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Title: Under the German shells
Author: Bourcier, Emmanuel
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Under the German shells" ***


[Illustration: The author at Camp Grant.

The American soldier is Divisional Interpreter Umberto-Gagliasso.]








  Published May, 1918



Life is a curious thing. In time of war Life is itself the
extraordinary and Death seems the only ordinary thing possible for men.

In time of war man is but a straw thrown into the wide ocean. If the
tossing waves do not engulf him he can do no more than float on the
surface. God alone knows his destiny.

This book, _Under the German Shells_, is another instance of war’s
uncertainties. Sent by my government to America to join the new
American army as instructor, I wrote the greater part of the book on
the steamer which brought me. The reader will, perhaps, read it when I
am dead; for another steamer is about to carry me back to France, where
I shall again be “under the German shells,” before the book will see
the light.

This is the second work which I have written during the war. The first,
_Gens du Front_, appeared in France while I was in America. I wrote it
in the trenches. The second will appear in America when I shall be in
France. The father will not be present at the birth of either of his
two children. “C’est la Guerre.”

My only wish is that the work may be of use. I trust it may, for every
word is sincere and true. That it may render the greatest service, I
wish to give you, my reader, a share in my effort: a part of the money
which you pay for the book will be turned over to the French Red Cross
Society, to care for the wounded and assist the widows whom misfortune
has overtaken while I have been writing. Thus you will lighten the
burden of those whom the scourge has stricken.

I hope that you will find in the work some instruction--you who are
resolutely preparing to defend Justice and Right and to avenge the
insults of the infamous Boche.

I have no other wishes than these for my work, and that victory may be
with our united arms.

                                                      EMMANUEL BOURCIER.

  CAMP GRANT, December 16, 1917.


  CHAPTER                           PAGE

     I. THE MOBILIZATION               1

    II. THE INVASION                  21

   III. THE MARNE                     50

    IV. WAITING                       93

     V. LA PIOCHE                    101

    VI. THE GAS                      120

   VII. RHEIMS                       134

  VIII. DISTRACTIONS                 148


     X. VERDUN                       177

    XI. THE TOUCH OF DEATH           200


  The author at Camp Grant                                _Frontispiece_

  Emmanuel Bourcier at the front in the sector of
    Rheims in 1915                                     _Facing page_ 118

Under the German Shells



Only those who were actors in the great drama of the mobilization of
July, 1914, in France, can at this time appreciate clearly all its
phases. No picture, however skilful the hand which traces it, can give
in full its tragic grandeur and its impassioned beauty.

Every man who lived through this momentous hour of history regarded
its development from a point of view peculiar to himself. According
to his situation and environment he experienced sensations which no
other could entirely share. Later there will exist as many accounts,
verbal or written, of this unique event as there were witnesses. From
all these recitals will grow up first the tradition, then the legend.
And so our children will learn a story of which we, to-day, are able
to grasp but little. This will be a narrative embodying the historic
reality, as the Iliad, blending verity and fable, brings down to us the
glowing chronicle of the Trojan War. Nevertheless, one distinct thing
will dominate the ensemble of these diverse accounts; that is, that
the war originated from a German provocation, for no one of Germany’s
adversaries thought of war before the ultimatum to Serbia burst like a
frightful thunderclap.

At this period there existed in Europe, and perhaps more in France
than elsewhere, a vague feeling that a serious crisis was approaching.
A sense of uneasiness permeated the national activities and weighed
heavily on mind and heart. As the gathering storm charges the air with
electricity and gives a feeling of oppression, so the war, before
breaking forth, alarmed men and created a sensation of fear, vague, yet

To tell the truth, it had been felt for a long time, even in the lowest
strata of the French people, that Germany was desirous of provoking
war. The Moroccan affair and the incidents in Alsace, especially that
of Saverne, made clear to men of every political complexion the danger
hanging over the heads of all. No one, however, was willing to believe
what proved to be the reality. Each, as far as possible, minimized
the menace, refused to accept its verity, and trusted that some happy
chance would, at the last moment, discover a solution.

For myself, I must admit this was the case. Although my profession was
one that called me to gather on all subjects points of information
which escaped the ordinary observer, in common with the rest I allowed
my optimism to conceal the danger, and tried always to convince myself
that my new-found happiness need fear no attack. I had “pitched my
tent.” At least, I believed I had. After having circled the globe,
known three continents and breathed under the skies of twenty lands,
my wanderlust was satiated and I tried to assure myself that my life
henceforth was fixed; that nothing should again oblige me to resume the
march or turn my face to adventure.

Alas! human calculations are of little weight before the imperious
breath of destiny.

I closed my eyes, as did all my countrymen; but to shut out the storm
was impossible. Mingled in all the currents of public events I felt the
menacing tempest and, helpless, I regarded the mounting thunder-clouds.
All showed the dark path of the future and the resistless menace of

I see again the Paris of that day: that fevered Paris, swayed by a
thousand passions, where the mob foresaw the storm, where clamors
sprang up from every quarter of the terrible whirlpool of opinions,
where clashed so many interests and individuals. Ah! that Paris of
July, 1914, that Paris, tumultuous, breathless, seeing the truth but
not acknowledging it; excited by a notorious trial[A] and alarmed by
the assassination of Sarajevo; only half reassured by the absence of
the President of the republic, then travelling in Russia; that Paris on
which fell, blow after blow, so many rumors sensational and conflicting.

In the street the tension of life was at the breaking-point. In the
home it was scarcely less. Events followed each other with astonishing
rapidity. First came the ultimatum to Serbia. On that day I went to
meet a friend at the office of the newspaper edited by Clemenceau, and
I recall the clairvoyant words of the great statesman:

“It means war within a month.”

Words truly prophetic, but to which at that moment I did not attach the
importance they merited.

War! War in our century! It was unbelievable. It seemed impossible. It
was the general opinion that again, as in so many crises, things would
be arranged. One knew that in so many strained situations diplomacy
and the government had found a solution. Could it be that this time
civilization would fail?

However, as the days rolled on the anxiety became keener. One still
clung to the hope of a final solution, but one began little by
little to fear the worst. In the Chamber of Deputies the nervousness
increased, and in the corridors the groups discussed only the ominous
portent of the hour. In the newspapers the note of reassurance
alternated with the tone of pessimism. The tempest mounted.

At night, when the dinner-hour came, I returned to my young wife. I
found her calm as yet, and smiling, but she insistently demanded the
assurance that I would accompany her to the seaside at the beginning of
the vacation. She had never before asked it with such insistence. She
knew that, in spite of my desire, it was impossible for me to be absent
so long a time, and other years she had resigned herself to leaving
with her baby some weeks before I should lay aside my work. Generally
I joined her only a fortnight before her return to Paris. This time
a presentiment tortured her far more than she would admit. She made
me repeat a score of times my promise to rejoin her at the earliest
possible moment. In spite of my vows she could not make up her mind to
go, and postponed from day to day our separation. At last I had almost
to compel her to leave; to conduct her to the train with a display of
gentle authority. She was warned by an instinct stronger than all my
assurances. I did not see her again until thirteen months later.

Abruptly the storm broke. It came with the suddenness of a thunderclap.
The happenings of this period are a part of history. It is possible,
however, to review them briefly.

It was announced that the President of the republic, abandoning his
intended visit to the King of Denmark, would return precipitately to
Paris, just as the Kaiser, terminating abruptly his cruise along the
Norwegian coast, had returned to Berlin.

I went to the station curious to witness this historic return. The
approaches were black with people, and an unusual force of police
protected the entrance. The interior was decorated as usual with
carpets and green plants, but most unusual was the throng there
gathered. One noticed, in addition to the numerous officials, many
notables little accustomed to going out of their way to see affairs
of this sort. I still see clearly the gray-clad figure of M. Edmond
Rostand, the distinguished author of _Cyrano de Bergerac_; the eager
face of M. Maurice Barrès, and many others.

The presidential train arrived precisely at the announced hour. The
engine, covered with tricolor flags, had scarcely come to a stop amid
clouds of steam, when the parlor-car opened and the President appeared.
He was immediately followed by M. Viviani, at that time president
of the Council of Ministers, who had accompanied M. Poincaré on the
Russian visit. The two advanced to M. Messimy, minister of war, shook
his hand and then those of the other officials. I looked with deepest
interest on these men on whom fate had placed a responsibility so
sudden and so heavy. They appeared calm, but it appeared to me the
countenances of both were pale as if they realized the gravity of the
moment and the weight of their trust. Whatever their feeling, only the
most commonplace words of greeting were uttered, and the group at once
proceeded to the exit.

Here something out of the ordinary occurred. Though I should live a
hundred years, the scene would remain undimmed before my eyes. In
my memory there is no similarly indelible picture, in spite of the
fact that in the course of my ten years in the army I had witnessed a
considerable number of remarkable spectacles. Even at the funeral of
President Carnot, or that of President Félix Faure, even at the visit
to France of Czar Nicholas II, even at the Congress of Versailles after
the election of President Poincaré or any of the great public events
of our national life, I had not seen anything with so dramatic a note
as the occurrence of this instant.

Leading the procession, the President came close to the barrier which
restrained the crowd of privileged persons, who had been allowed
to enter the station. Not a sound had been made, when, sudden as a
lightning-flash, the silence was rent by an intense cry from thousands
of throats. It swelled immediately, was taken up by the throng outside,
echoing and reverberating, till it became a tonal torrent, capable,
like the clamors of the Romans, of killing the birds. And this cry was:

“Vive la France!”

It was so strong, so powerful, and, in these circumstances, so
poignant, that there was a wavering, a hesitation on the part of all.
Even the horses attached to the carriages, and those of the cavalry
guard, seemed to thrill at its fervor.

While the carriages filled and the escort, with sabres flashing, took
its place, the same acclamation, the same cry, deep and powerful,
continued to roar, in its fury demonstrating better than any deed the
national will, and expressing it in a manner so intense and precise,
that any Boches in the crowd (and there certainly were many) must
at this moment have felt the abyss opening beneath their feet; that
the horrible adventure into which their Emperor was hurling them was
destined to hasten their fall rather than assure their triumph.

Through this crashing human concert the escort moved forward. The
crowd, however, was so dense that the carriages were not able to open
a passage, and it was as in a living wave, with men and horses in a
confused mass, that they reached Rue La Fayette, where at last they
were able to disengage the presidential cortège from the still shouting

In the crowd left behind, a remarkable patriotic demonstration
spontaneously developed under the leadership of two noted deputies, M.
Galli and Admiral Bienaimé, chanting the “Marseillaise” and acclaiming

Now let the war come! Unity dated from this instant.

From this hour the war imposed itself on every one. Each Frenchman
resolutely prepared himself. The Miracle, that wondrous French miracle
which was to stupefy the world and arrest the enemy at the Marne, this
sublime display of strength on the part of a France seized by the
throat, was born, under German provocation, at the Gare du Nord, in
this furious shout, in this cry of passionate love:

“Vive la France!”

From that evening each family felt itself warned, each man felt his
heart grow stronger, and each woman lived in shuddering anticipation.

Throughout the land there gushed forth a will to battle, an admirable
spirit of resolution and sacrifice, on which the enemy had not counted,
that he had not foreseen, and which all his power could not conquer.
France, insulted, provoked, assailed, stood erect to her foes.

This period was brief. People followed in the papers the energetic move
for peace undertaken by France and England, but the day of wavering
was past. War, with all its consequences, was accepted. The national
sentiment was unanimous, and the mobilization found the public ready in
spite of the shocks inseparable from such an event.

The most serious of these which I recall, was the assassination of
Jaurès, the great Socialist leader, in Rue Montmartre. Although several
of the newspapers, and particularly the Italian press, printed that I
was in the party of the great tribune when he was killed, the statement
was inexact. I learned of the assassination shortly after it occurred,
and with several of my associates hurried to the scene. The moment was
tragic and the tense state of public feeling caused an immense throng
to swarm the boulevard. I was able, nevertheless, to reach the office
of l’Humanité and, with others, to write my name in homage to the
fallen one.

Already history was on the march. The national defense was in
organization, and each individual had too many personal preoccupations
to give even to the most legitimate occupation more than a few brief
minutes of attention. For myself it was necessary to think at once of
the rôle of soldier, which I was reassuming.

I hurried to my home. In the empty apartment I assembled my military
equipment with the skill of an old stager; the compact baggage
indispensable to the trooper, which should serve all his needs while
taking up the smallest space, and add as little as possible to the
weight of his burden. The experience I had had in the trade of
soldiering, the expeditions in which I had taken part (the campaign
in China, where, for the first time, I had as companions in arms the
splendid soldiers of free America; my journeys into Indo-China and the
Sahara), enabled me to know, better than most others, the essentials
of the soldier’s personal provision; what must be chosen and what
rejected, and the precise size limits by which a useful article should
be judged indispensable or abandoned because too cumbersome.

I provided for myself accordingly without waiting for the official
call. In consequence I was able to devote my last free hours to some of
my less experienced neighbors. Among these, two poor fellows interested
me particularly. They were brothers, one of them recently married,
who, by uniting their savings, had just opened a shop not far from
my home. They had watched with dismay the coming of the tempest, and
questioned me incessantly, hoping to find in my answers some words of
reassurance. I was able to give only such answers as increased their
fears, and to add advice which they would not heed.

“Imitate me,” I said to them; “the war is inevitable. Buy some heavy
shoes and thick socks. Provide yourselves with needles and thread.
One always needs them, and too often one hasn’t them when the need is
greatest,” etc.

They wouldn’t listen. They continued to worry and do nothing, refusing
to the end to accept the terrible reality, closing their eyes to the
spectre as if they had a premonition that they were destined to be
crushed in the torment and both killed; which, as I have since learned,
was their fate within the first month of the war.

In the meantime I had to write consoling letters to my wife, abandoned
at the seaside, amid a populace shocked and bewildered by the
thunderbolt, and lacking definite news to satisfy the anxious need
which saddened each individual.

But I was a soldier. I had to rejoin my command, and I had only enough
time to pay a farewell visit to the home of my parents, where my
brothers, ready like myself, awaited me with their wives and children.

Such an unforgettable repast. The paternal table surrounded by the
group of sons and grandchildren, each still forcing himself to smile to
hearten the others, each in the bottom of his heart wondering anxiously
what the morrow would unfold. Several of those who on this final
evening partook of the food prepared by their mother, or touched their
glasses and drank “A la France,” “A la Victoire,” will never return.
They have fallen on the field of honor, battling the odious invader,
breasting his blows and giving their lives that their sons may remain
French and free. No one knew who would fall, who would be alive a year,
even a month later, but one would have looked in vain for a quiver
in any eye or a tremor in any voice. All were French. All accepted
their duty, however it might present itself; each in his rank, in his
assigned place; to do simply, without discussion, without hesitation,
whatever the threatened country might demand of its children.

We had the courage to laugh, at this last dinner. We heard our father
recall the memories of the other war, that of 1870, in which he had
served as a volunteer, and then we separated with words of au revoir
and not good-by on our lips.

We were keenly conscious that everywhere in France, in all the homes
and in all the families, an identical scene was presented at that
instant. At each table the mother offered the departing ones a farewell
repast; the wives repeated their vows of affection, and the children
gave their tender love. Every one swore to make the Prussian pay
dearly for his provocation, to chastise his insolence, to arrest him,
cost what it might, and to defeat him. One entered the drama without
effort and almost without hatred, because it was unavoidable, because
France called and it was necessary to defend her. One was sure of the
right, that the cause was just, and without discussion one obeyed.
French blood--the blood which has flowed in so many wars, the blood of
Bouvines, of Valmy, and of Jena, the blood of the Revolution and of
1870--surged in the veins, quickened the pulse and grimly expressed

“They shall not pass!”

The night of the second of August seemed short. For myself, my
preparations completed, I retired early, well aware of the fatigues to
come; a little shaken, it must be admitted, at the thought of leaving,
for a time which might be long, an abiding-place where I had tasted so
much of pure happiness and calm joy with my young wife and our pretty

Adventure, the great adventure of war, of journeys, of battles, and of
blood: Adventure left behind so short a time before, as I had believed,
forever, had seized me again and thrown me as an insignificant atom
into the path of the unknown, breaking all the bonds whose forming had
given me so much joy, and whose stability had seemed so humanly sure.

When the hour arrived for my departure, I contemplated my deserted
apartment, and gave a last kiss to the pictures of my absent loved
ones. Then, in marching attire, my light sack on my shoulder, I
descended to the street with firm step and heart beating high, to begin
my journey to the front.

The animation of the streets was extraordinary. All Paris seemed to
have turned out to form an escort for the soldiers. These latter were
easily recognized by the stern resolution of their faces, quite as
much as by the accoutrement they bore. Most of them were accompanied
by parents or friends; those who were alone were constantly saluted by
the crowds as they passed. Many people offered their carriages to the
soldiers, and others had placarded their motors with announcements that
they would carry mobilized men to the stations without charge. Around
these machines there was an ever-increasing crowd.

I entered this human wave. Immediately one dropped the manner of
civilian life and became a soldier. By an old French habit, obligatory
in the barracks, all the men replaced their formal speech by the
intimate forms--_le tutoyer_--reserved ordinarily for one’s family and
intimate friends.

Costumes of all sorts were there; the long coat of the workman,
business suits, peasant blouses, bourgeois jackets with a touch of
color given by the occasional red or blue uniform. Hair-cuts were in
equal variety, from the tousled head of the peasant lad and the waving
curls of the student to the closely cropped state of those who had
anticipated the military order. At the station all was well ordered.
The trains, requisitioned before our coming, and with directions
clearly indicated by placards, were quickly filled. Throughout the
cars the men were singing and shouting, giving assurance of triumph,
of prompt return, and of chastisement for the Boche. The coaches were
covered with inscriptions naïve and gay.

“Excursion-train for Berlin.”

“Round trip to Germany.”

“Good fellows’ compartment-car.”

And a hundred others, many accompanied by satirical drawings, showing
occasionally real talent on the part of the caricaturist. At the hour
fixed all moved forward. All these men departed, singing; starting
on their journey toward battle, toward glory, and toward death,
while along the way, in the gardens or at the doors of the houses,
the women, the children, and the old men waved their hands and their
handkerchiefs, threw kisses and flowers, endlessly applauding, in a
warm sentiment of love and of recognition, those who went forth to
defend them.

No one, perhaps, of all those who departed, of all those who saluted,
believed that the war would be long, that it would involve the world
and become what it now is, the battle for human freedom, the battle to
death, or to the triumph of democracy over autocracy.



A short time before the advent of the world catastrophe, Mr. Nicholas
Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, was in France. I had
the pleasure of meeting him in Paris. He gave me the first copy, in
French and English, of the report of the American commission of inquiry
concerning the Balkan atrocities. This report was made for the Carnegie
Foundation, and he asked me to spread the knowledge of it, as far as
possible, in my own country. I believed then that I was doing well in
drawing from this interesting work a comparative study, which chance,
rather than choice, caused to appear in the _Grande Revue_, in its
number of July, 1914, only a few days before the outbreak of the great
war itself.

I could not think, in writing this study, that it would precede by so
very short a time events much worse, and that the Balkan atrocities,
which were already arousing the conscience of the civilized world, were
about to be surpassed in number and horror at the hand of one of the
nations claiming the direction of modern progress: Germany! No, I could
not dream it, nor that I would be so soon a witness of it.

Let us return to my strict rôle of soldier, from which I have
digressed. The digression was necessary, however, for it will make
more comprehensible the amazing situation which the war created for
me. At the time the mobilization took place I was accustomed to the
wide liberty of action, of thought, and of speech which is usually
enjoyed by the writers and artists of France. In public places as well
as in certain drawing-rooms, I met the most illustrious personages,
both French and foreign, whose presence gives to Paris much of its
unique charm. My own signature was sufficiently well known to attract
attention, and life opened before me full of attraction. Suddenly, from
the fact that a demoniacal fanatic had killed the Archduke Ferdinand
and his wife in the little, unknown town of Sarajevo, the conflagration
flamed forth. I abandoned everything which, up to this time, had
constituted the essential part of my life; everything which had seemed
worthy my attention and care, to become, on the morrow, an unknown, a
soldier of the ranks, a number almost without a name, without volition
of my own, without individual direction.

This was, it still is, a great renunciation. To really grasp its
meaning, one must experience it himself. However, by reason of the
importance assumed gradually by the World War, by reason of the
enormous number of men called to the colors of every country of the
globe, the feeling which I experienced at that time has become part of
the common lot, and before the end of the tragedy, the majority of our
contemporaries will have experienced it to a greater or less degree.

My order to report for duty directed me to go to Caen. It is a lovely
town in Normandy, rich in superb monuments, of which one, “Abbaye aux
Hommes,” is an almost unequalled marvel of twelfth-century architecture.

I arrived in the evening, after a fatiguing journey in a train packed
with mobilized men, who had already dissipated all social differences
by the familiarity of their conversation. Immediately on our arrival
we entered the barracks. As there was not nearly enough room for the
throng of recruits, my company received the order to join another in
a temporary camp, whither we hastened at full speed with the hope
of being able to sleep. This new lodging, unfortunately, contained
no conveniences whatever: it was a riding-school, where the young
people of the town learned horsemanship, and which offered us for
bedding nothing but the sawdust mixed with manure which had formed the
riding-track. It must be confessed that one would need to have a large
measure of indifference to be entirely content with this lodging. The
unfortunate civilian clothing, which we were still wearing, suffered
much from the experience.

Dawn found us all up and moving about, each one hunting, among
the groups, those who, through mutual sympathy, would become more
particularly “comrades,” or, to use a word more expressive, more
characteristically French, “companions,” those with whom one breaks

The crowd was composed of the most diverse types, but the greater
number were from Normandy. Most of these Normans were farmers, many of
them well-to-do; a few were dairymen and others horse-dealers. The rest
of the company was Parisian. It is the custom in recruiting the French
army to mix with all the contingents a certain percentage of Parisians,
thus scattering over all of France, and particularly along the eastern
frontier, the influence of the country’s capital. In the French army
the Parisian has the reputation of being an excellent soldier; very
alert, of great endurance, light-hearted, and agreeable, with a keen
sense of humor which sweeps away gloom and dispels melancholy. He is
also a bit hot-headed and does not yield readily to discipline. The
leaders know the admirable results they can obtain by appealing to the
vanity or the sentiment of the Parisian, and that he is capable of
almost any effort is freely admitted. They fear, however, his caustic
humor, his facile raillery and his eternal joking, which sometimes
endanger their prestige. At least, these ideas existed before the war.
Under the fiery tests of these three years, all differences of thought
have melted as in a terrible crucible; and there has been brought
about a national unity so intimate and so absolute, that one would not
know how to make it more perfect.

Among my new comrades the differences due to birthplace were quickly
noted. By the costume, the accent, or the general manner it was easy
to identify the native of the Calvados, of Havre, or of Paris. Already
these affinities played their unfailing rôle, and in the general
bustle the groups formed according to their origin. In the meantime
every face showed that species of childish joy which always marks the
French when they abandon their individualities and become merged in a
crowd, as in the army. Their naturally carefree spirit comes to the
surface and colors all their thought and action. They cease to feel
themselves responsible for the ordering of their lives, and leave all
to the authority which controls them. This enables them to throw aside
all thought of their immediate needs, and permits them, at whatever
age, to recover a youthfulness of spirit which is a perpetual surprise
to strangers, and which constitutes one of their chief racial charms.
Released from all care, they jest freely on all subjects, and their
spirit of quick repartee, their gifts of observation and of irony
develop amazingly--perhaps to excess. They are just children, big
children, full of life and gayety, who laugh at a joke and delight in
a song; big children who will suffer every fatigue and every pain so
long as they can retain their _esprit_, and whom one may lead into any
danger if one knows how to provoke their good humor.

War did not in the least change all this. While perhaps most of the
troop had done little more than go through the motions of slumber, and
every one had missed something of his customary comfort, no one seemed
tired when next morning’s reveille came. Each improvised an occupation.
One built a fire between two stones that he might heat water for the
soup, another prepared vegetables, a third helped the quartermasters
in their accounts, and still another volunteered to help arrange the
uniforms which were heaped up in a barn commandeered to serve as a
store-house. In a short time the issuing of uniforms commenced. In
his turn each soldier received his clothing, his equipment and all
the regulation baggage. And such scenes, half comic, half serious,
as were enacted when the men tried on and adjusted their hurriedly
assembled attire! Gradually, however, the long and short, the lean and
rotund, by a series of exchanges, achieved a reasonable success in
the transformation, and the variety of civilian aspect gave way to a
soldierly uniformity.

At this period, in spite of all the efforts to secure a modification
of the garb of the French soldier, the uniform still consisted of
the celebrated red trousers and the dark-blue coat. This too gaudy
attire was a grave error, soon to be corrected by stern experience.
The red trousers dated from about 1830, and had acquired prestige in
the conquest of Algeria and the wars in Mexico and Italy. To it also
attached all the patriotic sentimentality aroused by the struggle
of 1870. So strongly intrenched was it in popular fancy that it had
triumphed over its most determined foes, and this in spite of the
lessons regarding the visibility of the soldier, furnished by modern
combats such as the Boer War and that between Russia and Japan. In
consequence, the whole French army, excepting certain special troops
such as the Chasseurs, the Marines, and a few others, started for the
front in this picturesque but dangerous costume. On its side, it cannot
be doubted, it had a certain martial pride, a pride so notable that it
was remarked by the Romans at the time of the conquest of Gaul. This
sentiment of sublime valor makes the French prefer the hand-to-hand
combat, in which they excel and where each shows the exact measure of
his bravery, rather than the obscure, intrenched warfare for whose
pattern the Boche has turned to the creeping beasts.

Therefore we were clothed in this glittering fashion. However, as if
the visibility of our uniform had already disquieted our leaders, they
concealed our red head-gear by a blue muff which completely covered
the cap. It was in this attire that the company formed, that the ranks
aligned and the two hundred and fifty civilians of yesterday became
the two hundred and fifty soldiers of to-day; two hundred and fifty
soldiers of right and justice. In like manner millions of others,
scattered through all the depots and barracks where invaded France was
arming herself, girded their loins and burnished their arms for the
sacred work of defending their homes.

Although few details are visible to the individual lost in the crowd, I
feel sure that none of us even tried to see beyond the affairs of the
moment. Certain things we could not help knowing: The war had already
reddened our frontiers. Invaded Belgium battled desperately. Liége
resisted. King Albert, his court, and the Belgian Government prepared
Antwerp for a prolonged defense. Our comrades of the covering troops
on one flank had invaded Alsace, and on the other had advanced to
Charleroi. In the meantime, we, the soldiers of future combats, busied
ourselves with preparations for our rôle with hardly a thought for
the struggles already under way, or those of the future; this future
so terrible which awaited us. We were more occupied in choosing our
comrades than in considering the far-reaching possibilities of such
incidents as the escape of the German cruisers _Goeben_ and _Breslau_,
and their subsequent internment at Constantinople. No, all that we
learned from the newspaper dispatches interested us far less than the
organization of our squads and platoons.

I had the luck to find some good comrades, one the son of a celebrated
novelist, the other an artist of some repute, and we three amused
ourselves in observing our new surroundings and trying to foretell
our next military moves. Our officers engaged our careful attention,
as is natural in such circumstances. Our captain, as the chief of our
company, a brave man, slightly bewildered by the astonishing rôle which
had suddenly fallen to him, was the object of our special interest. We
had the keenest desire for a chief who knew his trade so thoroughly
that he would be able to lead us without trouble in whatever crisis.
The soldier is ever thus. Without saying a word he examines his
officer, measures his qualifications, and then reserves his confidence
until the moment when it is made certain that this confidence is
well placed and he need no longer fear the necessity of revising his
judgment. This judgment which the soldier passes on his chief is
definite, almost without appeal, so rare is it that circumstances will
later cause a modification.

These early days, it is true, did not give our captain any opportunity
to demonstrate his valor. Burdened with an important physical task,
that of transforming into soldiers more than two hundred men who had
left the barracks years before; of clothing each according to his
measure; of answering all the questions of the higher officers, and
of watching at the same time a hundred little details--he was so busy
that we had relatively little opportunity to study him. We were already
armed, equipped and placed in the ranks before we had caught more than
a glimpse of him; and then suddenly came the order to move the regiment
to C----, one of the most important seaports of France.

To entrain a regiment of three thousand men with its baggage, its
horses, its wagons, its stores, and its service, has become mere play
for our strategists of to-day. To call it a heavy task would make one
smile, for it now appears so simple. At the period of which I speak,
the month of August, 1914, when our defense was hardly organized and
when the enemy rushed on, driving before him the terrified populace, it
was not, by long odds, the simple problem of to-day. The railroads were
congested, there was a shortage of cars, and orders were not always
certain of prompt execution.

Nevertheless, in spite of these circumstances, the regiment entrained,
departed, reached its destination without losing a minute or a man.
We reached our assigned place at the scheduled time, just as if this
tour de force had been planned for a long time or had been made easy by

We arrived thus in our garrison without knowing each other, but none
the less completely equipped and accoutred, although less than four
days had elapsed since the mobilization call had been sent to these
three thousand men, most of whom had forgotten all but the rudiments
of their military training. This miracle of execution was reproduced
throughout our territory, and after three years of war there has not
arisen a single voice to claim that the French mobilization failed
in any detail, or that in either plan or execution it fell short of

This was in reality a remarkable achievement. It must be here noted
that France was prepared for the war neither in spirit nor in
material. Most of our citizens were pacifists, who refused even to
acknowledge the possibility of a war. Yet, when confronted by the
inevitable, each brought to the task an abundant good-will and an
enthusiastic patriotism which gave speed and efficiency to each act
of the mobilization. This was in truth the first step, the beginning
of the “Miracle of the Marne.” It was indeed a miracle, this splendid
co-ordination of good-will and eager effort into an organization,
enormous but almost improvised, which worked without clash or creaking,
with an almost mathematical ease that could not have been assured to a
method prepared and perfected by the most careful study.

After all, we were not destined to remain long in our new post. In
fact, we were hardly installed when an order came which placed us
once more on the train, and sent us at last to the frontier. We were

Imagine, for the moment, these three thousand men recently armed,
barely organized into squads and led by officers as yet unknown,
starting on their way to meet the enemy. It was for them a veritable
_début_. They were still unaware of the tricks and brutality of the
German. Very few of us had heard more than the vaguest discussion
of the theories of Bernhardi and the Teuton “Kriegspiel.” We knew
little of what was happening in Belgium, of the desperate efforts of
the heroic defenders of Liége, or of the atrocities committed by the
invaders. There was no time to study and explain the horrors of this
war which threatened to submerge us; no time to instruct the soldiers;
no time even to wait for munitions. Speed was necessary. We must hasten
to offer our bodies, in the effort to check the black wave which
advanced so ominously.

It was not a war which came. It was an inundation. The numberless
German host, rolling on like a wave of mud, had already covered
Belgium, submerged Luxembourg and filled the valleys of Lorraine. No
one knew if there would be time to check it. The army of the front
was fighting, no one knew just where. The English army was not yet
ready, the Belgian army, that heroic handful was giving way, and the
French mobilization was hardly finished. And here we were, rolling on
at full speed along the lines of the Eastern Railway, to reach as soon
as possible the frontier of the Aisne, with two hundred rounds of
ammunition in our pouches and two days’ rations in our sacks.

We went where we were sent, passing trains of terror-stricken refugees;
speeding without stop along the sentinel-guarded way; passing Paris,
then Laon, and finally arriving in the middle of the night in a
darkened city; a terror-torn city, whose people gathered at the station
to receive us as liberators, acclaiming our uniform as if it were the
presage of victory, as if it betokened a sure defense, capable of
rolling back the threatening enemy and giving deliverance from danger.

Poor people: I see them still in the touching warmth of their welcome.
I see them still, as they crowded about to offer us refreshing drinks
or bread and eggs, and following us clear to the fort which we were to
defend, and which they believed would protect the city from all attacks.

Here we were at last, at our point of rendezvous with that grim
monster: War. The men of the regiment began to look about, and
especially I and my two friends, to whom I was already bound in one of
those quick soldierly friendships. We were ready to suffer together,
to share our miseries, and to give an example to others. Because of
our social position and education and our superior training, we felt
capable of indicating and leading in the path of obedience. However,
neither of my friends was able to follow the campaign to the end. A
weakness of constitution ended the military career of one, while the
other suffered from an old injury to his legs. At this early moment
neither wished to think of his own sufferings. They dreamed only of
France and the need she had for all they possessed of strength and
courage. In spite of their good-will and stoutness of heart, neither
of them was able to endure the strain of military life for any
considerable period. A soldier should be a man of robust physique and
unfailing morale. He should be able to withstand heat and cold, hunger
and thirst, nights without sleep and the dull agony of weariness. He
should have a heart of stone in a body of steel. The will alone is
not enough to sustain the body when worn by fatigue, when tortured by
hunger, when one must march instead of sleep, or fight instead of eat.

All these things I knew well. I had served in war-time. I had marched
on an empty stomach when drenched by rain or burned by the sun. I had
drunk polluted water and eaten the bodies of animals. I had fought. I
knew the surprises and hazards of war; hours on guard when the eyes
would not stay open; hours at attention when the body groaned. I knew
the bark of the cannon, the whistle of bullets, and the cries of the
dying. I knew of long marches in sticky mud, and of atrocious work in
the midst of pollution. I was a veteran of veterans, earning my stripes
by many years of service, and therefore ready for any eventualities. My
gallant comrades knew little of all this. Instinctively they looked to
me for instruction, and placed on me a reliance warranted by my genuine
desire to help them, as well as my long military experience.

Up to this time, however, the war had not shown us its hideous face.
Our immediate task consisted of placing in a state of defense an old,
dismantled fort here on the edge of French territory, and our orders
were to hold it as long as possible, even to death. We were only a
handful of men assigned to this heavy task, of which, it is true, we
did not realize the importance.

Under the orders of our commander we hurriedly cut down the trees which
had overgrown the glacis, made entanglements of branches, and helped
the artillerymen to furnish and protect their casemates. Oh, the folly
of this moment, superhuman and heroic! We had only a dozen cannon of
antiquated model to defend a defile of the first importance, and there
was neither reserve nor second line to support our effort.

Before us developed the Belgian campaign. The battle of Charleroi was
under way. In the evening, after supper, when we went down to visit the
town and find recreation, if possible, we heard the inhabitants discuss
the news in the papers as tranquilly as if these events, happening only
ten leagues from their door, were taking place in the antipodes, and as
if nothing could possibly endanger them and their interests.

Trains bearing the wounded passed constantly through the station.
Those whose condition was so serious that they could not stand a
longer journey were removed from the trains and taken to the hastily
improvised hospitals. This we saw daily, and so did the people of the
town. We saw Zouaves, horsemen, and footsoldiers return, blood-covered,
from the battle; frightfully wounded men on stretchers, who still had
the spirit to smile at the onlookers, or even to raise themselves to

Still, this town, so close to the battle, so warned of its horrors,
remained tranquil and believed itself safe. Every day endless motor
convoys passed through on the way to the front, bearing munitions and
food without disturbing this calm life. Shops were open as usual,
the cafés were filled, the municipal and governmental services were
undisturbed in their operation, and the young women still pursued the
cheerful routine of their life, without dreaming of the coming of the
Uhlans and the infamy the German brutes would inflict.

Thus passed the days. We soldiers organized our habitation, placed the
rifle-pits in condition, repaired the drawbridges and redressed the

Ah! how little we knew of fortification, at this period, so recent and
already so distant! How little we had foreseen the manner of war to
which the Germans were introducing us. We knew so little of it that we
did not even have a suspicion. We expected to fight, certainly, but we
had in mind a style of combat, desperate perhaps, but straightforward,
in which cannon replied to cannon, rifle to rifle, and where we
bravely opposed our bodies to those of the enemy. We were confident.
We reassured any timorous ones among the townspeople, saying: “Fear
nothing. We are here.”

We were stupefied, civilian and soldier alike, when the French army
suddenly gave way and rolled back upon us.

In the ordinary acceptation of the term this was a retreat. The
regiments, conquered by numbers, by novel tactics, and by new engines
of war, drew back from the plains of Charleroi. I saw them pass,
still in good order, just below the fort, our fort where the work of
preparation continued. Each soldier was in his rank, each carriage in
its place. It was at once magnificent and surprising. We questioned
these men with the utmost respect, for we envied them. They came from
battle, they knew what fighting was like, and we could see a new
flash in their eyes. They were tired but happy. They were covered with
dust and harassed by fatigue, but proud of having survived that they
might once more defend their native land. Most of them could tell
us but little, for they had only the most confused notion of what
had happened. They were witnesses, but they had not seen clearly. A
formidable artillery fire had mown down their comrades without their
seeing an enemy or even knowing definitely where the Germans were.
They had advanced and taken the formation of combat, when, suddenly,
the storm broke upon them and forced them to retreat. They were so
astonished at what had befallen them, that one could see in their
faces, almost in the wrinkles of their garments, the mark of the

They marched in extended formation and in excellent order, remaining
soldiers in spite of the hard blows they had borne. They kept their
distances, their rifles on their shoulders, their platoons at the
prescribed intervals, the battalions following each other as in
manœuvre and bringing their pieces of artillery.

It was an uninterrupted procession, an even wave, which rolled along
the road without cessation. Some stragglers entered the town and they
were anxiously questioned. They could tell only of their exhaustion
and of small details of the fight, describing the corner of a field,
the margin of a wood, the bank of a river: the precise spot where the
individual had entered the zone of fire and had seen his neighbors
fall. This one had marched up a hill, but couldn’t see anything when
he got there; another said his company had tramped along singing, when
suddenly the machine-guns broke loose and his friends fell all about
him; a third told of joining the sharpshooters, of throwing himself on
the ground and, “My! how it did rain.” One tall chap recalled that in
the evening his company had withdrawn to a farmhouse where they paused
for a bite to eat, after which they made a détour. Such were the scraps
of information they gave, minute details which told nothing.

All these stories were a jumble. None of these combatants had truly
seen the war. Each knew only what had happened to himself, and even
that he could not explain. These men seemed to have just awakened from
a nightmare, and their disjointed words told us nothing. We, who
listened with such tense interest, were tortured with the desire to
know if the tide of battle was bringing nearer the chance to prove our

We were eager for the fray. All our forces, physical, mental, and
spiritual, hungered for the combat. Our tasks of the hour were
insipid. This incessant felling of trees, this clearing away of brush,
this myriad of fussy efforts put forth for the refurbishing of our
antiquated fortress, held us in leash until the place seemed like a
suffocating tomb, whose cave-like quarters we would never leave.

In the town the people grew restless as the French armies fell back.
They knew no more than we of the outcome of the battle of Charleroi,
but as they saw the endless procession of convoys, of soldiers and of
fugitive civilians, they began to fear the worst.

The German drive increased in power. Now, Belgian soldiers began to be
mixed in the swift stream of the fleeing. Hussars, guides, infantry,
and linesmen, clad in picturesque uniforms, copied from the first
French empire, poured by in disorder. Some were mounted on carts;
others afoot, were leading their foundered horses; and these haggard,
mud-covered men brought an air of defeat. Their faces, sunken from
hunger and distorted from lack of sleep, told a story that sowed terror
and kindled a panic.

The invasion presented itself at the gates of the town with an
unforgettable cortège. Fear-stricken men deserted their fields, taking
with them such of their possessions as could most quickly be gathered
together. All means of transport were employed. Vehicles of all types
and ages were piled high with shapeless bundles of bedding and of
clothing of women and children. Some of the unfortunates were pushing
perambulators, on which they had heaped such cooking-utensils as they
had hurriedly gathered up. Trembling old men guided the steps of their
almost helpless wives. Many had left their tranquil homes in such haste
that they had not taken time even to fully clothe themselves. With
weeping eyes, quivering lips, and bleeding feet they stumbled on. One
heard only words of terror:

“They kill every one.”

“They have killed my mother.”

“They have murdered my husband.”

“They are burning the houses and shooting the people as they try to

Can you imagine such a sight? And this never for an instant ceased.
Three roads joined each other at the edge of the town, and each brought
from a different direction its tales of horror. Along one came the
families driven from the colliery shafts, another brought the fishermen
from the Scheldt, and the third the bourgeoisie from Mons and Brussels.
All marched pell-mell along with the troops, slept at the roadside,
and ate when some interruption on the congested route offered the
opportunity. All fled straight on, not knowing whither.

I found reproduced in this lamentable exodus certain spectacles which I
had witnessed years before, but under vastly different circumstances.
Yes! I had seen things just like this, but on a far-away continent
where the fugitives were not men of my own race. I had seen cities
taken by assault and whole populations fleeing in terror. I had seen
houses in flames and corpses rotting in the fields. I had seen all
the drama and horror of an invasion and had looked on with infinite
pity. However, nothing in all that had touched me as did the present.
Those flights had not taken place in my own country. They were not my
compatriots who had been harried like so many animals, and driven from
their homes like frightened beasts, to be tracked in the forests or
hunted across the plains. They were, nevertheless, poor, unfortunate
humans. Even in their panic and distress they were still a little
grotesque, owing to their strange manners and costumes. Their natural
abjection had in it nothing of similarity to the fierce grief of these
Europeans, surprised in a time of peace and in no way prepared to
endure submission.

Once when I saw an exhausted old man fall at the roadside, near our
fort, and heard him beg his companions to abandon him that they might
make better speed, I recalled a scene indelibly graved on my memory. It
was in China. We were moving toward Pekin in August, 1900. We pushed
back before us the Boxer insurgents, whom we, with the Japanese and the
Russians, had routed at Pei-Tsang. One evening when hunger tortured
us, some companions and myself started out in search of food. We
reached a farm isolated in the midst of a rice-swamp, and we entered,
just as armed men, conquerors, may enter anywhere. There was not a
soul in the numerous buildings of the extensive plantation--or so it
seemed at first. Finally, I went alone into one of the houses, and
there came face to face with a very old woman, shrivelled and bent,
with straggling wisps of hair, grimacing and repulsive. She instantly
thought that her last hour had come. I had no bad intentions, but
she could read my white face no better than I could have read her
yellow countenance had our positions been reversed. She was overcome
with fear, and her fright caused such facial contortions that I had a
feeling of deepest pity for her. I tried without success to reassure
her. Each of my gestures seemed to her a threat of death. She crouched
before me, supplicating with most piteous cries and lamentations, until
I, finding no gestures that would explain what I wanted, left the room.
She followed me as I withdrew, bending to kiss each footprint as if to
express her gratitude for the sparing of her life.

At that time I had thought of what my own grandmother would feel were
she suddenly confronted by a German soldier in her own home in France.
My imagination had formed such a vivid picture that I remembered it
fourteen years later when the real scene passed before my eyes.

Ah! Free men of a free country! Men whose homes are safe from invasion,
men who need not dread the conflagration leaping nearer and nearer,
or the lust of your neighbor--fortunate men, imagine these villages
suddenly abandoned; these families in flight; these old men stumbling
on the stones of the road; these young girls saving their honor; these
children subjected to the hardships and dangers of such an ordeal!

Search your mind for a picture which may aid you to visualize such a
spectacle. For no pen, no brush, not even a cinematograph could depict
that terrified mob, that throng pushing on in the rain and the wind;
the flight of a people before another people, the flight of the weak
and innocent before the strong and guilty.



As the result of tenacity and strenuous effort, our work of defense
progressed. We had been able to build a smooth, sloping bank all around
the fort, to place entanglements before the principal entrance, and
to arrange such cannon as we had at our disposal. We put iron-bars in
front of the windows to break the impact of shells, and baskets filled
with sand at passage entrances. We had sufficient provision to last
a month. We built a country oven that we might bake bread and not be
reduced by famine.

We were tired, but confident, the enemy might come now. Each of us knew
the spot he should occupy on the rampart, and we had not the least
doubt of our power of resistance. The commander redoubled the exercises
and drills, and each day notices were posted near the guard-house
saying that we must hold the fort unto death, that surrender was
absolutely forbidden. As for the men, we were equally determined to
offer resistance to the end.

In the meantime, we came to know each other better day by day, and
genuine sympathies grew into solid friendships. In addition to my
two friends of the first hour, I found myself associated with some
excellent comrades. There was Yo, a splendid young Norman, strong as a
giant, a carpenter by trade. He was persistently good-natured, and knew
a thousand amusing stories. He had an anecdote or witticism ready for
all occasions. Then there was Amelus, whom we dubbed “Angelus.” With
his little, close-set eyes, small features, narrow shoulders, he was
as nearly as possible the physical type of a Paris gamin. He possessed
also the gamin’s quick repartee and unalterable good humor.

This man, who was killed later, deserves special mention. He was an
anti-militarist. That is to say, before the war he constantly asserted,
as a point of honor, in season and out of season, his hatred of the
whole military business; and detested, without clearly knowing why,
every one who wore an army uniform. When I first met him, the war
had not yet changed his habit. He indulged freely in vituperation of
the officers, from the highest to the lowest; but this veneer covered
a truly patriotic spirit, for whenever an officer asked a service
he instantly offered himself. He volunteered for every rough job,
and although he was not strong nor of robust health, he managed to
accomplish the hardest kinds of labor, and would have died of the
effort swearing that he “wished to know nothing about it, and no one
need expect anything of him.”

This type of man was very numerous in France before 1914, and
experience has proved that much could be counted on from them, whenever
the occasion arose to put them to the test.

Such as he was, with his comic fury, with his perpetual tirades against
the officers, and still very evident good-will, he amused us greatly.
One heard often such colloquies as this:

“A man wanted to cut down trees!”

“Take me!” cried Amelus.

“A volunteer to carry rails!”

“Here I am!”

Once accepted, bent under the heaviest burdens, he poured out his
heart; he cursed his ill fortune, he pitied himself, he growled and
groaned. That aroused the irony of Yo. There was a continual verbal
tussle between the two men, the one groaning and the other responding
with raillery, which spread joy among us all.

Yes, we laughed. The tragic events which were closing in upon us, which
were drawing nearer irresistibly, did not yet touch us sufficiently to
frighten us much. We laughed at everything and at nothing. We laughed
like healthy young men without a care, men who have no dread of the
morrow, and who know that, whatever may happen, the soup will be boiled
and the bread will come from the oven when it is needed. We had not yet
become really grave, certainly no one had suffered, when, our task of
preparing the fort completed, we went to the embankment and witnessed
the ghastly procession of fugitives. That froze the heart of each of
us. So many old men, women, and children, thrown out at random, thrown
out to the fierce hazard of flight, stripped of all their possessions!
The sight was distressing, and the visible horror of their situation
brought tears to the eyes of the most stolid.

The hours passed rapidly. The last French troops fell back, the town
was evacuated. Trains packed to the last inch carried away every
one who could find room. When we went out in the evening, we found
closed the shops which had been open the day before. Their owners were
hastening to find shelter and safety.

The enemy was approaching. We felt it by a hundred indications, but we
did not suspect how close he had come.

He arrived like a whirlwind. One evening we were told to remain in the
fort, to take our places for the combat, to prepare cannon, cartridges,
and shells. During the day an aeroplane had flown over the fort, and
it was a German machine. Disquieting news preceded the invader. It was
brought by some straggling soldiers: men panting, miserable, dying of
thirst and hunger, who had been lost in the woods, and had covered
twenty leagues to make their escape. They recounted things almost
unbelievable. They had seen Belgian villages as flaming torches, and
they told their experiences little by little, with a remnant of horror
in their eyes, and an expression of bravery on their faces. We gave
them drink. They scarcely stopped their march, but took the bottles or
glasses offered, and emptied them while continuing on their way. The
fear of being taken bit at their heels. “Save yourselves!” they cried
to the women, “they are coming!”

After they were gone, the people gathered in large groups, seeking
further information on the highroad. The road was clouded with dust
and alive with movement, where other fugitives, more hurried than
the first, pushed their way, and threw out, in passing, bits of news
still more alarming. Haggard peasants explained that the Germans were
pillaging houses, ravaging everything. From these strange reports one
would have believed himself transported into another age, carried back
to the period of the great migrations of peoples.

“They have taken away my daughter,” wailed a woman in tears, “and have
set fire to the farmhouse.”

“They shot my husband!” cried another, “because he had no wine to give

The terror of the populace increased and spread. Mothers went to their
houses, gathered together some clothes and their daughters, then
followed the throng of fugitives. Old men started out on foot. The
threatening flail swept the country, even before it was seen, preceded
by a groan of agony and of fear as the thunder-storm is preceded by the

And we soldiers, with no exact knowledge of the situation, we awaited
orders and completed our preparations for resistance. We lifted the
drawbridges, we put in place the ladders, the tubs of water to put out
fire, the tools to clear crushed roofs and arches. We never thought
of flight. We had a sort of pride in remaining at the last stand,
in protecting the retreat of all the others, and we strove to give
encouragement to the civilians departing. But we were eager for news,
and seized upon all rumors.

About four o’clock in the afternoon a rumor passed like a gust of wind.
Some outposts came running: “They are here!” They told of the attack
on their position five kilometres away. Five of their number had been
killed, six taken prisoner by the Germans. This time the invasion
was rolling upon us. We almost touched it. We felt the hot breath of
battle, we were going to fight, we were going to offer resistance.

This was an impression more than a certainty. Explosions could be heard
in the distance: the engineers were blowing up bridges and railroads,
in order to create obstacles and retard the advance of the enemy. The
foe seemed to arrive everywhere at the same time. He was discerned
on the right and on the left, at each cross-road, advancing in deep
columns, and preceded by a guard of cavalry, the terrible Uhlans, who
were plundering everything in their way.

We felt, rather than saw, the nearness of the invaders. We could do
nothing but wait. In spite of the efforts exerted by the officers to
quiet the men, there was among them an uncontrollable restlessness:
inaction was intolerable.

It was a great relief to be able to accept, with several comrades,
a piece of work outside the fort. This had to do with blowing up a
viaduct. We set out, much envied by those left behind. We advanced
with customary precaution, following one point of light carried by
an advance-guard. Naturally, this position was taken by Amelus, the
habitual volunteer, followed by Yo, the giant, whose muscular force
inspired confidence in every one.

We had not far to go. At the railway-station, we learned that the last
train had just left, taking away the portable property of the station,
and all the people who could pack themselves into the coaches. There
was no longer, then, any assurance of rapid communication with the
rear. The struggle was really commencing.

Our destination was scarcely two kilometres away. It was a
railway-viaduct crossing a valley. We arrived quickly. The blast of
powder was prepared in an arch by the engineers; our part was only to
watch and protect the operation. A sharp detonation, an enormous cloud
of smoke, the whole mass swaying, splitting, falling, the reverberating
echo, and the route is severed. The trains of the invasion will be
compelled to stop: there is an abyss to cross, which will make the
assailant hesitate perhaps an hour. Although our work was swiftly
accomplished, it seemed that it must be effective. We had nothing to do
but regain our fort and await events.

However, it is late when we arrive. Night has fallen. On our left, an
immense glow stains with blood the leaden sky: it is Fourmies which
is burning, fired by the enemy. It is a French town which is the prey
of flames, the first one we have seen thus consumed before our eyes,
in the horror of darkness; while on the highroad rolls constantly the
flood of refugees, carts, wagons, carriages, all sorts of conveyances
of town and country, jumbled together with bicycles and pedestrians,
the turbulent throng of a province in flight, of a people driven by a

In subtle ways the fort itself has changed character. It breathes war.
Sand-bags are placed about the walls, sentinels watch on the ramparts,
orders are given and received under the arches. Our comrades ask
anxiously: “What have you seen?” We give an account of our exploit,
while eating a hurried bite, then we imitate our comrades, and,
following the order received, we take up our sacks and prepare all our

There is still some joking, at this instant. Yo attempts some of
his raillery, Amelus once more pours vituperation on the army, but
their pleasantries fall without an echo. We are grave. The unknown
oppresses us. We are attentive, and await the slightest order of our
superiors. The commandant calls the officers together. The conference
is prolonged, and we know nothing precise in the half-light of our
fortress chambers. What is going on? Will we be attacked this evening?
Will the defense be long? We exchange opinions and assurances: “There
are two hundred rounds of ammunition apiece!”

Two hundred rounds! That means how many hours of fighting? Shall we be
reinforced? Are there troops in the rear? And in front? No one knows.
Those who affirm that there are troops in front of us meet a slight
credence, which gives way immediately to doubt and then to a certainty
to the contrary. Numberless contradictory pieces of information clash
together, mingle, intercross:

“There is fighting at Maubeuge.”

“The enemy is withdrawing on the Meuse!”

“Yes, he has lost all his cannon.”

“But he is advancing on us here!”

All these statements jostled each other in the general uncertainty.
Suddenly, at the door of the chamber, I saw our lieutenant, a splendid
soldier, upright and frank. He was speaking to one of my comrades.
Scenting a special mission, I approach them. I am not mistaken.
“Silence!” says the officer, “I need six resolute men, and no noise.”

“Take me, lieutenant,” I ask.

“If you wish.”

“And me, too,” begs Amelus.

“All right, you too, and Yo. Meet me immediately in the courtyard, with
your knapsacks.”

We meet in a few minutes. My friend Berthet rushes in. “Wont you take
me, too?” “Certainly. Come quickly.”

And now we are outside the fort, with knapsack and gun. We are
delighted with this godsend, without knowing what it is all about: at
least we are moving about, doing something, and that is the main thing.

“Be careful,” commands the lieutenant, “to the right! Forward, march!”

We leave by the postern gate. We are on the embankment. The night is
dark, the heavens are black except where the blood-red reflection of
burning towns marks the path of the Germans. In silence we make our way
down the steep slope of the fort.

“Halt! Load!”

We fill the magazines of our rifles. Ten paces farther on we meet
the last sentinels. The password is given, we proceed. We go toward
the town, as far as the highroad, where the flight of the distracted
populace continues. Amidst a tangle of conveyances, pedestrians slip
through mysteriously and hurry by. They jostle us, then make way for
us in the throng. At last we stop. The town is only a hundred metres
distant, without illumination, but much alive, full of the hubbub of
the last departing civilians.

“Listen,” says the lieutenant, “this is your errand: a group of Uhlans
has been reported about eight hundred metres from here. At this
moment they must be occupying the civilian hospital. They must not be
permitted to pass. Two men will hide themselves here, two others there.
The others will guard the cross-road. In case you sight them, give
them your magazine and fall back on the fort to give the alarm. Do you
understand? Go to it!”

In such moments, one’s intelligence is abnormally active: one
understands instantly, and each man seems to take his own particular
rôle by instinct. I advance with Berthet to take the most forward post:
it is where adventure is most likely. The others leave us, to take
their own positions. So there we are, he and I, alone as sentinels, at
the edge of the highroad--the road which is the path of the invasion,
where rolls unceasingly as a torrent the stream of fugitives.

“You tell me what to do,” says Berthet, “I will take your orders.” “It
is very simple,” I respond, “one knee on the ground. In the deep grass
you will not be seen. For myself, I am going onto the road itself. I
will stop any one who looks suspicious. Don’t worry, and don’t let
your gun go off unless you hear me fire.” “Very well.” “Oh, another
thing! If we are attacked, we will fire, then run for the fort without
following the road. Our companions will fire, and we must cut across
the fields. Do you agree?” “Yes.”

I leave him, to take my post just at the edge of the road, eyes and
ears on the alert, finger on the trigger. A host of memories crowd my
brain. How often in other days have I stood guard in just this manner!
I recall similar hours which I experienced in China, at Tonkin, in the
Sahara. I feel once more the intense poetry which is inspired by such
a vigil: a poetry incomparable to any other; a poetry in which alert
action is mingled with the strangeness of night, with the thousand
noises of a stirring populace, with the imminence of danger, with
visions crowding up from the past, with all that surrounds us and all
that flees from us. Less than a fortnight ago, at this hour, I used
to write my daily article. My young wife, in our dainty dining-room,
was rocking the baby to sleep. Or I was correcting proof on my
forthcoming book, and she came to sit near me, her fingers busy with
some fine needlework. She always placed on my desk the flowers from
the dinner-table, and I thanked her for being so good, so pretty, so
loving and thoughtful, by a swift stolen kiss on her rosy finger-tips.
I read to her the last page I had written. She smiled and approved.
Our confidence was complete. She had faith in my ability, I rejoiced to
know that she was mine. We were so happy----

To-day, with loaded gun, with every nerve strained, I lie in wait for
an advancing enemy. My wife is far away. She has shelter, at least.
Without doubt she dreams of me, as I dream of her, and she trembles
and she fears the future, the danger, death. My brothers--where
are they?--and their wives, and our parents, and all my dear ones,
like myself, like all of France, thrown into war, into danger, into
suffering. And all the children, and all the helpless women, and old
men, all counting on us, on our stoutness of heart, to defend and to
save them.

My meditations did not in the least interfere with my watchfulness.
From time to time I stopped a passer-by.

“Halt there!”

“We are French.”

“Advance slowly, one by one.”

The poor creatures were terrified and bewildered.

“We are trying to escape!”

“Pass on.”

After a bit I return to see Berthet.

“Anything new?” “No, nothing.” “Supposing you look around more at the
left.” “All right.”

I resume my place. All at once, I hear the clatter of horses’ hoofs.
Berthet rejoins me. “Do you hear that?” “Yes. It must be they. Don’t
forget. Fire, then run across fields.”

The cavalcade approaches, is clearly audible. With eyes strained, I can
still see nothing in the blackness. Suddenly I catch the glitter of

“Halt, there!”

“Gendarmes!” cries a voice, “don’t shoot!” French gendarmes, in retreat!

“Advance slowly, one by one.”

The troop halts. One horseman advances, stops at ten paces from my

“I am a brigadier of the gendarmes, brigade of Avor. I have not the

The voice is indeed French. I recognize the uniform--but I still fear a
possible trap.

“Command your men to pass, one by one.”

The order is executed without reply. Some ten men file by.

“Look out for yourselves,” says the last horseman, “the Uhlans are at
our heels.”

“Thanks for the information. Tell that to the officer whom you will
meet about a hundred metres from here.” “Good luck to you.”

_Ouf!_ Berthet and I both grow hot. The watching brings us together, we
remain together. One feels stronger with company.

       *       *       *       *       *

It begins to rain--only a mist at first, then a steady rain. The poor
fugitives tramp along, miserable, driven ghosts, weird figures in the
blackness of the night. Some of them give scraps of information in

“They are at the chapel.”

“They are arriving at Saint Michel.”

“There are twenty Uhlans at the _mairie_.”

Our lieutenant makes his round. “Nothing new?” “Nothing, sir.” “Very
well, I am going to look about, as far as the town. I will be back in
about fifteen minutes.” “Very well, sir.”

He disappears, swallowed up in the darkness. We wait. It rains harder
and harder. The water runs in rivulets on our shoulders, trickles down
our necks, soaks our shirts. From time to time we shake ourselves like
wet spaniels. There is nothing to do but wait. It would not do to
seek shelter. Besides, there is no shelter. When one is a sentinel in
full campaign, one must accept the weather as it comes. If it is fine,
so much the better; if it is frightful, too bad! It is impossible to
provide comforts, or conveniences. If the sun burns you or the rain
soaks you, if the heat roasts you or the cold freezes you, it is all
the same. The strong resist it, the weak succumb: so much the worse!
One is there to suffer, to endure, to hold his position. If one falls,
his place is filled. So long as there are men, the barrier is raised
and put in opposition to the enemy. “_C’est la guerre._” That is war:
a condition in which only the robust man may survive; where everything
unites madly to destroy, to obliterate him, where he must fight at the
same time his adversaries and the elements which seem to play with him
as the breeze plays with the leaf on the tree.

However, the night was advancing. The Great Bear, intermittently
visible between the clouds, had already gone down in the sky, and we
were still there. The crowd still surged on, as dense as ever. The
people came from every quarter. Very few were gathered into groups.
Here and there some worn-out soldiers were seen, who asked information
and vanished in haste. In the background of the dark picture of the
night were the burning villages and towns, but their flames were
subsiding, their ruddy glow was waning. The fires seemed to have
reached the end of their food, exhausted by a night of violence. Sudden
puffs of sparks rising with the smoke already foretold their extinction.

Berthet, my comrade, was pale in the twilight dawn. “You have had
enough of it?” I say to him. “Oh! no,” he responds, “it is nothing but

The most critical moment was approaching: the dawning of day, that
troubled moment when fatigue crushes the shoulders of the most valiant,
when the vision confuses distances and blurs objects, when all one’s
surroundings take on a strange, uncanny appearance. Dawn, lustreless
and gray, the dawn of a day of rain, rising sulkily, drippingly, coming
pale and wan to meet men broken by an anxious vigil, is not a pleasing
fairy, is not the divine Aurora with fingers of light; and yet, it
brings solace. With its coming the vision is extended; it pierces the
fog, identifies the near-by hedge, the twisted birch, the neighboring
knoll of ground. Day breaks. The shadows disappear, objects regain
their natural aspect, and the terrors created by the night vanish.

Thus it was with us. I was pleased with Berthet. He had carried
himself well, and I told him so. That pleased him. He was a boy whose
self-esteem was well developed, who could impose upon a rather weak
body decisions made by his will.

“I was afraid of only one thing,” he said, “and that was that I might
be afraid.” I smiled and answered: “But you will be afraid. It is only
fools who know not fear, or deny it. Every one knows fear. Even the
bravest of the brave, Maréchal Ney himself, knew it well.”

At this moment our lieutenant returned from his hazardous expedition,
without having observed anything remarkable, and there was nothing
for us to do but wait for other sentries to relieve us, or for orders
specifying a new mission.

Nothing of the sort came, at first. If we had been abandoned in a
desert, our solitude could not have been more complete. As far as the
eye could see, we could not detect a living thing. There were no more
fugitives. We two were guarding a bare highroad where neither man nor
beast appeared.

At last, some one was seen coming from the fort. It was a comrade
bringing coffee and news. While we were absorbing with delight the
hot drink which seemed to make renewed life throb in our veins, he
recounted the events which had taken place behind us, and in some
manner under our protection.

“The boys,” he said, “have left. The fort will be blown up. It seems
that we have waited too long already. The Germans have gone by, now. We
are surrounded. No one knows how those animals slip by, but there is
fighting all around us.”

“No! Is that true?”

“Truest thing you know. Last night we put mines in the powder-magazine.
There are eight metres of fuse. We will light it on leaving. You are
going to see some fireworks.”

We did not know what to say, at first. We could not doubt the accuracy
of the information supplied by our comrade, but Berthet’s surprise
was extreme. The most difficult thing, in war, is to be willing to
comprehend nothing of what surrounds you near at hand, and to content
yourself to live as does an animal. Always one tries to reason, to
use logic, and nothing is further removed from reason and logic than
important events in which one is plunged, but of which one sees but an
infinitesimal part, too small to form even an approximate idea of the

“How,” says Berthet, “could the enemy pass by in force, without using
this road?” I shook my head. “Who knows?” “I don’t know how it was
done,” declared our comrade, “but they have passed us. As proof,
three kilometres from here they took by surprise a squad asleep in a
farmhouse. The Uhlans arrived without any one suspecting, and made them
all prisoners.”

A sharp whistle cut short our reflections. Our lieutenant called us.
We joined him and found, at the turn of the road, the entire garrison,
ready for departure. They were only awaiting the signal from the
commandant. The ranks were formed, the captains were mounted on their
horses, the lieutenants and the sergeants were overseeing the last

We took our places in silence, not having slept at all, and having had
the sack buckled on our shoulders for twelve hours in the rain. The
rain had not ceased. The troop was enveloped in it as in a gray veil,
and the wet faces of the men expressed dejection. Their moustaches
drooped, their caps were pulled down, their looks were sullen. Even Yo
himself, with his unvarying good humor, could not find another word
with which to revive the spirits of the men. Only Amelus could be heard
growling somewhat more vigorously than usual.

Weather has an enormous effect on the morale of troops, as on all
human agglomerations. We were all more or less touched by the malign
influence of the rain. No jest flashed from the ranks as is usual in a
French troop, where bantering springs from the lip involuntarily, where
chaffing is as natural as the air one breathes, as necessary as bread.
A regiment remains alert and strong so long as this spirit of optimism
remains; but at the moment of which I speak, when we were drenched
with rain, when we saw our country invaded, when we knew ourselves
to be surrounded by the enemy, we were morose and feared the worst.
However, it was only necessary that there should be an unexpected peal
of laughter to bring light to every face, and that was what happened
soon after we were given the order to march.

Indeed, the column was scarcely in motion, when the irrepressible
Yo burst forth with a raucous tone in one of the most ancient songs
of the march, one of those which are transmitted from generation to
generation. Instantly, another voice responded, then another, then a
chorus. And then, in the downpour of rain, on a road so water-soaked
that one sunk to the ankle at each step, it was no longer a surrounded
regiment in flight, but a troop sprightly, gay, and confident and,
like their Gallic ancestors, having nothing to fear but this: that the
weeping heavens might really fall on their heads.

We had not been on the march an hour when a terrific explosion was
heard, reverberating overhead. It was the mined fort which was
blowing up. All the work of those last days was flying into the air
in a re-echoing crash of bricks, ironwork, shells, and guns. Our
labor was wiped out. Nevertheless, it had not been in vain. Thanks to
its existence, the German army which had faced us had been retarded
twenty-four hours in its advance. Indeed, their advance-guards had
encountered that garrisoned fort, and had been obliged to await the
arrival of artillery sufficient to reduce and take it. This delay had
permitted the last French troops to retreat without trouble. They
were safe when the fort, henceforth useless, blew up. It left nothing
for the hand of the enemy, and its mission was accomplished. A battle
would have added to our work nothing but blood. Our chiefs were wise in
sparing that.

It was not until later that we knew all this. At that moment we did
not look so far. We pursued our way singing, in a deluge of rain,
overtaking distracted fugitives along the route: exhausted old men,
women carrying and leading children, who moved aside to make way for
us, then stumbled in our wake. We passed through villages already
deserted, a forsaken countryside where the rain beat down the fields
of barley and ripe wheat. On we went. In passing, we gathered fruit
from the trees. At the fountains and springs we drank water made turbid
by the rain. We sang. We heard, somewhere, the roar of the cannon. We
had no idea where it thundered so. It seemed ahead of us and behind
us. As we saw nothing terrifying, as there was no visible evidence of
a battle, we advanced constantly, quite light-hearted, without knowing
that we were passing through one of the great battles of the beginning
of the war, one of the decisive struggles which did much to retard the
advance of the enemy; that our column, quite ignorant of events, was
thus marching freely across the battle of Guise.

That, at foundation, is not so impossible as might appear. Shortly
after, we had occasion to verify such zones of silence in the midst
of violent action. Yes, one may be in the midst of battle and not be
aware of it. Even at Austerlitz the guard had not yet charged, half the
troops had not broken a cartridge, when the battle was won.

This time our battle was to be gained by our legs, and consisted
solely of marching. And we marched. And we took no account of fatigue,
nor that the men who hastened along the road were all unaccustomed to
marching. One month before, all of us were civilians. Some were in
offices, bending over books; others sold dry goods, others were at
work-benches or in construction-yards. We were required to make an
unprecedented effort, to which none of us was trained. We were asked
to march for hours, for a day, for a night, none knew how long. We
must advance, cost what it might, follow an unfamiliar road, avoid
ambuscades, regain the rear of our army, rejoin other formations which,
farther on, were grouping under orders identical with our own.

We went on. The officers had their orders, we followed them. And we
sang to drive away fatigue, to forget misery, to escape the thought of
the heavy knapsack, of the cartridges dragging on our shoulders, of all
the military harness, so useful but so heavy, which weighed down each
step of the soldier. We crossed fields of freshly ploughed ground. We
climbed slopes, descended hills, traversed plains. We went straight
toward the south, covering on foot the route by which we had come
to the fort in the train; a route which had become interminable, cut
only by a pause every fifty minutes, when one could stretch his aching
limbs, could pierce the swollen blisters on his heels, could break a
crust of bread or drink a swallow of water.

Some civilians followed and attached themselves to us in the hope of
protection. There were women who marched close to the ranks, others who
confided their infants for a stage to near-by soldiers, still others
gave up, exhausted, and fell on the stones, with eyes rolled back, full
of terror and a sort of reproach. They felt themselves abandoned, too
worn out to follow longer, given over to all the tragic misery of the
invasion. And we turned our eyes that we might not see, in an agony
of soul that we must leave them, that we could not help them, that we
could not take them with us; ourselves crushed by the burdens of the
soldier, hard pushed to arrive at a destination still so far away, at
the spot selected for the halt, for rest, for sleep.

We went on, and fatigue began to weigh upon us. Some comrades suddenly
quit the ranks, threw down their sacks with a wild gesture, and fell
to the ground. They were the physically weak, those first overwhelmed
by the burden, whom the enemy would gather up in his advance and take
away prisoner, an easily won booty. The underofficers tried to make
these men rise and continue their way, without much success. They were
at the end of their strength, incapable of further effort. They gave up
and fell. They accepted whatever fate awaited them. They had struggled
to the extreme limit of endurance. One had marched for several hours
with the soles of his feet entirely blistered away from the flesh;
another had persisted though suffering intolerably from hernia. Some
had foam on the chin. Several attempted suicide. Their firearms were
taken from them and were given to another man to carry for a time. The
latter soon threw them away because of their weight, first breaking
them that they might not be of service to the enemy. Every one began to
relieve himself of superfluous articles. We threw away linen and change
of shoes; then rations. We emptied our pockets; discarded our jackets.

We marched, and marched, and marched: a march without end. There was no
pause, no aim, no goal. We marched. We sought the horizon, and must
push on still, as one horizon stretched away and gave place to another,
which again must be passed as the first. The day lengthened. The road
was never-ending. One after the other the hours rolled on, and still
we marched. We encountered vehicles stuck in the mire, which no one
attempted to help out of the ruts. We encountered horses in the last
throes of agony, struggling one last time to move one foot before the
other, then stiffening in death. We encountered automobiles in flames,
others in smoking ashes. We encountered encampments of poor wretches,
waiting at the edge of the road for a better hour. We encountered lost
children. Here and there we came upon a house pillaged, devastated,
bare, where remained no crust of bread, where even the wells had been
emptied of water. With difficulty one could draw from them a little
muddy liquid. The men chewed some beet-roots torn up in a field, to
allay the burning thirst. Then night approached. We still marched. The
twilight spread her veil of mist and blood. We marched. The shadows
fell. We marched. Night came. We marched. We stumbled on the stones
which seemed to rise from the road; over the wagon-ruts which cut it,
on the slopes which bordered it. We marched. There were unexpected
stops, when the column, suddenly halted at some point forward, folded
back upon itself like a telescope. The men jostled and swore. Wagons
were crushed, horses fell, in an indescribable confusion. Some soldiers
fell, and did not rise again. Then the movement resumed. We marched
again, and marched, and stopped, and went on.

There was no more singing. There was no more talking. Occasionally an
oath. We discarded knapsack, clothing, food, even letters, in hope of
relief, and marched on toward our goal with groans.

At last we stopped. We were in the midst of a black plain, lighted
only by a few dim fires, where the mud was almost knee-deep. We threw
ourselves down, broken, inert masses, without strength to spread a
blanket on the ground, asleep before we touched the earth. We had
covered seventy kilometres in one forced march, and no longer heard the

       *       *       *       *       *

Thus we slept, like brutes, until morning. It was not long. The early
light shone on a marsh made humpy by the bodies of men sleeping under
the mist. There were soldiers of all departments of service; Zouaves,
infantry, cavalry, artillery, fallen where they happened to be, without
order, and all but a few still sleeping. These few had lighted large
bonfires, where they warmed themselves. The light of the fires also
attracted many women, children, and old men, who stretched toward
the grateful warmth limbs stiffened by cold. The fires were fed with
branches of trees, broken parts of wagons, anything ready at hand
without too much effort to gather.

The result was a more or less comforting warmth for the benumbed
creatures who crowded around, in a surprisingly promiscuous assemblage.
Some were heating soup made from heaven knows what, others attempted to
dry their shirts and blouses, soaked by sweat and rain. The rain had
ceased, but the sky remained gray, covered with hostile clouds. The
vision was limited by a low-hanging fog. On the road, the procession
of retreat continued to roll, disordered, in nervous haste and at the
same time slow. The underofficers reassembled our troop. We must start
again, enter the column surging along the road, resume the flight,
take up the march, press on still farther, and gain ground.

With the new day the cannon again began to roar. It seemed quite near,
although one could not say exactly where the thundering came from.
One felt hunted down, without knowing the location of the enemy who
pursued so relentlessly. So the ranks were formed. Those who still had
knapsacks lifted them again to the shoulder, and again we marched.

The first steps were difficult. Every joint was stiff, every muscle
ached, and we swore with every stride. Soon we warmed up to the
exercise and advanced more easily. The pace was set for five kilometres
an hour, and every one followed.

Yo had found some wine, no one knows where. He poured a drop in the cup
of each of his neighbors, and it seemed quite refreshing. We managed to
keep going the entire morning. After a repose of two hours we started
again, always toward the south, always pursued by the cannon, which
seemed to move even faster than did we. We neared Vervins. The outlying
parishes indicated it at each kilometre, and we were only surprised
that the enemy had preceded us. It was nevertheless true. He went
like the wind, regardless of broken bridges, obstructed roads, opened
ravines. However fast we went, he went too fast even for us to follow.
He was ahead of us and behind us. He was reported on both sides of us.
He seemed to be everywhere.

This is the way of the retreat. However rapid it seems, it is exceeded
in speed by the enemy. Every difficulty retards the troops in flight;
obstructed roads, slow-moving army wagons, necessary destruction.
The enemy pushes on. He sends forward his cavalry quite indifferent
to the condition of the land. He takes strategic points, he occupies
mountains, he bars passes. We must make a détour to cross a river over
which he leaps. We must save munitions which weigh heavily and impede
our course. We must watch for a safety which he disdains. He comes
and breaks the embryonic resistance which he encounters, overthrows
battalions already in rout, sweeps away regiments already disorganized.
You believe he is behind, he is really in front. You go to the right,
he is there. You return to the left, he has forestalled you. Those
hours of torture, when difficulties accumulate to impede flight, when
the mother’s weakness detains the son, when the weight of a child is a
crushing burden! Those hours of agony, when all about is burning, when
terror is spread abroad, when only menace is seen on every hand! Those
who have lived through such hours will never be able to efface them
from the memory.

We arrived at Vervins, already attacked by the enemy, but defended by
a screen of troops with some cannon. From the distracted town, where
the detonations rocked the houses and made the window-panes rattle,
one could watch the battle. Some aeroplanes were flying about overhead
like great birds of war. They were the first military aircraft,
still incomplete and badly armed. From them the observer could see
but little, and he was obliged to descend to earth to bring his
information. Such as these machines were, they interested us much, and
seemed to fulfil in the air a remarkable mission.

Beyond this observation, the sight did not prevent some of us from
seeking provision. It was already very difficult to find food in
that town, where an army had passed. Practically nothing was left.
The shops had wound up their business and their owners were preparing
for flight. Everywhere were piled up furniture, scattered straw, torn
paper. Nothing kept its usual course. One paid no matter what sum for
two spoiled eggs. Berthet achieved a veritable triumph in discovering a
pound of almond chocolate.

However, the soup was cooked on the kitchen-stoves in the houses. The
quartermasters distributed meat and bread, at least as much as they
could procure from the commissariat wagons which had stopped at the
edge of the town. Some wounded men, returning from the fighting-lines,
mingled with the men carrying wood and water. Some artillery wagons
went through the streets at full speed, vainly searching some munitions
gone astray.

In this general turmoil there came to hand an unfamiliar newspaper:
it was the _Bulletin of the Army of the Republic_, which the minister
of war had just established, and which was distributed to the troops.
Every one, eager for news, obtained a copy and turned its pages
rapidly, in the hope of gaining some definite knowledge of events.
We read some reports of victorious progress in Alsace. The reading
gave us some comfort and strengthened our courage. All was not lost,
then, since the enemy was retreating over there! We exchanged words of
confidence, we reassured each other: Germany would be beaten, that was
certain. The Cossacks were invading Prussia, and our retreat signified
nothing: we were at a disadvantageous point of the field of action,
that was all! The enemy, hard pressed elsewhere, was going to retreat
in his turn, and would be pursued to Berlin.

Laughter became contagious, and some joyous souls could not refrain
from boasting. Our fatigue fell from us; we were again serene.

None the less, it was necessary to continue the movement already
initiated, retreat still further, resume the march as soon as night
had fallen, gain in all haste a point at the rear which had been
indicated to our chief officers. We again took the highroad. It was
still crowded, but only by the troops. The fugitive civilians were
obliged to yield it to the army wagons and infantry, and themselves
march across fields. They could be seen in long files, like migratory
tribes, stopped by natural obstacles, entangled by hedges and hindered
by watercourses. We passed without giving them aid; there was no time
to stop. We were directed toward Laon, which we must reach at all cost,
in order to organize the resistance before the arrival of the enemy.

Laon was far away, and the road was long, and the sack was heavy, and
the march was at a bruising pace. We braced ourselves for endurance.
Our faces, with several days’ growth of beard, were streaked with sweat
and dirt, were drawn and haggard from fatigue. We marched all night
without arriving at our goal, then all day. It was evening when we
reached the citadel perched on its rock, dominating a vast stretch of
plain. We were installed in an entirely new barrack, and went to sleep
without eating. We were not hungry, which was well, as there were no
provisions. I threw myself on a bed and fell asleep like a clod. It
would be light to-morrow, one could see clearly to-morrow; one could
wash to-morrow, one could eat to-morrow.

That was the way of it. All night the exhausted troop slept without
sentinels, stomach empty, mouth open, in whatever position they
happened to fall, utterly incapable of any defense. If the enemy
had come, he could have swept away at a single stroke and without a
struggle ten thousand men. There was not one of us who could have fired
a shot.

This haste was important. It gave time to catch our breath. The army
having escaped the German pursuit, saved its quota and could reorganize.

“Look at that steep bluff!” said Berthet to me the following morning.
“It seems impregnable, does it not? Nevertheless, in 1809 Napoleon’s
Marie Louise Battalion took Laon by storm, from this side, and made a
bayonet charge up those steep slopes, and dislodged the enemy.”

As for us, we must first descend the declivity. The enemy was
approaching. His scouts and advance-guards flashed through the plain
in every direction. He gushed from the woods, he streamed along the
roads, he inundated the fields. He came from everywhere, as if the
entire earth had vomited Germans. They were innumerable as a cloud of
locusts. It was more like a plague than an army. It was a barbarian
horde pouring itself over our country and forcing us to retreat again;
always retreat, always faster, without looking back and without
offering resistance.

We set out once more, madness in our eyes. Would it never end, this
flight? What was happening? What were our armies doing? Were we going
to fall back as far as Paris? or perhaps still farther, as far as
the Loire? We no longer knew what to think. We no longer possessed
speech or ideas. The chiefs knew no more than the men. They no longer
attempted to explain. Our lieutenant carried the knapsack of a man gone
lame, and marched chewing a cigar. Our commandant went up and down the
length of the column with a sombre air, and no one dreamed of singing.

These were the first days of September. The air was still hot
and stifling. Some men, made giddy by the sun, fell in crumpled
masses. Sweat ran off our bodies, rusted the arms in our hands. A
suffocating dust filled the air and covered faces and clothing with an
ever-thickening layer. Throats were parched, eyes haggard, shoulders

Berthet fell. I helped him up, he fell again. He could go no farther,
and I feared that I would see him die there of exhaustion. I rubbed
him, made him drink a little mint. Then I put him in the shade and went
foraging. I discovered some water and a fresh egg, which I made him
take. He swallowed it, only half conscious. Then I saw a resurrection.
He sat up, light returned to his eye and color to his cheek.

Thus he was saved; but how many remained on the route, easy prey for
brutal German soldiers, and how many died, their names unknown! The
plains of Thierache and of the Aisne alone know how many fell by
the way, victims of exhaustion, during the great retreat, when the
foul enemy already scented Paris and believed it within his grasp;
superhuman retreat, which spread for the foe the snare of the Marne,
that miracle which the passing centuries will hold in remembrance.

Such was the retreat, from my view-point as a humble soldier of the
ranks, from my position as an atom lost in the immense movement. Others
will recount its strategic value; others will explain its grandeur. I
have seen only what I have here related, I, a little cog in the huge
tragedy, and I am proud to have lived those hours. Other great hours
were to follow, but those passed through were not the least wonderful.



We took with us on our retreat some prisoners captured at Guise, during
our frenzied flight; some dozen men, whom the gendarmes conducted,
handcuffs on wrists. They excited much curiosity.

These soldiers did not give a very proud idea of the battle, nor of
the enemy army. They were poor devils, dressed in gray, whose boots of
tan leather alone drew attention. These looked very well, but were too
narrow for the feet, and several men limped in a ridiculous manner.

Chained with them marched some civilians, marauders or spies, also
being conducted to the rear. One of them attempted escape one night.
Immediately retaken, one hour later he stood before a court martial,
whose sombre appearance is graven on my memory.

It was a simple village house, with green shutters. A sentry stood
at the door. Through the open windows one could see the tribunal in
session, and the accused defending himself. The trial was brief and
tragic. Five officers were seated in a commonplace dining-room, with
an extension-table for a desk, at the end of which two clerks were
writing. At the end of the room, in front of the buffet, some gendarmes
guarded the accused. The contrast between the austere scene and its
setting was striking. There a man was being judged, there his life or
death was the subject for decision; and the cannon were roaring, quite
near, and the retreating army was filling the village street.

I saw the man plead his cause, standing, gesticulating. The judges
listened attentively and gravely. Not a muscle of their countenances
moved; they seemed made of wax. Their caps made splashes of scarlet
and gold on the table. On the wall behind the presiding officer hung
a naïve picture of a country fête. The hanging lamp appeared to have
been in the way: it was unhooked and put in a corner. I could plainly
hear the voices, though I could not distinguish the words. The accused
implored. He clasped his hands and fell on his knees. Then he uttered a
cry.... The gendarmes dragged him away. His place was taken by another

The next day, when we were leaving, he was missing. He had been shot at

       *       *       *       *       *

We finished the retreat by railway, finding a train which had come as
far as a broken bridge and was turning back on its route. We were shut
up in the carriages three entire days. Though it seemed an interminable
journey, nevertheless it ended with our return to our starting-point.

This return, of a fantastic duration (our whole trip could be made
in eight hours in time of peace) occupied the first days of the
battle of the Marne. Yes, while the destiny of the world hung in the
balance, while the most formidable struggle the earth had ever seen
was in progress, we were packed into boxes on wheels, we were shunted
about and loitered on the rails like so much useless merchandise.
Our train moved, stopped, went into a station, departed, stopped
again. We remained for hours on grassy tracks where no train had
passed for months. We borrowed unfamiliar routes, we lost our way
on unknown switches. Sometimes we stopped in a tunnel, or in the
midst of a deserted countryside. Sometimes we halted at a town where
the inhabitants crowded about us, bringing provisions of all sorts:
bread, wine, meat, and fruit, and fêted us in a thousand ways. The
people questioned us eagerly. The greater number had a son or brother
in the army, and naïvely asked news of them. We had no information
whatever, but exchanged assurances of an early victory. In spite of
what we had seen, our confidence remained unbroken, and we gave much
comfort to those who saw only disaster ahead. We maintained that the
French advance continued constantly in Alsace, that the Germans were
retreating everywhere, that the Russians were galloping on Berlin by
forced marches. We were certain that Germany was rushing to suicide,
and our certainty was eagerly demanded in exchange for the presents
received. The sympathy of all these people was touching. It seemed
as though we were all one family with these, our own French people,
who were giving us so hearty a welcome. We felt so grateful for their
reception that we would have liked to embrace them all.

Then the train started. We exchanged hearty adieus as we went
away--only to stop a little farther on for another lapse of time. After
three full days of this we reached our destination. We had traversed
half of France, and were now going to recuperate for new hardships.

Our camp was located in a little village buried in verdure, in the
midst of a calm countryside, as far from the war as possible. Very
little news reached this out-of-the-way spot; newspapers were old when
they arrived. The populace lived as usual, groaning a bit to keep in
countenance, but not suffering any real inconvenience.

We were soon bored to death. In spite of the daily exercises, in spite
of the drills, in spite of the preparations and small side comedy of
war, we longed for the tempest, for the great whirlwind which was
sweeping away our brothers over yonder, toward the east. Only its
echoes reached us. There was the Marne; there was the German retreat;
there was the digging of trenches, the line stretched to the sea; there
was the Yser.

Yet here we stayed. Time passed heavily. We felt much aggrieved: it
seemed that the war was bound to be too short to offer us a sufficient
revenge. We gave up hope of returning to the front, so long did the
days seem while our comrades were doing the fighting.

Berthet and I never ceased to fret. Inertia crushed us. We would have
accepted no matter what offer of an errand in order to go away, to have
action, to quit the tranquil country where we were vegetating, to find
again adventure, to run risks: in short, to live. It seemed to us that
we spent months there, stagnating. In reality it was six weeks.

In that apparent inaction the regiment was putting itself in condition.
One day twelve hundred men were selected for reinforcements to join a
neighboring division of the army. There were touching farewells. Those
who were leaving, feverish with joy, shook hands proudly with those who
remained behind, and who were envious to the last man. None of these,
however, was destined to return unharmed. All were mowed down on the
plains of Champagne in their first engagement, and their places were
filled by new comrades from other camps.

That also is an aspect of war. One does not keep constantly the same
comrades, nor even the same officers. The army is a living organism
which undergoes constant wear and rebuilding. At first, one gladly
believes that he will always have the same neighbors, that he will be
with the same sergeant, that he will be surrounded by the same faces
until the end. Then one comrade is transferred to another regiment,
another merely disappears. Another is called to a distance: he goes
and never returns. Soon one finds himself the only man remaining of
the original group. The company has not fought, it has not suffered
murderous losses, and still its personnel has been renewed.

Yo is gone. Amelus is gone. Happily, Berthet remains for me, and I for
him. We will not leave each other. We believe it since we desire it,
and we are almost sure that we will be able to mould the future to our
wish; such is the immense vanity of man.

Thus we spent our days, soldiers without being soldiers, soldiers of
time of peace, tied down to puerile exercises, to imaginary assaults,
to supposititious battles. We champed our bits. We longed for the
struggle, we awaited our turn with growing impatience.

It came at last. One evening the order to go forward arrived. The
regiment was ready, solid, high-spirited, complete. It set out: all
felt a secret thrill. At last we were going to the Front, we were going
to know, to fight, and to die!



It is night. It is raining. The train stops at a station. We have
arrived. But where? No one knows. All is black. All is sombre. All is
sinister. All is threatening. We alight from the carriages to stretch
our legs.

“Silence!” growl the officers. “In two ranks, quick!” Along the
platform we fall in line as well as possible in the dark, our knapsacks
on our backs, and, over all, the rain.


We reach a road; a road that feels hard under the feet. A damp chill
arises from the invisible earth and the rain glues our clothing to our
skins. Our shoes are heavy with mud. We march. Each follows the comrade
who stumbles along ahead, and whom one can hardly see. One hears
only the rustling of the trees, the confused sound of steps, a brief
exclamation, an oath. We go straight ahead where we are led; through
the dark toward the unknown.

“Silence!” hiss the chiefs, “we are close to the enemy. Not a word; not
a cigarette.”

A sort of apprehension grips us. The fear of the unknown binds us. It
is not the certainty of danger: it is worse. It is an inexpressible
anguish. One is in danger from invisible blows that will fall unawares.
We mount a hill. At the summit one has a view, a darkly shut-in view,
whose walls of black are pierced by flashes of fire; mere sparks in the
distance. Artillery! This which we look down upon is the Front. There,
below us, at a considerable distance still, they are fighting. With
throbbing hearts, eager to advance, to arrive at the place destined for
us, we peer into the cannon-starred curtain of the night.

But the march continues to be slow. One slips on the muddy ground, one
skids, one swears. As we go down the hill the stirring sight is blotted
out like dying fireworks, and we are once more in a shut-in road, whose
embankments add to the blackness and cut off all outlook.

Nevertheless, the confused sounds of the battle carry up the slope
to our marching troop. Somewhere, down there, a lively artillery
duel crashes in fury and the brilliant flashes of light dart their
resplendent triangles into the heavens. Is it there we are going? No
one knows. One feels his heart thrilled and a little shaken by the
nearness. Instinctively one touches elbows with his neighbor, tightens
his grip on his rifle; becomes silent.

All the time we advance. Occasionally there are stops; sudden,
unlooked-for stops. Then one starts on. Soon we reach some houses. We
are entering the street of a village and the shaded lanterns cast weird
shadows on the walls. The column crowds together. We catch our breath.

“We camp here,” say the sergeants.

The orders are sent along the line. There is a moment of rest; then the
squads break up. Every one seeks his place of shelter. We are quartered
in the buildings of a large farm. I and my companions are billeted in
a barn and we stamp our feet on the unthreshed wheat which has been
stored there. Each begins hollowing out a place to sleep.

“Make no lights,” order the sergeants, “you will be spotted.”

“Eh, boys!” calls a voice, “where do you come from?”

And from between the bundles of straw we see the up-lifted heads
of several soldiers. Approaching them, we find that they have been
comfortably sleeping in their straw nests, and that our arrival has
awakened them. We question them:

“What is this place, here?”

“It is Taissy.”


“Is it far from the trenches?”

“Oh, no, mon garçon; only about fifteen hundred metres.”

Then they tell their story. They are cripples, mostly lame, who are
waiting for vehicles to take them back to the dressing-stations. They
have been in the trenches for a month; they have fought; they give
details of their battles. We do not see them. We hear only detached
phrases which come to us confusedly out of the night.

“A dirty hole. We lost a heap of men.”

“There’s a fort up there which we recaptured.”

“There were three counter-attacks.”

“Then, a dirty canal full of rotten meat. What a stink!”

Suddenly some furious detonations rend the air. Every one is silent. We

“That’s nothing,” say the old-timers, “it’s only our battery firing.
But if the Boches answer you will see something!”

“Do they often reply?”

“Hell, yes! Every day. Half of the village is already pounded to


It is true. A comrade who has been prowling around outside comes back:

“The next farmhouse is demolished. The roof is gone and the walls are
like a sieve.”

“Silence!” growl the sergeants. “Go to sleep. You must fall in at five
o’clock to-morrow morning.”

The conversations cease. Each one picks out a place, buries himself in
the straw, and sinks into sleep as a ship is engulfed by the waves.

It is our first night under fire. Perhaps some of us do not find
untroubled slumber, but there is no alarm and to stay awake is useless.
Besides, there is nothing to do but sleep. So we sleep.

At dawn we are afoot. We can see that the war is not far distant. The
near-by houses are disembowelled, and such walls as still stand are
pierced by great round holes where the shells passed. Certain roofs
seem like lace, their rafters blackened by fire and rain. We are
curious, and run about that we may not miss seeing any of the damage
done by the bombardment.

“Back to your quarters!” cry the non-coms. “To go out is forbidden.”

We hardly heard them, and they had to use force to hold back the men
and prevent their scattering in the village streets. The officers came
to the rescue. Then we obeyed. Soon came the order to fall in, the roll
was called, and as soon as the knapsacks were buckled to the shoulders
we started on. We were going to the trenches.

The cannonade incessantly grew louder. We followed a road bordered
with trees and masked by underbrush; a road leading toward the noise.
Every eye sought for signs of this unknown thing into which we were
marching. They were not lacking. Everywhere broken branches hung from
the trees, and frequently we passed ruined houses whose peasant owners
dumbly watched our marching troop. On we marched. We crossed a bridge
and entered another village, a hamlet entirely deserted, mutilated,
horrible to look at, like a wounded man lying on the ground. Its
houses, after their years of tranquillity, had suffered a terrible
assault. They were riddled with shells; their walls were like a
moth-eaten garment. We could see the interiors still fully furnished;
curtains still hanging at windows where all the glass had been
shattered; half-open buffets, occasionally with their mirrors intact.
Only a glimpse did we catch as we passed. Then we left the ruins and,
for a time, followed a canal. This we crossed by a frail foot-bridge
and found ourselves in a narrow ditch--a communication-trench--the
first we had seen. We descended into the earth, following this narrow
chink which reached to our shoulders and, at times, entirely concealed
us. This boyau wound its way about, turning and zigzagging apparently
without reason. We traversed it in single file, seeing nothing but
the back of the man in front and the two walls of smooth clay cut
perpendicularly to the bottom.

It was a sight unfamiliar to all: an extraordinary journey, a thing of
mystery, the entering of an infernal region where feelings of humanity
were left behind.

Suddenly a rapid whistling passed over our heads, which were lowered in
one simultaneous movement. Another followed, then another and, a little
behind us, three explosions resounded with a noise like the tearing of
silk amid a jangling of metals. We had received our baptism of fire.

We advanced more quickly in an eagerness to reach our underground home.
We bumped the walls, sometimes so close together that our knapsacks
stuck fast, so that we had to tear them loose with a considerable
effort. All the time we shuddered at the nasty whistle of the shells,
which passed to fall and crash behind. One felt that he must escape;
must get out of this place where, if he remained, he was sure to be
mashed like a strawberry in a marmalade. The march quickened so that we
almost ran, staggering against the trench walls at every sudden turn of
its meandering course and always, above us, that terrible screaming and
those crashing explosions.

Lord! But our cheeks were pale and our looks anxious. Later we stood
it better as we became accustomed to it. This, however, was our first
moment under fire, our first meeting with the foe, and we felt crushed
by the narrow confines of this fissure in which we could only follow
the column--a column without end, which straggled over too great a
length in spite of the efforts of the officers to hurry the men and to
close up the distances.

Suddenly we emerged into open ground. A railroad-embankment with its
rails in place, its telegraph-poles still standing and occasionally a
flagman’s house still in good condition, hid us from the enemy. At one
bound we glued ourselves to this embankment, flattening our bodies on
the ground; for the German shells continued to lash the air, while out
on the plain gray puffs marked their explosions.

Some comrades, whose easy gait showed their familiarity with the place,
were already advancing toward us. They motioned to us and pointed out
the dugouts.

“This way. Don’t stay there.”

We followed their directions on the run and entered by groups into the
shelters they had indicated. Here, packed together so closely that we
could not budge, we waited for the storm to pass. In the abri were some
wounded on their way to the dressing-station, and we felt the deepest
emotion at seeing the stretchers with their mangled and groaning

At last the firing stopped. We waited for orders. The sergeants were
called together for instruction. Soon they came back and then our
work began. We first laid aside our knapsacks and grouped ourselves
by squads. Then we picked out tools from a long pile of shovels and
pickaxes, and followed the non-coms along the embankment, a little
nervous, it is true, but curious about the work we were to do.

“Two picks, one shovel,” came the order. “Two picks, one shovel,”
repeated the sergeants as they placed us at our distances.

“Voilà! You are going to dig here. Loosen the ground with the picks and
clear it away with the shovels. Do you understand?”

Then we went at the work. It was the beginning of our first trench.
Gradually we heated up; we hacked at the soil; we shovelled it away;
we spat on our hands; we struck again; we wiped away the perspiration.
Occasionally some shells seemed to leap over the embankment and passed,
screeching, on their way. We dodged at the sound and then laughed at
our involuntary movement. Then we straightened up to catch our breath,
and in the moment inspected our workyard and glimpsed the neighborhood.
The embankment of the _chemin de fer_ entirely protected us from the
enemy. At a little distance two rows of trees marked the way of the
canal we had crossed. Between the parallel lines of the canal and the
railroad was a field of beets, humped in places with bodies of men that
one had not had time to bury; while here and there crosses marked the
fallen of the earlier days of the struggle.

We saw all this at a glance, and quickly bent ourselves back to the
earth and our toil. Our rifles hampered us in our work, and we laid
them on the freshly heaped-up earth, taking care to protect them
from sand. We did not know why they were making us do this digging,
or what good purpose was to be served by our labor; but we worked on
unremittingly, proud to accomplish the necessary task, proud to be at
work and to feel so calm in the midst of war.

“You are lucky,” said one of the veterans standing near by. “The sector
is calm to-day. You would not have been able to do that yesterday.”

“Lively, was it?”

“You’ve said something. But tell me, have you come to relieve us? It’s
not a bit too soon.”

“We don’t know.”

“It’s likely that is what we’re here for,” added some one.

In reality, no; we did not know. They had sent us there and there we
stayed. After all, no one seemed able to give us an explanation, and
we didn’t try to explain things ourselves. They told us to hurry and
we hurried. That was all. In the meantime our tracks were burying
themselves. The ditch was already knee-deep, and by so much it
diminished the stature of each of the diggers. No one stopped us, so
we kept on, digging furiously, as if the final victory depended on our
effort of this moment.

When evening came and twilight enveloped us in her soft, purple
mantle, the violent note of the cannon barked only intermittently,
and the gusts of bullets, wailing in the air, sounded like swarms of
musical insects swiftly regaining their homes. We believed the hour of
repose was near. But we were mistaken: another task awaited us. It was
necessary to take advantage of the night to cross the embankment, gain
the first line and take our position.

In these first weeks of intrenched warfare, movements of this sort were
relatively easy. We were hidden in the darkness: we had only to leap
the embankment and move to our places. The enemy replied only when he
heard a noise, and fired quite at random. His commonest field-piece was
the light seventy-seven, which barked loudly but did little damage,
and the workmen of the two camps matched their skill at only a hundred
metres’ distance, without hurting each other very much.

This evening they placed us behind some trees at a roadside.

“Fire only on order,” said the officers. “One of our companies is
out in front fixing the wire. If you fire, you risk wounding your

They repeated their instructions to the sergeants and thus began
our first night at the front. Each one watched as well as he could,
straining his eyes in the effort to pierce the blackness, hearing the
blows of the mallets on the stakes and thrilling at the fusillade.

A night is long. A night in November is cold. It freezes. We shivered
out there in the dark, but we did not dare to budge. The noise of
shooting was almost constant, and bullets were striking everywhere
about us, ringing on the stones, clipping twigs from the trees or
sinking dully into the soil. Our teeth chattered; we shivered; we tried
to warm our hands by rubbing them. Some rash ones stamped their feet
to restore the circulation, and from time to time we heard a muffled
conversation. We didn’t know where we were nor the distance which
separated us from the enemy. We feared a possible ambush, a surprise
attack maybe, and we pinched ourselves to keep awake. The hours seemed
deadly long.

At last we saw the dirty gray of dawn overspread the sky and slowly
dissipate the thick mist that rose from the earth. Clumps of trees
and underwood, little by little, took form. No sooner were they fully
visible than a terrible fusillade broke out, lashing the air like a
thousand hisses; a crackling shower of bullets that rolled and rattled
like hail. They cut the branches just above us and made the pebbles
fly. We crouched to the ground; buckling our sacks, gripping our
guns, hunching our shoulders and tensing our legs to be ready for the
expected attack.

“Get ready to go back,” whispered the sergeants and the order was
repeated along the line. We crept, we crawled like slugs, profiting by
the smallest tuft of grass, the shallowest recess in the ground that
might serve as a shield, but with little hope of escape.

Some furious discharges of seventy-fives cracked with such rapidity
and precision that they comforted us. We felt sustained and protected
and steadied ourselves. We were annoyingly hampered by our heavy
equipment, our inconvenient cartridge-boxes and all our cumbersome
accoutrement. Suddenly a man was wounded. He cried out, and, losing all
prudence, arose, ran, crossed the embankment and fled to the shelter.
Instinctively we followed his example. On the way another man was
wounded and fell. Two of his companions seized him and, dragging him
between them, struggled to safety, in the shelter of the railroad-bank.
It was finished. We reassembled. We were muddy, bruised, and wounded;
eyes red from loss of sleep, and mouths drawn, but, just the same, we
were content. Thenceforth we were soldiers. We had faced danger. True,
we had not fought, but we were ready.

Our rôle had just commenced. We had occupied this sector to fit it
up as this novel thing, this underground war, demanded. This task
achieved, we were to be its defenders. It was necessary to dig
trenches that we might no longer watch from the scanty shelter of
trees; to improve on these primitive holes that had been dug, to serve
temporarily, at the beginning of the battle. Therefore we dug trenches.
It was necessary to connect them with communication-channels. Therefore
we dug boyaux. We had to install redans, build firing benches or
banquettes[C] and construct dugouts. All these things we did. We dug
in the earth day and night. We gathered up cubic metres of soil and
threw them out in front to heighten our parapet. We used our shovels
and picks; we sweat; we suffered; we froze.

The winter rolled on. December brought intense cold. Ice and snow
covered the land, and while we watched the foe, our rifles froze in
the loopholes. We ate when we were lucky. The kitchens were far in the
rear, and when the soup and coffee arrived they were ice-cold. The
service men started early with their mess-pails, but they stumbled
in the trenches and often spilled more of the soup and wine than
they brought. We ate badly; we slept little: we always dug. We never
rested. There were heavy materials to be carried; the stakes for the
entanglements, the spools of wire, the sheet iron, the posts, and the
timbers. There was nightly patrol duty, the hours on guard, the attack
to repulse, endless holes to be bored in the earth. In the daytime
one slept where he could, curling up in the mud at the bottom of the
trench or seeking to avoid the rain by crawling into some fissure.
At night we stole out into No Man’s Land and stalked the foe or dug
a listening-post. We watched the illuminating rockets. We plunged to
shelter when they threatened to expose us to fire.

We lived there some strenuous hours, some terrible weeks. Some suffered
from trench foot, some froze to death, some were killed. These are
terrible things: these nights on guard, these nights hugging the ground
when on patrol, these nights in the listening-post when the body
chills, becomes numb, and loses all sensation. One goes on detail and
loses one’s way. One falls, dumb with fatigue, and an alarm sounds. One
starts to sleep and an attack rages.

War is a thing of horror. It is more. The very soil is hollowed out
like dens of beasts; and into these creep human beings. The rain
saturates the trench and rots legs and wood alike. The corpse hangs
on the wire and serves as a target. War is cold, war is black, war is
night. It is, in truth, such a horror that those who have lived these
hours may say: “I was there. But to tell about it is to live it over
again. And that is too much.”

[Illustration: Emmanuel Bourcier at the front in the sector of Rheims
in 1915.]

As for us, we suffered. At first we had no dugouts and slept beneath
the open sky. We had no trenches and stalked our foe while waist-deep
in mud. In December’s cold we had no fire. This which we saw, which we
defended, which the foe destroyed, was France. Our land was invaded,
profaned by the German, and we could not retake it. These conquered
forests, these occupied cities, these subjugated plains, these
mountains polluted, were our native soil and we could not regain them.
The sacred homeland was under the boot of the German. Was this the
death-rattle in the throat of the republic?



The severe winter ran its course. We had worked incessantly. We had
a whole sector to ourselves. First, there was the tangled network
of barbed-wire, a piece of work in which we all had a share. Each
evening, as night fell, a company of men went out on No Man’s Land to
work in the thick, treacherous darkness. One gang dug holes and put
in the posts, another stretched the parallel wires, another attached
the transverse wires. As this required great blows of a mallet, it
made considerable noise, which drew down the enemy’s gun-fire. As
they gained experience, the men went out rapidly, worked swiftly,
and returned to our trenches only when their task was accomplished.
At dawn, the Boches tried to destroy our work of the night before,
by firing many volleys into the network. The damage was never
considerable, and they stopped that game when, imitating them, we cut
their barbed-wire to pieces.

Under that efficacious protection we contrived openings for listening
and firing trenches. At the first, two men alternated in a constant
lookout, with ear quick to catch any sound, with eyes strained to
observe the most minute sign. Behind them, on the benches,[D] entire
sections, with guns poised in the loopholes, waited and watched
from twilight to dawn, while the others slept, down in the shelters

This organization constituted the first lines in the spring of 1915,
when we hoped for an early victory. So temporary did the work appear
to be, we spent no more time and effort on our trench systems than
seemed necessary for immediate purposes. The dugouts were of the
most limited dimensions, really kennels, large enough for two men
to sleep fairly comfortably, but which usually housed six, no one
knows how. One came there overcome by sleep. One threw himself on
the ground without removing his accoutrement, and was asleep almost
before touching the earth. To afford some protection against the
bitter wind, a cloth was stretched in front of the opening. While this
shut out the unwelcome breezes, it also shut in a concentrated, hot
and malodorous steam, composed of the mouldy moisture from the earth
itself, of human perspiration and panting exhalations, of wet leather
and clothing. However, one breathed somehow. When the time was up,
and one went out to resume work or watching, the icy air enveloped
one like a sepuchral winding-sheet, and the night blinded one’s eyes.
One followed the communication-trench, took up gun or shovel, as the
order might happen to be, and became either soldier or laborer; or,
more often, both at once. Everything was done at night. Everything was
dismal, dangerous, frightful. There was no real repose, no relaxation.
The incessant shell-fire added its horror to our other discomforts and
dangers. The shell! that insensate creature of chance, which bursts
over the innocent, scatters its fragments over the plain, and in
stupid indifference crushes a clod of earth or snuffs out the lives of
a hundred human beings. The shell! that monster which comes with a
moaning wail, invisible as a beast of darkness, and dies in a shower of

One easily becomes familiar with its sound. At first, every shot was
terrifying. Then we learned to know approximately what course a shell
would follow, at what point it would fall. Then we ceased to listen
to or fear any but those coming our way. No others counted. They were

Before we reached this point of familiarity, the salvos of that
plaything, the seventy-five, made us shudder. They came so fast that
we scarcely had time to distinguish the individual shots. Immediately
the deadly whistling object skimmed the ground, and the explosion
resounded. Some men turned pale, others paid little attention.

Berthet and I found much in this life to interest us. We ran about to
see whatever could be seen. As soon as a cannonade began, we went in
that direction for the pleasure of observing it. We volunteered for all
sorts of difficult tasks, tempted by the risk, enticed by the eternal
charm of adventure. He was brave, was Berthet, but knew not how brave
he was. Sometimes I sought to restrain him, at which he was always
astonished. “I wish to know,” he said, “if I will be afraid.” And he
had his way. He went out on the embankment, where he inspected the
horizon regardless of the projectiles which saluted his silhouette as
soon as he appeared.

We had some magnificent spectacles. One evening there was a bombardment
followed by infantry attack. The German uneasiness had been evident in
the morning. It expressed itself by a storm of projectiles which fell
aimlessly and did little damage. The shells cut the grass, exploded
like a sheaf of fireworks, sent the dirt flying high into the air. It
worried us at first, then, as we found ourselves safe in the shelter
of our deep trenches, assurance returned. Each man went about his
business. Some were detailed to dig a tunnel, one must go to the
kitchens to fetch soup and bread, another cleaned the arms, rusted
during the night by the fog, or in the morning by the dew. All the
same, this violent bombardment troubled our officers not a little; they
feared a surprise. We had a visit from our general toward evening. He
gave some orders, took a look at the loopholes of observation, and
went away apparently content. His calm was most reassuring.

Calm is not everything in war. The plans of the enemy must also be
taken into account. The Boche artillery became violent. Over our
trenches streamed a fire of shells of all calibers mingled. They fell
tearing away whole banks of earth at once; they exploded thunderously,
in a cloud of dust and stinking smoke. We looked for the worst; we
suspected a close attack, a hand-to-hand clash. Suddenly a great cry
rang out:

“The gas!”

It was true. Over there, from the enemy’s lines, came great greenish
balls, rolling close to the earth, rolling deliberately yet swiftly,
rolling straight toward us. Gas! That horrible thing, still almost
unknown, which had been used for the first time only recently on the
Yser. It was coming with deadly surety amidst a tornado of artillery.
Orders were shouted back and forth:

“The gas! Put on the masks!”

Each man spread over his face the protecting cloth. The shelters
were closed. The telephone, whose wires ran the length of the
communication-trenches, gave the warning: “Look out! The gas!”

We did not yet know what manner of horror it was. None of us had
experienced an attack of the sort. We ran to and fro like ants whose
hill has been molested. Some fired their guns at random, others awaited
orders. The frightful, livid thing came on, expanded to a cloud, crept
upon us, glided into the trenches. The air was quickly obscured. We
were swimming in an atmosphere stained a venomous color, uncanny,
indescribable. The sky appeared greenish, the earth disappeared. The
men staggered about for a moment, took a gasping breath, and rolled
on the ground, stifled. There were some knots of soldiers who had
been asleep in their beds when overtaken by the gas. They writhed in
convulsions, with vitals burning, with froth on the lips, calling for
their mothers or cursing the German. We gathered them up as best we
could; we took them to the doctors, who, thus confronted by an unknown
condition, found themselves powerless. They tried the application of
oxygen and ether in an effort to save the lives of the victims, only
to see them die, already decomposed, in their hands.

The masks had not yet been perfected and were a poor protection.
Some ran about like madmen, shrieking in terror, the throat choked
with saliva, and fell in heaps, in contortions of agony. Some filled
the mouth with handfuls of grass and struggled against asphyxiation.
Others, down in the shelters, sprinkled face and neck with brackish
water, and awaited a death all too long in coming.[E] Over all this
the artillery shrieked in unchained madness. The sky was of steel,
quivering and molten. There were no longer any distinctly heard shots,
but a storm of fire. It roared, it whistled, it exploded without
respite, as if all the furies of hell were yelping, in a thick,
metallic sky. At the left, little by little, an ever-reddening glow
showed the neighboring city of Rheims, which the Boches were bombarding
in a mad rage of destruction. We saw the flames leap up, the houses
kindle like torches and throw toward the sky clouds of sparks and
streams of black and red smoke. Everything seemed flaming and tottering
and falling in a wild delirium. The earth itself opened to swallow the
last survivors. In the trenches the bodies of the dead were heaped, and
twisted or bleeding corpses choked the passageways.

Fiercely, convulsively, desperately, the comrades who were unhurt
fought at their loopholes. Reinforcements came from the rear in haste,
and took their places. Their eyes were those of madmen, their breath
was panting.

“The assault will be here in a minute, boys,” I said to my nearest
neighbors. “Look out for yourselves. Have your cartridges ready. You,
there, lift your gun higher, or you will fire badly! And you, aim
toward that corner you see over there!”

Berthet helped me, with a tragic manner of responsibility; the
underofficers ran from one man to another crying: “Keep cool! We will
get them! Just let them come on!”

Then the action rushed on even more furiously, more demoniac. In the
midst of the increased cannonade the gun-fire rattled. It commenced at
the left, gained the centre, reached the right. The whole line crackled
like the beginning of a roll of thunder. We could no longer see ahead
of us. We fired as fast as possible, without knowing where, cutting
into space.

“Here they are! Keep cool!”

In the dim light a gray mass was oscillating. As it rapidly advanced,
we could distinguish small objects on the plain, like moving blades
of grass. We fired: cries could be heard. We fired more rapidly. The
gas was dissipating, but the night was becoming thick. Our only light
was the blazing city of Rheims and the glow of shells. The pandemonium
increased. One could distinguish only his immediate neighbor, lifting
his gun, firing, recoiling from the discharge, replacing the spent
cartridge with a full one. The pungent taste of burnt powder penetrated
the throat. We sweat. We no longer feared. We pulled the trigger; we
were fighting, we were defending the soil, the trench, the sector, in a
blind rage. _They should not take it!_ They should give up; they should
fall back. We would kill them all rather than permit their feet to
contaminate the spot we were guarding.

This endured for more than an hour, this insane uproar of shrieking
voices, crashing cannon, cracking rifles; while Rheims, in flames threw
to the wind her streamers of light.

We had no accurate idea of the battle as a whole. Each man acted for
himself, for the little corner of ground in range of his rifle, for
the piece of trench which he was holding. At one side, the Boches
jumped into the trench, cut the throats of the nearest men, then fell,
themselves stabbed by bayonets. At another point they penetrated
the barbed-wire entanglements, remained caught there, struggling to
free themselves, and were cut to pieces by our fire. Farther on, our
shells crushed them. We were scarcely conscious of it. We elbowed our
neighbors, we exchanged encouragement, we shrieked when we would speak.
We were so intense, so full of fury, that many were frothing when
commanded to desist. The underofficers exhausted themselves in crying
halt, and had to shake each man to awaken him, to bring him to himself,
to make him understand. We felt exasperated.

However, the cannonade was decreasing in violence. The gun-fire ceased,
reviving only at intervals. The stretcher-bearers ran up, took away
the wounded, picked up the tortured gas victims, whose lungs creaked
like the bellows of a forge. The battle was over. The Boches were
repulsed. In spite of their gas, in spite of the surprise, in spite
of their cannon, they left on the field before us almost a battalion:
sprawling corpses, dismembered like broken puppets; dead men who gaped
at the stars; wounded who soon were dead. Our losses were considerable,
theirs were much greater. Twenty of their number remained with us as
prisoners. Haggard and stunned, they were led to the rear for the

       *       *       *       *       *

“Well, how has it been?” I asked Berthet, as I gripped his hand. “It
was superb!” he responded. There was a hole in his coat. “Not touched?”
“No, a ball just missed taking me off.” He said it with a calm which
I admired. He concealed from me the fact that he had breathed the
abominable vapors.

After all, it was only a local action on our line. It was not, in the
generally accepted sense, a battle. All of us have seen much greater
since then. However, on account of the gas, this first engagement is
vividly present in our memory, a recollection never to be effaced. It
was an encounter so strange! That foul vapor which enveloped the earth,
which ate its way into the fibre of the clothing we wore, corroded and
withered the leaves on the trees, and changed the aspect of God’s sane
creation into a distorted image of hell, will remain forever one of
the deepest infamies of the Germans. After contact with this poisoned
cloud, nothing retained its original appearance. The arms were red
without being rusty, the color of uniforms was changed. There were very
few of our men suffering from gun or bayonet wounds, but whole mounds
of those who died in convulsions: poor, twisted dead, who agonized in
dying; so disfigured their own mothers could not have recognized them.
Some of them were wringing their hands, others were swallowing stones,
others seemed to be rammed into the earth like stakes. This was not
war; it was worse. This was not the rain of bullets which pierce the
flesh, or break a skull in passing. This was not the brutal shell,
which bursts to fragments, scatters in a thousand directions and mows
down a group of men as gayly as a child knocks down a house of cards.
This was another matter. It was the very air turned accomplice of the
enemy; blinded eyes, frothing mouth, rotted lungs, a breast on fire;
every effort exerted redoubling the torture; the rescuer struck down
above the man he attempted to save; the officer suffering like his men;
the telephone-operator seized in his shelter, the courier arrested in
his course, all alike smothered and struggling with death. This was a
breath from the depths of hell, this diabolic invention, which that
monster, the German Junker, forced men to choose: weapon of meanness
and treachery, which sets at naught the valor of both defender and



When the life fantastic becomes the life ordinary, when one is at
the centre of prodigious events which unroll more rapidly than the
picture on the screen, and appear in ever-new guise, the astonishing
thing becomes a natural thing; the unheard-of becomes the expected.
A distortion of sensation is produced; the brain registers only that
which surpasses the climax of what has already been experienced; as on
mountain heights, peaks which have been surmounted appear low, and the
climber feels that only those are high which are still above him.

Thus it became the ordinary thing for Berthet and me, as for our
companions, to live in the extraordinary and the supernatural. We felt
quite at home in it, and moved at our ease in a situation which, for
him at least, would have been untenable a few short months before. We
had become soldiers like the others, eating, when we could, a meagre
and coarse ration; sleeping when it was possible; in constant danger
of death, but avoiding it apparently by instinct. We lived with no
more care than the beasts of the field; with beards long, hands dirty.
We dug in the earth, as did all the rest; we watched at the parapets
with eyes puffed from lack of sleep. Uncouthness grew upon us, and we
appeared, at dawn, in the glacial cold, muffled up in pieces of cloth
and skins of animals; hairy, hideous, and fearsome.

We were on patrol duty one night. Creeping about, we passed the
listening-post and advanced on No Man’s Land. Like savages, we stalked
the enemy for hours, trying to surprise some unknown men: soldiers
like ourselves, who might be lost between the lines; men anxious like
ourselves, and like ourselves afraid of death and suffering. Then we
returned, annoyed to come back without having bagged a foe; regretful
that we had not been able to spill some man’s blood. However----

“However”--thus we reasoned.

Often, in the evening, when we were free between periods of sentry
duty, we would delay our share of heavy sleep wherein one forgot
all; when one lay stretched like a beast in a stable, on a little
straw in the depth of a retreat, poorly protected from the wind and
the shells. We would walk the hundred paces of the length of the
communication-trench, conversing.

The night enveloped us; the night palpitating with the noise of battle.
We could hear the crack of rifles and the roar of cannon. Sometimes
the flying steel whirled over our heads with its weird whistle. Some
corvées passed, heavily loaded, carrying materials for attack and
defense. Habituated as we were to the sight and sound, oblivious to
the familiar racket, we walked quite tranquilly, in spirit far removed
from our surroundings, expanding our thoughts and confiding our dreams.
All sorts of subjects shared our attention: art, history, literature,
politics, we touched upon them all, commented upon all as if we had
been a hundred leagues away from the war, as if no other occupation
had the least claim upon us. The contrast was so vivid, the difference
so striking, that sometimes we stopped and exclaimed in amazement at

By this time we had no childish vanity in the matter. Our sense of
pride was rather above it. We called no one’s attention to our calm
indifference. No! It was night, we were lost in the shadows, no one
could see us. We were simply relaxing our brains in withdrawing our
thought from the present; in leading it, by means of conversation,
toward the past and the future.

One particular desire which we held in common was frequently mentioned:
we wished to visit Rheims, which was quite near. Our regiment formed
a part of the troops of coverture of the city. However, we could not
enter the town without permission, and this could not be obtained
without good reason. We finally found an excuse, and the rest was easy.

One morning, armed with our permit, we set out. The expedition was not
without danger. For several months, since we had occupied the trenches
at the north of the city, we had known that the Boches were obstinately
bent upon its destruction. Every day brought its rain of shells. We
could see the flames shoot up, we could see writhing columns of smoke
mount to the heavens. No matter; the visit tempted us, and the most
violent storm of iron and fire would not have deterred us.

So we went. We prepared our minds, as we thought, for every
possible surprise; we were not prepared for what we were destined
to find. Approaching by the Faubourg Cires, we entered a ruin. We
saw nothing but demolished houses, entire streets swept by machine
fire, gnawed by flames, blackened by smoke. Tottering façades,
holding their equilibrium by a miracle, supported the skeletons of
apartment-buildings, in whose walls blackened shell-holes seemed
like dead eyes opened on a void. Heaps of plaster and stone fallen
from the walls rendered passage difficult and impeded our progress.
Occasionally, an entire section of wall would swing slowly, balance
for an instant, then fall in a cloud of dust. It was a house in its

After passing this scene of desolation, we entered a quarter still
intact, where, to our stupefaction, the city came to life again. There
only a few injuries to buildings were visible. Here and there a shell
had wounded a structure. The general appearance of everything was quite
peaceful. The inhabitants followed the usual routine of life with
apparent serenity. Open shops offered their merchandise. Young girls
came and went smiling. A pastry-cook spread out his tarts and nougats;
a stationer displayed his pencils and office supplies; a haberdasher’s
window was filled with collars and cravats. Nothing indicated war.
People went up and down about their business; old women gossiped on
their door-step, and peddlers cried their wares.

Around the Place Royale, which was absolutely in ruins, cabmen awaited
a fare, stroking the manes of their bony horses, or discussing the
price received for the last trip. In the public gardens mothers watched
their little ones at play, caressing them or scolding them, as if their
entire life were assured, as if no thought of anything unusual entered
their brain.

Was it bravery, indifference, habit? Who knows? We were dumbfounded.
What! In a city crushed by shells, tortured by fire, subjected to the
most barbarous treatment, how was it possible to be so matter-of-fact?
Could the life of the populace continue in its usual channels,
indifferent to danger, removed from fear, calm as in time of peace?

We must look closer to perceive under the surface the explanation of
the anomaly; everywhere, people seated or standing observed a patient
discipline in using only one side of the street: the one exposed to the
direct shock of the shells. Only a city long exposed to bombardment
could conceive such a mechanical precaution. It is a protection,
because the shell, in falling, bursts; its splinters fly in the
opposite direction to that taken by the projectile.

We soon saw the working out of the principle. Attracted by an open
shop, we made some purchases at our leisure. A sinister shriek crossed
the sky, and a racket followed. “They are bombarding,” calmly remarked
the young woman who served us. She listened. “It is at the cathedral.”
Then she continued, most unconcernedly: “Let us see! Some braid? It is
at the other counter. You get the buttons here, and the wool and the
thread. Is that all you wish? That makes a franc sixty.”

Another roar, this time nearer. The street was immediately deserted. So
quickly that a stranger could not observe the action, every passer-by
disappeared. Every one went underground, somewhere, into an open
cellar. It happened as naturally and quickly as in ordinary times when
people find shelter from a sudden shower. They knew that the hour to
seek cover had arrived. The shower of steel would last until evening,
and would not cease until a new quarter was obliterated. It was the
turn of one _faubourg_, therefore the others would escape this time.
Consequently, outside the zone attacked, existence might continue as

Already the rescue squads were running in the direction of the falling
shells, as resolute and well disciplined as when at drill. Duty called
them. They responded, “Present,” without fear or hesitation: down there
people were dying under the ruins of their homes. The stretcher-bearers
rescued the injured in the midst of the tumult. If they had been
praised for their heroism, they would have resented the praise as an

When recovered from our first astonishment, Berthet and I set out. This
martyred city, so tragic and so calm, seemed to us superhuman. We found
it beautiful. We felt a desire to weep, to cry out, as we looked at its
reddened walls, its yawning windows and wrecked roofs. We went about
gently, as one walks in a place of suffering and sorrow. In our rather
aimless wandering, reverent as in a sacred place, we came suddenly in
front of the cathedral.

It rose before us like a queen, at the turn of the street. The lofty
façade, stained by fire in shades of gold and blood, lifted its proud
head to the sky. The towers were like two arms stretched imploringly
toward heaven: one reddened by fire, the other clothed by the centuries
in the blue veil which shrouds ancient monuments. Between them the
shattered rose-window seemed to moan distractedly: a silent sob. That
dumb mouth in that fire-reddened face seemed to cry with such hatred,
with such anguish, that we stopped, gripped by the sight.

It was there that the great Crime had written its name! There, where
France had inscribed the most sacred things of her history; there, by
the cradle of the nation, on the book always open, the assassin had
left his thumb-print; his infamy remained inscribed in each gaping
wound, on each fallen statue. The high towers attested to heaven the
execrable violence. The roof was gone, like the scalp which the savage
tears from the head of his victim. The eyes of God could search to the
flagstones and judge with one glance the foul deed.

Outside the church the _Place_ was gloomy, but sublime. By an effect of
fatality, it had become the dwelling-place of the holy relics driven
from the interior. The tabernacle was no longer in the heart of the
cathedral, but scattered in fragments around it: the choir encircled
the church. Fragments of stained-glass replaced the organ-pipes, and
the wind moaned through the leaden groins, and chanted the dirge of the
sacred spot.

Cathedral! Church thrice holy! The murderer tried to destroy thee:
he has given thee eternal life. He tried to gag and choke thee:
but the voice from thy tortured throat resounds higher and clearer
throughout the world. In his stupidity he believed he could annihilate
thee: instead, he has glorified thee. Cathedral! A song in stone, a
hymn--hymn too ethereal for the human ear to catch; a poem of beauty
and light, which the sodden Boche thought to efface, but which stands
resplendent, a witness of his shame, before humanity and eternal
righteousness. Divine, immortal cathedral! Men have never created a
human prayer more sublime than art thou, bombarded. The German shell
believed it had power to destroy thee. It has crushed thine arches and
broken thy wings. Thou hadst no need of wings to soar. As a spirit of
light thou hast floated above the city; now thou rulest over the city
the war, and France; as a symbol, thou art resplendent over all the
world. Rheims, thou wert the shrine of France; broken, thou art become
her emblem. Thou art no longer ours alone. Thy majesty rises unshaken,
triumphant, a divine intelligence facing savage cruelty; a barrier
touched, but not destroyed, defying bestiality.

We had no words to express our emotions. We walked about, in silent
exaltation. From its purple shroud, still smoking, the enormous
basilique spoke to us. Great scenes in history were enacted in its
sacred precincts: all the sacred kings, the noble sons of France;
Clovis baptized by St. Remy; Charles VII led by Jeanne d’Arc, whose
bronze image still defies the enemy from the porch of the church;
Charles X, last king anointed in this august place--all, all were there
as restless phantoms; powerful, saintly, silent, looking on. We were
satiated with emotion, bewildered by a hundred beauties: the light
through the broken arches, the fragments of art treasures in the dust
at our feet, the scintillating glass on the flagstones. We went away,
fairly giddy with its impassioned grandeur.

The increased cannonade directed our course. It was impossible to
remain longer. We crossed the forsaken park and made a détour around
the deserted station. Behind us lay a city of silence, but her
martyrdom continued incessantly. Shrill whirrings made the air quiver.
Shells growled above the roofs, leaped the streets, crossed the
squares, threatened, fell and exploded. There was a sudden crash of
collapsing floors and of tumbling masonry. A quarter, somewhere in the
city, was being pounded to dust and débris; an entire quarter was being
hammered out of existence. Clouds of plaster filled the air; great
stones crumbled.

Families were unable to escape. Their homes, which should have
sheltered them, were thrown wide open to the brutal dangers of the
street. The invalid’s bed tottered in the ruins, the baby was thrown
from its cradle. The old man died at the side of the youth, the wife
in the arms of her husband, the child at its mother’s breast. The
criminal extermination, determined upon and planned, was completing
its frightful work, was blotting out a city, was beating to death a
country. The Boche, squatting on the commanding heights, aimed his guns
with ease, made sure of his fire and picked out his prey. He struck
practically without risk to himself, sure to hit a target in the chaos
of roofs, to demolish and to destroy. A town--what an immense quarry!
The shell may fall where it will: it is sure to kill. The explosion
will burst in some window, will cross some bedchamber, will find some
victim. A town is a quarry more easily sighted than a battery. It is
huge, it is immovable, it cannot reply. One can destroy it without
danger to oneself.

Therefore the shells fell unerringly; only the flames and smoke made

We paid it no further attention.

       *       *       *       *       *

My poor Berthet, charming companion, and sharer of so many
unforgettable experiences, was unable to follow the regiment through
all its struggles. One day, while in the Rheims sector, he suffered
severely in a gas attack and the physicians ordered him to the rear for
treatment in one of the resting-camps. Gradually the soft air of France
healed his tortured lungs and started him on the path of recovery. The
German poison had, however, severely shaken his constitution and the
cure was slow. He was unable to rejoin us for the tragic trials at



Existence in the trenches is characterized by a monotony that soon
becomes a burden. It is made up of waiting and work: work in which a
man is by turns dirt-digger, sentinel, carpenter, and porter. There
is much time for rest and repose. It is a special type of life, which
recalls that of the sieges of olden days, when armies sat long months
at a time facing each other. One does not fight all the time. The vigil
is constant, but the struggle is not. There is the incessant watching
of the field in front, the unrelaxed tension of stalking the enemy; and
at the rear the staleness of inaction.

What is there to do? Sleep, certainly. Then find amusement, for the
time is long. The hours move slowly, night follows day and day night
without bringing change. Therefore, one must exercise his ingenuity.

One writes a lot of letters. There is always a relative to enlighten,
or a sweetheart to console, or a mother to entertain. Letters arrive
which are read and reread. Then the newspapers bring their limited
ration of news. We discuss their contents. We learn that the submarine
warfare is extending; that the Zeppelins have gone over England; that
the Bulgars are attacking the Roumanians; that a great parliamentary
speech has explained to the world the causes of the upheaval. Thus we
kill a few more minutes. Then ennui returns: dull tediousness that puts
the thumbscrews on the brain; homesickness for the distant fireside,
for the old life renounced for war; yearning for the past, still near
and yet so far. One wanders about and knows not what to do. One fellow
has some playing-cards and opens a game. We smoke, and dream, and
sew, and clean our arms. We await our turn at sentry duty. It rains.
We yawn. The sun comes out, one risks his life to pay a visit to his
neighbors. The picturesque ceases to be, by reason of familiarity.
One sees nothing of that which at first fixed his attention. The deep
trench where crazy grasses hang is a road only too well trodden. The
mess is stale, the card-game stupid. One is bored to death and utterly

Then the inveterate wag intervenes. He sings, he “joshes.” He brings
a laugh. The dying conversation revives. Those who were dozing sit up
again and take notice. Circles form. Each one tells a story, and the
long faces spread into smiles. Torpor is banished for a moment. The
man who was cutting a cane with his pocket-knife exhibits it. It is
fine and much admired. The man who hollowed out an inkstand from a fuse
brings it forth. His work is curious, dainty, and ornamental: bravo! A
painter is there, an artist, who brings out his album; he has a hundred
drawings, warm with color. Each man would like to possess a copy. That
is the end: there is nothing more. All this is too brief, and the time
is too long. We cast about for something new.

In a hut some one installs a museum. It is a collection of souvenirs
of the field of battle. The gathered trophies hang on the walls. A
Boche helmet is near a freakishly twisted splinter. A German trooper’s
sword-belt hangs near a saw-bayonet. There are cartridge-boxes,
fragments of guns, the button of a tassel from the sabre of a buried
German officer. Every one is interested in the work and brings his
contribution to enrich the collection. It does not belong to any one
in particular, but is owned jointly. It is the pride of the sector and
the joy of the regiment. It receives the _casse-tête_ picked up after
the last hand-to-hand scrimmage with the Boches; a reservoir of liquid
fire, whose bearer lies somewhere near the trench that he sought to
enter; some fragments of grenades--anything which one might pick up on
a kilometre of ground furrowed by projectiles, dug up by shells, or
ploughed by cannon-balls. Curious conglomeration! Glorious scraps of
iron! Mute witnesses of the fury of men, implements of their ferocity!

At another spot some man who loves the cultivation of the land cares
for a wee patch of garden. A garden, yes, that is what I said. In the
midst of the trenches. He has planted some pansies, a sprig of stock,
and three clumps of pinks. He waters them every morning, and watches
them carefully. Woe to any careless foot that might crush them! These
flowers, in the sombre surroundings, breathe perfume and poetry.

At another spot a fight between a dog and a rat is pulled off. A
lieutenant sets a fox-terrier on a promising hole of the rodents.
A group of men look on eagerly. One, armed with a pick, enlarges
the opening. Another removes a stone which was in the way. The dog,
trembling with excitement, sniffs, paws, digs, buries his nose
in the earth, scratches, reaches the animal at the bottom of his
retreat--seizes him! Good dog! He shakes the rat furiously, breaking
his back. The victor is applauded and petted.

Simple distractions, these! I will pass them by quickly. There is
the man who makes chains of welded wire; the one whose hobby is
photography. One mysterious fellow amuses himself with cookery. There
are some secret pursuits, like that of the inveterate hunters, who
place game-traps at twilight and at dawn endanger their lives to go
out to empty them. There are fishermen who drop lines in the canal. A
hundred avocations are followed on the edge of the war, side by side
with the service, in range of the cannon and punctuated by shells.

I had my occupation, as well as the others, you may be sure.
I published a newspaper: a great affair. A newspaper, in the
trenches--that savors at once of a trade and of an adventure. Title:
_The War Cry_, appearing once a month. Every month, then, I had a
problem: to get paper. An obliging cyclist had to bring it from the
village on the day fixed. He left it at the foot of a sapling, no
matter what the uproar overhead; no matter how large the edition of
shrapnel messages from the Germans. Oh, honest pulp, intended for a
simple life, into what scenes of adventure art thou thrust!

In one trench the print-shop was twenty feet underground. It was
illuminated by three night-lamps, set in a triangle. At another place
the shop was on a level with the surface of the ground, and the
bombardment scattered sand and pebbles over the proof. At another
time it was installed in a bedroom of a ruined house. As there was no
roof to catch the rain, it fell in large tears on the printer and the
printing. No matter! The number was issued, illustrated. It was eagerly
sought, and the copies circulated briskly, carrying gratuitous joy,
smoothing knit brows, bringing a laugh, and, finally, carrying to the
rear the gayety of the front.

When I look back upon these labors, they seem to me childish. In their
place, they were amazing. The Great Tragedy held us constantly in its
clutch. The man who was polishing a ring for his fiancée did not finish
it: that very evening a ball or a piece of shell shattered the work and
destroyed the worker. The man who was carving a walking-stick was a
mutilated wreck before his work was finished. The danger was incessant.
In these occupations we sought distraction from the thought of it all,
but one could never ward off that which fate held in store for him.
It was an intermission snatched from ennui; a truce; and when one was
doing fairly well, thinking no more of physical discomfort and mental
anguish, suddenly the cannon barked, the alarm was sounded, and the
dance of hell was on again!

“Outside: trench thirteen!”

Then we ran. We left the rings and walking-sticks and the newspaper.
_The War Cry_--It was the real war cry now. The Boche had come upon
us by stealth. It might be night or day, morning or evening. He
slid, he crept, he crouched, he jumped into our trench. We must
hack him to pieces with grenades. Then we must put up again a fallen
splinter-shield, reconstruct an observation-post, open again a
filled-up trench. The shells came like gusts of wind, the shrapnel
flew, smoked, and stunk.

Or, at another time, it was our turn to leap out, run to the assault,
take a trench, hold it, and guard it.

It was necessary, from time to time, to go to the rear that we might
enjoy some real security and relaxation.

The relief! Who will ever adequately sing its praise? It came at night,
ordinarily. Two or three days before the event the sector saw strangers
arrive for a visit, officers and sergeants, who looked around and took
instructions. This is the way they were shown about:

“Look out at this point. This part of the trench seems to be in easy
range of the guns.”

“This is a bad corner. Torpedoes hit it every morning. Go by quickly
over there, for you can be seen.”

“Every man who passes this spot is saluted by a bullet. We have some
wounded every evening.”

They took notes, made observations and inquiries. We looked upon their
activities with satisfaction. They were the forerunners of comrades
who were about to come, in their turn, to enjoy a period in the open
country--underground. They never came too soon. Already we were making
up our packets, putting our affairs in order, buckling our knapsacks,
filling our side-bags.

We departed fewer than we came. We left some chums in the earth, under
humble mounds marked with a cross. There was one man surprised when
on patrol--he was carried back dying in the arms of his companions.
Another, disembowelled by a grenade, fell at his post without a cry. We
had known these men, we had loved them. One was gay, one was grave. All
were loyal comrades whom we would never see again. When killed they had
remained all day lying at their posts. A cloth was thrown over them,
concealing the face and partly covering the body. In the evening when
the shadows fell, we put them in their graves.

It was very simple. If possible, the section surrounded the grave, a
rough excavation hollowed in the dirt thrown up from the trenches.
Sometimes, not always, some one murmured a prayer. The body was
lowered, and the dead went his way saluted as a hero by the cannon.
That was all. It was sad and impressive, simple as an unpremeditated
gesture. Some one put a bunch of field-flowers on the fresh mound. The
soldier’s cap was placed on the wooden cross. Then into a bottle was
slipped the name of the departed--dead that France might live, fallen
at his post of honor. Immediately we returned to our places, to watch
and to fight. To-day it was he. To-morrow it would be one’s self.

The relief came by following the communication-trenches. Curious
concerning their new post, the fresh arrivals asked many questions:

“Pretty nifty here, isn’t it?”

“Where are the kitchens?”

We informed them as rapidly as possible. We wished that they would
arrive more quickly. It seemed as if we would perish in waiting for
them, and that the danger increased by their coming. They made a lot of
noise. They went back and forth, they talked. Surely the Boche would
hear them and let loose his cannon.

In fact, that is what often occurred. Then the brutal shells added to
the disorder. Ignorant of the shelters, lost in the thick darkness,
the new arrivals flattened themselves out where they could. Their
non-commissioned officers reassembled them and led them on in jostled
disorder. It seemed that the confusion would never end, that we would
have to stay there, all mixed together like tangled thread from an
unwound spool. It seemed that the deadly hammering would annihilate us
all, down in the earth. Then the officers brought order from chaos. The
first line took their places. At the posts of listening the new men
replaced the old.

“Notice that recess: that is where the Boches send their love-tokens.”

“Do you see that black pile over yonder? Behind it is a German

Down in the shelters the new men were making themselves at home, the
departing men were gathering up their belongings.

“Good luck to you!”

“Don’t worry about that!”

Then we set out. We reached the line of supply, and crossed a clearing
filled with artillery. We could breathe more easily. We were going
away, toward repose. At last, in the darkness, we found the road.
Conversation began, pipes were lighted. We were getting farther away
from the tunnels, from the depths of the earth, and from death. Though
still menaced by shells, we felt liberated. We came to a demolished
village occupied by moving shadows: men who remained at the rear, in
the accessory service of food supply and munitions. Lanterns bobbed
here and there. Some horses hitched by the road switched their tails
in friendly salute. We went on. We met an ammunition-train going at
full speed in a terrible racket of wheels and oaths. Still we marched.
We descended a slope. Over yonder lay the Promised Land, spared by the
gods of war: where the crops were growing; where the houses had roofs,
the villages had inhabitants, the barns had straw; where there was wine
to drink, girls to look at, and merchandise to buy. It was all there.
We knew it. The recollections of our former visit came to mind. One
hoped to find the cantonment running on as in the last sojourn; la mère
Laprot, who knew so well how to cook an omelet, and big Berthe, whose
teeth were so white when she smiled.

One gave an energetic hunch to the knapsack. One recognized every tree,
every turn of the road. We were getting nearer. One more pause and we
would be there. We must still climb a bluff, steep as a ladder, leading
to the plateau. We climbed--for everything can be overcome.

At last we arrived. The village awaited us with open arms. We entered,
and were at home.

The shed was hospitable as ever. We felt of the straw, and laid aside
our accoutrement. The arms and leather trappings made a little pile at
the head of each man’s place. Blankets came out of the knapsacks. How
delicious to stretch at full length on the straw! A few moments more
and a hundred sonorous snores, deep and diversified, blended their
antiphones under the worm-eaten roof.

Life entered the village with the troops. From early morning the
streets swarmed. Wagons lined up under the trees and unpacked
their loads. Horses chewed their hay while switching their tails
contentedly, or enjoyed long drinks at the trough. The blacksmith
hammered the glowing horseshoes in the midst of a smoky haze. The
buffets were full. The cold-meat shop was invaded. The grocer was
besieged until he emptied his boxes. It was a rush, a battle, an

“Some sausage!”

“Some thread!”

“Some soap!”

“How much for this cheese?”

“I’ll take that box!”

The coins jingled. Happy laughter responded to happy smiles. Wine
flowed. At the river laundry the surface of the stream was billowy
white with the suds from well-washed clothing. With a drum for a chair,
the barber was busy with his razor. At another place shower-baths
completed the work of renovation. New faces emerged, fresh-skinned
and wide-eyed. The exuberant joy of youth burst forth into gay cries
and bodily freedom. Visits were exchanged. The smoking kitchens were
sending out delicious odors. The non-coms were kept busy hunting for
their men who had disappeared, flown away.

By noon, however, the troop was again in order. In the square the
soldiers were in line, with arms polished and garments clean. The roll
was called. Their appearance was noted, their losses of equipment were
made good. The report was read. We learned that such an one was cited
for bravery, that the general was pleased, that we would remain eight
days without molestation.

Then the gayety increased. We organized to make the most of our
vacation. Some men with a bright idea arranged a theatre and prepared
a concert. Two sawhorses supported the stage, which we trimmed with
leaves. We draped the flag of the _mairie_ overhead. The programme was
quickly arranged, as we had a considerable talent in the regiment.

On the day appointed for the performance chairs were placed for the
higher officers, the chief of the battalion, and the captains. The
privates noisily disposed of themselves as chance permitted. There
were spectators roosting on the wheels of carts, others perched on
straw-stacks; wherever a body could hold its equilibrium, there was a
body. An improvised orchestra opened the entertainment. Then several
singers followed with comic songs. The applause was tumultuous, as
high spirits mounted higher. We forgot the war, at that moment, and
its suffering and privation. A ballad touched our deeper sentiment.
A monologue was punctuated with laughter. The hilarious faces of the
spectators told of their pleasure--the joy of living, with youth and
health. We relaxed our tense nerves, and became human beings again.
There were no more shells, no more mud, no more guard duty, no more
fatigue. The tragedy had paused; and, if one had not heard the growling
rage of the cannon bent upon its work of death and destruction, one
would have believed that there could be no more pleasant existence.

On other days there were games in the open air. Like children freed
from school the men ran in the meadows, tussled in a game of prisoner’s
base, or played leap-frog. The suppleness of body, the litheness of
movement, were such as to inspire admiration. These were no longer
soldiers, but graceful athletes, with agile muscles and solid torso.
Under the trees gently waving in the breeze, with the clear sky of
France above a charming countryside, the scene evoked the picture of
the athletic games of antiquity. Not even the group of philosophers was
lacking, walking up and down and arguing.

Thus the hours ran on, peaceful and all too short. The troop took a
fresh breath, renewed its spirit, calmed excited nerves, found new
courage and a magnificent enthusiasm. The cruel remembrance of dark
hours, of horrible spectacles, of losses, became dim. We found again a
vibrant love of life. The soul-sickness which had grown upon us at the
parapets, under the shells, melted away in the new environment, in the
joy of a recreation dearly won.

The week of vacation was completed. They were new men, refreshed and
invigorated, who fell into line when the hour arrived. In the darkness
we retraced the road by which we had come. We were returning to the
battle, we were re-entering the tunnels, the dugouts, the redans,
the trenches, the parallels. Now we were the relief, in our turn.
We took our place. We brought back with us arms, food, replenished
cartridge-boxes, new men to fill the vacancies in our ranks. More than
that, we brought back valor, patience, faith, and a spirit reborn.

We entered again the domain of death, again we began the agony.



A year had passed. The Marne and the Yser had gone into history. We
knew that enormous preparations were in progress behind our lines. They
are always known. The symptoms are perfectly visible. The artillery
is massed, the various operations are pushed more vigorously, new
precautions are taken.

Vague rumors are afloat. Every one wishes to appear informed, and the
strangest forecasts, the most absurd reports are passed from mouth to
mouth, originating no one knows where.

“We are going clear to the Rhine, this time!”

“What! do you think? As far as the Meuse, and already----”

“The cavalry is massed at the rear; and if the cavalry passes, the line
is already smashed. Then, _mon vieux_, how far do you think we’ll go?”

The war was changing its aspect. Germany, checked at the Marne, seemed
to have an unsuspected force. Her regiments were renewed continuously.
They seemed to spring from the ground, an uncounted host, capable
of breaking over any barrier. Unprepared France, in accepting the
combat, profited by the period of “digging in,” to cast big guns and
manufacture shells. A colossal effort galvanized her hope. People
repeated the famous words of Joffre: “Je les grignote.”[F]

We were confident: Germany could not win. She would be beaten as soon
as we could collect guns and ammunition in sufficient quantities. Some
words of the generals came down to the ranks. Gallieni had said: “They
are in the trenches--they are lost!”

We believed it, we were sure of it. The humblest cook, in his smoky
_abri_, spattered with his sauces, his blackened face beaming with
smiles, had no more doubt of it than the major-general in his

Many furloughs had been granted. Each man had been allowed to visit
his family, and had spread assurance of success in return for the
festivities his friends had prepared for him. No doubts found lodgment
in the minds of the people. On tenter-hooks the country awaited
victory. Trembling old mothers believed it, tearful wives put faith
in it, fathers felt convinced of it. At last we would be avenged, we
would punish the enemy’s infamous arrogance, we would chastise him, we
would crush him. We were going to crunch him by an enormous pressure,
overthrow his system of trenches, advance, break his line; and then,
with one burst of valor, we would hurl him back whence he came--into
his deep forests, as far as the Rhine; perhaps still farther, to his
lair. Every one knew the good news, counted on it, awaited it with

People liked the bearing of the soldiers. All were delighted to see
them so robust, so hardened; more alert than at the beginning, more
viril, more manly. The warrior’s helmet graced his forehead like an
aureole. The men were fêted and showered with tokens of affection. Long
trains brought them home--so ardent, and young, and splendid; shouting
their joy in the stations, passing through towns with the air of a
victor. How the women admired them! They were treated (in advance)
as liberators. Those sober people who still were apprehensive of the
outcome, who reckoned up the future and calculated the chances, were
looked upon with a reproachful eye. This time it was certain: we would

The opening came the 20th of September. A furious storm of artillery
saluted the dawn, and set the thunder rolling. It was a prodigious
simoon. The sky cracked with the terrible, hot breath; the earth itself
bubbled. A deluge of red-hot iron fell. It was more than a noise: it
was a tempest, a gigantic roaring, the forge of Vulcan in full action;
an entire sector of the front bursting into flame. What a fantastic
tornado! All calibers of shells shrieked together. No single voice of
cannon could be distinguished in the concert. They were blended in
one roll, as if a god had sounded the charge on a gigantic drum. The
avalanche of steel fell on the enemy’s breastworks, spattered over the
intervening space, let loose billows of smoke, dust, and flames. The
very earth seemed to cry out to heaven, as it was pounded to powder and
scorched by the fire. Entire sections of trench walls leaped into the
air; a giant plough turned over the tunnels. A heavy cloud formed,
grew thicker, rolled over the battle-field. The passing hours augmented
the uproar. No sooner did the climax appear to be reached than the
tumult increased afresh.

Massed near the field of carnage, the bivouacked troops were in
readiness. Each company had its rôle, and each was ready. Each knew at
what hour to join the dance. They were going to pierce through, they
would pass! Comrades exchanged encouragement and last promises. All
hoped to survive, and pursue the routed foe in a sweeping victory.

Our regiment, like others, awaited the call. It had no active part
in the festivity, but was present. This was for us a poignant grief.
In our sector, not a sound. The cannon were as silent as if every
living thing had become a mere spectator of the drama. As the roaring
increased in volume from minute to minute, we listened. We divined the
scene. We could follow it in the clouds, and in the sounds carried by
the breeze. We were like curious, listening neighbors who hear the
people next door quarrel and fight. The Germans opposite us remained
silent also, and listened, like ourselves.

Battle of Champagne! It had not yet a name. It held all the hope of
France, a single, united, colossal WILL. For five days France could
only listen to the panting of an army in travail, and held her breath.

The 25th of September, at 9.15 in the morning, the first line left the
trenches; bounded forward, hurled themselves on the enemy. Another
line followed, and another, and another. Less than an hour later,
everywhere, even well back at the rear, messages of victory came. The
telephone passed on the joyful news, distributed it to the end of its
lines. In our ranks, where we awaited our turn with arms at rest, we
breathed with high-swelling hope. We defied the enemy, that day. We
looked at his lines, marked his location. To-morrow, perhaps, we would
be where he was to-day. We would command his crushed-in shelter, his
hiding-places opened by the shells; we would be the victors, and he
would be driven before us. Oh, yes, we were quite sure. Already, with
pricked-up ears, we could perceive the advance. Our cannon pierced his
lines. It roared elsewhere than was usual; already, opposite us, the
German had turned.

And yet--no! The accursed race has the tricks of a cowardly beast.
To the chivalrous courage which offers itself for an open test of
prowess, the Boche opposes stealthy ambush, burrowing in the ground.
For the noble _élan_ of our men, for their impetuous passion, for their
valor, the Teutonic sneak sets a snare: close to the ground, about
a foot high or less, a fine copper-wire was concealed in the grass,
and electrified. Our heroes were ensnared in that web. In vain their
assaults were renewed. In vain they accomplished a hundred exploits.
Close to the earth the traitorous wire caught their ankles, sent the
electric shock through their legs, threw them down and burned them.

But we--we were still ignorant of all this, and we awaited our turn. In
the falling night we saw the neighboring sky light up. The enemy’s fear
was read in the number of his rockets. He was afraid of our sortie, of
our onslaught and the outcome.

Ah! Those hours! Those days, those four days of superhuman effort!
In what a fever we passed them! At any moment we could become
participants, and yet we remained there, inert, champing our bits. We
talked, that we might shake off our impatience; that we might hear
words, though their import went unnoticed. We talked without knowing
what we said, merely to hear ourselves say something. We waited for our
cue: nothing came! Near us our comrades were fighting in a veritable
furnace; they were living the apotheosis of supreme minutes, living the
glory of combat, amidst an uproar of shells: in suffering of the flesh
and in the beauty of sublime Adventure. We envied them. We mounted to
the extreme edge of the embankments, to the parapets of the trenches,
that we might see farther and follow more closely the movement of the
drama; that we might breathe the odor of battle and grasp its splendor.
We looked at the fire-reddened sky, where a hundred lightnings flashed
and a hundred thunders rolled. We desired, with all our souls, to enter
the strife, and at last force back the intrenched enemy--intrenched in
our land, in our soil.

Since then many a battle has been fought. We have had Verdun, we have
had the Somme, we have had the Aisne, we have had almost each day a
unique page of history. Most certainly; but it was at this time that
we learned our lesson. We learned that patience is the weapon _par
excellence_ in a war such as this; whereas, at that time we still
conserved intact the old faith in French ardor. It was the first shock
following the Marne, after the defense of the Yser. It was the first
hope of breaking through. We were near it, so near we could almost
touch it, but we did not attain it. We were ready for death itself, but
the sacrifice was unavailing. The sacks loaded for the forward march,
the filled cartridge-cases, weighed heavily and more heavily when we
knew that the line remained where it had been, that the breach was not
sufficient, that an insignificant wire had stopped our onslaught and
protected the German.

Nevertheless, the results were worth the effort. We counted our
prisoners by hundreds, we gathered from them much information. Yes; but
the gain was as nothing, so great had been our hopes. We were bound to
accept another hibernation, dig in the earth again, dig oftener and
longer; look forward to a war of greater duration, more murderous;
recommence the effort, accept not months, but years.

The war ceased to be a human struggle. The mass of material became
appalling. It was no longer a shock of arms, but an industrial clash:
the machine substituted for the valor of a man, the contrivance become
demoniac. Cannon were made in enormous calibers. Old pieces were
replaced by huge-throated monsters, and one guessed that the wily
German, girt for supreme effort, was preparing something more, which
would make the early part of the war seem like child’s play.

This is why the present war is impossible of narration. It is no longer
a battle of a certain date. It is not, as in former times, a moment
in history, the clash of two wills, the shock of two armed bodies of
men. It is a period in a century. It involves, not two peoples, but the
world. It is not a turning-point, but a transformation. It is almost a
state of society: “C’est la guerre.”

Later, in an unforeseen epoch, in the year ----, it will be taught the
children as two dates: the war began August 2, 1914; it ended ----.
All the tragedy, all our cries, our furies, our agonies, our suffering
and death--all this, without name, blurred and indistinct, will be
contained between two numbers, and will mark two eons: that before the
War, that after the War. We will have fought and we will have wept; our
bodies will have been broken and our hearts will have bled, without
our being able to say, “It happened as I have told it,” for we will
not know just how it happened. We will be obliged to call to mind the
first day when grenades were used; the day torpedoes came to light;
the advent of the four-hundreds. Facts will be mixed in our troubled
memories. We will no longer recall all that happened to us. To be more
explicit, to create a truer picture, we will say:

“At the Marne, we used rifles.”

“In Champagne, we threw bombs.”

“At Verdun--such cannon!”

“On the Somme the shells flew so thick they met in mid-air.”

“And then--and then, America came!”



Those who have not been actively engaged in the war cannot form any
conception of it. When they hear a combatant speak of it, they say:

“Then you fight all the time?” “No.” Whereupon they think: “Then in the
firing-line one is not really in much danger.”

Ah, not so fast, good people! In this war, this new, present-day war,
the vigilance is continuous, the hand-to-hand struggle is not. Shells
fall unceasingly, but the open battle, the assault, is not without
interruption. Fortunately.

Thus it was that after the German check, after the Crown of Nancy had
withstood the foe’s attack, since the Marne in fact, the sector at
Verdun remained quiet.

It was a particularly good point. Here and there a sprinkle of shells,
then nothing more. There was fighting everywhere else, in Flanders, in
Artois, in Champagne, even in the Woëvre district, but not at Verdun.
The sector was so calm, that the only guard left there consisted of
Territorials, mostly older men. They worked without too much effort,
these fathers of families; without much disturbance, doing general work
of repairs about the fortifications, pipe in mouth, almost at peace in
the midst of war. In the winter of 1915 they shivered a little with
the cold; but the forest was near by, wood was abundant, and the cold
caused no great suffering. In the evening, down in the deep trenches,
in the well-heated huts, or in the powerful forts, such as Douaumont,
Vaux, Vachereauville, they basked in the heat as on a sunny day. They
looked at the falling snow and the landscape sleeping under its white
blanket. They swept the snow with branches of trees, blew on their
fingers a little, accepted their slight discomfort in patience.

December passed, unusually cold; then January came, bringing the new
year. One more year gone, one less to come! Soon the beautiful days
would come, the spring, and--who knows?--perhaps peace. Germany was
tired of it all, near the end of her resources, and would give in.
Every one had his own definite idea on the subject. According to one,
peace would come before the end of June. Another thought the war would
last well toward the end of July. No one imagined that the following

February entered. At the listening-posts one received a surprise: one
noticed signs of life and activity among the enemy.

“They are unloading iron.”

“They are doing a lot of talking.”

Bah! The Boches were putting their affairs in order. For more than a
year the opposing lines had been looking at each other without any
great exchange of blows. They felt quite well acquainted. The fellows
opposite were taking good care of their own bones. Some said they were
only the Landsturm, who were hibernating over there.

In the town of Verdun the usual life continued. The cafés were so
crowded they turned people away; concerts and theatres were in full
swing; everywhere there was great animation, on account of the presence
of troops in increased numbers. One could not find a vacant room
to rent, and the price of provisions soared. All the towns and even
villages, where so many troops were spending their money, were infected
with this fever of success, of easy money, of the riches which rolled
in. Verdun was no exception to the rule. The citadel was choked with
troops: officers and privates, drinking and laughing. To be sure, when
the war goes well, there is no need to be austere.

February reserved its own surprise. The short month, which amounts to
nothing at all, so short that it seems crippled, this one-armed month,
displayed in this particular year the malice of a dwarf.

Suddenly the German line burst into flame. It was like a spark on a
train of powder. Twelve hundred cannon, perhaps more, crashed in chorus.

“_Alerte!_ To arms!”

Ah! Yes! Ground, hacked, mutilated, overrun, those easy-going papas,
the Territorials, fought the best they could; but the Argonne was
the accomplice of the Boche. The drive became irresistible. With
the shell-power of this massed artillery, the lines were broken and
obliterated. Under the storm of shells the trenches were levelled.
It was not an artillery battle, nor merely a violent attack. It was
rather an avalanche of explosives. The molten torrent, crackling with
sparks, fantastic, inhuman, swept all before it. All the massed Krupp
guns in diabolic fury spat their clots of flaming blood. The torn,
disembowelled earth leaped into the air and fell in dust. A bitter
smoke filled the air, dense on the plain and dense on the mountain
summit. Douaumont became a forge, Vaux was a fiery cyclone. Thavannes
was a scarlet glow, le Mort Homme was a continuous roar, and Verdun
heard the approaching thunder in apprehensive dread.

At the call for reinforcements the regiments came in all haste, to bare
their breasts to the cannon. Fiercely the units clung to their ground,
placed their batteries, intrenched themselves, and offered stubborn
resistance. The enemy still advanced. The adversary was not an army
division but all Germany, with the dynasty, the Crown Prince, the old
Haseleer at their head. The defenders were again faced by the terrible
order, “Conquer or die,” as on the Marne and the Yser. Once more that
game was played. Once more it had the upper hand. Destiny, impassive,
looked on.

Three kilometres of retreat brought the French to the Côte de Poivre.

The Boche had orders to take, at all costs, the “strongest citadel of
France.” That success would mean the death of our country. It meant
all France exposed to the foe, Paris captured, Defeat. It meant Crime
triumphant, history violated, supremacy of brutal might, humanity’s
bonds reforged. It meant the flower of the Revolution crushed and
Liberty in chains. It meant the Kaiser’s boot on the neck of the world.

“Do you wish aid?” came the message from England, already preparing to
send succor. France responded proudly: “No! I can hold my ground.”

And she held it. The world knows it.

An innumerable host, coated in dirty gray like a repulsive animal,
rushed on in its heavy, obstinate bravery; as an infuriated bull with
lowered head madly charges his foe, so the German brute in his blind
rage hurled himself toward us. In the path of the Hunnish Horde stood
French valor. THEY SHALL NOT PASS! Nor did they. But--what a struggle!

All the slopes which form the heights of the Meuse and are the ramparts
of Gaul, resounded as a monster forge. There Vulcan had set up his
furnaces. Such a battle is too great to be recounted. It is the story
of Thavannes, whose immense tunnel of approach sheltered a whole
battalion at a time. It is the story of the fall of Douaumont; then the
siege of indomitable Vaux, dauntless, resisting, panting, quivering
like a drum. There the shells fall at the rate of ten per minute.
Raynal is commanding there: that is enough. Ten times the German hurled
his force against the fortifications, and ten times he fell back,
baffled. The garrison stood its ground in a furnace of the damned. New
men entered by a breach, followed a narrow path, found the postern
gate, and leaped in. For every man who came, came a shell. Overhead
twenty airplanes circled about, directing the fire, like vultures above
the eagle’s nest; while the cannon on the surrounding heights converged
their fire.

Vaux! Heroic name, name never to be forgotten! Vaux, a rock burned
by acids, by powder, by the fires of hell. Vaux held out five days,
six days--eight days! The sky at night was a hot glow. The earth was
one continuous roar of explosions, enveloped in billows of smoke.
In that inferno men fought unto death. Trenches, shelters, stone,
and earthworks were wiped away by the shells; the battle left the
protection of the ground and swung into free space.

The regiments were brought from the rear. They were supplied with
food and ammunition by a whole army of camions, which looked like an
immense serpent twisting along the road. Beyond Verdun the men entered
directly into the furnace. Their units melted in the very act of going
to the relief of their comrades at the firing-line. No matter! They
advanced, leaping from one shell-hole to another, up to the lines where
the survivors of the preceding regiments still held the assailant at
a distance. They were one man against ten. Of a hundred who set out,
only fifty arrived. They felt the reassurance given by the strength
of Vaux. Vaux hammered by blows--but Vaux still living, still French,
withstanding the tempest and defying the German. One felt there the
heart of steel in the fortress of rock. In addition to the battle all
about was the spectacle of a mass of masonry holding an army in check.

Vaux fell. Only thirst ended its resistance. The enemy, stupefied to
count the handful of heroes who had thus held them at bay, rendered
the captives the highest honors. The Commandant Raynal kept his sword;
the Crown Prince, in humility before such glory, was glad to pay him
homage, and asked to be presented.

Vaux fell, but Verdun was not taken. There huge shells fell
unceasingly. The German loves the easy targets: a cluster of houses, a
town, is an object hard to miss. In the town, then, the storm swept the
streets. Entire quarters went down in dust. Like Rheims, like Soissons,
like Ypres, like Liége, Verdun was the victim of the Huns. People took
refuge in the citadel, in its enormous subterranean chambers of massive
masonry. There, where the stone corridors were damp as cellars, night
and day both soldiers and civilians found shelter. There young mothers
nursed their babes, there people of all conditions lived as best they
could; there, underground, helter-skelter, all piled together. They
could hear the shells of the Hun falling on the city, the houses
crumbling, the wounded shrieking.

All France and all the world had their eyes on Verdun the inviolable;
on Verdun surrounded by flames, in the vortex of action; on Verdun,
which did not weaken. Without respite, the Teutonic masses were hurled
to the assault. Like a sea of mud they poured upon the outposts of the
city. They were beaten down by grenades, shells, machine-guns, fire,
shot, and powder; and They did not pass!

All about were scenes most thrilling. It would be impossible to recount
them all. We must choose only one or two.

One day, then, of date unrecorded (Verdun held out eight months!), a
troop going up to the fortress of Thavannes found the railway below
and followed it. They came to the tunnel and entered, although it was
already much encumbered. In vain did the gendarme on guard try to
oppose their passage: the newcomers were too many. They numbered about
six hundred. Above them the battle raged. They were intending to stop
for breath, then go on up the slope and take their posts, where Death
awaited them.

No! They will never go so far. They seek a reprieve for an instant in
the tunnel, but Death comes to meet them. In the long black cavern
are piles of ammunition in transit. There are soldiers, and wounded
men, and mules, and general confusion. Some one, man or beast (no one
knows which), hits a case of explosives. In the dark tube there is a
flash, an uproar, a cloud of smoke: four hundred bodies lie mangled
and scorched, as when the fire-damp explodes in the depth of a mine.
The living make their way out as best they can, leaving the dead and
wounded. The two hundred who escape reform their line, mount the hill,
enter the real furnace: this other episode did not count. It was an
extra, for good measure. The accident could not prevent the fulfilment
of the task before them. What were left of the battalion went where
their order sent them. Four hundred fell on the way. Too bad. Orders
are orders: they are carried out by the remnant....

This is only one instance in a thousand.

       *       *       *       *       *

We all had a great curiosity to see the famous precincts where the
strife raged so violently. It was almost with joy, therefore, that we
received our call. The day the order arrived the news ran quickly
through the ranks: “We are going over there, boys!” “Over there” meant
Verdun. That was understood. We hastened to get ready; we arranged
knapsacks; put our affairs in order. The vans were loaded, the horses
hitched. In the canteens we drank to Victory, to the Return, to Good
Luck. Eyes glistened behind the smoke of pipes, and we jostled and
laughed. Even those who feared the terrible adventure and dreaded death
concealed their uneasiness and cloaked it with smiles. On the other
hand, many danced for joy, happy to have a part in the fight, to be in
full action.

All together, pell-mell, happy and unhappy, we were punctually on the
spot appointed for the automobiles to receive us when evening arrived.
The entire convoy waited behind a hill. The drivers, muffled up in
pelts, chatted while waiting for us. They looked fantastic in the dim
light. Only two or three lanterns winked and blinked in the night. One
was dimly aware of a file of conveyances lined up along the edge of the
road, like great beasts asleep; the going to and fro of the officers
of the convoy, and their colloquy with the colonel. It was all more
felt than seen. One could distinguish only shadows; one heard the tramp
of men, the dull murmur of low-voiced talking, sometimes an exclamation
or a stifled oath.

Then orders were transmitted by cyclists. The first battalion set out.
Hurriedly each section climbed into the autos. These ought to have
carried twenty men each, but twenty-five and even thirty were piled
in, somehow, with their arms, their luggage, their knapsacks, their
side-bags, their canteens. As soon as a company was loaded in the
captain gave the order to go. One by one the cars fell into line. The
motors coughed and plunged forward like a dog unleashed. Then ten more
machines received a new company, and departed in their turn. They also
were swallowed up by the night.

When my turn came, by some chance I was assigned to an auto with the
officers, where we were much less crowded than in the large vehicles
of the privates. I therefore expected to gain some further information
concerning our destination. In this I was disappointed, as the officers
knew very little about it; besides, from the time the motor started
and the auto was on its way no further conversation was possible. We
could not hear each other, even when nearly shouting, and we had enough
to do in resisting the bumps which threw us against each other. We
inhaled the dust: a thick, heavy dust, raised by the wheels. It soon
covered us completely. One could feel it coating his face, and small
grains of sand rolled between one’s fingers. We could not see, for the
curtains were drawn down tightly, and it was very dark. We travelled as
in an interminable tunnel, with no light whatever, with no knowledge of
what we were passing or of the country we were traversing. Sometimes
there were sudden stops. The quickly set brakes brought us to a
standstill with a jerk. We asked the driver: “What is the matter? Where
are we?” He scarcely answered, for he knew no more than we. His order
was to follow the auto in front of him, and to keep his machine twenty
metres behind, that he might avoid a collision in case of a too-sudden
stop. He followed his orders, and knew nothing more. He did not even
know the road we were travelling. The car which led the procession
carried the chief officer of the convoy. Probably he was the only man
besides our colonel who knew our destination.

Thus we journeyed four hours before dawn. As the pale light invaded
our rolling apartment little by little, we saw how completely we were
covered with dust. We were white from head to feet, like a miller
dredged in his flour. Our clothing was white, our hair, our faces,
our arms. We appeared grotesquely like veritable old men. We looked
each other over and laughed. Then, as there was nothing more to fear
from the dust, a lieutenant raised a curtain. We found ourselves on
a winding road in a charming, gently-rolling country. Small trees
formed tiny groves on the hillsides, and the whole landscape was quite
different from that we had just left.

Suddenly the captain made a gesture. He had perceived an airplane,
soaring directly over us in a most disquieting manner. It was flying
too high for us to distinguish, even with glasses, whether it was
French or German; but its manœuvres were suspicious. It had command
of the road, and seemed to be preparing to fire on the convoy. In
fact, that was exactly what happened, a few minutes later, when the
flyer suddenly came lower and opened fire with his mitrailleuse. The
automobiles increased their speed and lengthened the distance from one
to another. Nevertheless, the aviator could move much faster than could
we, and he circled above us like a vulture over his prey. Fortunately,
he had no bombs, and his aim was too uncertain to inflict much damage.
As it was, he wounded several men, and would have wounded many more
if the special guns for the purpose had not opened fire on him, or
if three French planes had not appeared on the horizon. At sight of
them he made a hasty escape, amid our shouts and jeers. Our wounded
were rapidly cared for by a surgeon, and shortly after were placed in
the first field-hospital encountered on the road, amid the ruins of a
village. This village gave us the first knowledge of our whereabouts.
We were entering the valley of the Woëvre, and Verdun lay beyond the
hills. The roll of the cannon had become audible.

After a short halt we set out again. This time we entered the field
of action. It was evidenced by the constantly increasing number of
convoys encountered. Long lines of camions were climbing toward the
battle, loaded with munitions or food; or, like our own, with men. The
road became very wide, encroaching some distance into the fields. Some
soldiers, in the stream of conveyances, threw pebbles under our wheels
without as much as lifting their eyes to look at us: they had seen so
much already that the spectacle of troops going under fire interested
them not at all.

With our advance the scene changed rapidly. We saw some autos
overturned in a ditch and burning. Some dead horses stretched
their rigid legs in the air. Under some tents men bustled about
with stretchers, instruments, and boxes. These were the temporary
dressing-stations, where the men wounded on the route were cared
for: any who had met with accidents from vehicles, as well as those
who had been hit by shell-splinters--for we had entered the zone of
projectiles, and stray splinters reached even that far. The scene
became indescribable. It was a mob, where one felt nevertheless a
discipline, a sense of regulated, methodical order. We were in the
side-wings of the battle, in the midst of its movable stage-settings,
among the stage-hands, machinists, electricians, and supernumeraries,
whose activities are unseen by the public, but who make it possible for
the performance to go on and be brilliant. Long trains of horse-drawn
caissons followed each other at full speed. Field-ambulances, marked
with large red crosses, slipped into the moving stream. Vehicles of
every sort, gray with dust or mud-bespattered, rumbled, creaked, rolled
along, stopped, started, stuck in the ruts, freed themselves. The
moving line looked like the folds of a fabulous serpent.

The voice of the cannon increased in power and volume. It was like
hearing an orchestra of inferno. The ear received only a tremendous,
continuous roar, like the rolling of thunder which never ceases.

We could see the earth tossed high like a geyser when a shell struck.
We breathed the pungent odor of the battle. We were getting into it
now. Most of the houses were demolished. The buildings still standing
all bore the marks of war, with great ragged holes in walls and roof,
with stains of powder and fire. Enough of them remained in close rows
to indicate the streets leading into the town. We crossed the Meuse and
found ourselves in the city. It appeared deserted. We looked curiously
up and down the streets, without finding any sign of life whatever,
except an occasional hurrying soldier, a cyclist, or an automobile
racing at full speed between the silent houses. We made some détours,
crossed squares, and skirted gardens. The whole city lay open to our
view; and above the roofs the massive silhouette of the citadel spread
its protecting wings.

The locking of wheels gave us a jolt: we had arrived. Glad to tread
the ground once more, we leaped down and entered an abandoned factory,
where we were to camp. The windows had long since lost their glass,
but the roof remained. It was a fragile protection against shells,
but quite adequate against wind and rain. Along the walls was stacked
dirty straw, broken to crumbs by the many sleeping troops. That was our
bed. It would be for many their last sleep before the sleep of death,
for the orders came immediately: we would mount to the first lines at

The march into the battle was at first simple. We advanced in the
descending shadows, we left the town behind. Before us the heavens
were streaked with the light of explosives. We marched by sections, in
silence. We marched straight ahead, with heart beating quickly, mouth
dry, brain a blank. In spite of myself, I set my teeth and gripped my
hands. We could not distinguish the road we trod, but were dimly aware
sometimes of trees stripped bare, of low ruins, of puddles of water, of
general débris. We simply followed the man in front, scarcely turning
the head when a flock of shells fell at the right, or left, or ahead.
We only knew we were in the zone where they fell. We heard the hoarse
shriek of the projectiles high in the air, and the chorus of cannon
re-echoed in each breast. We no longer felt the chill of the night air.
We knew not if we breathed. The farther we went, the more difficult
did the walking become. We stumbled over the uneven ground, ploughed
up by the shells; but we were not yet in the place of torment, and the
missiles spared us. We passed many moving shadows: couriers, orderlies,
estafettes, officers, wounded, we knew not what. They were only dark
objects moving about in the night, outlined by the glow of the
projectiles; instantly swallowed again by the shadows and giving place
to others. We knew nothing about them. We knew only one great fact:
that we were always advancing toward the fire; we were approaching the
first lines, where the conflagration raged at white heat.

Then--we were in the midst of the shells. The frenzy was on. The
wounded cried out. We held together the best we could. We entered
chaos. Whirlwinds of explosives enveloped us. They were above, around,
beneath. The very earth leaped up and lashed our faces and hands.
Violent gusts of hot wind shook us. We ran. We joined some other
comrades. We could not proceed in lines, but moved in groups. There
were no longer any usable trenches. They were torn open, crushed in,
filled up, making any advance in them impossible. Therefore we marched
in the open, and we advanced. We would leap into a shell-crater, catch
our breath for a second, look out for another hole, and hurl ourselves
into it as quickly as possible. The rain of steel enveloped everything,
in a tumult unbelievable. We scarcely knew if we lived; we certainly
thought no more about death. The fixed, absolute, imperious idea,
the only surviving thing in our consciousness, was to arrive at our
destination, where we could give our service. We felt that we were near
the spot and must attain it.

We often lost our way. The officers looked for the road, asked the
direction, shouted orders. We understood as best we could. We ran at
full speed, threw ourselves flat on the ground, sprang up and ran
again. We knew only one thing: we _must_ succeed in reaching our
appointed post, we must reach the firing-line: we could not stop, we
could not rest, until we found the location of the regiment we were
sent to relieve.

For three hours we plunged across the jagged fields. The ground rose
and fell and rose again. Sometimes, behind a pile of earth, we found
some men. We shouted some questions. They knew nothing to tell us, as
they were not of the regiment which we sought. They were out of breath,
like ourselves; or they were wounded, or they had just been relieved,
or they had just arrived and were themselves seeking their post, or
they were hopelessly lost and joined in with us. If they were officers,
they questioned us:

“What regiment?” “Where are you going?” “What division?” “What army?”
“Have you seen such and such a regiment?” “No.” “Yes, at the right.”
“Over at the left.” “Make room there!”

Some ambulances charged past. We saw some first-aid stations in full
operation, with wounded shrieking all about. Some couriers, out of
breath, shouted instructions: “Go straight on. Your regiment is two
hundred metres from here, near the canal.”

Finally we arrived, under such a hail of bullets, machine fire, and
shrapnel that we were not even conscious of danger. We found some men,
half buried in holes, who went away and left us. They melted into the

We had reached our post on the firing-line, in an unknown plain, which
seemed to be flooded with dead bodies, as a fallow field is a riot
of corn-flowers and nettles. We had no idea how we had succeeded in
reaching the spot.

There was nothing more to do but fight and in our turn, wait for the
Relief, or for Death.



I have no intention, in writing this work, to describe the entire war.
It would be an impossible task, and I do not suppose that any author
who is a contemporary of the immense tragedy would have the presumption
to attempt it. To undertake such a task with success, it would be
necessary to wait until many years had effaced the secondary details,
leaving in the foreground only the principal facts. Then, too, each
person sees the war in his own way, from his own point of view, and
can relate neither the ensemble nor the particular detail after the
same fashion as his neighbor. It is all a question of individuality in
handling such a subject. That which one is able to tell is merely a
résumé of certain brief instants lived in the furnace; in long waits,
which are told by a few words, but which lasted for months. We must,
then, leave to the future historians the literary task of enclosing in
a single book the story of the events which have upset and transformed
the world; as Homer’s Iliad in its brief pages narrates the War of
Troy, which lasted ten years. All that the writer of the present day
may depict are separate minutes of the time in which we lived, and
the sensations of a man who is only one of the hundred millions of
combatants. Therefore I cannot add much to what I have told concerning

We remained there four days. So short a time! and yet in this brief
space a regiment melted away as the iron melts in the crucible. Four
days under fire, and two battalions disappeared. When our relief came,
scarcely one-third of our number survived; and of that third not one
could tell clearly just what had passed. We had lived, though we knew
not how, under the rain of steel, of flames, of flying earth, of
splintering shells, of breaking stones; knocked about, thrown to the
earth, rising only to fall again; eating little, drinking less; without
sleep, without rest, battered and torn, but still clinging to our post.

Automobiles had brought us, automobiles took us away. We were gray
with dust when we came; we went away looking like blocks of earth.
Nothing about our uniforms was recognizable. Mud and clay blotched our
faces and hands, matted our hair and beards, stiffened our shirts,
weighed down our clothing. We had all grown old. Our eyes were sunken,
our features drawn, our lassitude was extreme. Nevertheless, we almost
ran when permitted to go away. We knew that the danger pursued us,
and we mustered enough energy to escape. Again we ascended the hills,
descended the slopes; again we saw the same spectacles we had seen in
coming. It was our turn to cry to the arriving troops: “Count your
bones, boys, it is getting hot!”

Yes, it was getting hot! The surging flood of Germans beat upon the
French fortress like sea-breakers upon a rocky coast. The uproar
increased. It seemed that the utmost limits of the possible must be
reached, but each day those limits receded. Each day more cannon
crashed; each day the explosions were faster and more furious; each day
the storm augmented. One made his escape as from a horrible nightmare.
Our ears hummed. Our nerves, strained to the breaking-point, vibrated
and quivered like the strings of a violin. We could have dropped in our
tracks from suffering and weakness.

However, an immense pride sustained our waning physical force.
Mud-bespattered, thin, repulsive, we resummoned our stamina when we
heard a command, at the edge of a ruined village; a general was looking
at us. Instantly, backs straightened, heads lifted; bayonets were
fixed on gun-barrels. Our troop, panting with exhaustion, but proud,
impeccable, filed past that man, our chief, whose clear eyes were fixed
upon us. We understood each other. Without words, without speech, our
faces told him, “We have given our lives; ‘They’ have not passed!” and,
without a word, his look responded: “I know it.”

We had our reward. Somehow our physical pains disappeared. Our effort,
our sacrifices, our fears, our wounds, had been of service; the baffled
enemy was stumbling without progressing, was crumbling away. Verdun
held, and behind her protecting arm France still lived.

Just the same, the time had come to seek the automobiles. We could
not hold control of ourselves except when on our feet. The instant
we stopped moving about, the instant we were seated, or reclining,
no matter in what position we relaxed for a single second, we were
asleep. Neither jolts, nor knocks, nor sudden stops interrupted our
giant sleep. We slept without a remnant of physical sensation. We
slept violently, as heavy and inert as dead men. We slept with all
our body, all our heart and soul; fists clinched, mouths open; shaken
about, wholly unconscious, carried away less like men than like parcels
of cloth, earth, flesh, and accoutrement. We no longer had names or
personality. We were nothing but clods, utterly at the end of our

Thus we crossed the country, passing bivouacs where troops were
encamped, roads where convoys were mounting toward the battle-line,
forests where cavalry were awaiting their call. The noise of the
cannon diminished to a distant rumble, became faint, and was lost. We
slept on. Occasionally, a man stretched himself, changed position, and
plunged again into oblivion like the rest. Some, in their dreams, cried
out disconnected words, mumbled, or wept. A madman in my carriage
suddenly leaped out and plunged into the blackness of the night. He
was not missed until the next day. Three camions had passed over him,
leaving him nothing but a mangled rag on the road.

At last we reached our destination, and came to life again. A camp
was ready to receive us--a camp so new and fresh we thought it almost
elegant. There were Adrian barracks[G] of unpainted spruce, with water
for drinking and water for washing; with coffee prepared, fresh bread,
hot soup, and abundance of clean straw. We knew that the horrible
inferno was at an end for us; at evening a train would take us each to
his own family to enjoy a furlough.

To come out of the abyss of hell and arrive at his own hearthside is
an emotion too deep for a mortal man. He knows not if he is living in
reality or in a dream. He goes on mechanically. He is hairy, barbarous,
dirty, hideous. He is black, and torn, and bruised, and ragged. He
reeks of powder, blood, and earth. He trembles. He is conscious of a
sensation of joy--he feels it without comprehending it.

Before long the train will be in the station. His wife will be there
with his mother, his father, and others who are dear. They will take
him in their arms. They will hold him, they will press him to their
hearts. He will feel the sweet thrill of their touch; he will receive
their caresses, will hear the familiar voices. His heart beats fast. A
feeling of faintness sweeps over him; he puts his hand before his eyes.
He speaks to his neighbor. He laughs. He drinks a little, he smokes.
He suddenly feels smothered. It must be his great-coat which bothers
him; he pulls it off. He holds imaginary conversations with himself.
He gesticulates. He recounts what he has seen, what he has done, what
he has said; the death of his comrades, the frightful wounds of his
dearest friends. He strives to classify his recollections; he yawns,
he gives it up. The battle still crowds his brain, obsesses him, holds
him, fills his entire consciousness. The other men are like himself.
Some laugh, some sing, some sleep.

The special train rolls away--passes stations, traverses pleasant
country, arrives at towns, whistles, snorts, runs smoothly, flies over
the rails, carries him on and on. The man is dumb with amazement: a
field where reapers are binding the grain enchants him; a glimpse of
a garden where a woman is hanging up washing moves him to tenderness.
A house intact astonishes him. The panorama passes before his window,
is gone, is repeated. It is not yet the country, the province, where
he was born, but that is approaching. Familiar names are seen at the
stopping-places along the track. In an hour the train will reach
his station. He can no longer sit still. He rises, fusses with his
clothing, sits down, gets up again. The train no longer is going fast
enough. It is stopping. What for? Now it goes again. Good. There it
is stopping again! This is deadly. Villainous train! Villainous trip!
Villainous life!

At last it is his own country, his own town, his own station ... and
the train is stopping! Yes, the family are all there, running to meet
him. The man leaves the carriage; he falls into their arms; he leans on
their shoulders. Tears are on his cheeks; his mind is benumbed, he can
only look. There is father, there is mother, there is wife and child.

“Well, well! How are you?”

“Ah, yes, all right,”--somewhat abstractedly.

He pulls himself together, recovers his strength and composure. He
stands erect, proudly. He is bruised, stained, and dirty; a dreadful
object, at once repulsive and sublime. He is in the midst of his
doting, distracted family, who forget all the questions they had
planned to ask about himself and the war, and can only ask: “Are you
hungry? are you thirsty? are you warm?” He does not know if he is or
not. He feels no need of anything. He goes with them. He recognizes the
land, the road, the trees, and the houses. He breathes deeply. What
delicious air! He is hurried along. As he passes the neighbors exclaim:

“There he is!”

He is safe and whole, he is brave and noble. He wears on his breast the
Croix de Guerre. He is petted. He is washed and cleaned and mended and
taken out for a promenade. He tries to tell his story, but he tells it
badly: he has not the words for it. He knows not how to express all
the misery endured, the bodily suffering, the horror of the battle. He
tells little fragments of stories, and already he is forgetting the
most terrible features. The struggle which was beyond all comprehension
seems small when he tries to recount it. It becomes nothing more than
a local fight with grenades, a patch of ground occupied in the night,
a brook crossed--a thing of shadow and of mystery. It is no longer
grandiose. It really was a catastrophe: it becomes a mere fist fight.
However, they listen, they ask questions. He must repeat and go into
detail. And he, who has escaped the jaws of death, who by a miracle
has come out of the destruction, who feels with strangeness the new
pulses of life, he runs about to see his friends, he shakes the burden
from his thought, he amuses himself--and finally is aware that the time
has passed like a flash of lightning and he must again depart. Then
the anguish again lays hold upon him; for that which he could not tell
clearly he knows only too well. No fibre of his being has forgotten it.
His flesh creeps at the thought of entering again the bath of blood,
of noise, of war; the long vigils in the trench, the whistle of the
shells, the infantry attack.

He goes to join his regiment. He is loaded with delicacies, tobacco,
and presents. He has new socks on his feet and a new sweater on his
back. He is made over, he is a man again. He is sad, but he goes: there
is no other way.

Once more he is at the front with all its horrors. He is in a sector
of great commotion, where ruins pile upon ruins; where the very earth
under his feet explodes; where a fresh drive is being pushed; where
no minute is without its danger. There is the patrol toward the
enemy’s lines, the life underground, the sky shot with airplanes, the
shrapnel overhead and the mine under feet. There is the torpedo coming
with its ugly growl; there are all the changing forms in which death
beckons--the Grim Monster which prowls and shrieks; there is the agony

The attack is resumed. The attack, yes. “C’est la Guerre.” There is no
longer, as in former days, a battle of a single day, wherein one is
either victor or vanquished, where the outcome is decisive. The attack
of to-day is one of the rôles in the drama of life, like being a
soldier. Yes, it is life itself.

We made an attack, then, on a certain day, toward Mont Cornillet,
which stood out before us like a volcano of chalk. The German and
French artillery were crossing their shell-fire. Below, the French were
holding. The position was hardly tenable after it was gained, and we
were trying to enlarge and strengthen it a bit. My regiment, entirely
reformed and equipped, formed a part of the advancing force. Each man,
grown wise from his experience in war, could estimate the distance,
and the effect of the firing. It was going well. It was hard, but
the firing was good. Perhaps we would suffer less this time than on
former occasions. Perhaps once more we would return alive. But then,
what matter? One is a fatalist in such moments. Destiny will decide.
A man is nothing, can do nothing. He is a mere atom, a drop of water
in the ocean, a grain of sand in the desert. He goes where the wind
drives him. If he is lucky, he comes back alive; if he is unlucky, he
returns to the bosom of the earth. It is all very simple, clear, and
clean-cut. The sacrifice was made long since. Once for all, the very
first time, he has said: “What will come, will come.” He has left his
home, he has marched, he has fought, he has suffered. Some men have
been killed, others only await their turn. Infinite Fatality holds them
in her hand. Those who believe in God, and that God brings solace, have
their comfort always with them. They piously attend religious service
when they can, wherever the chaplain sets up his altar: in a crushed-in
chapel of a demolished village, or in a barn without a roof, or in the
trench itself. The man who believes in nothing has no greater fear of

Certainly, were it not for the war, one would have lived otherwise.
One would have lived in a world of work, with its pains and pleasures,
founding a family and rearing his children. One would have lived as
lived his father; one would have had a wife like his mother; one would
have pursued happiness. But this dream is one of peace. Now, “C’est la
Guerre.” The giant struggle passes the control of men, and its unknown
end is still far off. One no longer fights merely for his home, his
land, his own well-being. One feels that these things have become
dwarfed in the tremendous world tragedy, and that at the foundation it
has to do with great principles, ideals, and human destiny.

The soldier in action does not see so far. The immediate, the concrete,
demand his close scrutiny; but he feels that the war is waged for all
the human race, and that his blood will not flow in vain. Emancipation
is coming. Man is throwing aside autocratic authority; he has
reached his age of majority and wishes to be free. Society impels
and guides him. He is no longer the soldier of a people, he is the
soldier of a principle. He fights for the triumph of ideals that are
noble, ideals that are just, ideals that are free. He assists at the
ghastly death-throes of an autocracy which can live only through his
enslavement. He knows the price of a revolution: some men must die that
others may live. He accepts it. He knows not just how great must be his
sacrifice. He knows only that he is resigned.

I saw all this among my comrades. I gathered it in their discussions:
for we talk, at the front. The squad argues, reads the newspapers,
makes its comments, follows the trend of events when it can. But--when
the “Coup de Chien” comes; when the unit enters an engagement; when
one fills his cartridge-box or receives his case of grenades; when
one goes over the top, to storm the enemy’s parapets and rush to
the assault, all else disappears, is wiped out. There remains only
exaltation and the act of the moment--a sacrament.

The zero hour is passed from one to another in advance. The attack will
be at ten o’clock. A half-hour before, each man is in his place. The
artillery fire is redoubled. The German knows that his last minutes
have come. As for ourselves, we are attentive and impatient. The
anguish of the drive puts our nerves on a tension; eyes take on a hard
look, hands grip convulsively. One wishes he could start, leap to the
surface, cross No Man’s Land on the run, and drop into the opposite
trench. The half-hour drags on slowly.

The hour strikes. With one leap, furiously, the first wave bounds
forward, spreads, and crosses the intervening space. The second line
follows. We of the next line look and listen. They cry out--they go
on--they are running--they arrive! We start. The others are already
upon the German. The grenades crackle and snap. The machine-guns spit,
the airplanes hum, the shells burst. Forward, forward! We run at full
speed. Each knows his rôle. Each knows his act, his allotted piece of
work. Each is strangely lucid. The movement is admirable. All is going
well, everything is working out with precision. We will gain our point.
With an infallible glance the soldier knows the outcome, and in that
moment he judges his chief without error, without appeal.

The trench is taken. The shelters are crushed in, the dead are lying
all about. Pale and haggard prisoners run toward us, huddled together
with up-lifted arms to give themselves up:

“Gut Franzose! Kamarad! Polones, Polones!”

They are Poles: big and little, tall and short; a whole troop. They
shrink, now. They would like to run. They are anxious to get away
from the place, for the miserable creatures cling to life and fear
the shells, their own shells, the German shells, which follow each
other in gusts. We drive them on. They go as captives. Three pass, a
Frenchman follows, then three more prisoners and another Frenchman,
with gun ready. The procession follows the wrecked trench, leaps over
the débris, reaches the open space between our lines. Now there is
less danger. The prisoners are parcelled off by twenties and are led
to the rear. They stop at the first post where wounded are cared for.
The stretchers are taken up and carried by the same men who made the
wounds, by these men now quite docile, who, dressed in dirty gray made
still more dirty by the ground, march with their burden, fearful, but
at heart happy: for them the war is over.

It will continue for their conquerors who still live. Death has once
more made her choice. The prisoners are safe. Those others who took
them will die perhaps to-morrow, on this same ground or on another.
Satiated to-day, the Grim Monster is reserving them: they are kept for
a coming feast of death.

How well they know it! but they care not at all. They are tired and
happy. They wander about the captured trench and gather up little
nothings: fragments of clothing, pieces of arms, splinters of
cartridges. They go to and fro; or, impassive, they choose a corner and
go to sleep, indifferent to the shells, to the battle which is dying
out; indifferent to to-day and to-morrow.

They know their task is accomplished.


[A] The trial of Mme. Caillaux for the murder of the editor of _Le

[B] “Les compagnons--ceux avec qui on rompt le pain.”

[C] The banquette is about eighteen inches above the pathway at the
bottom of the trench. The men stand here when firing or when on

[D] The trenches were about seven feet deep. On the forward
side was a step, or ledge, on which the men could stand when

[E] It has been found that water must not touch the skin for many hours
after suffering a gas attack. The chemical action of the water rots
the flesh. For the same reason the “poilu” is now clean-shaven: the
poison of gas remains in a beard for days, and perspiration adds to the
dangers of inhalation.--TRANSLATOR.

[F] Literally, “I am gnawing them away.”

[G] Adrian barracks are made in sections, which enables them to be put
up or taken down quickly.--TRANSLATOR’S NOTE.


  Italicized text is surrounded by underscores: _italics_.

  Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

  Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.

  Archaic or variant spelling has been retained.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Under the German shells" ***

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