- from the book Among the Ruins
- 'Visions of Joy and Woe'
- by Gomez Carillo, 1915
a Trip to Chalons, Lorraine, Verdun and the Argonne
French magazine covers from early 1915
December 10. 1914
Was it because just now, as we were crossing the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville at Châlons, we saw a shop with the sign "Products of Spain" and the window full of oranges, melons, and bottles of muscatel? Or because of the innumerable seventeenth-century churches, fragrant with incense, murmurous with prayer, and starred with candles? I cannot say. But I know that during our rapid passage through Châlons, I was pursued by a feeling of home-sickness that made me attach importance to details in themselves perfectly trivial. The grey palaces of the Saint-Jean quarter, too large and too numerous for a town of 25,000 inhabitants, seemed to me to suggest an ostentation more befitting idealistic Old Castille than energetic Champagne. And then the ancient convents, the noble cloistral houses, the immense Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, worthy to vie with the finest in the world, the façade of Les Vinets, which recalls Valladolid, the high mysterious walls that evoke Toledo, all, in fact, and more particularly the tranquil, grave, and silent atmosphere, made me forget France and the war, and feel as if I were in the heart of Spain.
My companions laugh at me, and to banish my obsession they show me the vast plain in which we are to seek the tragic visions of yesterday and to-day. But these plains do but aggravate my home-sickness. Are they not known as the Champs Catalauniques? Arid and solitary, and grey with the true Castillian grey, they stretch northward without an undulation, open from time immemorial to Germanic invasion.
"Here," said Goethe, after the defeat at Valmy, "the same events recur throughout the centuries."
Here, indeed, William IVs barbarians, like those of the King of the Huns, met with a decisive check in their triumphant course. A thousand yards from the Roman highway on which the legions of Aëtius passed in the fifth century, the troops of von Kluck and von Bulow gazed impotently at the historic panorama where more Teuton than Latin warriors sleep their last sleep. What rage and what melancholy must have been in the eyes of those men! Rugged, hostile, and tempting, the plain does not seem to be defended at all. As far as the eye can reach there is no sign of a fortress, a camp, or a battery. Scarcely, however, does the enemy attempt to advance a step, when a hail of projectiles, coming no one knows whence, forces them to hide precipitately in their trenches. And while the two armies thus remain stationary, life goes on in the regions south of the Champs Catalauniques.
The road our motors take is one of the most frequented in Champagne. Here and there we come upon an inn full of muleteers. The commissariat wagons pass along rapidly, taking fresh supplies of provisions to gunners and guns. Women are working in a leisurely fashion among the vines, tying the dry branches to the props which in a few months will support great clusters of grapes. But for the occasional burnt houses to be seen around, nothing would suggest that we are in the tragic zone.
"Notre Dame de l'Epine," exclaims our guide, showing us two Gothic towers.
In this region of cathedrals the apparition of a great church is frequent enough. Every town of medium importance has its marvellous temple. For centuries master masons, aided by thousands of workmen, raised great poems of stone to the glory of the crucified Saviour.
But what is strange here is that the town does not exist. Scattered round the feet of the church some hundred small houses nestle among the trees. And thus isolated in the Open country, with nothing to suggest episcopal pomp, the building rises in the vast bare space like an absurd caprice.
"No doubt at some earlier period there was an important centre here where we see only a miserable village," says one of our company.
But this was not the case. There is no record in history of a more important settlement than that of to-day. As to the legend, the only thing it commemorates is the appearance of the Virgin among the brambles that grow here, one evening in spring, to bless a poor shepherdess. Rustic piety determined to celebrate this nùrade sumptuously, and by a miracle even greater it raised this artistic marvel, which, had it been situated in a great capital, would have been as famous as Notre-Dame de Paris. Lofty and aerial, carved like a jewel, with its two unequal towers and its triple portico covered with naïve sculptures, the basilica of the Thorn is worthy of its sisters at Chalons, Laon, and Soissons. In days of old its painted glass, like that of Reims) bathed its aisles in many- coloured fires. But alas! as at Reims these relics of Christian art served the Germans as targets, not in these days, but long ago.
At every step we come upon traces of the invasion. Farms destroyed by shells are so frequent that we scarcely turn to look at them. War is war.
"Here, however," explains Captain V when we arrive at Auve, "there has been no war. No. not a single shot was fired in this town."
Nothing remains of Auve, not a house, not a farm, not a street. The blackened ruins look like a vast and desolate stonemason's yard. The traces of the flames are seen in sinister spirals on the ruined walls. All the household plenishings are in ashes.
We leave our motors in the road and go into the town to view the master-work of the incendiaries. In the distance a half-ruined tower attracts us. We make our way to it among the shapeless fragments, seeking in vain for some indication of what happened here a few months ago. What was Auve like before the irruption of the German hordes? Its extent seems to suggest that it was more than a village. Behind the stones we discover spaces that were doubtless gardens. A few tall iron gates lie all twisted at the bottom of the walls. Nobody, however, can tell us exactly if the inhabitants were rich villagers or citizens of Sainte-Menehould who came to spend their summer in its leafy shades. Not a soul is to be seen. At the corner of one street we find an open strong-box. The church, a village church, is gutted, and on its altar a Joan of Arc on a light pedestal has survived. The Maid of Orleans, whom bishops burnt alive, seems, now that she is dead, to be proof against the flames. At Reims her statue remains intact among the smoking beams of the Cathedral. At Sermaize her image stands out from a calcined wall. Bishops will no doubt turn the miracle to account later on, and take the Auve marble to some future Lourdes. Meanwhile she stands here alone, dominating the ruins.
But no, she is not alone. From out the vestiges of a dwelling emerges a livid, trembling phantom. It is a young woman, tragically beautiful. When she sees us she turns her great dark eyes upon us, and examines us anxiously, as if she feared that we had come to trouble the gruesome peace of her necropolis. Her nervous hands pass caressingly over some shapeless object she has just picked up. Our captain advances and asks her a few questions.
"It's all I have left," she tells us.
And she goes on at once to tell us of her husband, a doctor who perished in the flames; of her life, the happiest life; of her house, a nest of love.
"My piano," she murmurs, pointing out a dark patch. "My bed," she adds, looking to the right.
She stirs the ashes with her foot, and stoops to pick something up. She takes a few steps backwards and turns her back to us. As if no longer conscious of our presence, she continues to search with her blackened hands for something which is not there, something which was her joy in the past, something which no longer exists, but which, in her madness, she dreams may rise again from the embers.
At our exit from Auve we meet the custodian of the church, who tells us the eternal story of all the martyred places of the district. The Germans arrived one day at the beginning of September; they occupied the houses and pillaged the cellars. They did not shoot anyone. Very confident in themselves, they talked of Paris and their triumph. After a short time, a horseman brought news of the defeat on the Marne. Then, in a fury, they prepared to decamp, but first they set fire to the place.
"And the woman we have just seen?" I asked.
"Ah! poor creature!" he cried. "She spends whole days searching among the ruins and talking to herself. The Mayor of La Chapelle came to take her away, but it was no use. She sleeps there in a wooden hut she has had put up, and sometimes at night she wanders about among the ruins, calling her husband."
The custodian adds:
"She was the richest person here. She even had a motor-car."
Half an hour later, when we arrive at Sainte-Menehould; we are still haunted by the heartrending vision of the burnt village and the demented woman. The gaiety of the streets, the animation of the people, the lively curiosity of the children shock us like a sacrilege. How can they laugh here when there is such a heart-breaking picture but a few miles off? The inhabitants of the town do not even seem to be alive to the tragedy that surrounds them. Proud of their Rabelaisian reputation, it is evident that they plume themselves on living like the musketeers of yore, eating, drinking, and singing to the roar of cannon. How many times throughout the centuries this town has been taken, and gloriously recaptured! All wars and all revolutions have left their traces within its walls. The Spaniards were here before the Prussians. But nothing has robbed Sainte- Menehould of its appetite and its gaiety. Even to-day the landlord of the inn where we stop to lunch, tells us of the tricks he played off upon the Germans in September. For here as elsewhere the Germans, of course, gave proof of an insatiable thirst and appetite.
"I put vinegar labels on my oldest bottles," he said, "and so they did not drink them."
But the best joke was the trick of the chromo-lithographs.
"Do you see those pictures," he cried, showing us a series of eighteenth-century French engravings, charming in their spritely malice, their ironic grace, and French elegance. "When the Boches came I was afraid they would carry them off, for they take everything, and as I had not had time to hide them I thought of a device. I ran to the market and bought twenty chromos representing coarse scenes of monks and fat wenches in Flemish public-houses. When the Boches saw them on the walls they hastened to put them into their bags, and despised the pale engravings."
In the large dining-room where our meal is served, dishes giving forth savoury smells pass and repass from table to table. An enormous fireplace in the background makes a patch of red with its crackling flames. A servant comes in every minute, bearing bottles and glasses. A dove coos the quarters on a high black clock like a coffin. Love and death are mingled in the talk of the officers around us, as in an Asiatic poem. And I recall the words in which Alexandre Dumas summed up the soul of the city after having spent a week here :
"It is a republic of men, women, and animals, of restaurant-waiters, of gay servant- maids, of cooks in white garments, of stoves, barrels, of the clatter of spits, pots, and pans, of cards, of playing children, expiring turkeys and fat sleeping dogs."
Presently, to excuse the appetite with which we are attacking our meal in these disastrous times, I quote Camille Desmoulins' celebrated phrase, accusing Louis XVI of stopping at Sainte-Menehould during his flight to eat an enormous dish of pigs' feet:
"Sancho Panza crowned."
We all feel ourselves to be more or less Sanchos in this atmosphere of laughter and gluttony. A pale woman in mourning, who has come to Champagne to look for the remains of her husband among the crosses of the battle-field eats like ourselves. She is a Greek with a profile like that on an ancient coin. Beside her, a Sous-Préfet in uniform is talking of Varennes, twenty kilometres off, where the Germans are still entrenched, and from time to time he cries, looking towards the window :
"The cannonlisten to the cannon." All day long, in fact, the noise of bursting shells in the distance travels as far as here. But this does not affect the thirst or the appetite of anyone. The modest champagne not yet "champagnized" we are drinking is so good when it leaves barely a thread of white foam at the edge of the glass. And the historic pigs' feet, which are eaten bones and all, are so delicious! In our character of Government guests we are offered the best of everything by our host, and overwhelmed with civilities by our neighbours. A captain of the Territorials, a regular Porthos with his enormous moustache and his athletic shoulders, tells us stories of the trenches.
"Of course it is more comfortable here than there," he says; "but really it is not so bad down there either. During the last few weeks we have been trying to amuse ourselves a little, for only the artillery has had work to do. In my company the one thing that is barred is melancholy. Devil take it! one must make the best of life, and leave long faces to those officers with single eye-glasses who look as if they lived at High Mass. Last week we heard that in a trench in front of us there was a Bavarian prince who had fought like a lion a little while ago, and who, far from ill-treating his soldiers, behaves like a father to them, so we determined to give him a proper serenade. One fellow had a clarionet, another got a violin at Verdun, another manufactured a flute. With these and a drum, we could ask nothing better. Wellbearing in mind the musical knowledge of my executants, I wrote the programme, and after ornamenting it as best we could, we rolled it round a stone and threw it over to the Germans. At the stroke of four, after a rousing rataplan, rataplan, the concert began. The Boches on the other side applauded, without daring to show their heads. 'Don't be afraid,' we called out. But there wasn't a sign. They wouldn't have shown their noses for an Empire. At last I got up on the parapet, unarmed, and sat there bâton in hand, conducting the Marseillaise, which all our chaps were singing together. Then an extraordinary and very fine thing happened. About thirty yards off, a German officer sprang to his feet, and putting his hand to his cap in a martial salute, he stood listening to our song. I saw him there, quite close, upright and calm, without the slightest fear. We could have killed him, of course, if we had wanted to; but, on the contrary, when our boys had finished their piece, they shouted to him, 'Bravo, Boche!' I stood up too, and saluted him."
Captain Porthos emptied his glass and concluded:
"It must have been the prince, of course. If we take him prisoner some day, we will give him another serenade, for he is a gallant fellow!"
The Scandinavian, Swiss, and Dutch journalists, unused to this gaiety in the midst of tragedy, take notes feverishly, and ask for names. The honest Frenchman smiles, but prefers to retain his incognito.
"I am a good paterfamilias in ordinary times," he says at last, "and when the war is over I shall give up all these larks."
Then, as if foreseeing the future nostalgia of the present hours, he adds:
"After all, this will have been the time of my life."
When we set out again, enjoying the cigars given us by the landlord, the landscape begins to seem less monotonous to us. Sainte-Menehould has been as it were a plunge into ancient, romantic, chivalrous France. Smiles still linger on our lips, and Porthos beckons to us from afar, bidding us remember his lesson of good humour. The dense green masses of the Argonne shut out the horizon. The tragic defiles in which Goethe saw Brunswick's soldiers weeping, wind in sinuous furrows through the thickets. Day, a day of northern winter, grey and icy, is dying. At regular intervals we hear among the trees the crackle of shells bursting in the woods.
We are upon one of the most terrible of the battle-fields.
"We will come back here," says our captain. "It is late now, and we have to get to Verdun." The cars roll along in the forest, through the loud rustling of branches lashed by the wind. Behind us we leave La Grange-aux-Bois of bloody memory, bristling with lances. As we pass we see Les Islettes, where the great effort of the French artillery is concentrated. Presently the penumbra swallows us up. A mysterious smell of leaves rotting in the marshes, of exuding resin, and perhaps also of dead flesh, floats in the cold air. Musing on contradictory impressions of horror and enthusiasm, we remain silent, wrapped in our goatskin coats.
Suddenly, in an oasis of light, an unexpected vision brings us to a halt.
It is Clermont-en-Argonne, one of the hundred places burnt to the ground, a mere field of débris, like so many others we have seen. But the twilight gleams and the position of the ruins on a height which commands the road, gives the picture the appearance of a fortress among flames. The sun, indeed, seems to be lighting Bengal fires among the shattered walls, and through the breaches made by the shells, the chimneys still standing look like turrets. A deathly silence hangs in space.
"On!" cries our guide, fearing to be late at Verdun, where General Sarrail expects us.
On then, on, with our visions, our pain, our melancholy.
Sainte-Menehould and its Rabelaisian gaiety are already very far away.
charging the enemy
Lorraine the Burial-Ground
I had heard Maurice Barrés describe Lorraine as "the most beautiful burial-ground in the world," and I pictured the regions of the Meuse and the Moselle as a kind of northern Castille, arid, sublime, and devastated. But when I found myself among its splendid trees, gazing at its harmonious hills, and listening to the murmur of the innumerable streams that ripple among the ferns, I felt a delicious surprise. "Is this the burial- ground?" I asked. The voices of Nature greeted me on every side, speaking of life, of energy, of hope and health. A little way off, in chalky Champagne, the Catalaunic plains look so desolate that all who traverse them must be seized with a kind of anguish. But when the defiles of the Argonne have been left behind, the whole landscape is covered with flowers. The villages, that perch on the hillsides are like Christmas toys, and the humblest vegetable-patches look like gardens. As to the more populous centres, even in these moments of war and misery, their thoughts seem to dwell very little upon death. We have arrived at Bar-le-Duc, which Maurice Barrés considers "the centre of emotion" of the province. I have been walking about the town for several hours, looking in vain for something sad. In the ancient church of Saint-Pierre I saw Ligier-Richier's famous skeleton, and heard the popular legend from the lips of a priest.
On the death of René de Châlons, Prince of Orange, his widow wished to commemorate him in a Christian manner, and instead of having him represented strong and handsome as he had been in life, she commissioned the great Lorraine sculptor to model a figure of him as the worms would leave him after a time. It is easy to imagine what a Valdès- Léal would have made of this task, after seeing his pictures at Seville. But Ligier-Richier was neither a Spaniard nor a mystic. At once realist and idealist, he carved the body in a grey marble, showing its ravages, but preserving its fine athletic lines and its noble juvenile pride of bearing. Through the decaying flesh the muscles stand out vigorously, and thus, far from producing the gruesome impressions to which less pathetic mortuary statues give rise, it turns our thoughts to the eternal myth of life coming forth from death. "Thou who wouldst fain suggest to us the terrible phrase pulviseris, I feel inclined to say to the famous skeleton, thy mournful immobility barely inspires us with a passing melancholy, because, through the veil the worms have pierced we perceive the immortal soul of the virile race, ready to animate new existences eager for the fray."
These words, which had not crossed my lips, continued to haunt my mind like a refrain throughout my wanderings in Bar-le-Duc. Before the ruined towers, which for centuries resisted the assaults of ten cities, before the walls, dismantled long ago by cannon, before the noble dwellings now deserted, before all that in the ancient capital of the Barrois evokes bygone splendours for the poet, the same idea of eternal resurrection obsessed me. Bar-le-Duc no longer boasts a sovereign, a chancellery, a parliament, as in former centuries. Kings preceded by heralds no longer come to greet the ruler of the province in his palace. No stately processions now pass to the sound of drums and cymbals along the way of Baquis, which led to the jousting-ground and the lists. No longer do great ladies in rich brocades assemble on the terraces, listening to the pages who recount deeds of chivalry. Of that brilliant and tumultuous past, we have no more than a clock upon a mediaeval tower, a stone bridge between two alleys, a church fragrant with incense, and a few coats-of-arms in the doorways of ancient dwellings. Yes, in the church of Saint Pierre there is something more to evoke memories of the past, the fifteenth-century picture, a little faded now, which shows us the plan of the ancient city, its lofty walls dominated by five enormous donjons, its proud citadel which no warrior could ever escalade, the high façades of its palaces, its churches, and its convents.
But if Bar-le-Duc considers itself a cemetery because of this, it may be asked to compare itself with other cities, once royal likewise, which, having ceased to be so, have not had strength enough to persist in living actively. Compare thyself, Bar-le-Duc, with Toledo, Avila, or Segovia, and thou wilt realize the difference between life and death. Without thy Dukes, thou art alive as in the fairest days of thy fortune, and thou mayest say with pride that in thy modest civic breast some atom of the world's future is in process of elaboration.
While the cannon of Saint-Mihiel thunder night and day some twenty kilometres off, here the staffs of the Anglo-French forces work unceasingly, sending regiment after regiment to the battle-field. On every side groups of soldiers and officers are to be seen. All the public buildings have become barracks. In all the wide streets artillery trains pass in long procession.
But to me this does not constitute the essential activity of the town. For all France is working, from the Pyrenees to the Vosges. In Lorraine there is something over and above industry, something we find in the least wealthy and active populations.
This morning, before we came to Bar-le-Duc, we halted at Domrémy. This visit had only a pious end in view. What we wanted to see was not the poor village which, as the guide-books say, "is of very little interest," but the hovel in which Joan of Arc was born. After doing homage at the narrow window through which the voices of the mystic forest penetrated to the heart of the Maid, after bowing with religious reverence before the gentle image of the inspired peasant-girl, after breathing the rustic aroma of the Chenu wood, which intoxicated that ardent and ingenuous soul, my companions wished to continue our journey without even taking a walk through the village streets. I persuaded them to be a little more leisurely, and to inspect the village, so that we might talk with some of the inhabitants. I do not know what were their impressions of the two hours we spent thus; but, for my part, I must say that I had as great a surprise at the heroine's cradle as at the warrior's tomb in Bar-le-Duc. What might be but a sanctuary of the past is actually a living well-spring of the future. With what faith, with what enthusiasm, with what confidence the Lorrains grouped about the mystic dwelling lead their terrible existence of to-day. Joan is no motionless saint upon her stone pedestal to them. She is a living example, a perpetual counsellor, a source of consolation. Her compatriots hear again the voices she heard four centuries ago. "There is great misery in the Kingdom of France," she said to the neighbouring forest. "There is great misery," replied the echo. And just as of old she gave her arm, so her great-grand-daughters give the flesh of their flesh and the soul of their soul.
"There is not a young man left in the place," an old woman tells us.
Husbands, brothers, sons, all who can still shoulder a rifle went off the first day of the war. Many will never come back, and yet there are no sad faces, no traces of tears, no agonized silence. All Domrémy quivers with the same enthusiasm, with the moral force that makes a people immortal.
But you must not suppose that in Lorraine great sentiments are expressed in great attitudes. No, indeed. In normal times I have only passed through to go from Metz to Strasburg, but it seems to me impossible that there could be anywhere more perfect simplicity. The people speak smilingly of the drama that is enacted before them, with a frankness that implies constancy in their consciousness.
"Death," they seem to say, "is nothing."
Is this suggestive of cemeteries? In these death is everything. Elsewhere I have seen towns which are cemeteries, towns which drag on their existence beneath cypresses, as if upon the stones of tombs, insensible to the splendid pulsations of life. I have seen towns buried, as it were, beneath the weight of their memories and lacking the vitality necessary to expose their relics to the perils of action. Who has not seen them? In the East, under the rays of a sun which should be a focus of feverish energy, fine races once adventurous, sleep their eternal sleep, swathed in brilliant cerements.
Here, on the contrary, where the days are short, where mists veil the horizon, where eyes are pale, life seethes hotly in the veins, and the will is tense as a strung bow.
Exaltation in harmony and hope in sacrifice: this is what I saw in Lorraine.
From Bar-le-Duc, which we have barely seen, we go to Commercy, by the road formerly taken by good King Stanislas of Poland, who tried to console himself for his exile by organizing processions worthy of Le Roi Soleil. The landscape has retained the stately elegance of bygone days, and many of the groves profusely scattered over the plains, have such an air of nobility and such a harmonious grace that they look like parks, more suited to gallant promenading than to the rough task of the woodcutter. Woodcutters, indeed, can hardly exist here save in fairy tales. Like their Gaulish ancestors, the Lorrains worship trees, and if they no longer deck them with coloured ribbons as in the days of Joan of Arc, they protect them as far as possible from the fury of the axe. Lately, when it was said that the staff thought of setting fire to the forest of Saint-Mihiel to dislodge the Germans, the whole population was depressed, in spite of their ardent patriotism. And more than once, in the course of our present pilgrimage, I have noted the consternation with which the country-folk contemplate the corpses of great poplars struck down by shells on the road side. "A god lives in the trunk of every oak," said the first colonists of Gaul. Even now it is not rare to find in the hollows of ancient bark an image of Saint Nicholas or of the Virgin Mary. But the ladies of the Court of King Stanislas, whose palace we have just seen rising above the woods of Commercy, declared it was Cupid who was hiding in the forests.
It was a strange Court that gathered round the obese monarch, who, after having followed the blood-thirsty Charles XII of Sweden in the whirlwind of the Polish wars, succeeded in marrying his daughter to the wily Louis XV. Born at Lemberg, and elected King of Lorraine at the Congress of Vienna, he might have attempted to concentrate the influences of the North in his kingdom. But Voltaire kissed his hand, and the Marquise de Boufners his lips, and forthwith his barbarous soul was a captive in the golden cage of French grace.
The palace, which we now examine with the curiosity of tourists, retains something of the threatening solidity of a mediaeval fortress. It looks as if it had been built rather to defend the valleys around it than to lodge a suite of periwigged lords, and ladies dressed à la Pompadour. When the sovereign first saw its walls and towers, he was still a Pole. When he arranged the interior, reserving the best apartments for the philosophers and ladies of Versailles, his transformation was already accomplished. I look upon him, indeed, as a symbol of the history of Lorraine, in which we always find the conquering strength of Germany vanquished by the smile of France. Like Stanislas, and before Stanislas, other princes came from the North, determined never to lay aside their steel armour, but after a time they felt that they must of necessity adopt French elegance. Even at the present moment, in spite of German pride, the part of Lorraine which has belonged to the Empire since 1870 offers an interesting study to the observer. From Metz to Boulay and from Boulay to Thionville, not a single Germanic idea has been able to take root. It is certain that after the war, when the captive province shall have returned to the Motherland, it will not seem more foreign than any other part of the national heritage. Down towards the East, in the recovered portion of old Alsace, schoolmasters sent from Paris have to teach their language anew to the children of Thann. In Lorraine, French has never been forgotten. If Alsace is a filter, into which the two hostile races pour their distinctive cultures and intermingle them, Lorraine is a battle-field where the two opposing ideals are ever warring, and where France, victor or vanquished, invariably achieves the supremacy of hers.
Commercy, melancholy and deserted in normal times, is extraordinarily animated thanks to the war. This is not only due to the troops who pass through on their way to the Argonne or Verdun, singing their stirring military songs. The animation that astonishes us is apparent among the civilians, in the shops, among the labourers, among all those who have lived for half a century in expectation of the new act of the drama, and who are quivering at the roar of cannon close by.
"Ah!" cried an old seller of post-cards, "I should not like to have died without seeing what is happening."
His eyes sparkle under his thick eyebrows, and his wrinkled face expresses a quiet and patient determination. Without forgetting, for a moment, he has waited for forty-four years. His hair has become white, and deep wrinkles have furrowed his forehead. But the blue flame that burns in his eyes suffices to show that his soul has remained unchanged since 1870.
There is not a single Lorrain, child, woman, or old man, who has any doubts as to the ultimate victory.
At Raon-l'Etape, to which we go on after a few hours at Commercy, the spectacle of faith, energy, and confidence is more moving than anywhere else. Raon-l'Etape is one of the towns in the East which suffered most from the invasion. The Germans remained there for nineteen days.
"It was in the early days of the war, when we had only the ordinary garrison here," Dr. Rtold us. "One night, the 25th of August, to be precise, the entire division of the famous General Deimling attacked our scanty garrison, which soon succumbed to numbers. The soldiers who survived were taken prisoners to Germany, and the enemy's troops entered the town, marching with parade step, as arrogant as if they had conquered the whole French army. The General made his way to the Town Hall, and as he did not encounter the Mayor, he sent for two notable citizens, Messrs. Raoul and Guimet, to tell them that he should hold them responsible for public order. Then he ordered them to lodge the officers in the best houses and to prepare provisions for the soldiers. 'In the name of His Majesty,' he cried, 'I take possession of Raon-l'Etape.' Our inhabitants resigned themselves to their fate, and showed the most perfect calm. Any attempt to defend themselves against 2000 or 3000 armed men would have been madness. Those who had guns or revolvers went and deposited them at the Hôtel-de- Ville, and our prison-life began. For the first few days all we had to complain of was the insolence of the officers. Clicking their spurs and clanking their swords, they walked about the streets with the airs of desperadoes. The little boys laughed at them a bit, and the better class people pretended not to see them. At the end of a week the German ladies began to arrive in their turn. The captains and lieutenants had sent for their wives to be present at their triumph and take part in it. We all imagined that this would soften the manners of the invaders, and that the officers would not walk about so much. The very opposite happened. The houses which so far had suffered chiefly in their cellars were now obliged to open their wardrobes. The German ladies wanted French costumes and French hats, and if the whole business had not been so odious, the sight of these female captains and lieutenants dressed up in everything they could lay hands on, and rejoicing in the most fantastic combinations of colour, would have amused us. I remember one stout Teuton, fair and imposing, who had put on a dress belonging to my wife, and who went about half-suffocated, asking where she could get some Parisian corsets.
When evening came, the chiefs gave receptions, to which all these ladies crowded, dressed as if for a fancy ball. We laughed at them, hoping this state of things would not last long. And, in fact, the comedy was changed to tragedy one fine day. On the pretext that the inhabitants of a certain quarter had attacked the soldiers, the burning of houses began, systematically and methodically. The first day they set fire to some dozen houses with petroleum a colonel requisitioned in our shops. On the following day a notice was issued by the Kommandatur warning the inhabitants that the whole town would be destroyed should the smallest violence be offered to His Majesty's troops. That same evening the Lecuve factory was set on fire, no one knew why. The owner, to whom the General had given his word that no violence should be committed, presented himself before the Commandant, and in energetic terms, complained of the vandalism of his troops.
'You can shoot me,' he said, 'but no one can make me hold my tongue as long as I have a breath of life left in me.' The German began to laugh, and replied that it was not worth while to make such a fuss. 'Have a glass,' he added, pointing to a bottle of champagne. The Commandant was drunk, and happily he was jovial in his cups. The Germans played a gruesome trick on another of our compatriots which ought to be recorded. The victim was M. Ferry, a rich and greatly respected municipal councillor. His son had been killed in the defence of the town, and the ladies of the Red Cross had had him buried. One night M. Ferry heard a knock at the door. He went to the window, and saw a French soldier lying on the pavement. He took a lamp, and went out into the street, and what do you think he found?The corpse of his son. After the first fire there were others. You will see the town. Every two or three days the flames broke out somewhere. It was a nightmare. And meanwhile the masquerade went on; the ladies continued to dress themselves up in French costumes, the officers to hold receptions. Ah! ... At last, one night, the cannon began to make their liberating voices heard. How pleasant the roar was to our ears!
The furious General told the Mayor that he would give orders to destroy the entire town at the first shell that fell upon his troops. Happily, he had not time to do this. As soon as the French troops appeared on the south, the Germans took flight towards the north. The ladies, with their hats and dresses, were the last to go. The husbands left first."
We found that Dr. R had not exaggerated when he described the destruction by fire. As soon as we began to walk about the streets, we found ourselves confronted by the eternal spectacle of ruins, always the same kind of ruins, ruins monotonous in their frequency. The inhabitants talked of 136 houses that had been burnt. There is not an uninjured building left in the Rue Jules-Ferry, in the Rue de la Gare and the Rue Jacques Melez. The market, the schools, the post office, the principal church, the Vilgrain mills, the great factories, all that was the pride of this rich, industrious town has disappeared in the flames.
And when we passed out of the town, the other unfailing spectacle presented itself in the outskirts of the villages, in the farms, in the orchards, in the gardens: that of crosses marking the place of graves, poor graves crowned by red képis and ornamented with little tricoloured flags. Now and again there was a grave with a larger cross wreathed with flowers.
"There," we were told, "lies a civilian who was shot."
Here rest the poor municipal officers who were unable to collect the sum requisitioned by the Germans; here the Mayor of Allermont, here the Mayor of Vexaincourt, here the parish priest of Luvigny and Abbé Mathieu.
"Here I ought to be myself," cried Dr. R who was threatened several times because of his zeal in tending the French wounded.
And he added:
"At the time I shouldn't have cared. Now I am glad to be still alive. It would have been too wretched to have died doubtful of victory. And there were such dark days, when we were waiting and nothing came. But we have assurances at last that we need not despair. In Lorraine we have been hoping among the graves for forty-four years."
The American journalist seated on my right in the motor that is taking us to the Argonne, speaks with astonishment of the activity of the French. To him the open shops in villages almost within gun-range, and the smoke rising from factory chimneys are extraordinary sights. But what surprises him most is the quiet work of the peasants in plains traversed but yesterday by the enemy, and perhaps destined to be trodden by them again.
"The Germans are still at Saint-Mihiel on the banks of the Meuse," he says, "and yet look at the calmness with which those people are sowing, never asking who will reap."
The workers who bend over the kindly earth are old men, children, and women. The oxen open the furrows slowly. Shepherds are pasturing their flocks on the slopes of the hills.
There is a Virgilian peace in the landscape, and war seems so remote that by degrees it begins to fade from our minds. The canal from the Marne to the Rhine stretches in a long straight line to our right, reflecting the gilded trees of the wayside in its quiet waters. Everything is golden, a dry reddish gold; the soil, the sky, the tops of the oak-trees. It is a picture of exquisite grace, with something solemn floating in the chill air. Effort is everywhere apparent, but not anguish. The work we are watching has a ritual air, as the old sowers pass slowly making their rhythmic gesture. A free and humble life vibrates over the fecund soil. In the distance the peals of village church bells float so lightly in the air that sometimes we are uncertain whether the sounds that reach us come from these, or from the sheep-bells of a grazing flock.
My friend becomes silent, gazing at the landscape, and I feel that he is thinking of the happiness of this existence, and that vague thoughts of going no farther, of stopping here and tasting this sweet serenity, are floating through his mind.
But suddenly, as we emerge from a little wood, the scene changes, and we awake. Alas! peace and sweetness and idyllic poetry have disappeared. Grim tragedy confronts us. "Sermaize," says our guide. "Three months ago," he explains to us, "Sermaize was one of the most fashionable watering-places in Lorraine; its population in summer was almost as large as that of Vittel. It had comfortable hotels, elegant restaurants, and luxurious shops. Its wide streets were as animated during the season as those of the Pyrenean spas. Ladies came thither from every part of Europe to take the waters. Its chalets draped with Virginian creeper were grouped along the canal, forming picturesque quarters. See what remains of it now."
In the centre of an open space, a stone fountain rises intact. This is the only structure the German shells have spared. All the rest is simply a collection of ruins. The roofs were destroyed by fire, and the walls were dismantled by bombs. Messina must have looked like this after the earthquake. There is not a single uninjured wall, not a door still in place.
And yet the town has not the sinister aspect that was so heartrending at Clermont-en- Argonne, at Auve, and at Courtacon. Children play among the ruins, climbing upon the fragmentary walls, playing at battles, shedding the unconscious smile of the future over what should speak only of the past. And it is not only children who animate the scene; men and women assemble in the open spaces and talk vivaciously.
"Let us go up to one of these groups and hear what they are saying about their misfortunes," says our captain.
We approach and listen. But they are not discussing their miseries, nor the dark past, nor the burnt houses; the morrow is their theme. Meeting in conclave, the Sermaizians, heedless of the cannon still roaring on the north, consider how they may best rebuild their ruined dwellings. One of them addressing us, murmurs: "You see all this desolation!" and then at once, forswearing vain lamentations, he confides to us his faith in the resurrection of the watering-place. Next summer, "after the victory" the visitors must be able to come as usual. There is a tranquil light in their eyes. Their faces are not drawn or convulsed. With a moral strength at once touching and inspiring, they all bow to the irremediable, and prepare to create a new life upon the dead life. The oldest are the most energetic. With their horny workworn hands they point out the spots of greatest interest to them: the quarter of hotels and springs, the centre of vital force in the locality.
"When the lads come back from the war," cries one of them, "they must have somewhere to lay their heads. They will have a right to a little peace and affection!"
The young girls of the place, who lack the brilliant beauty of southern maidens, but who are very attractive, with their mischievous eyes and expressive mouths, smile when they hear talk of the lads who will come back. Not one of them seems to have the slightest fear as she evokes the image of her betrothed. They wait, impassible, with that confidence in God which Joan of Arc carried to the pitch of divine madness.
They will all come back, and everything will rise again from the ashes, they seem to say, as they wave their handkerchiefs at us in farewell, seeing us deeply moved.
Indeed, in a population like that of Lorraine nothing dies irrevocably. What Barrés takes for a beautiful graveyard is, on the contrary, a marvellous centre of life. No region in the world has suffered more through the ages from fire and sword. Her plains have been a perpetual battlefield for all the races of Europe. There has never been an emperor, a king, or a prince, who, at the zenith of his glory, has not coveted her lands. The Romans passed here, and after them the Barbarians. The Carlovingian dynasties were formed here. Here Charles the Bald, the rival of Louis the German, was crowned. Here the Hungarians celebrated their abominable night. Here the Normans horrified Christendom by their cruelties. Here Gisleber was vanquished by the Germans who seized his duchy. Here there have been episcopal sovereigns, heretic sovereigns, miserable sovereigns, captive sovereigns, martyr sovereigns. The struggle between France and Germany, which is now dyeing the soil with blood, is but a continuation of the formidable agelong mêlée in which an Otho, a Conrad, a Henry, a Louis, a Charles, a Napoleon, a William took part. Passing from hand to hand, and ever bloodstained, it might be supposed that Lorraine was created by Providence to be the eternal victim of greed and rapine. Her hills and valleys contain more tombs than flowers. And yet she is not a cemetery, for cemeteries are made for rest, and what vibrates here is life, life so rooted in the sacred soil that even death cannot prevail against it.
before the great battle - French soldiers near Verdun in 1914
The Battle-Field of Verdun
December 20, 1914
From the window of my room I see something on the river bank that is like a Flemish engraving, at once gently melancholy and prettily infantile. At the foot of a bridge blackened by time stretches a row of dark, narrow, pointed houses, looking as if they had been painted by a child on brown paper. They are all alike, they all lean over slightly they all have the same little low doors, and they all seem ready to collapse at the first gust of wind. Yet they have all been there from time immemorial, and in their little rooms the descendants of the conquerors of Charles V live their quiet lives, listening to the carillon that wakes me this morning, as it woke good citizens before the Treaty of Westphalia. This fortress, surrounded by cannon, has always been a very peaceful city. Of old, when the Spanish Emperor and the French King fought for its possession, the chroniclers called it "one of the Three Bishoprics." And even to-day it still wears an episcopal and conventual air, of which neither the roar of the batteries nor the fever of combat has robbed it. Shells are bursting a few kilometres off. From the Place d'Armes regiments start daily for the front. The motor-cars of the Staff pass rapidly along its avenues, carrying generals to Thavannes, Charny, and Donaumont. Officers are talking of gallant deeds in the military club. But in the midst of all this the population continues to live quietly and silently, as if nothing had changed within its walls. And as if to make the contrast more glaring, these people, whose history has been a perpetual tragedy throughout the ages, appear to think nothing so important as the famous sweetmeats sold in their shops. Goethe, in his notes on the campaign in France, confesses that when he entered Verdun after the terrible bombardment, the thing that most interested his greedy German soul was the confectionery.
"Our first care," he wrote on September 3, "was to visit the admirable confectionery shops; the while we enjoyed the good things we bought here in profusion, we thought of the loved ones we had left at home. The courtesy of certain couriers enabled us to send some of these dainties to our friends, to show them that we are in a country where there is never any lack of wit and sweetmeats."
If in those cruel days when the invader was actually treading its soil, the town wore this aspect to one who had just arrived in it, you may imagine how it appeared to us, now that the Germans have bombarded and occupied it only in the telegrams of the Wolff agency. At every street corner a venerable sign calls attention to some speciality in sweetmeats. Like Goethe, we go into the most famous shop, and between two mouthfuls we too think of distant friends who may at this moment be reading some Berlin communiqué announcing that the fortresses around us are continuing to fall under the fire of the terrible 42 mm. guns. The only rather depressing thing is the age and appearance of the ladies who serve us, and who look as if they had escaped from some Flemish Béguinage. How much sweeter these dainties would seem offered by young hands and with the supplementary honey of a smile! But at Verdun all the women are old. This statement will, I know, evoke memories of the English journalist, who on landing at Boulogne and seeing a young girl with bright red hair, wrote in his notebook: "All the women of Boulogne are red-haired." But there is no one here, from the most frivolous lieutenant to the most grizzled colonel, who does not complain of the lack of pretty girls. This is a speciality of the town, as characteristic as the sweetmeats. Is it because, in her desire for harmony, the local genius will tolerate only nobly veiled, discreetly silent, elegantly distrustful ladies in this monastic atmosphere?
Or because mothers, fearing the seductions of the military, keep their daughters behind the grey walls of their houses? In the aristocratic quarter, beyond the crenulated Port de la Chaussée, there are patrician mansions with mysterious jalousies; and at the foot at the cathedral, under the music of the carillon, which from hour to hour pours out its changeless rhythm of ancient bells, certain little flower-decked balconies suggest nocturnal interviews after the Spanish fashion. But in the streets in broad daylight there are no provocative glances, no rosy lips, no coquettish figures. Yet what does this matter after all, in a place where we have come to seek cannon, trenches, and fortresses?
The personage who receives us is not a mayor as in the other towns, but a general. A fine snowy beard enframes his still youthful face. He looks straight at us with keen clear eyes.
Captain Vallote presents us, not by our names, but by those of the countries we represent:
"Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Norway, United States, Italy, Spain."
"I," exclaimed the general laughing, "am a native of Carcassonne."
And no doubt because Carcassonne is a little bit Spanish, he turns to me. Our captain speaks again, very impressively:
"General Sarrail," he says, "will do you the honour of accompanying you in person to visit the forts and the trenches."
General Sarrail! ... One of the most illustrious of the French leaders, the general who commanded the Third Army last September and gained a magnificent victory over the Prince Imperial.
He is the most amiable, the most genial of men.
Chatting familiarly, he walks with us to the quay, where the motor-cars are waiting; he has a pleasant word for each of us.
"I will not offer you my limousine," he says, looking at our open cars, "because you would not see the landscape from it. Besides, it's not very cold to-day."
"The Germans declare that they have occupied some of our fortresses. We will see if you can discover any of them, for in spite of my good eyesight, I have not been able to do so, so far. We will go to the most advanced point of our fortifications."
During our drive my Danish colleague does not allow me to contemplate the ravaged and tragic landscape we are traversing in peace. He, who has just returned from Germany, is amazed at the idea that a general in the army should take the trouble to accompany us and should treat us familiarly. The German officers are so different! A simple captain at Strasburg or Metz considers himself a superior being when he speaks to a miserable civilian.
"Charming!" he exclaims every minute, "charming! What a charming people!" And what astonishes and delights him most is the prospect of getting into a fortress in war-time, a few yards from the enemy. In Germany, according to him, anyone who ventured to approach a frontier citadel would immediately be shot.
As we get further from the town, by the banks of the Meuse, the landscape stretches away in ample monotonous undulations, dominated by low hills, treeless and lifeless. According to the Staff map, there must be some famous forts to our left. Our eyes, however, can distinguish nothing. Just as before the plains of Chalons, we feel a kind of irritation at the thought that here, quite near us, there are thousands of men and several hundred guns, and that we cannot see them. Like the poet inspired by the wall "behind which something was happening," we must be content to believe that the batteries lie hidden among the sparse bramble-brakes of the north. At regular intervals on each side of the road, wires disappear into the bushes, their grey network melting into the uniform colour of the soil. And this is all.
In about twenty minutes our caravan halts at a solitary place.
"We can't go any further in the cars," says the general. "This is the last fort of the fortress."
When we examine the ground carefully, we discover on the left a low door, from which several artillery officers come out to meet us.
"You see," says Sarrail, "there are no Germans here."
What we see is the fort; or rather we are looking at it and we don't see it. The romantic notion of a fort with towers, walls, moats, and crenelations has nothing in common with the modern reality. Personally, I knew that in these days the most important thing is to hide the places whence the firing comes, so of course I did not expect to see a mediaeval castle. But what I saw was so strange in its nudity that I had great difficulty in persuading myself that I was actually on the scene of war. There is not a muzzle of a gun to be seen anywhere. Behind the entrance door stretches a kind of sandy dune covered with a harsh and scanty vegetation. Then the eternal arid undulations begin, the eternal wires, the eternal solitude.
Leaving our cars on the road, we follow a narrow path on foot, and arrive at a little wood a few kilometres off.
"If the day were clearer," says one of the officers who had joined our group, "we could see the German lines from here on this side, towards Cuisy, west of Forges. Forges is the thicket there in front ... about iooo metres off. Our trenches are there."
A slight mist hung over the horizon, and in spite of our efforts to discover something with the help of our field-glasses, we saw only an empty landscape. General Sarrail smiled at our baffled curiosity, and I know not why, but I seemed to read in his smile a certain melancholy, as if it were irksome to him to conduct operations of this kind, an occult subterranean conflict, instead of commanding splendid cavalry charges, mounted on a gallant horse. The plain that opened before us seemed, indeed, to invite to less covert action. Between the woods of Cheppy where the Germans were entrenched, and the banks of the river, whole armies might manuvre in open country, fighting for the possession of the coveted town which lies there quietly in the background.
But we see nothing at all. A few steps from our little leafless copse, the earth is covered with funnel-shaped holes formed by bursting shells. Further on there are a certain number of rustic crosses. On a little knoll three large black poplars lie on the ground as if struck down by a thunder-bolt. These are obvious signs that we are in the last line of fire and that the artillery sends its famous shells as far as here.
The American asked what was the path which traversed the country in front of us.
"It is our last line of trenches," answered an officer. "From where we stand we could talk to the soldiers if we raised our voices."
So there were soldiers there; this was the point where the fighting begins. And we civilians could see nothing but the black ribbon of the trench, which looked to us like a lonely footpath.
What an extraordinary thing is scientific warfare! One sees neither men nor guns. A telephone wire unites the observers in their holes a few paces from the foe, to the batteries of the fortress. And yet men are dying in these trenches, which have already become a vast common grave; men are killing from their hiding-places; they are fighting without moving, without seeing or recognizing each other. Only yesterday a blockhouse constructed by the Germans quite near here, where 200 soldiers were sleeping, was destroyed by a 120 mm. shell and converted into a tomb. To-day the French have occupied this ruin, and to-night they will sleep in it after repairing the roof, not certain that a shell may not cause them in their turn to awake in another world.
"Could we not go nearer to the trenches?"
"No," replied the general, "impossible. We cannot go beyond this point in daylight. This little wood conceals us; but if we ventured out of cover, the German batteries would come into play. They killed one of my horses quite close to this a short time ago. The slightest movement in broad daylight provokes a shower of projectiles. Our enemies don't spare their shells."
At the moment not even a rifle-shot was to be heard. A silence as of death lay over the whole landscape, and even the branches of the trees about us seemed deliberately to abstain from the slightest movement. Far, far away in the mist a black speck was moving in the sky. We thought it was perhaps an aeroplane. An artilleryman observed it for a moment, and at once shook his head disdainfully. It was less than nothing. This dread word was constantly to be heard: nothing.
No, there was nothing; nothing stirred, nothing quivered.
Even the most serious of our company, those who do think that life was not meant to be uselessly exposed, felt a kind of hankering after danger. To be in what is called the theatre of war, within range of the guns, to be almost able to talk to those who are fighting, to know that close at hand there have been scenes of atrocious agony, and yet to have seen nothing of the great drama, is really disappointing. We were all silent, seeking in space a salient point, a striking object. We were all evoking the battle-pieces of bygone days, the Van der Meulens, Vernets, and Delacroix, the scenes that still stand for battle in our imaginations. And we all looked at each other with a kind of curiosity, as if interrogating one another.
The general who, no doubt, divined our inward disillusionment, said to us:
"The important thing was that you should know that the enemy is not close upon Verdun, as he pretends in his communiqués. In some places, here, just opposite, our soldiers are only about fifty yards from the Germans. Every day we advance a little. But it is slow, very slow work. This war is unlike any other war. It is siege warfare in the open."
Then looking at his watch:
"It is late already," he cried, "we must go. We are some way from our motor-cars."
Thus, without having heard a shot or seen a cannon, we return from our visit to a battle- field.
On the way Sarrail describes the magnificent engagement in which his troops defeated the Crown Prince in September.
"My army," he said, "at first took part in the great frontier-battles; but it was obliged to retire, following the general movement of the French forces, to secure a base in this fortress against the attacks of the enemy. At present my numbers are equal to those opposed to us, but this was not the case at the beginning of the war, and I had to plan the action with a force greatly inferior to that of the Crown Prince. About September 10 my positions were determined; I had Bar-le-Duc on my left and Verdun on my right. The Crown Prince's flank was therefore threatened, and he tried to make a way for himself by the fort of Troyon, calculating that the taking of Saint-Mihiel would enable one of his corps to invest this fortress. When I grasped the enemy's intentions, I sent my cavalry along on that side, and I managed to contain the movement by which I was threatened. The German corps opposed to me were the 3rd, 10th, and 16th, supported by the 13th Wurtemburg Corps and two reserve divisions. These were admirable troops, most admirably commanded, I am bound to admit. But ours succeeded in stopping them, and in dashing their hopes of getting to Verdun. Accordingly, as I was sure of not being attacked, and above all, sure that they would not be able to besiege these forts, in spite of all their efforts, I began quietly to prepare my offensive. The most important thing was not to lose touch with the rest of the army. And I never did. No. Even in the hardest moments of the battle, when my regiments began to take part in it, we were always in touch with the other French groups operating on the banks of the Marne. I at once strained every nerve to keep the space round Verdun clear, so that the famous siege- guns should not get within range of my fortresses. The result of our offensive was greater even than the most optimistic had hoped. Although they fought stubbornly for every foot of ground, the enemy gradually fell back, and my cavalry pursued them. If you could have seen those battle-fields! They were covered, literally covered with corpses!"
Sarrail stopped and pointed southward, over the town, to the vast plains of his triumph, between the woods of the Argonne and of Souilly. His clear eyes seemed to be piercing the mist and gazing at the terrible picture he had seen four months ago. His firm, expressive lips murmured words which did not reach our ears, and in which I liked to think there was something like a prayer for the heroes who had gone in obedience to his voice to fall yonder, on the green banks of the Meuse.
The general turned to us, and said, showing us the line of green hills that bound the horizon on the south-east:
"Now we must drive them out of there. Saint-Mihiel."
And after a moment's silence he added:
"If it were not for the Forest of Apremont! I did once think of burning it. But it is not easy in the winter, when the trees are wet."
There was another silence. Finally, smiling again, his face illuminated by the radiance of hope, he concluded:
"But the day will come."
Some of my colleagues, who could not believe that a great battle could be described in so few words, and were waiting for the continuation of the story of the September operations, began to question the general, but the only answer they received was a very amiable and very categorical "That's all." That was indeed all. Hundreds of men fighting, killing, and dying ... towns disappearing in flames ... troops retiring and other troops pursuing them. Then a plain covered with corpses which the crows devour. That is all. From the beginning of the ages it has always been thus, and thus it will doubtless be to the end of the world.
A deep disappointment weighs upon us, nevertheless. Walking behind the distinguished soldier who is silent, we think of the details of the great tragedy, and gradually we realize the infinite anguish of the unknown. How many heroic deeds must have been done during the battle! What sublime sacrifices, what valour are implicit in such a conflict! Formerly, when a battle-field could be shown in an engraving, the more brilliant exploits stood out in relief. But now generals can only see operations as a whole, enormous masses and great movements. And when they want to identify the places where they were victors or vanquished, they have to bend over a map to contemplate spaces that human sight is incapable of embracing.
When we returned to the door of the mysterious fortress where we had left our motor- cars, we found it thronged with soldiers. It was the hour of rest after luncheon. Like children in the courtyard of a school, the good troopers play, talk, and laugh, while the officers discuss the news just received in newspapers from Paris. At the sight of the general all stand at attention for a moment, and salute.
"Good morning, my children," says Sarrail.
Then addressing a fair-haired bearded captain, who stands motionless like a bronze statue, he cries:
"A fine beard! But look out, or you will be taken for a German."
The soldiers smile.
A horseman passes at a gallop, and seeing his famous chief he stops to salute.
"The devil!" says Sarrail, looking keenly at the horse. "Wherever did you get that beautiful animal? You would make a sensation in the Bois de Boulogne."
My Danish companion, highly delighted, was taking in this scene, which seemed to him extraordinary. His northern mind finds it difficult to conceive the idea of so much familiarity and so much gaiety in the midst of tragedy, of so much good humour and so much courtesy in the very battle-field.
"In Germany," he murmurs in my ear, "this kind of thing would be impossible, for the subordinates would at once lose all respect for their chiefs."
Here respect is found to be perfectly compatible with democracy, and a gesture is enough to make the most factious of piou-pious obedient heart and soul to the orders of his commander.
Sarrail is an exception, say his admirers.
But this is hardly true. Sarrail, with his fine courtesy and his greatness of soul, is merely a perfect personification of the typical French soldier. In our recent visits to various headquarters we met many other generals, and they all impressed us in the same manner by their amiable simplicity. We saw Marjoulet, grave, ceremonious, and as distinguished in manner on a terrace bristling with guns as in a Parisian salon; we saw Palacot, very close to the enemy in a patrician mansion, where he might have been entertaining us for some festivity; we saw the famous Micheler among the bushes of a wood, living like a primitive warrior, a bearded paladin, who when he speaks to his men seems like a patriarch in the midst of his tribe; finally, we saw Gérard, the soldier- philosopher, a dreamer absorbed in transcendental problems. And in all these, at all times, we found an exquisite grace and an admirable sense of justice, in spite of the herculean labours with which they are overwhelmed.
"Ah! the rascals! but they are fine soldiers!" cried an old colonel, speaking of the enemies he was fighting like a lion in the depths of the forest of the Argonne.
And this phrase, translated into more refined terms, and adorned with a little more rhetoric, was now to be found on the lips of Sarrail, just as we had found it on the lips of Marjoulet, Palacot, and Gérard. It is another form of Bayard's phrase, when he speaks of our "gentle enemies," the Spaniards; of the Comte d'Auteroche's phrase,when in the thick of the fight he raised his hat and saluted his English foe; of Murat's phrase, when he acclaimed the heroism of the Russians. It is the phrase which has ennobled the soldiers of France throughout the centuries. And more than ever in these days when coarseness and brutality seem to have taken possession of the warrior's soul, when war is a formidable mathematical process, when nothing of the poetry of the old-world battle- field has survived, such martial grace surprises and delights us, a last vestige of the epic graces of yore.
"Bon voyage, gentlemen, and carry away a pleasant memory of our peaceful Verdun," said Sarrail, bidding us farewell. "If my business did not stand in the way, I should have much pleasure in accompanying you to the heights of the Meuse, which are more picturesque than the fields we have just visited."
Our motor-cars rolled slowly away, finding a passage with difficulty between the innumerable vehicles of the transport service that thronged the road. Scarcely had we left the southern forts behind us and approached the Regret Woods, when the aspect of nature changed as if by enchantment. How well we understood this name, Regret, when we imagined the grief the Prussians must have felt in 1792 on abandoning the vineyards they had loved so much, after their defeat at Valmy. Rivulets run in every direction, forming a capricious damascening of silver on the enamel of the flowery meadows. The villages hide their thatched roofs under planes and lindens as if they feared, that seeing them so happy, the enemy's cannon would be eager to destroy them. Here and there a mill spreads its white wings in the midst of huge haystacks that look like Esquimaux huts. Idyllic pathways lose themselves among the trees, inviting us to give up our hurried excursions and go to dream peacefully on the brink of some limpid spring. The war-zone seems to be very remote. And yet here is a signpost which forces us to think once more of the terrible realities of the moment: Metz, 49 kilometres. In three-quarters of an hour we might be there! So near and yet so far! Our captain smiled bitterly when I jestingly asked him if we were going to take the road indicated by the arrow on the sign.
France has been looking for half a century at this tempting and ironical arrow, which is repeated the whole way from Paris to Longeville, all along the road. Near here, if we continued in this direction we should come to Étain; a little further on is Conflans, and then the old walls appear, still grey, still proudly bearing their blackened coat-of-arms, and bathed by the waters of the Moselle. But is there anything which is not unaltered in the captive city? Other towns, weeping as she weeps, have not had strength enough to resist the cajoleries of the seducer, and have accepted the gewgaws that have transformed them. Look at the new quarters of Strasburg, and you will behold a German image, strong, bright, rich, and heavy. Metz, on the other hand, retains her ancient aspect with despairing love, preserving even her defects and blemishes rather than lose her character and her individuality.
"I wept with rage to feel myself more of a foreigner in this city, which is ours, than in Paris itself," wrote a German professor at Metz a short time ago. The French weep also, not with rage but with emotion at the fidelity with which this fair city of Lorraine, violated by the conquerors, keeps the faith she promised in the dark sublime days when the Emperor Charles V in vain aspired to take possession of her.
Before the arrow on the signpost, the words of Barrés, speaking on behalf of his compatriots, come back to me: "A day will come when amidst the trampled vines, upon the devastated roads and over the scattered ruins we shall go to implore thy pardon, and rebuild thee with gold and marble. Oh! what festival shall we then hold! what a huge pilgrimage of all France there will be, hastening to touch the fetters of the captive."
I can almost imagine that the arrow is growing longer, that it is stretching out farther and farther to the point it indicates.
"Shall we go there, captain?" I asked our guide again.
"Yes, we shall go," he answered
in the front-line trenches
An Artillery Fight in the Argonne
December 25, 1914
The morning is clear, a northern winter's morning, cold and damp, with broad beams of sunlight passing through riven clouds to light up the tree-tops after the fashion of reflectors. The north wind brings strange exhalations of rotting leaves from the depths of the forest. Flocks of crows, satisfied with their feast, disport themselves in the air, seeking the bands of sunlight to bathe themselves in them.
We all feel animated and talkative.
"Have you been here long? " some one asks our guide, an infantry officer.
"Over three months," he replies.
And without any further questioning he gives us his recollections of the great battle, in which he led a company.
"When I arrived on August 23," he said, "our troops were retreating, fighting during the day and falling back at night. My first impression was not very agreeable, as you may suppose. We had scarcely taken up our position at Montfaucon, when we were attacked by forces so greatly superior in numbers that we never thought we should get out alive. And the most terrible part of it was that when we got away, we were surrounded by troops which poured out of the woods. Our colonel, feeling that it was all up with us, had an idea which seemed pure madness, but which proved our salvation; instead of pushing on to the south, he led us on to the assault of a village occupied by the Germans, where we were able to join up with another regiment coming from the east. For two days we attacked without yielding an inch of ground, fighting with the bayonet. I had been suffering from rheumatism, but it was cured there and then. When we came out of our village to continue our retreat, Major C. had to meet a terrible counter-attack by a whole brigade of the Prussian Guard, which was waiting for us in the neighbourhood. Seeing the enormous mass in front of us, he said to me: 'It's all over with us, my boy!' What a fellow he is! Very short, hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, always storming against something. It is only when he is fighting that he is good-humoured, and then he laughs and jokes like a child. 'We must die, brothers!' he called out to us. Rifle in hand, at the head of the column, he fired away like the devil, and after each shot he declared he had killed a general. Suddenly a bullet broke his left arm. I wanted to bandage it with a handkerchief, but he would not let me. ' Another general! ' he cried, leaning against a tree to fire. At that moment a fragment of shell tore out one of his eyes. Then, superb and terrible, his face bathed in blood, he continued to advance like a ghost. We all followed him. 'Forward, brothers!' he cried, 'forward.' It was suicidal. However, we got to a farm in spite of the Prussians, and in this farm we found one of our batteries that had been lost the evening before. We held our ground there for a whole week, until September 6, when we received reinforcements. Then the luck began to turn, and it was the Germans who had to retreat."
"And the major? " we asked.
"He is still in this wood, one-eyed and furious. If you meet him, don't be frightened by his rudeness. He is a badly brought-up child ... a mere child."
We had penetrated into the old heart of the forest by the defile of Les Islettes. All around us were great trees, black and leafless. Our motors advanced slowly on the muddy road. When we met an ammunition-wagon coming in the opposite direction we were obliged to stop to let it pass. The wheels sank in, and the steps of our cars brushed the trunks of the oaks. Yet for centuries past formidable armies have passed this way. Condé brought his cannon along here; here those who were fighting against the power of Charles V made their way to the Low Countries; and hither came Goethe in the Duke of Weimar's carriage, to behold the defeat of Valmy.
"It is the Thermopylae of France," say the historians.
To-day this Thermopylae has become a bloody labyrinth, in which men hunt each other like wild beasts, pursuing each other through the thickets. In certain places such as La Grurie and La Chalade, the French and German trenches are only some twenty paces apart, and dying men can look at each other, asking perhaps what supreme reason there was for the bitter pass to which they have come. For the fierce hatred breathed by the newspapers of Berlin and Paris is by no means conspicuous on the battle-field. The enemy is the enemy, no doubt. He must be destroyed. But not insulted. A Reservist said to us this evening, speaking of the Germans, whose graves are to be found at every step in the neighbourhood:
"Poor devils! They too must have left sons and fathers and wives and mothers behind."
In the forest density, the human soul seems to feel the mournfulness of fate more acutely than in the open plain. When the Roman legions were in these same places, they had a strange terror of the unknown. True, in those days the terrible gods the Gauls called Vosago and Caturii were hidden here. But even without its formidable deities, the Argonne is one of those spots where the unfathomable misery of existence is borne in upon one most strongly. To die under these oaks, far from all that makes up the joy of life, must be more painful than to die in the open country. There is an element of shipwreck in the catastrophes we picture to ourselves.
The dry branches murmur like the sea, and the thickets seem deep as abysses. The wolves which inhabit the forest in normal times have fled, howling, at the roar of the guns. Only men remain, transformed into wild beasts, pursuing each other from bush to bush, without even the excuse of hunger or hatred.
The officer who takes us to his batteries at the Four-de-Paris is a Territorial who, in times of peace, is the manager of one of the branches of the Crédit Lyonnais. Everything about him is gentle, quiet, and bourgeois. His moustache is already white, and he needs spectacles to see properly.
"Follow me," he says, "and try not to tear yourselves on the brambles."
When we have taken a few steps, he stops and cries:
"Here they are!"
Here they are, indeed, stretched out upon their gun-carriages with gaping jaws, like savage beasts watching for their prey, silent and motionless.
There are eight of them. Some, long, grey, and slender, have a something feline and serpentine about them. Others are short and sturdy. The last, which are hidden under a bed of leaves, strike terror by their immense size. Beside each of them, a motionless man holds a cord, with which he seems to be controlling the animal in his charge.
The officer makes a sign.
Then they all begin to roar, mingling their monstrous voices and vibrating in a violent convulsion.
The whole forest trembles.
Do you remember the famous chapter in which Goethe speaks of "the fever of the cannon."
"I seemed," said the poet, "to be in a very hot place, and the heat was burning me so that I felt my body to be at the same temperature as the element in which I was. In this state, the sight is not dimmed; but the world seems to have been suddenly dyed a deep red. Far from noting any acceleration in the circulation of my blood, I had a feeling that my whole being was melting in the furnace around me; and this explains the term cannon-fever. It is worthy of remark that the most horrible elements in the situation of which I am speaking reach us through our ears, to wit: the cracking, whistling, roaring, and howling of the cannon-balls."
These lines were written more than a century ago in these same Argonne regions, after Goethe had been allowed to approach a battery. I was now in the midst of several batteries, and it was in vain that I tried to feel the famous "cannon-fever." Neither in myself and my companions, nor in the soldiers who pulled the ropes to hurl 75, 120 and 155 mm. shells did I note the slightest trace of nervous perturbation. We listened to volleys of thunderbolts; the air seemed to crackle; there was a long-drawn creaking of branches, and when the projectiles were lost in space, the only recoil we noted was that of the guns. The 75 mm., light and slender, recoils on its breech without any effort, and returns at once to its original position, as easily as a Browning pocket-pistol. The 120 mm. runs, jumps, shakes itself, trembles for a second and then settles down again, as if satisfied with its gallant deed. The 155 mm. heaves under its roof of dry branches, and seems to growl in the depths of its tortuous soul.
But the gunners, tranquil as if they were upon a polygon, do not even move. Is this because war has so completely lost the character of a formidable element of poetry, that cannon too have become entirely prosaic? Those of other days, as we see them , in forsaken fortresses and in historic trophies, were gilded and polished; their shapes were harmonious, and their bronze bodies were adorned with agreeable blazons and noble inscriptions. Their voices roared like thunder, and their dragon-jaws belched forth flames. Those of to-day are dry, smooth, and grey; they bear neither ornament, nor cipher, nor device; they have no names even, and instead of lording it in martial pride on the hill-tops, they lurk in trenches, or under a layer of dead leaves, like subterranean monsters. But what I find most disappointing about them, now that I see them at close quarters, is the meanness of their voices. In what we still romantically call "the thunder of the cannon," one thing is very evident, and that is, that there is no thunder about it. It is a brief shock, like something breaking, a simple crash, or at most a howl of rage, short and sharp, in which we note that in the acceleration of battery fire, there is no time for the old epic concerts that produced the "cannon-fever."
Fever! We had only to look at the officer who received us to understand what scientific calm, what methodical tranquillity are necessary in directing the algebraic operation of a modern battle. After each volley, a lieutenant comes out of a hole and says to his chief:
"Fifty metres north," or "fifty metres west."
The commandant of the batteries gives the order, addressing himself to the pointer:
And with a turn of the wheel of some mechanism of the breech, the fire which had fallen short or gone beyond the mark before, now reaches the desired point, as if a mysterious hand had guided it through space.
After three volleys, the officer in the hole, who is in telephonic communication with another observer hidden in another hole a few paces from the enemy, cries:
Then the chief calls out:
The guns begin the bombardment; the air trembles; the shells fly with a fluttering as of sinister wings. Over there, some three kilometres off, trenches are being blown up, villages are burning, men are falling, torn limb from limb. And the good citizen, who, in his normal life as a bank-manager, would feel sick if he saw one of his clerks crush a finger in closing a safe, presides here, impassible as some savage god over invisible hecatombs.
"You come from Paris?" he asks. "Now that the theatres have opened again life must be pleasanter there. I have been here in the Argonne for three months. I left a wife and family at home."
His eyes, which never flinch at the sight of death, are dimmed for a moment behind his spectacles. His family ... Paris ... the pleasant life of the bureaucrat! And he must go on firing, killing, living out his obscure and heroic tragedy in the woods, caked in blood and mud! And this will have to go on perhaps for months and months!
"This is the most difficult point of the battle," adds the officer. "We gain ground painfully, foot by foot, without knowing when we shall succeed in clearing the whole forest. During this last week, in spite of the liveliness with which we have been bombarding one another, we have remained almost stationary. On the 7th, in the wood of La Grurie, we mined the enemy's trenches and advanced a little. On the 8th, to the west of Perthes, we also blew up some German trenches and progressed a little. On the 9th, the Germans tried in vain to regain the ground they had lost on the preceding days. On the 10th, a German officer got here, trying to locate our batteries. I shot him dead. He fell just there. Then, as a precautionary measure, we changed our emplacement and went northwards, returning here on the nth. On the nth, I thought my cannon would be done for; shells were hailing on us all the morning. But two gunners were killed and a horse was wounded, nothing more. At La Grurie the enemy attacked again without any result. On the 12th, a black day for us, the Prussians mined our trenches at La Haute- Chevauchée and blew them up. From the 13th to the 14th we progressed all along the line, gaining some 200 metres; on the whole things are going well, very well. We are holding them, but it is a long business. In the present war."
The officer did not finish his sentence. A German shell fell some fifty paces from us. We did not see it. We did not even see the flash of its explosion among the trees, and the sound of it was drowned in the roar of the French cannon. But the artilleryman, accustomed to distinguish his projectiles from those of the enemy, begged us to go.
"The fire is regulated every 50 metres," he said, "and in an instant this spot may be covered with marmites. You must not stay here, gentlemen."
Then making a sign to his gunners he ordered them to cease firing.
"They are getting the range," he mutters. "We must not help them. They shan't hear anything for a few minutes. Then I will pay them out by giving them a turn with the 75 mm. I have down there in the background."
Suddenly another shell fell on the same spot, and this time we heard it burst as if it had been at our feet; nay, more: we could distinguish between the projectile that was fired on our side and that which had come from the enemy. What a rending and tearing in the air! Everything around creaked and vibrated. And afterwards, like an echo of the catastrophe, enormous branches fell groaning to the ground.
"Gentlemen, I cannot allow you to stay a minute longer."
The gunners, standing quietly beside their pieces, watched our departure, apparently unconscious of the terrible sadness of this brief scene. We were going away to avoid the danger of an hour at this post. But they had to stay there not for an hour, not for a day, but to the end, which might be death. And they did not even ask themselves the reason why. They did not complain of the difference of our fates. There they were and there they had to remain; there the hand of destiny had placed them, and there the fire of heaven would find them, quiet and resigned. I waved my hand to them in farewell, and they answered by a smile. I saw them through the trees for a few minutes in the distance. Nothing was stirring in the woods. A strange smell rose from the damp earth as the dead leaves rustled gently to the ground. As we reached the road we heard another shell fall where the two others had fallen. And I thought again of those we had left behind, feeling sad and almost ashamed not to have stayed with them myself.
We clasped the officer's hand in farewell and our cars rolled off in the mud. Right and left of us was the forest, which looks so virginal and has been so often violated. After a while we came back to the high road and to the graves, the innumerable graves that make sublime Appian Ways of the humblest paths.
The captain, our guide, continued the morning's conversation as if nothing had happened in the tragic interval of the past hours, remarking:
"It was a great pity we didn't meet Major C. He would have given us some picturesque details of the latest battles. He is down there, one-eyed and furious."
resting before the battle
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