- from the book 'Among the Ruins'
- 'the Alpine Chasseurs in the Vosges'
- by Senor Gomez Carillo
- Spanish Journalist
Mountain Warriors in the Snows of Alsace
- from a German magazine
- French Chasseurs alpins in the snow bound hills of Alsace
February 18, 1915
Brown faces, graceful headgear, and mules harnessed as in the mountains of the South, transport us, for the moment, from the dark pine-woods of the Vosges, where we really are, to brighter and more familiar regions. "They are the Alpine Chasseurs," we are told. But for me, they evoke the azure of the Pyrenees with all its grace and animation, amidst the snows of the North. The fiery glances, the angular profiles, the broad gestures surprise us here as exotic features. The villagers of the Vosges, accustomed to a different type of soldier, are loud in admiration of their new defenders. "To us," declared a fair-haired young girl, "they are as strange as the Algerians and the Indians." To me, on the contrary, they speak of dearly loved regions, of the ascent of Basque slopes, of joyous sunny days spent in the motionless silence of Franco-Spanish frontier vegetation.
An Italian journalist whispers to me with sincere emotion:
"To think that these men were ready to fight against us, and that now they seem to me almost compatriots, they are so like our own soldiers."
And indeed, the Alpins, with their agility, their slimness, and their sunburnt faces seem to have brought something of the warm brilliance of their southern skies to the cold mountains which dominate the territory of Alsace. Born on Alpine or Pyrenean heights, their French patriotism is no less profound than that of the Lorrains, and if they had been obliged to fight against Italy or Spain, nothing would have prevented them from doing their duty. But it is only necessary to question any one of them to be convinced that war in the Alps would have been a most painful duty to them.
"We are brothers!" cried a lieutenant, clasping the hand of a Milanese journalist.
The Germans, on the other hand, are the eternal adversaries, the hated Boches, and confronted with these, there is no softening pity in the brilliant eyes of the good mountaineers. What magnificent stories already shed lustre on the annals of the Southern legions! A Prussian colonel recently published an article in the Hamburger Fremdenblatt, in which, with noble frankness, he did warm homage to "those blue devils who run faster than the chamois, and who are always in the van." M. Mariaud, the Sub- Prefect of Saint-Dié, in an official report of the terrible battle of the Trou de la Mort, writes, fearless of wounding the susceptibilities of the Lorrains: "It was, above all, thanks to the heroic resistance of the Alpine Chasseurs, whom the Bavarians seem to dread unspeakably, that the enemy failed to break through our positions on the Meurthe, which command the valley of La Mortagne, and make a passage for themselves to Épinal. In the fighting round Saint Die, La Chipotte, and La Croix-dous, etc., which was terribly severe, positions being taken and retaken a dozen times consecutively, our Alpins made bayonet charges with incredible daring." The eulogy is superb. But perhaps what pleases the Northerners even more than the courage of these soldiers, so different in appearance to the worthy, taciturn Lorrains, is their gaiety, their brilliant bearing, their animation and their poetic attitude even at the most serious moments. A reporter of the Temps has told how when one of these "blue devils" fell into an ambush recently, he replied to the Prussian officer who called upon him to surrender:
Bayard de France Ne craint roussin ni grossepanse De l'Allemagne.
A French Bayard fears not any red-headed, pot-bellied German.
And as a fact, all of them, accustomed to consider the knight without fear and without reproach as an Alpin of bygone days, do their best to preserve the somewhat theatrical but exquisite manners of the soldier of the past, amidst the grey and silent monotony of contemporary war, which is so scientific and so dull. From General Bataille, who died like a hero, surrounded by his sorrowing officers, to the last piou-piou of the second class, there is not a mountaineer, who, when he falls upon the snows of the German frontier, does not leave a stain of blood redder than that of other soldiers. Under the dark pines the echo of their words has an almost Gascon accent, so different from that of Lorraine that sometimes it seems almost foreign.
"I don't say that they are braver than my compatriots," writes a lady of Épinal, "for there is no race that is superior to our own in bravery, but neither are they less brave, and they are brave in a manner I can't explain."
This manner, madam, was that of ancient legendary France, which modern discipline tends to destroy for scientific reasons, but which lives always and in spite of all among the men of the southern mountains.
In the wood where we were a strain of loquacity and sonorous good-humour animated the entire camp. The trenches were about two kilometres off towards the north, and the men in the wood, resting for a day to return to the struggle to-morrow, bore upon their garments the marks of long, sinister hours in ditches full of mud and snow. The traditional elegance of the handsome lads of Savoy, who, according to a celebrated phrase, keep themselves like young ladies, had disappeared. More than one uniform is tattered, and many caps are shapeless. But all this does not kill joy, nor gaiety, nor poetry in the hearts of the mountaineers. However the rain may fall or the bullets hail, the southern plume waves always proud and spotless. The "we must die" which a mysterious voice is always murmuring day and night in the most intrepid hearts, changes on the lips of the Blue Chasseurs to a gay ritornelle. The only thing about which they show concern in their lofty Cyranesque pride is to die better than their comrades.
From the huts of pine-branches in which the soldiers were lodged in parties a hum of voices came, high and clear in tone, and the phrases we distinguished were always fraternal and enthusiastic. Not far off, an Italian mountain song was to be heard, played on an accordion. From the depths of a kind of Esquimaux-hut rang out this ingenuous ditty:
Francs chasseurs, hardis compagnons, Voici venir le jour de gloire, Entendez l'appel du clairon Qui vous présage la victoire. Volez, intrépides soldats, La France est là qui vous regarde. Quand sonne l'heure du combat Votre place est à l'avant garde. Francs chasseurs, hardis compagnons Voici venu le jour de gloire.
This Southern bivouac, among the snows of the Vosges, was the first amongst those we had seen during our expedition, which seemed to correspond at all to the pictures we have all imagined after reading the war-chronicles of the past.
One of the officers who accompanied us in our walks through the camp, told us some anecdotes worthy to be preserved in history. On December 24, at the Tête de Faux, a sergeant named F fell wounded into the wire entanglement between the French and the Germans. His men, who could not advance to pick him up, because of the fire from the machine-guns, checked their attack for fear of wounding him. Noticing this, the sergeant called out: "Fire!"
"We shall kill you," replied his comrades. "Never mind, fire, fire!" The soldiers obeyed. The action was very fierce and the noise of the guns deafening; but the voice of the sergeant, rising above the tumult, continued to cry: "Fire, fire, fire!" Suddenly it ceased.
"Are you still there?" asked the others. There was no answer. The next day, when it was possible to bring in his body, eighteen wounds were found upon it. More recently, in one of the later fights, the officer in command of an attack on the trenches noticed that one of his Chasseurs was not lying on the ground, in spite of the order that had been given several times. He continued to fire kneeling, all the upper part of his body exposed. "Why don't you lie down as I tell you?" asked the officer at last, angrily. "Because I have a bottle of wine in my pocket and it has no cork," he answered quite seriously. Only the day before, near this encampment, a corporal had distinguished himself by a deed of valour quite in the style of a gasconade of the "Three Musketeers," over which the Alpins were still chuckling. Corporal L, the son of a Pyrenean painter, was alone in a little pine-wood when he saw four Uhlans advancing towards him. His first thought was to defend himself and to sell his life dearly like a valiant soldier. But presently a diabolical idea came into his head. "I will take them prisoners," he said. And addressing an imaginary patrol in the wood, he called out: "Charge with bayonets, comrades, we must kill these Boches who have dared to intrude upon us!" The Germans, imagining there was a considerable force among the trees, threw down their arms and held up their hands. Then the corporal called out: "All right, captain, I will bring them in alone." Placing himself beside the Uhlans, he marched them off in parade step to the nearest bivouac.
The officer who told me the story added: "The only thing that depresses us here is the climate. I don't mean the cold or the snow, but the want of sunshine. In our Alps it is always light, even in the severest months of the year. But look at this."
The sky, indeed, was grey, a leaden grey that fills one with gloom and anguish. The wind passes over the black pine-tops, not singing as in the South, but groaning. On the sinuous roads which the mules tread unceasingly, a mixture of mud and snow forms innumerable channels of slime. And even in the narrow valleys where the snow is immaculate, it is pale; it has no brilliance, none of the golden and iridescent reflections to be seen on the summits of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
In a plain running northwards, the crosses, already blackened by the rain, stand out, extending their wide arms with a gesture of frank resignation. The pious hands of those who still survive, awaiting death fearlessly, have traced the names of those who sleep below on the wood. Some day, families from other French mountains will come and take away the remains of their loved ones, to lay them in some southern burying-ground. Then those of the next generation will read, not a brief line, but a record of heroism carved on the stone, which will have been a consolation to those who weep.
"Ah!" said an old Savoyard major, showing us the graveyard, "you cannot imagine the courage with which our women accept the trial of orphanhood or widowhood when they are assured of a heritage of glory. A short time ago a mother wrote to her son, a prisoner at Stras-burg: 'I suppose that you were taken prisoner because you were wounded and could not defend yourself; get back as soon as you can, that I may nurse you; but if you were not wounded and you surrendered, never come back, for the town would be ashamed of you.' To be left poor and destitute does not terrify our people; but they cannot brook the loss of honour. That is a characteristic of our race."
Another characteristic of the rugged Alps is solidarity. Just now all the Alpins are brethren. Two women were praying recently in this field of graves before two adjoining crosses. One was a rich lady from Grenoble whose husband, a captain, fell in September. The other was a poor girl from Gap. Wiping their eyes, the two women rose at the same time, and found themselves face to face.
"I have come to my husband's grave," said the lady. "And you, too, I suppose? ..."
The other answered somewhat abashed:
"No ... he was my lover."
"It's the same thing."
Then taking some of the flowers she had brought for her husband's grave, she laid them on the cross beside it, and approaching the weeping girl, she kissed her, saying:
"We are both widows in the sight of our Lord."
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