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Title: War the Creator
Author: Burgess, Gelett
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration:

  COCO's ITINERARRY
  BATTLE of the MARNE
  BATTLE of the AISNE
]


WAR THE CREATOR


[Illustration]



  WAR~THE
  CREATOR
  BY~GELETT
  BURGESS~~~

  [Illustration]

  New York      B. W. HUEBSCH      1916

  COPYRIGHT, 1915, BY P. F. COLLIER & SON, INC.

  COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY B. W. HUEBSCH


  WAR THE CREATOR was first printed in
  _Collier’s_. Acknowledgment is made to that
  weekly for permission to publish the story
  in volume form.


  PRINTED IN U. S. A.


WAR THE CREATOR



I


Because he was my friend, because he was so lovable, because he
suffered much, I want to try to tell the story of a boy who, in
two months, became a man. My hero is Georges Cucurou, the son of a
shoe-maker of Toulouse. I happened to see him first just before the war
began, and not again until after he had been wounded; and the change in
him was then so great that I could not rest until I had learned how it
had been brought about. Georges is but one of the thousands who have
gone into that furnace of patriotism; in France such experiences as
his are commonplace now, but when I heard his story I got a glimpse
of war in a new aspect. Before, I had thought of it only as stupid,
destructive, dire; now, in his illumined face, I saw the work of War
the Creator.

His narrative is concerned with only the first six weeks of the
fighting, and mostly with that terrible retreat from Belgium, so bitter
in its disappointments, so trying to the flamboyant courage of the
French. Hardly had they rallied along the Marne and begun to pursue
the enemy when Georges was wounded and invalided home. It was there
in the hospital that I got his history; and from those talks, and his
notebook, and his letters to his aunt, I have reconstructed the trials
and emotions of this lad of twenty.



II


Georges, having commenced his regular three years’ military service in
October, 1913, got leave to visit his aunt who was keeping a _pension_
in Paris.

How shy and confused he was when I came down to the dining-room that
day and surprised him while he was examining his too-faint mustache
with great seriousness before the mirror! Charming, I thought him,
instantly; a clean, jolly sort of boy, quite too young for that
ridiculous soldier’s uniform.

His aunt introduced him (with her arm about his shoulder and a tweak of
his ear) by his nickname, “Coco”; and, after he got used to my being
a foreigner, he began to talk, using his big brown eyes and his free,
expressive hands quite as much as his tongue. Knowing a little of the
Midi, I attempted an imitation of the _patois_. Coco threw back his
head and laughed with abandon. That broke the ice, and we became great
friends.

He was so curious about everything American that I took him up to my
salon to see my typewriter; also my neckties and fancy socks.

“But what’s this?” asked Coco, reading with his funny French
pronunciation, “A-mer-i-cain Pencil Compagnie.” It was a novelty, a
“perpetual” pencil of the self-sharpening sort, with a magazine filled
with little points like cartridges. When I gave it to him, it pleased
Coco immensely.

“Just like a rifle!” he exclaimed, as he amused himself by pressing the
end and ejecting the bits of lead. He went through the manual of arms
with it, laughing; he did a mock bayonet thrust or two, and then aimed
it at me in fun, like a child. “_Pan!_” he cried; “_that’s_ the way we
shoot Germans!” The contrast of his red pantaloons and blue coat with
the round, innocent face and lips parted like a girl’s was absurd. Why,
he was more like those doll soldiers you see at toyshops with curly
hair! With his fresh pink cheeks and big brown eyes he seemed no more
than sixteen years old.

In the evening we all went out on the crowded Boulevard, where, it
being a fête day, they were dancing in front of the open-air band
stands. It was a long time before I ceased to think of Coco as jolly,
flushed, exuberant, dancing the Tango on the corner by the Sorbonne
with his pretty young aunt, as excited and happy as only a lad can be
who has come up from a provincial town to see the metropolis for the
first time on a holiday.

That was on the 14th of July of 1914. Next day he went back to his
caserne at Montauban.

In two weeks war was declared!

Coco, our own blithe Coco, would have to go to the front—oh, his aunt’s
white face that day!—and Coco would be in the first line! It seemed
like some hideous mistake. But already Coco, pink-cheeked, laughing,
shy, his mother’s only boy, was well on his way toward the German
shells and machine guns!



III


The French do nothing without a flavoring of sentiment. Rhetoric
flowers in the official proclamations; it makes one laugh even to read
the textbooks for soldiers, they are so strewn with fine, resounding
phrases; and so, of course, it was quite impossible for Coco’s regiment
to get away without one of those stirring, gesticulative speeches by
the colonel.

It was at the Toulouse railway station—parents in tears. The girls
gazed admiringly. Gossipy veterans of ’70, seeing themselves
reincarnated in these fresh young soldiers, patronized them egregiously
with advice. Coco and the other lads listened, but did not hear; they
were smiling at the girls sticking bouquets in their rifle barrels.

“Look back for the last time at your homes and your loved ones,” cried
the colonel, with all his badges on his breast, “and shed the tear
without which our high sacrifice would not have its price. Lift up your
hearts, and so forth, and so forth, my children—_en avant!_”

Children indeed they were, overflowing with the emotion of the south,
these soldiers, and our Coco, with a gulp in his throat, seemed even
more young than most. The war! How often had he heard it predicted for
that year, or the next, or the next—the inevitable war that was to give
France her long-hoped-for revenge. Now, it was actually here! No more
blank cartridges, no more sham battles—_War!_

But Coco’s tears soon dried. They were a merry lot, those
twenty-year-old “_pioupious_,” even on that tiresome trip to the
front. The youngsters had the worst of it during the mobilization. They
sat all that journey on rough-board temporary benches in the luggage
vans. Starting and stopping, side-tracking and backing—munching the
emergency rations (hard tack and canned beef), for mother’s cheese
and chocolate didn’t last long—waving and yelling to the patriotic
spectators along the line, it took them almost three days to reach
Châlons.

At the military camp two more days were spent in concentration,
exercises, and inspection. The last orders were received. Then, at five
o’clock in the morning of the sixth of August, the column started for
the frontier.

Coco was a private in the Tenth Company of the Twentieth Regiment of
Infantry. His army corps, the Seventeenth, formed the left wing of
the Fourth Army. On their left, paralleling their march, was, first,
General Ruffey’s cavalry division, and beyond that the Fifth Army,
under General Lanrezac. On the extreme left wing of the advance were
the British. Meanwhile, marching on Lorraine and Alsace, were the Sixth
and Seventh Armies. With all these columns hurrying to the front,
filling all the roads, railway transportation was impossible. It was a
march of some seventy miles to the frontier.

So, through the lovely forest of Argonne, the boys set out, singing
and joking as they strode along. It was pleasant enough at first, a
romantic adventure; but with his heavy rifle, his heavy cartridge belt
and bayonet, and his musette full of food slung over his shoulder, it
was not long before poor Coco began to get weary. On his back, with
his knapsack, and his rolled overcoat and his tin _bidon_ and tin
_gamelle_, with the intrenching tool and his share of the company’s
baggage, he carried fully sixty pounds. They marched on one side of
the road. Along the other side automobiles whirled incessantly back
and forth, motor busses filled with provisions rumbled along, dispatch
bearers on motorcycles, officers on horseback—raising dust a-plenty.

Coco’s chum—his “_copain_”—was François Foulot, the son of a
cabinetmaker in Toulouse, a big, athletic, kind-hearted chap with a
bushy black pompadour. Coco had told me about him in Paris. The two
boys were members of a little musical and dramatic club in Toulouse,
and had been friends from childhood. You should hear Coco tell how, on
that long march, François took care of him, carrying his rifle when
Coco was tired, carrying even Coco’s knapsack for him, helping him
grease his boots at night when Coco’s feet began to blister. François
was like a big brother.

At the nightly bivouacs along the road the two boys always slept side
by side; that is, when they slept at all. The excitement (and the hard
ground) for the first few nights kept them wide awake, in spite of
their fatigue.

“_Mon Dieu_, how will this all end?” they asked each other. Coco didn’t
know, François didn’t know; but neither thought the war could possibly
last more than a few months.



IV


Yet there was a terrible earnestness about it all that sobered them.
There was something still more terribly earnest ahead! Every automobile
that whizzed past them, coming in hot haste from the front, announced
it. Every galloping supply wagon, every crouching motorcyclist in
uniform flashing by told the same frantic story: “Hurry! Hurry!
_Hurry!_ The Germans are almost here! France is in danger!”

On those first nights, when Coco’s turn came to stand on sentry duty
by the lonely corner of a wood, his eyes strained into the darkness,
listening for every sound, the sight of a bush waving in the wind often
brought his gun to his shoulder with a quick, excited “_Halte-là!_”

For Coco, sensitive, earnest, and not a little fearful, was in a high
nervous tension. Already the Germans were fighting in Belgium—the
killing had commenced. From one of the villages they passed the boy
wrote a brave little letter to his mother on a post card: “If anything
should happen ... well, one knows one’s duty, and God will do the rest.
Lovingly, Coco.”

On, on, through the hilly forests of Argonne they marched, making
about twenty-five miles a day. And on that dusty march food was scarce.
Poor Coco’s feet, despite the tallow in his socks, were too sore for
him to chase chickens, but François succeeded in capturing seven. Not
much, however, when their necks were wrung, for a company of 250 men.
Even the bread began to run out. But on they went, singing by day and
shivering by night—on, on toward Belgium. Coco says that their chief
worry was lest they shouldn’t find enough straw to sleep on, or at
least enough to tie up their feet in bundles to keep them warm.

At Mouzon they crossed the Meuse, and here Coco slept more comfortably
than he had for a week, on a sack full of straw at a farm. After
a day’s wait for orders—and no meat even here—they set out again,
passed through Carignan, and soon reached the last village in
France—Florenville. “Don’t send me any more French money,” Coco here
wrote to his mother. “It won’t be any use to me now!” Poor Coco! How
little did he know how soon he was to return!



V


On the morning of August 21 they crossed the boundary. Hurrahs from
the men—they were going forward to conquer! They were going to deliver
this brave little country from the barbaric invader who had laid it
waste. Coco was thrilled with the nobility of their mission. “_Vive
la France!_” he shouted with all the rest; but alas, the approaching
thunderstorm soon damped his spirits. The rain poured down in torrents,
down the back of his neck and into his shoes. Coming to a halt, they
bivouacked in a wide field. It thundered and it lightened. Soaked and
cheerless, the regiment tried to sleep. The fires wouldn’t burn. One
couldn’t even smoke a cigarette. As Coco turned on his side the water
oozed under him sloshily.

He dozed off, however, after a while, only to be awakened by a punch in
the ribs. “Listen!” François was saying. “What’s _that_?”

“Thunder, of course!” Coco, irritated, rolled over again, opened his
eyes after a while, and saw François still sitting up, alert.

“That’s not thunder!” he exclaimed. “Listen! it’s cannonading!”

Coco sat up now quickly enough. Others woke up to swear at them—and
then they listened, too.

“Look!” cried François. Galloping down the road came a dispatch
rider. He halted, was challenged by the sentry, and turned in at the
colonel’s headquarters. Then he was off again, splattering, clattering
through the mud. Then a bugle call: “_Fall in!_” All over the field
the wet men jumped up, slung on their belts, grabbed their rifles and
formed dismally in the rain. As they stood waiting, word ran down the
column—François passed it to Coco—“_The enemy!_” An ammunition wagon
drove up—boxes of cartridges were distributed. “Load!” ordered the
captains. The ranks were fairly buzzing now, everyone asking questions,
nobody answering. A whistle blew. “_Forward, march!_” Coco had no
thought of the rain now! The guns grew louder, but still no enemy
was visible. The cannonading slackened, grew faint, thundered off in
another direction, died, began again far away. But the rumbling was
always ahead—the regiment was marching nearer and nearer the fighting.
And so on to Bertrix, fifteen miles from the frontier. Coco rather
liked Bertrix. Bertrix rather more than liked Coco. The pretty little
Luxemburg town welcomed him and all the other young “_piou-pious_”
as its saviors. Nothing was too good for the French soldier boys who
had come to deliver them from the Huns. What do you want—cigarettes?
beer? bacon? It was quite a jolly affair, with the streets full of
smiling women and young girls smiling too, bringing fruit and eggs and
preserves, and good, fresh butter.

Coco was already a hero—and, after eight days without meat, that bacon
was certainly good! How they all laughed and chattered! But the old men
stood apart and listened anxiously; for, through all that rejoicing
there came steadily the distant sound of guns. Surely the Germans were
coming nearer! If they ever got to Bertrix—The old men shook their
heads with foreboding.

Again the whistle blew—_Forward!_ The enemy was only a few miles away
now; it was getting exciting. The boys, proud, patriotic, confident,
started “_La Marseillaise_” and the song was taken up by the whole
column—“_Marchons! Marchons!_” they sang—but Coco was singing, he
admits, to keep up his courage, as he tramped on through the mud to be
shot at. He tried to keep in mind that he was marching on gloriously
to fight for his country; but he couldn’t help thinking of what he had
heard of those terrible machine guns at Liége and Namur.

_Halt!_ The captain whipped out his field glasses—everybody gazed
eagerly ahead. There it was, _there!_ coming steadily nearer, flying
low—a German aeroplane—a “_Taube_” reconnoitering. There was a quick
order. As the whir of the motor grew nearer the lieutenant of Coco’s
platoon pointed. “_Aim!_” Fifteen rifles were thrown up, covering the
monoplane. “Steady, now, men—wait till she comes near enough—now,
_Fire!_”

Coco fired, jammed down the lever of his gun, shot again, again. Almost
over their heads the flyer seemed to stop, turned, volplaned swiftly
down—it was too good to be true—swept lower in a wide curve. Then men,
shouting, ran for it as it swooped into the field beside the road. Coco
ran for his first sight of a German.

Two officers in khaki, limp and pale, were strapped to the seats. One
was unconscious, with a red hole in his neck. The other painfully
unfastened his strap, and came forward, staggering. He saluted the
captain stiffly, a queer smile on his blond German face. Coco heard him
say in perfect French:

“I am badly wounded, monsieur. This is my last trip, I’m afraid. Ah,
well; you are going to beat us in the end, no doubt. With all your
allies there’s little hope for us. But you’ll have to shed a good deal
of blood before you win!” Then he suddenly collapsed. Coco saw him fall
on the ground in a faint.

“It gave me a mighty queer feeling,” Coco told me, “to look at that
dark spot of blood gradually growing bigger and bigger over that
officer’s breast. I remember that I wondered if it had been my rifle
ball that had wounded him. And that other German, too—I wondered if I
had already killed a man. If I had, why wasn’t it murder? What was the
difference between war and murder, anyway? Of course these barbarians
were invading my country, but—yes, it was my duty to protect France,
but—well, I had to give it up. You know there are priests fighting in
the ranks, too, in this war, m’sieur! _They_ must know. It’s all right,
I suppose—and yet there is always that ‘_but_’ when you see a thing
like that. Well, it was too exciting then for much philosophy. You
see, the cannons were getting louder all the time, and the whistle blew
and we marched on again. But somehow we didn’t feel much like singing
any more!”

Near rising ground they halted. The officers hurried forward, and with
field glasses inspected the country ahead; then called the column on.
Now they were actually in the danger zone—a wide expanse of fields,
dotted with farms here and there, and across, a mile away, were woods,
dark, sinister. It was a sunny afternoon; the odor of the damp, warm
earth was clean and pungent. There were wide stretches of yellow
stubble fields, where the wheat had been lately cut. Some sheaves were
still standing, as if the war had interrupted the harvest, half done.

As they advanced cautiously the cannonading ceased. Somehow to Coco
the silence was more dreadful even than that incessant muffled
reverberation. But those woods yonder—what dangers were _they_ hiding?
Every eye was strained in that direction.

Deploying to the left of the road, Coco’s company made for a
whitewashed farmhouse half a mile away, across the fields. The other
companies fanned out to either side.

No one seemed to know just what was going to happen. Coco’s lieutenant,
a jolly, talkative young fellow who had always used to keep his platoon
roaring at his jokes, was now unwontedly serious and silent. Coco
watched him. He marched on with his field glasses held constantly to
his eyes, tripping over roots and bushes and stones and swearing as he
went.

On and on toward that dark, mysterious wood through beet fields, across
ditches, over hedges they went, till they came to a cross-road leading
into the farm. Here they halted.

Coco, nervous, apprehensive, jumped at hearing his name called out.
“_Cucurou!_ _Bracques!_ _Lemaitre!_ Go forward and reconnoiter!
Careful, now, men!”



VI


Coco wondered why they had to call on _him_; but, well, it had to be
done, his duty, and he did it. With a man on either side of him he
walked forward gingerly through a field where cows were grazing, nearer
and nearer that horrible wood. He didn’t dare look at the ground; as
he stumbled on his eyes never left that wood, so deathly still and
mysterious. _Were_ there Germans hidden in those trees? It was his
duty to find out. Bracques and Lemaitre didn’t falter; so Coco didn’t
falter. He kept right on, nearer and nearer. His one idea was the
importance of first seeing the enemy.

Then, suddenly, he heard a high, sharp whistling through the air, and
the bullet spattered the earth viciously in front of him. A report
cracked lazily out from the trees. Another whistle, another, and the
pattering grew nearer. Coco dropped flat on the ground, and crawled
cautiously up to a big rock and looked over the top, watching. Still
nothing was visible. The balls came faster now; but he crawled warily
forward, dragging himself along the ground a little further.

Lemaitre yelled, “Come on back! we’ve drawn their fire—that’s enough,”
and Coco, with his heart thumping, was glad enough to return, running
for all he was worth till he had reached his company. The men were
fretful and restless with excitement, nervous, exclamatory. With a
high, snoring drone, a German shell came driving through the air—a boom
from the woods—then a sudden, terrifying crash as of thunder let loose
as it burst in the rear. Coco turned to see a volcano of black smoke
and earth behind him. “_Lie down!_” shouted the officers, and the men
only too willingly dropped flat in the road. “At first,” said Coco,
“the men lay looking up into the air trying to see the shells—imagining
that they really could! But when the things dropped closer, they began
to dodge—as if one could escape them _that_ way!” More shells came,
and more, buzzing through the air in a screeching crescendo, bursting
with appalling smashes nearer and nearer the line. Then a whistle blew.
_Forward!_ All along the front men jumped up, ran ahead, dropped, then
rose and ran further in a long, irregular skirmish line, toward that
vicious wood. As they advanced, the cannonading burst into a double,
triple fury, and the harsh barking of machine guns began—and never once
stopped. A hundred yards from the trees the whistle blew again to
halt, and then the din grew unbearable, a crashing thunder with shells
bursting here, there, in front, behind, in continual explosion. Swept
by that murderous tornado, they had to lie down and wait. And wait. And
wait. And wait....

A scream of agony! Coco saw on his left a geyser of débris—clods of
earth, stones, dust, and smoke, and two men thrown bodily upward.
Another crash—_nearer_—he saw men’s heads and torn-off limbs flying
past him. Coco himself, when he rose on one knee to fire (for he was
emptying his rifle madly into the wood now), was thrown down again
and again by the concussion of the air. He saw sudden upheavals
appear—dirt, maimed bodies, rocks, knapsacks, rifles, thrown every
way—and a hole would be left big enough for half a dozen men to take
refuge in. Once he himself was buried up to his waist with flying
dirt, his eyes were filled with dust and he could hardly breathe—the
noxious fumes of the lyddite choked him. And always in his ears the
incessant crash, bang, crash of the devastating, bursting shells
till he couldn’t think. “_Lie down! Lie down!_” the officers shouted
continually, but the men were now frenzied with the slaughter; they
were on their knees, on their feet, shooting insanely into that secret,
hellish wood, screaming curses.

And, all the time, where was the enemy? Nobody knew. Oh, if it had
only come to a reckless charge against no matter what force, it would
at least have been a chance for revenge; they would have gone forward
like mad dogs. But instead, they had to wait—wait—wait to be killed!
Coco saw his friends wounded one by one. Coco said: “Each man when he
was hit would throw his arms up over his head—always, it was that same
gesture—and then he would fall, bleeding.”



VII


The nerve-racking, deafening din went on and on without a respite.
Bracques was hit in the head—he was a living, breathing horror, his
whole jaw gone—one hand plucking at his coat. He lay grotesquely
uncomfortable on his back, rolling this way and rolling that way on
his knapsack and his tin gamelle and the dozen other accouterments
he couldn’t get rid of. A dozen lads he had gone to school with in
Toulouse were screaming. One called for his mother again and again,
“_Maman! Maman! Maman!_” Most of the wounded lay still in their blood,
or moaned and writhed in their agony. On Coco’s left, he said, was a
body without a head. Coco, he confessed, thought more than once of
running. What was the use of staying only to be butchered? They could
do no good that way. But still the regiment held its place; yes, but
the regiment was getting strangely thin. It could not last long.

Coco looked round for François, who should have been beside him.
There he was, close by, grinning. He called out something to keep up
Coco’s courage, but in that inferno Coco couldn’t hear a word. Then,
instantly, there was a gigantic explosion; and when Coco rose again,
he looked—he grew numb. There was François on his back—with both legs
queerly bent in an impossible position. With a sickening wave of nausea
Coco saw that both the boy’s legs were shockingly crushed, all but torn
off, and his red pantaloons were soaking in blood. François’s face
was horrible now; his eyes were shining wildly. Coco, shrinking with
horror, managed to crawl toward him....

In the hospital at Toulouse, when Coco told me this, lying in his cot,
he shrank convulsively into himself with horror, just as he must have
recoiled, I fancy, that day. He wouldn’t look at me. His eyes were
fixed on the window. Coco told me then that François’s legs were torn
“quite off”—he was sure of it; but I imagine that, in his agony of
horror, Coco must have been mistaken, or François would have bled to
death very quickly. Coco says he lived for nearly three-quarters of
an hour. At any rate, his chum was done for, and suffering torments
unspeakable.

“He just looked at me and begged me to kill him,” said Coco, his eyes
still on the window. “He said”—Coco could hardly speak now—“he said
if—I was his friend—I’d finish him—so he wouldn’t suffer. There was
such a terrible noise of the shells bursting that I couldn’t quite
hear at first— I had to hold my head close to get what he said.... He
said—if he had helped me, ever—now was my chance to be his friend ...
and put him out of his misery....”

We were silent for a while. I was looking at him, getting up my courage
to ask a question. Finally I dared. I simply _had_ to ask it:

“_Did_ you do it, Coco?”

The tears poured into Coco’s eyes now. He shook his head slowly,
without a word.

“Do you regret not having—done what he wanted, Coco?”

Coco said simply, “I don’t know. _I_ would have wanted to die quickly.
Perhaps as his friend I ought to have done it. But I am a good
Catholic, you know, m’sieur; and I was taught that it is a sin to take
human life.” Quite naturally he added: “And yet I suppose I have killed
a lot of Germans.” He shook his head wearily. “I can’t understand it.
I must leave it for the church to decide. I did the best I could....”



VIII


At last he turned and looked at me with an expression that made me
feel guilty enough at having asked. “But that isn’t all, m’sieur; I
haven’t told you the worst part yet. Last week his father—François’s
father—came here to see me. He asked me if I knew anything about
François—how he died. What could I say? Of course I couldn’t tell him.
I saw him fall—that’s all I said. And I was glad, then, that I hadn’t
done it.... No, I can’t talk about it any more, m’sieur. Don’t ask me
to, please!”



IX


For two hours the Twentieth Regiment endured the storm of shell. To
advance a regiment of infantry like that without artillery support
was surely an incredible piece of criminal stupidity. Some one had
blundered. But there were many blunders in those early days of the
campaign, and the truth hasn’t all come out even yet.

One interesting fact, however, did come out; although Coco didn’t
hear of it for several days. It was a piece of sublime sentimentality
impossible in any other than a French army; quite consistent with the
character of the romantic, high-spirited colonel who had orated so
grandiloquently at the Toulouse railway station. The night before the
battle of Bertrix, the colonel had done a strange thing; he had, in
the presence of his staff, burned the regimental colors. The enemy was
in countless force against him. His Gallic sense of honor, when he was
ordered to attack an impregnable position, told him that there was only
one thing to do. He must go forward with his men, and die—but the flag
must not be captured.

And so, go forward and die he did, that gallant old man. As Coco lay,
under that August sun, in the rain of bursting shells, he heard a
bugle ring out on the left flank. Four companies rose to their feet
and charged that murderous wood. At their head the colonel ran, waving
his sword—yes, just like the battle pictures, Coco swears—ran for
a few hundred yards toward his inevitable death, and dropped—with
his honor unsullied. Behind him his men dropped, too, in appalling
numbers—dropped singly and in bunches till they faltered, stopped, then
fell back.

At this, the whistles blew at last for the general retreat.

It was high time; for, at the sight of this destruction all over the
field, men had already begun to jump up and run toward the rear. Now
they all ran—everybody ran—with the shells and shrapnel chasing them.
They threw away their knapsacks, they threw away their guns, they ran
screaming and crying like children.

Coco threw away his knapsack and musette, too, but kept his rifle as
he ran, making for a shelter in the woods on the other side of the
road. “You’ve no idea how much worse they were, those shells; when I
had turned my back I expected to be hit every moment. My spine fairly
cringed.” The remnants of the colonels four companies were pulled
together and attempted to cover the retreat. But the regiment had
stampeded. The officers shouted and swore, they struck men with their
swords, some were even shot, but nothing could stop the rout.



X


It was more than a rout, it was a panic. Into the wood the shells
followed them—there seemed to be no escape. Every moment they expected
to see the uhlans charging them down. Dodging this way, that way,
deafened, shouting over here—over there—the shells dropping to right,
to left, as if from the clouds, the men, breathless, exhausted, poured
out upon a road, to stagger back almost run over by a clattering
battery of guns galloping, too late, galloping toward the firing line.
They stopped to pant, and rest; and then ran on.

In half an hour they were out of the range of the German artillery, and
they halted exhausted, shamefaced, sick with terror and despair. The
officers, too heartbroken even to swear at them, reformed their men
with difficulty, and, herding them like frightened sheep, fell back in
something like order till they came upon a line of trenches that had
been occupied by the Germans.

The pits were filled instantly, and the men were beginning to regain
their calmness and courage, when from a near-by hill the terrifying
cannonade recommenced. The butchery recommenced—the explosions, and the
screams.

Out of the trenches came all that were left alive, and there was no
stopping the army now, till, hurrying all night long without food
and rest, demoralized, it found its way back to Mouzon. Here the
Seventeenth Corps was pulled together for a hasty review. The roll
call showed that in Coco’s regiment there were 1,443 dead, wounded, or
missing—fully one-third of its strength gone.

The men were in a fury of disappointment and rage against the generals
who had been responsible for the massacre. Where was the artillery?
Where were the stretcher bearers? Where were the ambulances and
surgeons? Not one did Coco see during the battle, after the battle—nor
even during that whole terrible retreat.

And it wasn’t at Mouzon alone that there was wondering, complaining,
raging at the failure of the campaign. On the left wing the British
expeditionary force, hot with rage at not being supported by General
Percin, was falling back from defeat at Mons to pursuit at Bavay—and
it was not yet out of danger. On the right, the Fifteenth Corps (fat
cowards of the Midi) had turned tail and run in Lorraine. Oh, there
was something rotten somewhere. Paris was wild. The Government was
shuffled, and the President dealt out a new hand—his high trump was
Millerand, new Minister of War, but his right bower was Joffre,
commander in chief, of whom all the world was soon to hear. To Coco
at Mouzon, the news came that the Fourth Army was to be commanded by
General de Langle de Carry. Little did Coco care who commanded it. Much
more important than that was that he would get one night’s good sleep
on a sack of straw.

By this time the boy had begun to realize what war meant. That night
he wrote to his aunt: “I have received my baptism of fire, but I am
unhurt. It was terrible. Don’t be frightened, and be sure and write to
my mother that you have had good news from me.” He signed the post card
for the first time “Georges.” Coco had begun to be a man.

If it has ever been your lot to go without having your clothes off for
two weeks—to march through dust and mud in them, sleep in them, fight
in them, run in them—then you’ll understand how Georges Cucurou longed
for a swim in the river Meuse—to bathe his poor, aching blistered
feet. But no—up and out again at six o’clock next morning! Off on the
road toward Belgium again. A counter-attack. All day and all night they
marched.



XI


There was no singing, this time. The Twentieth was smarting with the
shame of its defeat; it was savage for revenge; but, held in reserve
behind the battle line, it had to wait listening to the booming cannon
and the crackle of machine guns for an impatient hour—then they were
ordered back to Mouzon.

At Mouzon, news of a fresh defeat awaited them. The town was now
distraught, terror-stricken by the ever-nearing, ever-increasing
thunder of the German cannonade. When Georges arrived at midnight,
almost every house was lighted. The frenzied inhabitants were packing
up or hiding their belongings, ready to fly. The “Bosches” were coming!

At dawn, Georges, sleeping by the road-side, was awakened to see a
pathetic procession of refugees hurrying away to safety. Pathetic? It
was tragic, comic, grotesque, sublime! Everyone was dressed in his
best clothes; everyone carried bundles, carried hens, carried trunks,
carried the Lord knows what—and the memories of 1870 to boot! Wagon
after wagon passed, piled high with furniture, bags, boxes, baskets,
and provisions, with women and children atop, and cows tied on behind.
Whole families—three generations—trudged on foot, men and women and
children, children, children, children, and weeping old grandmothers
trundled along in wheelbarrows.



XII


It was a bitter sight for Georges, burning to defend his country. What
was the French army good for, anyway, if it couldn’t protect this
pretty, innocent little town, so charmingly scattered over the wooded
heights of the Meuse? But Mouzon was doomed. Already the sappers with
wires and sticks of melinite were blowing up the picturesque old stone
bridge.

All next day Georges’s regiment, hidden in the woods, watched the
shelling of the town; all next night, hungry, soaked with rain,
enraged, they saw it burn, house by house, till at last the flames
licked up the belfry of the church. That was the way they defended
Mouzon.

Another day; another night of drenching rain in those wretched sopping
woods, while the German guns boomed all about them. Georges and two
other boys succeeded in building a dirty little shelter of branches
covered with wet straw, and they crawled underneath. Water-soaked, the
clumsy thing collapsed on top of them in the middle of the night; but,
heavy with soldiers’ sleep, it took more than that to wake them. In the
morning, however, a shell bursting only a few yards away did succeed in
bringing them stumbling out from under the soggy mass—to find to their
amazement that their regiment had already departed!



XIII


The shells began to fall thicker and faster; the Germans were
indubitably near at hand. But where the devil was the regiment? There
was no knowing, except that it was pretty sure to be getting away from
those harrying shells. Chilled, the boys ran through the dripping
woods till they came to a clearing. Here, looking down, they saw the
Germans fording the Meuse! But not without trouble; a French battery
had got their range, and was playing red havoc with them, slinging
shell after shell of well-aimed shrapnel. By dozens they melted away
under the fire, and the water was full of bobbing corpses drifting
downstream.

“We just burst out laughing,” said Georges. “We couldn’t help it. Not
that it was so funny to see men killed like that by the hundreds, but,
after all _we_ had gone through—after the ghastly way we had been
butchered at Bertrix, it really did me good to see those ‘Bosches’
suffering themselves at last!”

He didn’t laugh long. With the German reckless sacrifice of life,
column after column was thrown into the river, until more and more got
across. It was time for the boys to be moving now, and they set out
toward the westward, tramped all day, eating nothing but the raw beets
they dug up in the fields, and finally found the Seventeenth Corps at
Raucourt.

They were just in time to join their regiment as it was ordered forward
seven more miles for a new engagement. There, protected by the French
batteries, they bivouacked. Glad enough was Georges of a chance to
sleep. No fear of the coming battle could keep him awake by this time.

At dawn, while the vigilant searchlights were still playing across
the opposite hillside, the French guns started firing, and, without
breakfast, Georges’s battalion was ordered forward. In half an hour the
enemy was discovered half a mile away. In the valley between opposite
hills the shells were screeching now over their heads—from the French
“75’s” the sound of the whizzing projectiles came high and dry like
buzz saws—they burst with the awful battering of near-by thunder.
The German “_marmites_” snorted through the air, and exploded with a
deeper, more terrible crash. The regiment halted, and was deployed in
four ranks—the first two lying on the ground, the third and fourth
kneeling.

The men were mostly quite cool, but Georges confessed that he himself
had hard work controlling his nerves while he waited for that attack.
In ten minutes the enemy appeared from behind rising ground and came
on—a long, gray-black line of thousands and thousands of men, a _thick_
line, swarming, multitudinous, nearer and nearer.

“Load!” coolly commanded the captains; “500 meters. Ready, now—_fire!_”
Their salvo rang out. The heavy rows of Germans seemed to hesitate for
a moment; but no, they were only stopping to fire. There came a sudden
whistling in the air all about and the bullets flew—“for a terribly
long minute,” as Georges described it—then the enemy came on again,
and kept on coming, in a broad, thick wave, company after company.
And only a battalion of four companies to resist them! Georges fired
without aiming. What was the use of aiming at that horde of men? The
boys jumped to their feet, fired again and again, and then, as their
comrades dropped about them everywhere, they began to retreat, some
picking up the wounded as they went. At first they withdrew in order,
turning back to fire another volley; but when the Germans fixed their
bayonets and came at them on the double-quick, the French broke, and
ran for it, helter-skelter, this way and that, in a second rout, even
worse than the first.

Georges ran with the rest, and the shrapnel followed him, killing
men on either hand, in front, behind. Then, over the rise, came the
uhlans, yelling, galloping in to cut them up. Looking back, Georges
saw the cavalry sabering and lancing, and he ran like a deer for his
life, ran up the hillside, ran into the woods. He ran for at least a
mile with the thunder of the cannon still in his ears. When, finally,
he stopped to take breath, it was only a fragment of his company that
he found near him—some ten or eleven men, among them a sergeant. Where
were the others? Nobody knew. The regiment, demoralized, had split
up into numberless terrified detachments, and wandered all over the
countryside. Such was the inglorious battle of Raucourt. Of the week
following Georges could give no consecutive account. He remembers
only that he and the others tramped and tramped for miles inquiring
of peasants, gendarmes, of the stragglers, everyone, everywhere, the
whereabouts of the Twentieth Regiment. They climbed over hills, they
rested in little deserted villages where every house was gutted of
furniture, doors open, rooms littered, and here and there a starved cat
or two, lean and wild. The roads were alive with refugees, French and
Belgian, all plodding mournfully toward the south, dreary processions
of wagons and cattle and weeping women, children, and stony-eyed, sulky
men. No, nobody had seen the Twentieth Regiment.

They tramped from Villers to Malmy, and, apparently (Georges isn’t
quite sure where they _did_ go), from Malmy to Maire. At Le Vivier,
or perhaps it was Mont Dieu, they found an infantry regiment, but it
was not their own. The Twentieth should be down Vouziers way, said the
officers. So they trudged on.

More and more stray men had joined Georges’s party. Few of them
had knapsacks, some didn’t even have guns. Hats of all kinds;
costumes—promiscuous but all disheveled. They were, by this time, a
villainously whiskered lot—ragged, dirty, weary, famished, sullen,
desperate—without discipline, without leaders. Occasionally, in some
ransacked village they found stale bread or vegetables that they cooked
in the woods; whatever else they ate was begged from the few frightened
peasants that still remained on their farms.

There was one village, however, that Georges did remember, and that was
Les Alleux. There he slept in an actual bed. How Les Alleux happened
to be abandoned with all its houses undisturbed—with the clocks still
going and the furniture in place, even the beds made up—Georges doesn’t
know. Some sudden alarm had evidently caused the inhabitants to fly at
a moment’s notice. What mainly interested him was that they had left
their barnyards full of poultry.

Les Alleux was almost gay. There were some hundred soldiers collected
there, now; all tatterdemalion stragglers from the rout, making the
most of their unexpected good luck. There was almost everything to
eat except bread. Georges fairly gorged himself on hot roast chicken
and cheese, made merry with the rabble of soldiery, sang, smoked, and
then slept for twelve solid hours, with his boots off on a delectable
feather bed _and sheets_. And, for once, without the din of cannon in
his ears.

This, however, was hardly the way to save his country. Georges’s
conscience and the booming of German guns awoke him to his duty next
morning. The mob scattered, fleeing south in a hurry. Georges’s party,
he found when they started, had grown smaller. “I don’t know whether or
not I ought to mention this detail,” he told me, “but at least it will
show that I wasn’t quite so bad as the rest. But I think some of the
boys found citizens clothes in the houses there at Les Alleux, and got
away in them. At any rate, they didn’t come along with us.”

His Odyssey ended at a village called Pauvres on the highroad between
Rethel and Vouziers. Here they found what was left of the Twentieth
Regiment, and Georges was welcomed like one from the dead. All received
new rifles and accoutrements, and the regiment was reorganized. Of its
three battalions there remained hardly enough to form two—a third was
made up of waifs and strays from other divisions.



XIV


The Twentieth Regiment now contained a sad and sorry lot of men,
weary, discouraged, shamefaced, and sullen at their double defeat.
But when they heard that the army was to retreat still further, and
abandon all this rich, flourishing northern country to the invaders
without a blow—why, it was incredible! What was the matter? Where were
their reënforcements? Only fifteen days ago they had been marching
enthusiastically up through the lovely forest of Argonne. Now they
were going to retreat into Champagne. But they were too busy with
preparations to spend much time sulking. The officers declared that
they would lead their men to victory yet. So the retreat commenced to
the booming accompaniment of the threatening German artillery.

Little did Georges know of cool old General Joffre and his desperate
plans. Little did he imagine that the endless falling back, falling
back, falling back through Champagne was to go down into history as a
masterpiece of Fabian strategy. All he understood of that campaign
was—day after day of retreating along the hard white roads, then into
the fields and digging trenches; night after night standing ready in
those clayey shoulder-deep holes, waiting for an attack, while the
first line of the rear guard fought constantly with the enemy. So they
did their best to hold back the flood of invaders. So they struggled
with the booming cannon ever following them. It was hard, sour work!
The men, exhausted with the digging and the marching and the watching,
with their few hours’ sleep constantly interrupted by alarms, trudged
hopelessly southward, too glum to talk. Constantly the officers
encouraged them—“Just to that hill there, men! Come on!” but it took
more than their optimism to restore the courage of the troops. Man
after man stopped, absolutely incapable of going further, and slumped
down by the side of the road only to be forced on, kicked on again by
the corps of gendarmes which followed the march. If the column halted
for a minute, half the men fell instantly asleep as they stood.

The minute the trenches were dug they had to prepare to receive the
enemy. Mighty little food these days, and no fresh meat. Even water
was scarce, as the men were forbidden to drink of springs till they
had been inspected. Georges’s regiment was, for the most part of
the retreat, held in the second line of the rear guard, and he was,
therefore, in but one actual engagement. In the general campaign it was
called, probably, only “a sharp skirmish.” But, to Georges, it was one
of those crises when life says: “Come! Move up a notch!”

“I was on sentry duty at the end of the trench where the company was
sleeping,” said Georges. “On Tuesday, the 2nd of September it was,
near Souain. I knew everyone’s life depended on me, and it was a
terrible strain. You know the enemy was always right on our heels,
night and day. M’sieu, I was just all eyes, searching everywhere
through the dark. It must have been about two in the morning, when I
thought I saw something moving on the opposite hillside. At first I
wasn’t quite sure. I had to pull my eyes away deliberately, and rest
them on something else—you know how your eyes get when you stare too
hard and too long; but then, when I looked again quickly, I was sure.
Yes, the ‘Bosches’ were coming! It was horrible. I saw them creeping
from one bush to another like snakes.

“I kicked the sergeant who was snoring at my feet and pointed.
Instantly all our men were quietly awakened. My lieutenant told me to
stay where I was and pretend not to see anything; but to choose my
man and be ready to fire. Yes, monsieur; it was a ticklish job; I felt
rather queer, I confess. I knew that I would be the very first one to
be shot at. That was about the longest fifteen minutes I ever spent.

“Well, we let them crawl up, crawl up, to within a hundred meters and
then just as they all jumped to their feet, the lieutenant shouted:
‘Fire at will!’ I was ready for the foremost man, and I let him have
it right through the forehead. Here is his helmet, monsieur; see that
hole?”

In the hospital at Toulouse, while I listened to his story, he held up
a black helmet, trimmed with brass—with a spiked top. It had never left
him since that day.

Yes, I saw that hole—the hole where he had killed his man. But, when I
saw him look at that German helmet, there was an expression on his face
that baffled me. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that Coco
wasn’t there—Coco, with the lead pencil! No, this was a new person now
on that bed in front of me. It was Georges Cucurou—and he would never
be a boy again!



XV


During that terrible retreat, Georges, had been a part of a working,
fighting machine, tried to his utmost in mind and body. He had been
hammered, hammered into shape. Hunger and fatigue had hardened him.
Every day his nerves had been getting more tough and strong. If his
duty consisted of retreating, digging, sleeping three or four hours a
day, going without meat and often Without water or wine, he could do it.

On a post card, scrawled in haste from somewhere (no postmark, no date,
no indication of any locality being permitted), he wrote to his aunt:


DEAR AUNT: _If we keep on retreating like this, we may perhaps get to
Paris. I should be very glad to see you, of course, but I hope not.
There must soon be an end of all this digging and digging, and victory
will be ours. I am afraid you wouldn’t recognize your Georges._


Indeed, she wouldn’t have recognized him, but, not only because for
weeks he had the dirt caked in his hands and hair and ears, and his
uniform hung on him in rags, but partly too because already in his face
there was beginning to show something more unlike the old Coco we had
known than all that change in his outward self could make him. He had
learned patience, perseverance, caution, confidence in his officers,
and faith in the ultimate victory. He was uplifted by that great wave
of high idealism that was transforming France.

Why that steady retreat, further and further south? Georges and
Georges’s company, now that they were tempered by experience, now
that they were raging to attack, couldn’t understand. But still they
retreated and retreated. Back to Suippes they came.

It was a queer entrance that regiment made into Suippes. On the road,
they had overtaken a troop of refugees who, utterly exhausted, could
travel no further. The peasants had a panic of alarm at sight of the
column, thinking that the Germans were already upon them. It was hard
work reassuring them; and it ended in a comedy, the soldiers taking a
hand at the migration. Old women were mounted in the handcarts they
had been trying to pull and were given a ride into town. Soldiers
unharnessed the donkeys and put the children on their backs. They
pushed at the wagons, they helped along the graybeards, they carried
babies in their arms. Georges, I think, must have begun to realize
that he had grown up when he, a veteran now, marched into Suippes,
carrying a big basket for a lad of fifteen who looked up to his soldier
protector admiringly, and called him “M’sieu.”

No Frenchman will ever forget that dreadful first week of September,
1914. Every day the Germans grew nearer Paris, every day their cowardly
aeroplanes sailed over the capital and dropped their futile threats.
What was the French army doing? We hoped they were merely luring the
enemy toward the forts of Paris where the big guns could smash them.
But could the army hold the enemy back, even with that assistance?
Paris was all nervous apprehension. Then that astounding news—the
German army, almost within striking distance, was swerving to the
southeast! What did it mean?

To Georges Cucurou, retreating before those hammering, hammering guns,
that quick change in direction was quite as mysterious. From Suippes
his regiment, without stopping to entrench now, marching day and night,
instead of keeping on toward Paris, swung sharply to the east, along
the road to Ste. Menehould. Then, as suddenly, they turned back again
into Châlons.

Heavy cannonading was coming now from almost every direction except the
south. Every man was tense with excitement—battle was in the air—surely
_something_ was going to happen, _must_ happen! But further and further
south they marched; and along the roads, now, the automobiles were
flying like mad, night and day, some with officers, some flying the
Red Cross flag. Over their heads there were French aeroplanes, every
day the sky was never quite free of them. Georges caught his first
sight of a British soldier—a khaki-clad dispatch rider on a motorcycle
flying past, and another. They passed hundreds of Paris autobusses at
the Division Headquarters, a long, long line that filled the village
street at Sompuis, and ambulances, and cycle companies, and farriers’
wagons, the portable forges glowing red in the evening darkness.
Georges recognized the Senegalese spahis in red flowing robes, he saw
the Turcos from Morocco—big children they were, grinning black faces
with shiny white teeth. A wagon flew past, with men inside feeding out
telephone wire, hooking it with long poles into the ditch, or over
bushes, out of the way, as they galloped on. Best of all, he began to
get fresh meat for dinner, from the portable kitchens that hurried from
company to company along the road. But always, never stopping, night
or day, more exciting than all the rest, never forgotten, no matter
what happened, in the north, growing ever nearer—the steady rumbling
thunder of the German guns.



XVI


The camp of Mailly was a busy place. At the aeroplane sheds the
biplanes and Blériots were constantly going and coming, circling in
the air, or making ready in long rows upon the level field. The vast
plain was filled with troops of all sorts in seemingly inextricable
confusion: chasseurs, on horseback, in pale blue tunics, the Alpine
chasseurs, with drooping blue _berets_ on their heads, and leggings;
cuirassiers with their breastplates and long horsehair plumes, and
zouaves with embroidered jackets and baggy red trousers. The Twentieth
Regiment, tattered and tired, with many heads bandaged and many with
feet through their shoes, dusty, hollow-eyed, marched past, not yet
too despairing, as fresh troops greeted them, to cry in answer “_Vive
la France!_” They were not boys now, they were soldiers tempered in
the crucible of war. And among them marched Georges Cucurou, with a
Prussian helmet tied to his knapsack with a shoestring—a Prussian
helmet with a hole through its brass front!

Already rumors were flying fast from column to column. Why this
concentration of troops? Why this wide circle swung around the camp of
Mailly? _Mon Dieu!_ could it be that they were to retreat no longer?
That, at last, they were to make a stand? A hope like a gaining fire
sprang up and swept from man to man.

It was early in the morning of Sunday, September 6, that on the
heights south of Mailly the regiment was assembled for review. To
the accompaniment of an incessant, raging bombardment from the German
cannon, the colonel read aloud this message from General Joffre,
Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces:


_Children of France, the hour of the great battle has arrived! Lift up
your hearts! If you wish your Country everlasting honor, let every man
die at his post, if necessary, rather than surrender another inch of
ground, and the victory will be ours._


It was not Gallic sentimentality now. It was the voice of a leader who
wasted no words.

There was a shout of rejoicing—“_Vive la France!_” Emotion swept the
ranks and men wept without shame. The tremendous suggestion put into
those thousands of minds had a terrible potency. Georges said that
morning he felt as if he were intoxicated; he grew suddenly like a
giant. It seemed as if nothing on earth could possibly resist them, now.

Bread and biscuits were handed out and the Twentieth Regiment was
hurried to a wood two miles away. Already they had begun to move
northward. But again it was their fate to be held in reserve, while the
brunt of the attack was given to other troops. The Twentieth was held
in the woods all day, all night, while the shells rained in from every
direction. Most fell in front or behind, but occasionally a “_marmite_”
would hit the column with devastating fury, and send its mutilated
victims flying. There was nothing for it, however, but to stay and stay
on, till the last man was killed if need were. Whatever happened, the
Germans must _not_ get by!

At dawn, they advanced to the edge of the woods; but, the instant
they emerged into the fields, shells and shrapnel poured on them in a
torrent. So they held their post. Monday passed without their stirring
from those woods. No commissary wagons came with food—nothing could
live in the open. They munched their emergency rations, dry biscuits.
Monday night, Tuesday, Tuesday night, and still they stayed. A dispatch
rider, wounded in the arm, brought orders for them to hold hard and
never flinch.

Nothing to eat now but grains of coffee. The water was gone from their
canteens, long ago; but the men stretched out their overcoats in the
rain, and drank the pools of water as fast as they collected. And,
always, night and day, the thunder of the German guns about them. The
din was so terrific that the men had fairly to shout to each other—they
were almost deaf.



XVII


On Wednesday morning another messenger got through with orders to
advance. From that corpse-strewn wood there emerged a band of men that
might have been taken for theatrical desperadoes. Uniforms in shreds,
coats gone, shoes gone, knees sticking through trousers legs, and
elbows through sleeves, all plastered with mud to a uniform gray, like
khaki; wild-eyed with hunger and reckless now, everyone’s nerves on
edge, cursing, weeping, mad, ready for anything except more inaction!

_Forward!_ The men, famished as they were, yelled at the sound of that
welcome word. Anywhere, out of that infernal wood—anywhere, through any
hell, to get at the enemy! Forward they went on the run like hounds
after hare, and the run warmed them up. The sun came out and they
raced on, steaming. “We didn’t mind the shells at all, then,” said
Coco. “Lying on the ground waiting for them at Bertrix we had nothing
to do but be afraid—but now we had no time. All we thought of was to
get at those cursed ‘Bosches’ as fast as we could.” And so through the
bursting shells, across the wide field to rising ground.

It was there, on that hillside, they got a sight of what had happened
during those deadly days along the Marne. First, rows and rows of
twisted, limp-lying Frenchmen, dead for long, thrown by the shells
into horribly fantastic groups; and sickening heads and limbs lying
scattered alone. Bodies everywhere, mostly resting face up to the sky,
eyes open, staring. In places they were stretched regularly in long
straight lines; on other fields the corpses were dotted all about
singly. “One had to jump over them every minute,” said Georges. Further
on, the French dead were mingled with Germans, piled sometimes four
high like a football scrimmage.

Then, in a sparsely wooded tract they passed the relics of a bayonet
fight—fearful! Apparently, the French African troops had chased a
battalion of retreating Germans up against a wall, and the bodies were,
well—the “Turcos” do not stab merely in the breast—they do not stab
merely to kill—they stab anywhere, they stab joyfully, like demons.

More and more German dead were passed, leaped over, even trod on where
the way was narrow, and still the thundering of cannon came from every
side. It seemed as if the whole world were fighting—as if all the old
quiet ways of life had ceased to exist, even in memory. Still they
pushed forward, marched to the west of Vitry-le-François, crossed
the Marne on a pontoon bridge at Blacy under a rain of rifle fire,
and hurried through a beet field for a crest above the long, white,
poplar-lined national road at Couvrol.

The “Bosches” were in retreat! A motorcyclist, racing from Vitry to
Châlons with dispatches, had stopped to yell out the news.

As Georges struggled desperately up through the soft loam, his view was
extended over the country about the Marne. Here, on those same wide
rolling plains, Attila and all his Huns had fought his ancestors when
France was but a nucleus of scattered Roman settlements; and here that
horde had been defeated and driven back to their wildernesses. Now, no
matter in which direction he gazed, he could see the modern barbarians
strewing destruction. Puffs of smoke were in the air everywhere, but
thickest about Vitry-le-François.

The shells from the French “75’s” burst beautifully with a cloud of jet
black and white. The fleecy snowy-white puffs, gray red in the center,
showed where the shrapnel sent its shower of leaden balls. But, oftener
than all the rest, came the droning “_marmites_” of the German big
guns, bursting with heavy thunder in a sudden reddish flash, changing
into a spume of drab smoke, edged with white.

To the westward, village after village was smoking. Machine guns were
spitting, crackling along the roads, volleys of rifle fire snapped from
every wood. Up and up went the Twentieth Regiment, till it came to the
top of the little hill.

Smack-bang in their faces, a salvo of bullets greeted the men. Another
volley, another! Georges, staggering back, taken by surprise with the
others, as men dropped all about him, caught sight on a low hillside
beyond of a deep gray mass of men extended in battle front only a
hundred meters away. There, waiting to hold back the advance, was at
least a full regiment of infantry—one of those hundreds of little rear
guards that were left absolutely unsupported, to cover the German
retreat, and to fight to the death without hope of success.

The Twentieth, rallying instantly, shouted a defiant answer to the
German “Hurrahs,” and sent its volley into the enemy. Beside Georges,
a man named Charles Griffe, one of the few of his friends left from
Toulouse, suddenly fell, clasping his hands over his head as he
crumpled down. The sudden excitement seemed to hypnotize Georges. “The
blood seemed to boil in my head,” he expressed it. He didn’t hear the
command to fix bayonets at all; the first thing he knew he was running
like a machine, yelling with the others, down into the ravine and up
the other side, and always with the horror of those points of gleaming
steel ahead, climbing zig-zag up the slope toward—what? It seemed
impossible to go against that row of sharp bayonets and live.



XVIII


So much Georges told me; more he would not tell, at first, except that
he thought the Germans stopped firing at about thirty meters distance,
and began to sing the “_Wacht am Rhein_.”

Now I have always wanted to know the details of a typical bayonet
fight—just how the issue is decided, why a Frenchman might not win
here, and a German there, and so keep the victory uncertain. That, in
fact, was one of the things I went to Toulouse to find out. But, to get
any vivid picture of that bloody encounter was impossible. Georges
simply shook his head. “It was too horrible,” he said.

At last he confessed reluctantly that when he saw the men ahead of
him bayoneting the Germans, jabbing like madmen, he too gave a jump,
and shut his eyes and stabbed at something he had seen in front of
him, advancing with a long steel point—something that suddenly stopped
singing, and squealed “like a wounded horse,” he said.

“I remember only that I pulled out my bayonet, and felt a jet of warm
blood strike my face,” Georges went on, when I forced him. “Then, I
must have almost fainted, I think; I don’t know what happened till I
found myself wiping my face, and something was holding me. It was the
bayonet of that German’s that was caught in the wing of my overcoat,
somehow—and he was lying on the ground with the blood still coming out
of his stomach. There were lots of our men on the ground, but lots
more of Germans. The rest of them were running; they were two hundred
meters away by this time, and our men were after them, sticking them
like pigs.... The sight of it made me sick.... When they came back,
I was standing there, just leaning on my gun, swaying ... and it was
raining ... I didn’t know it was raining at all till then ... but the
blood was almost entirely washed off my coat.... Isn’t that enough,
m’sieur? I cant _bear_ to think about it.”



XIX


When the Twentieth was gathered together for roll call, it was found
that there were 150 dead or wounded. Some 300 Germans were stretched
upon the ground. But the enemy must be pursued. So forward, with great
precautions, to a farm, their headquarters—but it was found to be
empty; so here they halted for a rest, the young men still panting
with the exertion and excitement of the fight. “I tried to smoke my
pipe,” said Georges, “but I had to give it up.”

With the artillery still hammering all about—but mostly the French
batteries of “75’s” now, pounding away in fours—the Twentieth stayed
till night, and sent its wounded to the rear—for the stretcher bearers
and ambulances were right up behind these days, with plenty to do. Here
the regiment received with yells and tears the news of the victory of
this five days’ battle of the Marne. It was too good to be true.

The captain of Georges’s company, with his arm in a sling, was
a Frenchman, and now it was time for more rhetoric. He had an
appreciative audience, this time. “You are men!” he announced, “you
have done your duty, and France is proud of you.” But France, it
appeared from his talk, was not yet free; and the moral of his
discourse was that there was still considerable work to do, and he
ended with the word “_Forward!_”

So, forward they went, next morning, gloriously in pursuit of the
enemy, now some ten miles away. Forward, with their bayonets stained by
German blood at last. Forward, all the forenoon, past villages wrecked
and plundered by the barbarians; past houses gutted and outraged
and burned; past trembling, fear-struck peasants offering what was
left of their bread and wine. Forward all the afternoon, along the
roads strewn with helmets, knapsacks, and empty wine bottles; past
German camps in the open, littered with armchairs and clocks and
silver plate, mattresses and broken pianos, and bottles, bottles,
bottles—with sheep and cattle cut open, rotting; past dead horses
everywhere, disemboweled, legs up. Forward at sunset, past wrecked
automobiles, burned to masses of curly iron; past caissons smashed by
shells, and bicycles without number abandoned along the road. Forward,
in the moonlight across battle fields where the dead lay in windrows
in shocking confusion, mutilated abominably, dead in the long fresh
trenches, filling every gallery and compartment, dead in the woods,
dead on green meadows where in the cool night air wisps of trailing
mist hovered near the ground and the stench was in their nostrils till
they sickened and hurried on, rinsing their mouths with water!

Forward across the swath, leagues wide, of death and hate and ruin,
forward, forward all that night!



XX


Three hours’ rest, and then _again_ forward! At noon, a farm. _Halt!_
Georges was one of the three who went forward, dodging from wall to
wall, to reconnoiter. There seemed to be some secret hidden there—the
roof was blown off, the windows smashed, devastation everywhere
about—but it might still conceal some desperate foe. As he approached
the closed door, he saw a stain on the stone step, where a little dark
stream of something had dried. He pushed open the door—butchery! More
than two hundred Germans who had taken refuge there had found appalling
death when two howitzer shells had converted them into an incredible
mass of mere bleeding flesh. No fear now need any Frenchman have of
those grim Germans—save only the fear of infection. Georges flung back
the door and fled.

Could he find worse horrors? Let him tell.

“On Friday, after we had been relieved, we were held in reserve in the
rear, and detailed to pick up the German deserters and waifs that were
hiding in the woods all over the country. They were a sorry enough
lot, frightened to death at first, when they threw up their hands at
sight of us, but glad enough to be made prisoners and not have to work,
when they found they were not going to be killed. After the wanton
destruction of innocent villages we had seen—they had even destroyed
the fire engines—it was pretty hard to refrain from knocking these
brutes down with the butts of our rifles. We heard many stories of the
atrocities they had committed in their baffled rage, but the one thing
I saw was enough for me.

“We were marching through a little wood in the Department of the
Marne—somewhere between Posesse and Givry, it was, I think. The
company ahead suddenly began to slow up and halt—they were pointing at
something, but the officers cried: ‘Go on! _Go on!_’ Of course we were
curious to know what it was they were looking at, and we halted, too.
Well, our officers couldn’t hold us—or they didn’t try to. Some of us
ran up through the trees on the right-hand side of the road to look
closer.

“Eight French soldiers, m’sieur, with ropes round their necks, hanging
to the limbs of the trees! I was right close to them. I saw them
plainly. I know. They were riddled with bullet holes. And in among
them, m’sieur, was hanging the body of a little girl. About twelve
years old, I should say. _She_ was shot, too. She was so pretty.... The
officers called us back. There was no time to cut them down, even; we
were hurrying along to keep in touch with the advance.

“Yes, m’sieur, we all saw it. Why, there is a man in this very hospital
now who saw it, too. Last week there came a commissioner down here
on purpose to get our affidavit about it, for some report of the
Government.”



XXI


Georges’s story is almost told, now; there remains only the end of his
soldiering, which was to be eventful to the last. After following the
fighting body for three days, the Twentieth Regiment was ordered into
the first line.

The Germans, having now retreated to the Aisne, and eastward to the
strategic positions long since prepared and mapped by German spies,
had made a stand. So on toward Ville-sur-Tourbes Georges marched, the
firing every moment getting hotter. They were evidently advancing
against a very strong position, so that when they swung westward to the
little village of Le Mesnil they began to be subjected to continuous
shelling and to rifle fire that grew worse and worse. But still no
enemy was in sight.

Again the Twentieth had to wait for the French artillery to arrive in
front of a black wood that poured out destruction. Lying in the brush,
Georges wondered whether it would all end as before. As before, each
man waited for his time to come; but now, seasoned, hopeful, he could
joke at death.

“There’s a _marmite_ for you!” a corporal would sing out, as a German
shell came screaming to the right; and, as the shrapnel exploded, “Look
out for the prunes!” a man would yell, “they’re coming your way!”
Georges was taking it all coolly enough, thinking, he told me, how
much those hurtling shells sounded like a subway train rolling into a
station—rather more like an express traveling past without stopping.
And so, when a sergeant near him yelled, “Look out—here comes our
portion!” he only laughed and ducked under the little shelter of brush
and earth he had been building.



XXII


But Georges laughed too soon, he ducked just too late! There was a
terrific explosion, and suddenly he felt paralyzed all over—as if by
an electric shock. No pain anywhere at first; only a fearful feeling
that something dire had happened to him. He was stunned; “sort of
upside-down, all over,” he said. Dragging himself out of the shower
of dirt, dazed and frightened, he saw that his left foot was covered
with blood. Then, a sudden leap of pain! He had a savage burst of anger
that he should have been so treated. The pain every moment grew more
excruciating....

Just how he got to the rear he didn’t know, but after crawling and
limping somehow, with his rifle as a crutch, he found himself at last
by the wall of a house outside the village, and there he lay down to
rest.

But there was to be little rest for Georges Cucurou. From that moment,
for a whole week, he lived in a sort of waking nightmare. One foot
bare, hopping along, hugging the walls of the village, savagely
bombarded by German batteries—lying under big trees, watching his
retreating regiment leaving him to almost certain capture—limping away
on the arm of a stray wounded soldier in desperate haste before the
“Bosches” came that ride in a galloping ammunition wagon, bounced and
jolted, bouncing into ditches, bumping over stones—and then, after a
hurried first-aid dressing, that fearful journey to Ville-sur-Tourbes!

That journey—more than three miles—Georges made along the hard macadam
road, crawling on his hands and knees. He had thrown away his
knapsack, he had thrown away his rifle. “But,” said Georges, “there was
one thing I’d have died before I’d have thrown away—and that was that
Prussian helmet!” The last half mile he was carried on horseback, half
fainting, behind a friendly chasseur.

That was but an incident, however—the rest of his ordeal became a
confused horror of days and days in a ruined farm, with a hundred
others suffering like him, without any food, except unsugared tea,
with their wounds undressed—at a farm where threatening German shells
dropped intermittently, keeping up the constant fear of death.
Then—after endless hours, torturing hours when he thought of nothing
but his ankle and his stomach, the flying automobiles of the Red Cross!
Georges was wafted to a semi-heaven of beds and bandages and women’s
kindly hands and faces—warm food—cleanliness; rest—at Châlons!

[Illustration]

Georges’s soldiering was over—over, that is, if you except his trip to
Toulouse. To some, perhaps, a three days’ railway trip in a crowded
compartment with a crushed ankle might be considered an ordeal. But to
Georges it was a holiday. He was going home! Home.



XXIII


At the beautiful Renaissance hospital at Toulouse on the Boulevard
de Strasbourg, I found Georges Cucurou lying in the corner of a huge
hall—a splendid hall it was of carvings and arches and coffer-vaulted
ceiling, all hung with flags.

How small his cot looked, there in the corner of that hall, amid
paintings and gildings and magnificent cornices! How strange those
nurses looked too—white-swathed matrons in flowing draperies, and
nuns with flapping wide white headdresses gliding silently along the
parqueted floor! How strange and quiet those weak, pale soldiers in
the cots, and the patient soldiers sitting about in blue uniforms, and
white, and red! But, most of all, how strange _he_ seemed!

No, it was not Coco, any more—not Coco of the free, airy gestures,
Coco of the big, innocent eyes; but some one who was content to let
his straight-forward words speak for themselves. Not the boy with
mobile, parted lips; but some one whose mouth closed firmly, now, when
he paused, reflecting seriously before he answered. And, as he spoke
of things beyond my ken, he made me, somehow, feel ashamed. Why, it
seemed, now, that, having known Death so near, he knew Life itself—he
was the wiser, the elder; and I the boy, without experience save of
the little arts and playthings of the world....

Well, it was time to go. I took out my notebook to jot down an address,
and as I did so I saw his eyes fastened upon my pencil. His face had
changed.

Without a word, he reached out his hand for it. I understood—and there
came up to me suddenly, a picture of the laughing boy who had pretended
to shoot with such a pencil—and ... even to give a bayonet thrust!

He looked at it curiously with a faint smile. “A-mer-i-cain Pencil
Compagnie” he read with his queer French accent. Then he pressed in the
end, and a little point of lead popped out. He laughed—he sighed. He
handed it back. There were tears in his eyes.

“Ah, m’sieur,” he said, “do you remember that day in Paris, last July?”
There was a silence. Then—“Why, it seems like ten years since then!”

So, in those two months, War the Creator had done its work. Coco was a
man.


[Illustration:

  COCO's ITINERARRY
  BATTLE of the MARNE
  BATTLE of the AISNE
]





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