- from the book 'The Scene of the War'
- 'a Quiet Day in the Argonne'
- by V.C. Scott O'Connor, 1917
a Trip to the Argonne
If you look at a map of Eastern France you will see how the forest of the Argonne, with its crumpled hills, lies astride of the great road that leads from Verdun to Chalons, and you will understand at once why the Hun, eager to capture Verdun and drive another wound into the side of France, fought so hard for a foothold in this difficult country. It was a desperate business this fighting in the Argonne mud and the Argonne valleys and woods, with mine and countermine, with the bayonet and the hand-grenade; a bitter, relentless, obstinate struggle of man against man, trench against trench, of assaults and counter-attacks; of bloody and terrible contests, of which only the distant sound, like the murmur of a city afar off, has reached the ears of our people. But the French know what the Argonne fighting has been, and they know that they have won, as at Verdun, by dint of their pluck and tenacity, - the bull-dog courage that has hitherto been the special characteristic of the island soldier.
That is why the French are proud of the Argonne. And those of us who love this gallant people, who have known them of old as the embodiment of all knightly and chivalrous qualities, from the days of St Louis to this present hour, rejoice with them in this fresh exhibition of the undying qualities of the race. Verdun and the Argonne, these are in a special sense a monument to the new France.
It was not my fortune to see Verdun. The fierce blow at the Hun, which was to drive him with an unmistakable significance from Douaumont and Vaux, was on the eve of its accomplishment, and the curtain was down between Verdun and the Argonne. But we got some little way on the road.
From Chalons we made straight for St Ménehould, only stopping at l'Epine, where a company of French infantry were drawn up in the Place before the church-a stout hard-bitten lot of men under the command of a young officer of fine proportions, with the air of one who would lead them anywhere. The war has had rather a curious effect in this way: it has withdrawn, as it were, the mask under which the Napoleonic soldier has hidden himself for a hundred years. When you see these men in their blue uniforms marching out to fight, these remarkable-looking men who lead them, you understand in a flash what is meant by the military tradition of France. The palimpsest runs clear.
The church beside this little company of men was a beautiful thing in stone, with its sculptures without and its solemn peace within; and I could not resist looking in at the ceremonial that was afoot within its walls, the lights gleaming like stars amidst its gloom, the robed priest before the altar, the kneeling women at prayer. For these also are an inextinguishable part of France.
At St Ménehould we entered the forest-clad hills of the Argonne, and the road carried us through the beauties of the autumn woods to the village of Les Islettes, scarred by shell fire and maimed by the proximity of war. Had we gone on to Verdun we should in a few moments have been at Clermont, twelve miles in a line from the famous fortress; and from Clermont, had we gone north, we should have travelled upon "the road to Varennes."
But we had another destination to-day. Crossing the miniature valley of, the Biesme, which bisects the Argonne from north to south, we ascended the farther ridge and drove the car along the road that runs through the forest to the French entrenchments.
Upon either side of us the trees rose like a wall, sombre where the firs stood in sentinel line, golden where the autumn colours marked the passing of the year. Under our wheels the mud was churned into a cream-the mud of the Argonne.
We had come into a land of the forest-dwellers. Deep in the glades were the huts of the French infantry. In a clearing by the roadside spread the graves of those who have died here in the Argonne. Even in these quiet days this sacred spot is the daily target of the German shells.
It stands at a cross-roads where the traffic meets, and the dead you see have to be buried. It is their comrades assembled for the last tribute that the shells seek out at these solemn moments.
A little farther through the forest and we are close up against the Four de Paris and the enemy's lines. And here, seen from within, is the little world in which the soldier of the Argonne has his being.
In these woods there are the huts in which he must live till the war is over, or the line of battle has advanced across the Rhine.
The ground in which they are imbedded is a puddle, and a glimpse into their interiors shows a long double line of beds and cubicles lost in the gloom of the farther distance, with rifles and accoutrements and the personal belongings of each soldier hanging from the walls and wooden posts.
Each bed is raised above the ground, its framework of wire spread tightly across from post to post, and on it a layer of sacking and blankets.
In this place a man can be warm and dry and sociable; but it is a hard life, redeemed only by the love of country, the pride of beauty, the contrast with harder things - sickness and wounds and death,-redeemed also for many by the ties of comradeship and fellowship in danger; for others, the solitary, made difficult by the fortuitous character of this very association. We are proud of our public schools, but there is no public school like the barrack behind the fighting line for its discipline and its lesson of human equality. A man who rises out of these dim surroundings into the light of acceptance by his fellows, as one who is better than themselves, is surely a man.
The French soldier has more to put up with than our own. His pay is microscopic; his comforts are reduced to the minimum necessary for bodily efficiency; his amusements, if any, are provided by himself. In places like this, where he must pass a year or more of his life, there is no Y.M.C.A. to cater for his larger needs; no place of common meeting where books and papers can be read or letters written; concerts and similar entertainments do not appear to be organised. A frugal hardness is the predominant note of the French arrangements.
On the other hand, the habit of games is not ingrained in the Poilu; the smack of the football is seldom heard behind the front of battle. The more active indulge themselves in gymnastics, and these are encouraged from a military point of view. I saw groups of men busy in this way in the Argonne. But gymnastics are not games. They do not help a man to forget himself in the same way. Is there any solvent for care like a twelve-minute chukker on the grass-the rush after an elusive ball?
But there is some joy for François in the Co-operatifs, where the men assemble in hundreds, making shift in the mud and the wet of the yard, till their turn comes to enter the little shop and make their purchases. The storekeeper is a brisk, capable man trained to the job, - a Paris chemist or a grocer from some provincial town,-and as each soldier enters he reads from a slip of paper, on which he has made a list of the things he wants for himself and comrades -12 pats of Norman butter, 6 packets of biscuits, 6 tins of sardines, 200 cigarettes, 2 bottles of good wine. There is evidently to be a small party in the barrack, and the purchaser goes off with his goods in a capacious knapsack, and a quiet look of contentment on his face.
A little extra food, a smoke, a gulp of wine- that is what it all comes to, and the Poilu plugs along, hardy, enduring, dutiful. He will be glad when the war is over, and he can go back to his mother or his wife, to little Jean and Marie, to the ancestral acre or the family shop; but meanwhile, for rich or poor, ignorant or cultivated, nobleman or peasant, priest or layman, there is the one pre-eminent call-his country, his beautiful France, must be saved, the brute that has fastened on her driven from her soil. Whisper in his ear the word "La Patrie," and he is stirred to the roots of his being. There is no love greater than this.
As to Glory and Honour and Empire, these are of a music to which his soul has been attuned through centuries of a splendid history; but they can wait. The first thing is to kill the Boche and drive him from the sacred hearth; and the knowledge that he is doing this is the consolation of the French soldier. In the first year of the War he used to ask when the War would end; he does not ask that question now. The granite is exposed. He knows the answer.
There are few places on the long French line where the destruction wrought by artillery fire is exhibited in a more contrasting form than here. One travels here for mile after mile through the forest, green in the spring-time, golden at this season of autumn, its soil carpeted with the brown tapestry of the fallen leaves, one's vision limited by the thronging trees. Here is a woodland as nature made it, rejoicing in its little valleys, its secret fountains and running streams; and there, as though it had been ravaged by a fire and swept by disease, upon the very edge of these secluded beauties, is The Desert of War.
A few trees stand out of it, gaunt and distorted, like criminals who have paid the price of their sins. The limbs and the skulls of dead men bleach in its precincts. There is nothing else. You must not look at it, except through a slit in a peep-hole, lest the enemy, suspecting your presence, should put a bullet through your enterprising head; and you must not think about it too much, lest its beastliness should obscure the ideals for which it is worth a man's while to die. And yet you must look at it well, and dwell upon every circumstance of horror and pain connected with it, lest you should ever be tempted by the illusion that war is a glorious and a splendid thing.
At an earlier period of the war the fighting on the Argonne was of the most bitter and obstinate description. To know how bitter and obstinate it was you must have been there or have spoken to those who went through it; but failing this you can learn something of the story from such a book, for example, as Jean Lory's 'Battle in the Forest.' Mine and counter-mine, attack and counter-attack; artillery preparation; close trench fighting; men at handgrips; knife and bayonet, whole companies and battalions wiped out; the fierce will to win through, met by a fiercer refusal to make way; and in the end the triumph of the stronger will-the Huns' growing acceptance of failure.
The fight still goes on; the pioneers are busy on both sides making their tunnels-we went down into these-and exploding their mines. From trench to trench where they meet on the brow of that hill, men still shoot and slay each other at sight; it is still unwise to talk above a whisper as you move along the hidden ways within a few feet of the enemy; the air still resounds to the violent crash of the howitzer, the splitting roar of the 75; scarcely a day passes that some one is not killed or maimed. But in effect the battle of the Argonne is over, and the Hun has lost his tide.
Behind the trenches there is the post of the officer in command. The hills run down here on both sides, leaving a little valley between them; and in this valley there moves the life of the line in reserve. The dug-outs in which the officers and men live are caves that have been excavated in the valley slopes. Here is the Colonel's cave, with a little inscription beside it that speaks of the affection of his men. They have made it as comfortable for him as they can. It must always be a credit to a man in authority to be loved by those who work under him. It is the touchstone by which we judge him.
There is a fireplace in this cave, and a table and a bed, and the smallest of verandahs under the logs of the projecting roof in which you may suppose that he can sit on a quiet day. Upon the walls there are the wonderful maps which make all things plain, and sketches done by skilled hands. There is a telephone on the table.
Near by there is a cemented chamber, with an immensely solid roof, into which the commander and his staff can retire should the enemy's artillery become too violent. It is seldom used now. Beside this, again, there is the hospital, with its kitchen at the mouth of the cave, and its wounded men within, upon bunks fixed like racks against the wall. There is only a dim light here, and the men lie very still. Those who can be moved are sent very rapidly to a hospital at the base. "It is damp in here," says the Surgeon, "but we cannot help that. We do what we can to keep the place warm and dry."
Outside the blue infantry move amidst the gilded trees, the smoke of their fires rising slowly into the clearing of the sky. From time to time the shells burst in the road beyond, and the shrapnel bullets scatter with a noise like hail through the autumn leaves.
One or two fall at our feet.
Such is a quiet day in the Argonne.
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