'Tales of the Daring Rides of a French Trooper'
told by Lieut. Christian Mallet, of the Dragoons


With the Twenty-second Regiment of Dragoons

a colorful magazine illustration


This famous 22nd regiment of Dragoons was raised in 1633 and took part in all the great wars in which the French were engaged before the Revolution. It fought under the Republic and then with Napoleon's armies — at Austerlitz (1805) ; Jena (1806) ; Eylau (1807) ; Oporto (1809). It saw service with the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, the Army of the Rhine, the Grande-Armée, in the War in Spain, the Campaign in Saxony, the Campaign in France (1814). The regiment was disbanded in 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic Wars and was not raised again until 1873.

The first great charge of the 22nd Dragoons in the Great War occurred on the night of September 10-11, 1914. It has since been fighting heroically "For France and Civilization." Lieut. Mallet has fought his way up in the ranks with the Dragoons. He presents the unconquerable spirit of France in his book: "Impressions and Experiences of a French Trooper." It is dedicated: "To my Captain, Count J. de Tarragon, and to my two comrades, 2nd Lieut. Magrin and 2nd Lieut. Clere — who fell all three on the field of honour in defense of their country."


I — Story of Peasant Girl on the Yser

The battle finished (September 10, 1914) the pursuit. of the conquered army commenced and kept the whole world in suspense, with eyes fixed on this headlong flight towards the north, which lasted till the end of the month, and which was to be the prelude of the great battles of the Yser.

The region round Verberie was definitely cleared of Germans and was become once more French. The little town for some days presented an extraordinary spectacle. We entered the town after having received the formal assurance of the 5th Chasseurs, who went farther on that all the country was in our hands. Some divisional cyclists were seated at the roadside. We asked them for news of the 22nd, and their reply wrong our hearts. They knew nothing definite, but they had met a country cart full of our wounded comrades, who had told them that the regiment had been cut up.

No one could tell us where the divisional area was to be found. The division itself appeared to have been dismembered, lost and in part destroyed. We thought that we were the only survivors of a disaster, and, once the horses were in shelter in an empty abandoned farm stuffing themselves with hay, we wandered sadly through the streets destroyed by bombardment and by fire in search of such civilians as might have remained behind during the invasion.

A little outside the town we at last found a farm where two of the inhabitants had stayed on. The contrast between them was touching. One was a paralysed old man unable to leave his fields, the other was a young girl of fifteen, a frail little peasant, and rather ugly. Her strange green eyes contrasted with an admirable head of auburn hair, and she had heroically insisted on looking after her infirm grandfather, though all the rest of the family had emigrated towards the west. She had remained faithful to her duty in spite of the bombardment, the battle at their very door and the ill-treatment of the Bavarian soldiers who were billeted in the farm. Distressed, yet Joyous, she prepared a hasty meal and busied herself in quest of food, for it was anything but easy to satiate eleven men dying of hunger when the Germans, who lay hands on everything, had only just left.

She wrung the neck of an emaciated fowl which had escaped massacre, and, by adding thereto some potatoes from the garden, she served us a breakfast, washed down with white wine, which made us stammer with joy, like children. One needs to have fasted for five days to have felt the cutting pains of hunger and of thirst in all their horror, to appreciate the happiness that one can experience in eating the wing of a scraggy fowl and in drinking a glass of execrable wine tasting like vinegar. She bustled about, and her pitying and motherly gestures touched our hearts. While we ate she told us the most astonishing story that ever was, a story acted, illustrated by gestures, which made the scenes live with remarkable vividness.

She told us how, faithful to her oath, she was alone when the Bavarians came knocking at her door, how she lived three days with them, a butt for their innumerable coarsenesses, sometimes brutally treated when the soldiers were sober, sometimes pursued by their gross assiduities when they were drunk; how one night she had to fly half naked through the rain, slipping out through the venthole of the cellar, to escape being violated by a group of madmen, not daring to go to bed again, sleeping fully dressed behind a small copse; how at last French chasseurs had put the Bavarians to flight and had in their turn installed themselves in the farm, and how among them she felt herself protected and respected.

She attached herself to her new companions, whom she looked after like a mother for three days. Then they went away, promising to return, and she was left alone.

But the next day at dawn, uneasy at the row that came from the town, she decided to go in search of news. She put on a shawl and slipped through the brushwood and thickets as far as the first houses. She was afraid of being seen, and made herself as small as possible, keeping close to the walls, crossing gardens and ruined houses. The terrible noise increased, and she went towards it. She wanted to see what was going on, and a fine virile courage sustained her. The shells fell near her; no matter, she had only a few more steps to go to turn the corner of a street. She arrived on the place as the battle was finishing.

Her fifteen chasseurs were there, fifteen corpses at the foot of the barricade. One of them, who still lived, raised himself on seeing her, and held out his arms towards her. Then, forgetting all danger, in a magnificent outburst of feminine pity, she braved the rain of fire and dashed to the centre of the place. She knelt by the young fellow, enveloped him in her shawl to warm him and rocked him in her arms till he closed his young eyes for ever, thankful for this feminine presence which had made his last sufferings less bitter.

While she remained kneeling on the pavement wet with blood, a last big calibre shell knocked over, almost at her feet, a big corner house, which in its fall buried the German and French corpses in one horrible heap. She fell in a faint on the stones, knocked over by the windage of the shell, which had so nearly done for her.

During the latter part of her discourse she straightened her thin figure to the full, her strange eyes sparkled, and she appeared to be possessed by some strong and mysterious spirit which made us tremble. She became big in her rustic simplicity — big, as the incarnation of grief and of pity, and of the peasant in her gave place to a living image of the war — an image singularly moving and singularly beautiful.

II — With the Warriors from the Marne

From the next day Verberie became in some degree me rallying point for all soldiers who had lost touch with their units. Elements of all sorts of regiments, of all arms, of all races even, arrived on foot, on horse-back, on bicycles, in country carts. There were dragoons, cuirassiers, chasseurs, artillerymen, Algerian Light Infantry and English. Bernous, khaki uniform, blue capes, rubbed shoulders with dolmans, black tunics and red trousers.

In this extraordinary crowd there were men from Morocco mounted on Arab horses and wearing turbans; there were "Joyeux" who wore the tarboosh, and ruddy English faces surmounted by flat caps. All the uniforms were covered with dirt and slashed and torn. Many of the men had bare feet, and some carried arms and some were without. It was the hazard of the colossal battle of the Marne, where several millions of men had been at grips, which had thrown them on this point. All were animated by the same desire for information, and particularly of the whereabouts of their respective regiments. From every direction flowed in convoys, waggons, artillery ammunition waggons, stragglers from every division and from every army corps. The mix-up and the confusion were indescribable. One heard shouting, swearing, neighing of horses, the horns of motor-cars, and the rumble of heavy waggons, which shook the houses.

Faces drawn with fatigue were black with dust and mud and framed in stubbly beards. Everyone was gesticulating, everyone was shouting and a bright autumn sun, following upon the storm, threw into prominence amongst the medley of clothing the luminous splashes of gaudy colours and imparted an Oriental effect to the crowd.

III — Story of the Priest — and Two Chasseurs

Having eaten, washed and rested, I walked the streets, drinking the morning air and taking deep breaths of the joie de vivre, of the strength and vitality mingled with the air. I looked on every side to see whether I could not find some acquaintance in the crowd, some stray trooper from my regiment.

So it was that the hazard of my walk brought me to a scene which moved me to tears and which rests graven so deeply on my memory that I can see its smallest detail with my eyes shut. The Gothic porch of the church, with its fine sculptures of the best period, was open, making in the brightness of the morning a pit of shade, at the foot of which some candles shone like stars. On the threshold of the porch, gaily lighted by the morning sun, a priest, whose fine virile face I can still recall, held in his hand the enamel pyx, and his surplice of lace of a dazzling whiteness contrasted with the muddy boots and spurs. One could guess that after having traversed some field of battle, consoling the wounded and the dying, he had dismounted to officiate in the open air under the morning sun.

Before him, on a humble country cart and lying on a bed of straw, were stretched the rigid bodies, fixed in death, of two chasseurs who had fallen nobly while defending the bridge over the river. All around, kneeling in the mud of the porch, a semicircle of bare-headed soldiers, overcome by gratitude and humility, were assembled to accomplish a last duty and pay their last respects to the two comrades who were lying before them and who were sleeping their last sleep in their blood-stained uniforms, and assisted at the supreme office. The priest finished the De profundis, and in a clear voice pronounced the sacred words "Revertitur in terram suam unde erat et spiritus redit ad Deum qui dedit ilium."

The officiant gave the holy-water sprinkler to the priest, who sprinkled the bodies and murmured "Requiescat in pace." "Amen," responded the kneeling crowd, and a great wave of religious feeling passed over the kneeling men, the greater part of whom gave way to overmastering emotion.

I can still see a big devil of an artilleryman, with his head between his hands, shaken by convulsive sobs. Having given the absolution, the priest raised the host sparkling in the sunlight for the last time and pronounced the sacramental words. I moved off, deeply affected by the grandeur of the scene.

IV — Depraved Soldiers In A Drawing Room

By the l2th a good number of 22nd Dragoons and some officers of the regiment had rejoined at Verberie. We formed from this debris an almost complete squadron under the command of Captain de Salverte, who had succeeded in getting through the lines by skirting the forest.

I again found my officer, M. Chatelin, whom I had last seen in the little clearing near Gilocourt, surrounded by lurking enemies, and whom I had hardly dared hope to see again alive; also M. de Thezy, my comrade Clere and others.

We were all sorry to hear that Lieutenant Roy had fallen on the field of battle with several others, and that Major Jouillie had been taken prisoner. As for Captain de Tarragon, it was stated that he might have escaped on foot with his orderly and that he might be some-where in the neighbourhood with a contingent of escaped men, but any precise information was wanting.

The night before I had slept in the drawing-room of the chateau belonging to M. de Maindreville, the mayor. Its appearance merits some brief description, so that those who are still in doubt as to the savagery of the Germans may learn to what degree of bestiality and ignominy they are capable of attaining. .

This fine drawing-room was a veritable dung heap. The curtains were torn, the small billiard-table lay upside down in the middle of the room, a litter of rotting food covered the floor, the furniture was in matchwood, the chairs were broken, the easy-chairs had had their stuffing torn out of them and the glass of the cabinets was 'smashed. One could see that all small objects had been carried off and all others methodically broken. On the first floor the sight was heart-breaking. Fine linen, trimmed with lace, was soiled with excrement; excrement was everywhere, in the bath, on the sheets, on the floor. They had vomited on the beds and urinated against the walls; broken bottles had shed seas of red wine on the costly carpets. An unnamable liquid was running down the staircase, obscene designs were traced in charcoal on the wall-papers and filthy inscriptions ornamented the walls.

I have told enough to give an idea of the degrading traces left by a contemptible enemy. I have exaggerated nothing; if anything, I have understated the truth. And this is the people that wants to be the arbiter of culture and of civilisation! May it stand for ever shamed and reduced to its true level, which is below that of the brute beast.

V — The Search for Captain De Tarragon

On the morning of the lath, under the command of Captain de Salverte we crossed the Oise by a bridge of boats, the stone bridge having been destroyed by dynamite some days before. We went north to billet at Estree-Saint Denis, which was to be the definite rallying point of the 22nd Dragoons. We were followed by several country carts, full of dismounted troopers, saddles, lances, cloaks and odds and ends of equipment.

Acting on very vague information, I set out on the 13th to look for Captain de Tarragon. I was mounted on a prehistoric motor bicycle, requisitioned from the village barber. I scoured the country seeking information from everyone I met. I received the most contradictory reports, made a thousand useless detours and was exasperated when overtaken by night without having found any trace of him.

I followed the road leading to Baron and to Nanteuil- le-Haudoin, along which but a few days before the corps of Landwehr, asked for by von Kluck, had marched with the object of enveloping our army, and along which it had just been precipitately hustled back. The sky was overcast and the day was threatening. At each step dead horses with swelled bellies threatened heaven with their stiff legs. A score of soldiers were lying in convulsed attitudes, their eyes wide open, with grimacing mouths twisted into a terrifying smile, and with hands clasping their rifles. Involuntarily I trembled at finding myself alone at nightfall in this deserted country, where no living being was to be seen, where not a sound was to be heard except the cawing of thousands of crows and the purr of my motor, which panted on the hills like an asthmatic old man, causing me the liveliest anxiety.

Fifteen hundred metres from Baron, after a last gasp, my machine stopped for ever, and, as I was ignorant of its mechanics, I was compelled to leave it where it was and continue my journey on foot through the darkness.

The proprietor of the chateau of Baron put me up for the night. As at Verberie, everything had been burnt, soiled and destroyed. Nothing remained of the elegant furniture beyond a heap of shapeless objects. Next morning with the aid of a captain on the staff who requisitioned a trap for me, I got back to Verberie and found Captain de Tarragon there. He had slept at the farm of La Bonne Aventure, quite near to where I lay. When he saw me, after the mortal anxieties through which he had lived, believing his squadron lost and cut up, he was overcome by such a feeling of gratitude and joy that I saw tears rise to his eyes while he shook me vigourously by the hand. He had already sent forward my name for mention in the order for the day with reference to the affair at Gilocourt and the death of poor Dangel. I was recommended for the military medal, and my heart swelled with pride and joy, while I was carried back to Estree-Saint-Denis, stretched out in a country cart with a score of dismounted comrades.

A few days afterwards I was promoted corporal and proudly sported the red flannel chevrons bought at a country grocer's shop.

VI — Tales of the Dragoons

Once the half-regiment was reconstituted after a fashion, though many were missing (a detachment of fifty men without horses having returned to the depot), we were attached to the 3rd Cavalry Division, which happened to be in our neighbourhood, ours having left the area for some unknown destination. Until the 1st of October our lot was bound up with that of the 4th Cuirassiers, who marched with us.

On the 23rd of September, as supports for the artillery, we were present at violent infantry actions between Nesle and Billancourt. The 4th Corps attacked, and the furious struggle extended over the whole country. My troop was detached as flank guard and, in the thick-morning fog, we knocked up against a handful of German cavalry, whom, in the distance, we had taken for our own men.

We charged them at a gallop, and we noticed that they were tiring and that we were gaining on them. One of them drew his sabre and cut his horse's flanks with it, whilst a non-commissioned officer turned and fired his revolver without hitting us; but, thanks to the fog, they got away. We did not tempt-providence by following them too far for fear of bringing up in their lines.

At night we were sent to reconnoitre some fires which were reddening the horizon and which, from a distance, seemed vast conflagrations. We came upon a bivouac of Algerian troops, who were squatting on their heels, warming themselves, singing strange African melodies and giving to this corner of French soil an appearance of Algeria.

On hearing the sound of our horses they sprang to arms with guttural cries, but when they had recognised that we were French they insisted on embracing our officer and danced round us like children.

We billeted at Parvillers in a half-destroyed farm, and there at daybreak a sight that suggested an hallucination met our eyes. Some ten German soldiers were there in the courtyard 'dead, mowed down by the "75," but in such natural attitudes that but for their waxen colour one could have believed them alive. One was standing holding on to a bush, his hand grasping the branches.

His face bespoke his terror, his mute mouth seemed as if in the act of yelling and his eyes were dilated with fear. A fragment of shell had pierced his chest. Another was on his knees, propped against a wall, under cover of which he had sought shelter from the murderous fire. I approached to see where his wound was and it took me a moment to discover it, so intact was the corpse. I saw at last that he had had the whole of the inside of his cranium carried away and hollowed out, as if by some surgical instrument. His tongue and his eyes were kept in place by a filament of flesh, and his spiked helmet had rolled off by his side. An officer was seated on some hay, with his legs apart and his head thrown back, looking at the farm.

All these eyes fixed us with a terrifying immobility, with a look of such acute terror that our men turned away, as if afraid of sharing it; and not one of them dared to touch the magnificent new equipment of the Germans, which would have tempted them in any other circumstances. There were aluminum water-bottles and mess tins, helmet plates of shining copper and sculptured regimental badges dear to the hearts of soldiers, and which they have the habit of collecting as trophies.

VII — Last Charge of the Horsemen

The dawn of the 25th broke without a cloud over the village of Folies. A heat haze hid the early morning sun. The enemy were quite near, and the sentries on the barricades gave the alarm. The cuirassiers and dragoons, leaving their horses under cover, had been on watch in the surrounding country since the morning to protect the village and the batteries of "75's," which were firing from a little way back.

A non-commissioned officer and I had remained mounted. M. de Thezy sent us to investigate some horse-men whose shadows had loomed through the mist and whom we had seen dismount in an apple orchard near the village of Chocques. We set off at a quiet trot, convinced that we had to deal with some French hussars whom I had seen go that way an hour before. We crossed a field of beetroot and made straight towards them. They seemed anchored to the spot, and when we were within one hundred metres, and they showed no signs of moving, our confidence increased. The fog seemed to grow thicker and our horses, now at the walk, scented no danger. We were within fifty metres of them when a voice spoke out and the word "carbine" reached us distinctly, carried by a light breeze. The non-commissioned officer turned to me, his suspicions completely stilled and said, "We can go on, they are French, I heard the word carbine." At the same instant I saw the group come to the shoulder and a dozen jets of fire tore the mist with short red flashes. A hail of bullets fell all around us, and we had only just time enough to put between them and ourselves as much fog as would conceal us, for before turning tail we had seen the confused grey mass of a column coming out of the village. We had only to warn the artillery and then there would be some fun.

The lieutenant of artillery was two kilometres back perched on a ladder. Having listened to what we had to say, he turned towards his gun and cried through a megaphone, "2600, corrector i8." We were already far. off, returning at the gallop to try to see the effect, and it was a fine sight.

Leaving the horses in a farm, we slipped from tree to tree. There was the column, still advancing. A first shell, ten metres in front of it, stopped it short; immediately a second fell on the left, wounding some men, and a horse reared and upset its rider. A third shell struck mercilessly into the centre of the column and caused an explosion which sent flying, right and left, dark shapes which we guessed to be fragments of bodies. It rained shell, which struck the road with mathematical precision, sowing death and panic. In the twinkling of an eye the road was swept clean. The survivors bolted in every direction like madmen, and the agonising groans of a dying horse echoed through the whole country-side.

On the 1st of October we rejoined our division and the first half-regiment at Tilloy- les-Mofflaines. Up to the 20th we passed through a period of great privation and fatigue owing to .the early frosts. We were unable to sleep for as many as five days on end, and when at night we had a few hours in which to rest, we passed them lying on the pavement of the street, propped up against some heap of coal or of stones, holding our horses' reins, each huddled up against his neighbour to try and keep warm.

VIII — Diary of a French Trooper

Here are extracts from my diary, starting from 8th of October:

8th October. — All night we guarded the bridge at Estaires, after having constructed a formidable barricade. Damp and chilly night, which I got through lying on the pavement before the bridge; drank a half-litre of spirits in little sips to sustain me. This is the most trying night we have passed, but the spirits of all are wonderful.

9th October: Twenty minutes to four, two kilometres from Estaires, scouting amongst beetroot fields. — Has the supreme moment come? A little while ago I firmly believed it had; now I am out of my reckoning, so incomprehensible and widespread is the struggle which surrounds us.

We have evacuated Estaires and the bridge over the Lys, which we were guarding, to rejoin our horses on foot. After some minutes on the road the first shells burst. My troop received orders to fight dismounted, and here we are, lying down as skirmishers amongst the beetroot, in the midst of a heavy artillery and musketry fire. I am on the extreme right, and a moment ago two shrapnel shells came over and burst six or eight metres above my head, peppering the ground with bullets. Never, I imagine, have I come so near to being hit. For the moment it is impossible to understand what is going on; the whole of the cavalry which was on in front of us — chasseurs, dragoons and all the cyclists — have fallen back, passing along the road on our flank. We, however, have had no order to retire. The peasants with their wives and children are running about the country like mad people. It is a sorry sight. A moment ago I saw an old man and a little girl fall in their hurry to escape from their farm, which a shell had just knocked to pieces. They are like herds of animals maddened by a storm.

At dusk the Germans are 500 metres off. We have orders to take up our post in the cemetery of Estaires. I have hurt my foot and each step in the ploughed land is a torture. I have noted a way which will lead me to the bridge on the other side of the town.

I brought up my patrol at the double. When I got back I saw the troop retiring. We passed through the town, which had a sinister look by night, reddened by the flames from many fires. The whole population is in flight, leaving houses open to the streets, and crowding up the roads. All the window-panes are broken by the bombardment; somewhere, in the middle of the town, a building is burning and the flames mount to the sky. There are barricades in every street. We have reached the horses, which are two kilometres from the town, and we grope for them in the dark. Mine is slightly wounded in the foreleg. Long retreat during the night (the second during which we have not slept — a storm wets us to the skin).

Arrived at Chosques at five in the morning. We get to bed at 6.30 and we are off again at 8 o'clock. I ask myself for how many days men and horses can hold out.

10th October. — In the afternoon we again covered the twenty kilometres which separated us from Estaires. Hardly had we settled down to guard the same bridge as yesterday when we were sent to La Gorgue. On the way stopped in the village, as shells commenced to fall. The ist troop took refuge in a grocer's, where we were parked like sheep. A large calibre shell burst just opposite with a terrible row. I thought that the house was going to fall in. Lieutenant Niel, who had stayed outside, was knocked over into the ditch and wounded. We are falling back with the horses to La Gorgue, and we are passing a third night, without sleep, on the road, Magrin and I on a heap of coal. Horses and men have had nothing to eat, the latter are benumbed, exhausted, but gay as ever.

11th October. — We get to a neighbouring farm at Estrem to feed the horses. They have scarcely touched their hay and oats before an order comes telling us to rejoin at the very place from which we have come. The Germans are trying to take the village from the east, thanks to the bridge which they captured the day before yesterday, but we have been reinforced by cyclists, and the 4th Division is coming up. We are holding on; the position is good. The belfry of the town hall has just fallen. We are going back to Estrem.

Three hours passed in a trench without great-coats. Magrin and I are so cold that we huddle up one against the other and share a woollen handkerchief to cover our faces. We put up at Calonne-sur-la-Lys. And so it goes on up to the i7th, the date on which we re-enter Belgium, passing by Bailleui, Outersteene and Locre. It is not again a triumphal entry on a fine August morning, it is a march past ruins and over rubbish heaps.

At Outersteene, however, we were received with touching manifestations of confidence and enthusiasm; an old tottering and broken-down teacher had drawn up before the school a score of young lads of seven to ten years old, who watched us passing and sang the Marseillaise with all their lungs, while the old man beat the time.

The village had been evacuated only three days ago, and it was from the thresholds of its houses, partly fallen in and still smoking, that this song rose, a sincere and spontaneous outburst.


French dragoons in the early days of the war


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