must be added to those already given: killed
or dead of their wounds, Lieutenants Cherdel and Richard,
Second-Lieutenants Rousset and Le Coq; among those wounded, but not
mortally, Lieutenants Antoine, "son of Admiral Antoine and the model of
a perfect officer" (private correspondence), and Revel, who, when
severely wounded in the thigh, ordered his decimated company to retire,
"leaving him in the trench where he had fallen."

[64] Marcotte de Sainte-Marie was provisionally succeeded at the head of
his battalion by Lieutenant Dordet, who acquitted himself admirably.

[65] And yet these cemetery trenches afforded comparative security.
Before reaching them it was necessary to cross a perfectly flat zone of
60 metres, continually swept by rifle fire and shrapnel. "This we passed
at the double, in Indian file, our knapsacks on our heads, and popped,
those who had not been left on the way, into the cellars under the
caretaker's house with an 'Ouf!' of relief." (Georges Delaballe.)

[66] It must be remembered that the Belgians had been fighting for three
solid months, and that until the 23rd October they had faced the Germans
alone, if not at Dixmude at least as far north as Nieuport.

[67] To say nothing of a captive balloon. "Violent bombardment of our
trenches, directed by 'sausage' balloons; feeble reply of French and
Belgian artillery," is the entry, under date of the 8th, in an officer's
note-book, where also we find under date of the 9th: "Bombardment
continued. Night attack on the outposts, which were driven in."

[68] Dr. Caradec says the German artillery, consisting of batteries of
105's and 77's, was posted 2,000 metres away, behind the Château of
Woumen, and near Vladsloo, Korteckeer, and Kasterthoeck.

[69] Before that, however, at half-past nine, a lively attack had been
directed against the front of the ninth and tenth companies of the 1st
Regiment, which occupied towards Beerst one end of the arc described
round Dixmude by our trenches; the extremities of this arc rested on the
Yser. The Germans tried to push between the Yser and the flank of the
ninth company. This attack was repulsed by the two companies, assisted
by fire from the remaining trenches and a battery of 75's.

[70] Rather above Dixmude station, between the railway embankment and
the Eessen road.

[71] We find in the _Bulletin de la Société Archéologique du Finisterre_
that "M. de Nanteuil, a retired naval officer, returned to the service
in the first days of the war and was attached to the defence of Brest
and its neighbourhood. But this occupation seemed to him too quiet, and,
in spite of a precarious state of health, he left no stone unturned to
get to the front. Fifteen days after arriving there he was killed, one
hero more in a family of heroes. He was an efficient archæologist,
especially in all that had to do with military architecture. He had
published some excellent papers on our old feudal castles in the
_Bulletins_ of the _Association Bretonne_, historical notes and
descriptions relating to the Château of Brest, the remains at Morlaix
and Saint Pol de Léon, the churches of Guimilian, Lampaul, Saint
Thégonnec, and Pleyben...." He went off full of pluck and go, we hear
from another source, his heart full of eagerness to meet the enemy.
Those friends who saw him off all noticed his radiant looks.... When
mortally wounded, for paralysis supervened almost at once, and carried
to the ambulance, his head was still clear, he was anxious as to the
phases of the battle, and asked whether the enemy had been repulsed. He
supported his sufferings without complaint, and in the evening, although
he was very weak, they moved him on to Malo-les-Bains, for he "wished to
die on French ground."

[72] Dr. Caradec, _op. cit._

[73] He was killed. He had been hit by a bullet above the ear as he
raised himself to glance round over the high bank of a watercourse lined
by his men.

[74] To this major Sérieyx had only surrendered after all his ammunition
was exhausted, and he and his men saw that no further resistance was
possible. The major had then asked Sérieyx whether there was no means of
crossing the Yser. Sérieyx answered, "I only know of one, the Haut
Pont." Now, at some fifty yards from where they stood, there was a
footbridge which our sailors were at that moment crossing. Sérieyx held
the major's attention by taking a pencil and tracing a complicated plan
of the position. From time to time firing took place, and the Frenchmen
planted themselves stoically in front of the Boches, Sérieyx working
away at his plan. But the major grew impatient at its complication, and
thought it better to make use of his prisoner to procure the surrender
of the trenches.

[75] "The troops in the southern sector moved back towards the town,
defending themselves by a series of barricades, under the orders of
Commander Mauros and Lieutenant Daniel." (Note-book of Second-Lieutenant
X.)

[76] It has been said that an old woman caused the fall of Dixmude on
November 10. "The allied forces occupying Dixmude," said the _Daily
Mail_, "consisted of a squadron of cavalry encamped on the right bank of
the Yser, two batteries of 75's, a regiment of infantry, and a battalion
of Zouaves (!). The battle began with a violent cannonade, which had the
great distillery in the centre of the town as its principal objective.
Two of our 75's were on the first floor of a tannery, the others below,
on a little mound where skins were cleaned. Our artillery was able to
hold the enemy in check, opening great breaches through the hostile
ranks with its shells. One German gun lost all its team, and the Uhlans
were mown down by our sailors. Our men, cavalry and infantry, were
awaiting the word to attack. Just at this moment appeared an old woman
to whom our Zouaves had been kind, as she seemed so miserable. She had
marched with them, leaning on the arm of one and another and sharing
their soup. She mounted to the first floor of the tannery, and then
disappeared. A moment later a light appeared on the roof of the
distillery. It was seen to swing three times from right to left. Five
minutes later the German shells began to rain upon the point indicated
by the light. In a very short time the building was greatly damaged,
fires broke out, and the burning alcohol lighted up the whole
neighbourhood. Unable to stem either the deluge of shells or this
conflagration, the French general decided to evacuate the town and
entrench himself on the canal banks. With great difficulty the 75's were
withdrawn from their positions. Before quitting the city the French
soldiers saw, and were able to identify, the 'old woman,' stretched on
the ground, with the uniform of an Uhlan peeping from beneath 'her'
skirts." This is all pure imagination. Spies certainly played a part in
the fall of Dixmude. Too many people were accepted as refugees and
distressed inhabitants who were in reality the guides and accomplices of
the enemy. But, in the first place, we had no Zouaves at Dixmude;
secondly, our observation post was not in a tannery; finally, we had no
cavalry. The only body which barred the way to the Germans was the
Marines, omitted in this account.

[77] The following details of this fine operation have reached me, but
before giving them I must remind the reader that the Germans who fell
upon the reserve under Commander Rabot did not destroy Company 11. This
company, after a lively exchange of fire, retired upon Companies 9 and
10, which were almost intact. Dixmude had already fallen, when the
captains of the three companies met, and after thinking over the
situation, determined to hold on at all costs. Consequently "Company 10
proceeded to place a small advanced post on the Beerst road, with two
double sentries, and a rear-guard at the old mill. The company itself
was drawn up with one rank facing to the front, the other to the rear,
and the trenches so arranged that a front could be shown in any
direction. The machine-guns abandoned by the Belgians were overhauled
and placed so as to sweep the Beerst road. At 6.30 the little northern
post was attacked. Pursuant to orders, it retired after a volley or two.
Then fire opened along the whole line, the machine-guns of Company 10
joining in. The Germans, who expected no such stubborn resistance, had
severe losses. For an hour the fight lasted without change, the men
still at their post and the trench still intact. All the killed, Captain
Baudry among them, were shot through the head, the wounded, in the head
or the arm, in the act of firing. At this moment the beginning of an
attack from the rear made itself felt. The time for retreat had come, as
the detachment had lost connection with the Staff of the battalion. The
companies moved off successively, each leaving a section to protect its
retreat. This retreat was admirable, but quite indescribable on account
of the ground. _Arroyos_ (mud-holes) everywhere. The men got through,
although sinking to their armpits and handing on their wounded before
them. After two hours of this painful but orderly progression, they
arrived before the footbridge over the Yser. A farm granary arose near
by, where the Germans had mounted machine-guns to sweep the bridge.
Lieutenant Cantener, who was now in command, decided to carry the farm.
The operation was a complete success. The Germans were driven out, the
farm burnt, and the Yser crossed. The column, with its wounded in front,
then made its way safely to the cross-roads at Caeskerke, and thence
into the shelter trenches at Oudecappelle." The third battalion of the
1st Regiment, which held the northern sector, had the following
officers: Company 9, Berat, Poisson, Le Gall; Company 10, Baudry, Mazen,
Devisse; Company 11, Cantener, Hillairet, Le Provost; Company 12, De
Nanteuil, Vielhomme, Charrier.

[78] According to M. Pierre Loti, the Marines at Dixmude lost "half
their effective and from 80 to 100 of their officers." This estimate is
none too large if we include the wounded and missing.

[79] According to the _Nieuws van den Dag_, 4,000 wounded were sent to
Liège the next day. Another Dutch journal, the _Telegraaf_, says that
out of 3,000 men engaged in the attack on the southern sector of the
defence "only a hundred men were left after the fall of the town." All
estimates are clearly uncertain in such confused affairs, and so we have
taken our figures preferably from the neutral press, in which we may
look for a certain amount of impartiality.

[80] The operation was carried out by Quartermaster Le Bellé to whom the
military medal was awarded. "A night or two ago," writes Commander
Geynet, "I was ordered to blow up the sluice in front of me.... A little
quartermaster crossed the stream on a plank nailed across two barrels.
We pushed the Prussians out of the way by rifle fire. My little man,
with his charge of dynamite, chose his moment well, then, leaving his
raft to draw the fire of the Prussians, regained our bank by swimming."

[81] Paul Chautard in the _Liberté_ of November 24. Commander Geynet
says nothing of this episode, however.

[Illustration: Plan of Attack on DIXMUDE on November 10th 1914.]

[Illustration: MAP of OPERATIONS Round DIXMUDE Drawn by CH. LE GOFFIC.]


       *       *       *       *       *



Transcriber's Notes

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Page 4: "be" changed to "been" (had been transformed into sailors).

List of illustrations and Page 43: "Papagaei" changed to "Papegaei".
The photo preceding page 43 shows this spelling on the building.

Page 59: "Langermack" changed to "Langemarck" in the second footnote.

Page 82: "Oudescappelle" changed to "Oudecappelle" in the footnote.

Pages 137, 146: "Wouwen" changed to "Woumen".

Page 162: "Liége" changed to "Liège".





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