'Over the Top with the'
'Americans in the Foreign Legion'
Told by Donald R. Thane
of the Foreign Legion of France

'Lafayette Here We Come ...'

Americans in the Foreign Legion posing with members of the Layfayette Escadrille


Back from the trenches, where he fought in the Foreign Legion of France, Donald R. Thane, an American boy, was wounded and "gassed" all in the same day. Mr. Thane has seen Mars in his blackest moods; he has seen him at play and laughs at some of the grim jests of the war god. His gossip of the trenches — or rather some of it—just as he told it, nervously, and coughing now and then, for his lungs are still raw from the gas, gives an American boy's view of the war and what is going on "out there."

I — Story of an American Boy in France

I was walking through Belgium when the war started. Things began to get hot and I went over to Paris. It was there that I enlisted in the Foreign Legion.

Why did I do it?

Well, I'm not going to pull anything about wanting to rescue France, or being fired by the flame of liberty or anything like that. They asked, a negro prizefighter — an American — the same thing. He ruefully regarded the many bandages that adorned his more or less mangled body, and said: "Well, sah, I guess mah curiosity got de best ah mah good sense."

Looking back on it, he answered for me, too.

As soon as I enlisted I became a number. It .was No. 38,606, and I think that when we started to fight there were about 65,000 men in the legion. I don't know how many there are now. I do know that regiments have been so decimated that they were consolidated. You must not think of a regiment of the legion, however, as you do of an American regiment with a fixed number of men. I have seen Zouave regiments with 43 companies and about 240 men in each company.

I was assigned to the First regiment of the legion, where there were a number of other Americans, about whom I will tell you later. If the Americans had all enlisted at about the same time probably they would have had a separate regiment, but as they came in separately they were scattered throughout the legion.

They sent us down to Lyons for about a month of training, which was a lot more than was given at first. Some of the men practically got uniforms and then went into the trenches. I knew a French sergeant whose brother enlisted and was killed ten days later.

At Lyons wounded officers and non-coms, taught us soldiering without an interpreter. All the commands were given in French, and the drill masters executed them as they gave them. Lots of the boys didn't know a word of French, but they soon learned to execute all the movements, commence firing, cease firing, rush and retire, to the French commands. That was all the officers cared about. All we needed was to be able to fight in French.

II — In a Little Wood Near Lassigny

My regiment was stationed in a wood a little way south of Lassigny, and for a time everything was very pleasant. The Prussians couldn't see us, and we had to fear only an occasional shell which came our way. The Boches had a habit of combing the whole line once every morning and once or twice toward evening. I suppose it was just so we wouldn't get too "cocky."

The regiment was divided into three parts. One-third stayed up in the cut-post trenches and did a little patrol work in the woods. A second part was in the second-line trenches, repairing them and ready to move up if an attack came, and the third part was in the rear washing up and resting.

The men on outpost had to be pretty careful, because sometimes at night the Boches would move up and throw a few grenades or take some pot shots at them, but on the whole we were pretty comfortable in the woods at Lassigny, getting used to the sound of shell fire and occasionally experiencing what it is like to have some one shoot at YOU, purposely — to kill you.

But this came to an end. One day the Prussians began to pay a great deal of unsolicited attention to our sector. Their artillery hammered at us incessantly all day and all night. We knew an attack would come when the artillery fire ceased, and more and more men were moved into our trenches all the time.

I was sorry for the outposts, who had little or no protection against this kind of fire, but who had to stay out in the front to see when the attack started. The French officers seemed to know about when the assault was due, and one night they moved us out of the woods into a more exposed position. Here we huddled in bombproofs about thirty feet below the surface of the earth. Shells were bursting all around us. We could hear the earth and stones thrown up by the explosions come rattling down on the roof of our shelter, and we always looked up at the raftered ceiling and wondered if it was going to hold. To die here like rats in a trap was not what we expected. I had never been in an attack and I dreaded it, but I thought surely it must be better than this sitting here, waiting for the top of the ground to fall down and crush me.

The muffled roar of the cannon fire ceased. The assault was commencing.

We sprang to the entrance of the passage which leads to the world above. It was blocked by falling earth and rocks. With spades, with bayonets, with bleeding fingers and tattered nails we flew at the debris and clawed our way to the air, like sewer rats at bay and forced to fight.

We wanted to fight. It was not all courage on our part. If the Boches should win our trenches they would throw hand grenades in on us until all was silent in our self-made tomb, just as we would do if we reached their lines.

It is a rotten war!

We scrambled out just as the third wave of Prussians surged against the barbed wire entanglements and died away. It did not break back upon itself, like a water wave striking a breakwater. It simply melted, because our machine guns were rat- a-tat-tatting and our artillery was dropping a curtain of high explosives into a strip of No Man's Land about as wide as a city street. It was horrible. Yet as every shell burst we felt exultation, because if those men passed the wire some of US would die. We wanted them killed right there. We did not want them to get among us, stabbing and shooting and clubbing.

It was my first fight. I could not help it — I was afraid. I wanted to get on my knees and pray that the gray waves should not pass the barrier, but my knees were too stiff. I prayed standing — prayed that more men would be killed!

For three hours this kept up. I stood there horrified, but for the first time in my life glad to see men die. No more waves were coming. Night was falling. The red in the sky seemed to be reflected in the narrow strip of ground before us, but it was not that. The guns spoke more slowly.

Great God, it was over! They had not passed. I was glad, but I was sick.


Americans in the legion - left the Rockwell brothers


Ill — We Attack the Prussian Trenches

I spoke of the enemy coming over in waves. Many persons seem to think that this implies a weird and complicated formation. It does not. Nothing is simpler. When they prepare for an assault the first line of trenches is filled with men. At the command they climb over the side and charge. Some run faster than others. This makes the onrushing edge of the mass of men thinner than the main body and irregular. It is like the tumbling crest of a white cap.

As these men charge the trenches are filled again. As soon as they are ready the second crowd starts over. Then the third, and the fourth and so on. There is no attempt to take cover, because there is no cover. It is a rush to get there. There is no regular formation. The trench spews forth a swarm of fighting demons and they come trampling and yelling across that terrible strip of earth as fast as they can come. After our artillery annihilated the attack it began to shell their trenches. We knew that we would make a counter attack. Some of us may have slept that night. I didn't.

Early in the morning, when it was very cold and the impassive stars blinked dimly and more dimly, the "taraffia" was passed down the line. This is chiefly rum, and it makes one feel, "Why wait any longer? Let's get up and at them now." If it wasn't for this I think we would go crazy in those last twenty minutes before the attack.

Our artillery ceased. “En avant, mes enfants! On les aura!" shouted the officers.

The first company mounted the side of the trench and dashed forward. Most of them were dangling in the barbed wire as we rushed past. The earth in front of us seemed to be whipped into a seething mass. They were sweeping low with their machine guns so as to hit us in the legs and drop us. With a shot through the stomach we might go on for minutes and maybe kill a Prussian before we died. But a hit in -the legs drops a man and the artillery can blow him to pieces later, when the assault has been repulsed.

It is a scientific war.

A few of the first company reached the Prussian trenches before us. We clubbed and stabbed and slashed with the long knives they had given to us. The legion does not take any prisoners, because legionnaires are not taken prisoners. The Boches feel that we have no business in the war.

The trench was so narrow I could not use my bayonet, so I used the knife. I do not know how long we had been fighting, but the Boches cleared out. We tried to get our squads together and prepare for what we knew would be coming. The enemy simply had retired to their second-line trenches to let their artillery turn upon us in their first-line shelter. All morning they hammered us, but we hung on, lying flat upon our bellies and clinging to our mother, the earth, as if she would protect us. Showers of dirt almost buried us alive. Sometimes bits of metal found a soft billet, and there was one fewer of us to withstand the attack that would come as surely as death awaits us all.

Suddenly quiet struck us like a blow. The echo of the guns had scarcely died away when we heard the twitter and whistling of birds that had survived the terrific shocks of the explosions.

Then we heard a different sound. It was the yelling of the Boches. They were coming! Some rushed through the, crooked communication trenches which we had blocked a little bit with earth and stones. Others swarmed over the top of the ground. Some seemed to rise from beneath our very feet.

Have you ever kicked into an ant hill? If you have you know how the Boches fell upon us. I saw some one climb over the rim of the trench and run back toward the French lines. I followed him.

I could not feel my legs. I seemed to be flying. The strumming of a machine gun broke upon my consciousness. I leaped headlong into a shell hole. Dead men were around me and wounded lay thrashing there. Other men leaped on me and fell into the pit. We lay there until the sound of the machine gun stopped, then we started madly again for our own lines. A star shell burst and merciless light made everything stand out with terrifying plainness. It is cadaverous light, like that from a mercury tube.

We plunged into another shell hole. When the rest of the men came tearing past us we leaped out and followed them. I am not proud of my conduct in my first fight.

After this assault I gradually became accustomed to the noise and shock of artillery fire. We could hear the shells coming, passing over our heads and speeding away in the distance. It is a strange fact that after a few weeks of artillery fire one develops a sort of instinct which distinguishes between a shell coming toward him and one just sailing off somewhere else in space.

I got so that shells all around me did not bother me, but let one come in my direction and this extra sense seemed to know it, and I would be flat on the ground before I had time to think about it.

It was at Belloy-en-Santerre, on the Somme, July 2, 1916, that I had a chance to ease my conscience for the way I had acted as a green recruit. Everything was made ready for an assault by our troops. The town had been literally knocked to pieces.

There was a wide strip of terrain between the trenches at this point, but all of us were by now accustomed to feel the breath of death against our cheeks, and when the big guns stopped roaring there came the familiar "En avant, mes enfants! On les aura!" We. leaped over the parapets and tore across at them.

The artillery had made their first-line trenches almost untenable. The only men left in them were the machine gun operators in their heavily armored turrets and they kept spraying devastation among our legs until some of the boys got round behind and threw grenades into the turrets. After that the machine guns were quiet. We reorganized when we had reached the first defences. I don't know how many of the boys were flattened out against the ground behind us, but I do know that several companies had to be consolidated to make one.

Then we swarmed over to the next defence line and stabbed and slashed and threw grenades. Parties of us ran to the bombproofs and threw in everything explosive that we had, and let me tell you that, all stories to the contrary notwithstanding, I never knew of anybody going down into a bombproof and being stabbed by Prussians who said they were wounded and needed help, because nobody ever goes into a bombproof to see until they have thrown grenades in and all is quiet. It would be foolish to do otherwise.

As I have said before, it is a rotten war any way you look at it.

IV — When the Boches Throw Gas Bombs

Well, after the attack we held the first two lines of trenches. When I went off duty after being on outpost I simply lay down in the mud and. mess of things and slept. I waked up coughing and wracking as if my body were going to burst.

The Boches had crept over and thrown gas bombs among us. Some of the men were too far gone to get Out of it. Others had managed to get away. A few had gas masks, and one of these put his arms under my shoulders and dragged me with him to the rear. We all should have had our masks, and nowadays a soldier found without his is severely punished. I had mine then, but it was under my blanket and I couldn't get to it quickly enough.

They stuffed something under my nose, and it hurt almost as much as the gas, but it brought me to, and I was put in an ambulance. The body of it was filled with wounded men, so I sat with my legs dangling over the tailboard, propped up against a leather strap. The poor fellows inside groaned and grunted with every bump of the crazy vehicle. The road was pitted from shellfire, and I had to hang on for dear life to keep from being thrown off.

Presently the Boches began shelling the road. They were not purposely after the ambulances. They were just shelling that road. If ambulances were there they were likely to get hit.

I heard one coming. I knew she was headed toward us, but there was no place to duck to. Right behind us the road seemed suddenly to bow up like a steel band when the ends are sprung suddenly together. Then it settled back. I was so stunned by the shock of the explosion that I hardly felt anything else, but as the ambulance careened onward I began to feel a pain in my thigh. I put down my hand, and when I looked at it, it was red. I had been hit.

A man lying on his back in the ambulance, with his feet beside me, had lost more than half of one of them as a result of the same explosion. There wasn't time to do anything for either of us. The driver went ahead like mad and got us to a dressing station, where dozens of men were waiting for treatment.

Some of them were serious. The surgeon looked at me and said, "You're easy. Can't waste much time on you. Lie on that table."

I lay down on my stomach and he probed for a second, then gave a yank. I thought he had pulled my leg out by the roots, but he thrust a pair of pincers in front of my eyes and said, "There it is. Want it?" and he dropped a bit of shell into my hand. I still have it. Then a big ambulance, with seven other men in it, took me to Compiegne, where I lay in the dining saloon of a chateau for a few hours and then was sent to Paris. The wound healed quickly and I was sent back to the trenches, but the gas had left my lungs bad, and I couldn't stand the cold and wet. It wasn't long before they invalided me out.

But I'm all right now, and I'm going back if they'll let me.


Americans in the legion


V — The Boys Who are "Gone" Forever

A lot of the boys I knew in the legion are gone now. "While I was in the hospital some of them got theirs. For instance, there was Allan Seeger. It was reported not long ago that he killed himself while lying in a shell hole, wounded. I don't believe that. I knew Seeger well, and it doesn't sound like him.

He enjoyed a close, strange friendship with a negro from the Barbadoes, whom we called Café-au-Lait because he was the color of coffee more than half milk. Café-au-Lait had Seeger's watch when I returned to the trenches, and he was in the shell hole with him when he lay there wounded. He had been shot through the stomach and some stretcher-bearers rescued him. He was put in an ambulance and sent to the rear, but he died before they could get him to a hospital, according to Café-au-Lait, who mourned his loss pitifully.

Then there was Christopher Charles, a dancer from New York, whom you'd never take for a fighter, but who could show the way to most of us. Another New York man in the legion was "Norri" Norritch. He was killed at Belloy-en-Santerre after they took me away with my lungs full of gas. They said he had made hundreds of thousands of dollars in New York real estate.

There was one Briton in the legion whose name was Longman. He had been discharged from the British army because he went to pieces after a girl had turned him down. His one idea was to get killed. He was always the first man over the top for an assault, and he never bothered about taking shelter from shell fire unless he was dragged into it. But he couldn't get hit. Longman was reinstated in the British army for heroism and sent down to the Balkans. Newspapers all over the world have told his story. He went through the Serbian campaigns with all the fever, typhus and pestilence raging through the camps, and it never touched him. He wooed death and she passed him by.

Then the Turks took him prisoner. They never would have done it had he known. Something knocked him on the head, and when he waked up he was in a Turkish hospital.

It would be hard to find a more conglomerate body of men than the legion. Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Poles, who will not fight for Russia, but want to fight against Prussia; Americans and British, shoulder to shoulder, sharing blankets and little luxuries that filter into camp from time to time.

In my company were a Spaniard and a Chilian who had always been deadly enemies. The Spaniard had lost a fortune gambling, and then the Chilian won the girl the Spaniard was going to marry. They fought a duel, which the police interrupted. Both joined the legion and were assigned to the same squad.

VI — The Legionaires in the Battle Of Montluel

The discipline is very strict in a way, but the legionnaires have to be handled differently than any other troops. They still delight to tell about what was dubbed the "Battle of Montluel." Three pals from the legion were in the town on leave. One was an American civil engineer, one an Irishman of the school you read about — chivalrous, humorous, always ready to fight — and the third was an Englishman who had travelled so much that he belonged nowhere in particular.

They drank all the good wine in Montluel and refused to pay for any of it. At last they wandered into a tavern they had missed and demanded something to drink. The innkeeper refused them, having heard of their escapades.

The Irishman dashed at him. The proprietor floored him with a chair. The two others leaped upon the inn-keeper. Peasants and townsmen rushed in with flails, sticks and anything handy and began beating the life out of the three legionnaires, who yelled for the gendarmes. The gendarmes came, but they arrested the soldiers and returned them to their military commander. They were sentenced to twenty years of hard labor on the railroad in Algeria.

But they begged so hard to be allowed to fight as long as the war lasted that the commander agreed, saying they deserved to be shot anyway.

I don't believe they will ever serve their twenty years in prison, for if they are not killed they will have won their pardon. Already they have won "citations" and would have been decorated were they not technically prisoners.

I would just like to say one word about training men for fighting in Europe. I don't want to presume to give advice, but I fully believe that the only place to train men for this kind of fighting is right behind the lines where they will hear the shells bursting. Then they can be moved up to the reserve trenches and used for repair and construction work until they are ready to be put into the fighting.

In this war every man must take care of himself. There has never been fighting like it. I don't care how well trained a soldier may be, he has got to see something of the war before he will be any good in a fight.

see also The Lafayette Escadrlle


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