- from the British magazine 'the War of the Nations'
- 'French Gallantry in the Field'
Heroic Spirit of the French Soldier
the heroic spirit of the French soldier as seen on magazine covers
A Grim Fight in a Blazing Wood - Sure of Final Victory
General Joffre, a taciturn man, with an innate and has created a greater and a more painful surprise distaste for anything-which smacks of the theatrical to the enemy. If we associated the French with or the ostentatious, has said little in the course of anything it was with a certain volatile courage, a this war of any particular action which the French dashing valour which carried all before it. The have fought, but that little has been full of poignant France which could hold on through five months emotion. of trench warfare under the most miserable climatic The new France has surprised its best friends, conditions, was indeed a revelation to the world.
We have had to readjust many estimates during this war, and in no particular have we made so drastic a reconsideration of our views as in our estimate of French character. Of the Frenchman's courage we had no doubt. Of his splendid élan, and of his almost divine faith in the greatness and glory of France we knew; and now we must add to this a conception of a French soldier, calm and unshaken, who stood firm against a succession of savage and remorseless attacks, supported by every devilish method of destruction which German wit could devise, and not only stood firm, but delivered one counter attack after another, driving back his implacable enemy at the point of the bayonet.
I have dealt in this volume with the sanguinary fights which marked the advance of the French across the Vosges. I have described some of the fighting which distinguished the operations about Soissons and Perthes; and I have given, from the Official Gazette, instances of individual heroism which have shown the soldier of France to be no less heroic than he was in the days of the Napoleonic campaign, when the little Corporal called upon him for effort after effort, and called in the faith that his appeal would not be in vain.
I purpose in this chapter to describe one fight a fairly unimportant one from the point of view of the communiqué writerwhich occurred in the Argonne in January ; and I give this because it epitomises the whole war area from the Swiss border to the sea. Not only does it epitomise the character of the attacks which were delivered again and again at the French front, but it shows almost all the conditions which militated against French success and against an effective and decisive result in every part of the field, and further it illustrates in detail the fervour, the grit and stubborn heroism of the French soldier.
In a village in the Argonne, lying on the slope of a small hill, its pleasant châteaux overlooking stretches of woodland, fields, and two charming rivers, spanned here and there by tiny bridges, the German had established his main posts.
One flank of the hill was covered by a swamp, whilst any attempt to reach the enemy's lines from the other flank would be opposed by a very strong position held by half a brigade and commanding the only available bridge-head. In December the Germans had carried the village, employing large forces numbering the greater portion of an Army Corps, and they had pushed the French back across a portion of an open plain to yet another wood. Hereabouts, for two months, the French, with a weak force, set themselves to keep the enemy busy. Their trench lines had advanced after their set- back almost to the edge of the wood which covered the plain at the foot of the hill ; and here, despite repeated attacks, they held on, repulsing every attempt that the enemy made to drive them farther back. They experienced every variety of bad weather. Snow fell incessantly for three weeks, blotting out all the features of the landscape and making any man who moved across the white background a target for the enemy's snipers.
The German, in the cover of the wood, was able to move with impunity, and it became evident that the position of the little force would be seriously jeopardised unless the woods before them were taken. That the village, perched half way up the hill, with its strong natural defences, could be carried with the force available, the French brigadier did not imagine. It may have been the sporting character of the venture, for the French were in point of numbers little more than one to four, but certain it is that when the word was passed round and the soldiers were given a share of their brigadier's confidence, some such attempt to be made on the first favourable opportunity, these gallant Frenchmen prepared and trained themselves as systematically as an athlete who is engaged in an Olympic contest.
"I would ask you to believe," wrote a French officer, "that my servant at this moment is trying to stand upon his hands in the trench, with his feet against the parapet, and he is doing this not from bravado, but under the serious and approving eyes of his comrades, because they have told him that his physique is such that he could not hope to play his part worthily unless he made some effort to develop himself. I would ask you also to believe that these men, who usually spend their evenings not, as you might imagine, my friend, in speaking in hushed tones of dear ones in their far-away homes, but in the exchange of perfectly ribald and amusing banter, gather now at night in little knots and discuss the most fantastic plans for driving the Boches from the wood and taking the village beyond. In these lines of trenches there are hundreds of little general staffs planning battles in which they are quite content to be the merest fighters. Their favourite method of illustrating the plan is to smoke in the fire, a piece of looking-glass which they use to assist them in making their toilet, and to sketch a plan of the locality with a pointed piece of stick."
One does not suppose that these plans were submitted to the General. One does know that a sense of responsibility must have come to every man. The daring volunteers who were sent out to "listening posts" ventured even farther afield, spied industriously upon the German's trenches, penetrated into his line almost as far as the bridgehead, which hitherto the French had refrained from blowing up, and made onslaughts upon isolated sentries, in the hope of assisting the General commanding in his plans.
General Joffre left a great deal to his brigadiers. They had had orders to hold a certain line, and if they could penetrate into the enemy's position without endangering the general French line, they were at liberty to do so. The plan which was generally in favour amongst the men was that, strangely enough, which was adopted by the brigadier. One night, when the moon was obscured and a powder of snow was falling thickly, a French regiment moved out of its trenches, crossed the intervening space without detection, bayoneted a picket, and threw themselves across the bridge, before the half brigade (some 3,000 men) which was charged with its protection were alive to the seriousness of the attack.
In the meantime two other regiments moved straight to the German trench line which lay at the edge of the wood, waded across the icy-cold river up to their waists, and carried the first German trench at the point of the bayonet. A small party of daring men went forward into the wood, carrying with them sacks of celluloid shavings, and these, on an agreed signal, they lit, running back to their lines for their lives. Instantly the wood was illuminated with a light which was almost like day. Against the blazing tree trunks could be seen the dark figures of the Germans, rallied to beat out the fire. Then French rifle and French 75 guns began to speak. Two batteries of 75 's opened a rapid fire upon the wood; incendiary and shrapnel shells burst over the bare poles of trees, at the moment when the rattle of musketry from the left told the brigadier that his men who had seized the bridge were now defending it desperately against a force which he guessed was three times as strong as they.
For an hour the fight waged on both frontsthe men attacking the bridge-head digging themselves into the iron-hard ground, and crouching behind what cover they could find. Three times the German swept forward in mass formation, poured over the barricades and was stabbed to inactivity. All the time two-thirds of the defending Frenchmen were holding on like grim death, the other third was cutting down tree and branch and digging furiously to create further barricades. The German had made a mistake which he did not recognise until it was too late to rectify it. He could npt bring his guns into action except at close range, but these opened a furious fire upon the rough earthworks which the French were raising. It was evident to the officer commanding the battalion that at such close range the works must be destroyed. But if the nearness of their target gave the German a slight advantage, it also proved his undoing.
At a word of command, half the French battalion swept forward beyond the defences, hacked a way through the German trench lines, stopping only to bayonet such of the enemy as offered opposition, raced between the gaunt trees of the forest, guided by the constant flash of the German artillery, and came upon the guns before the artillerymen had any idea that danger threatened. The fight was short and sharp. Against the infantry with their bayonets and their desperate courage the German could make no resistance. The guns were taken and slewed round, to be fired point-blank at a German infantry regiment which was moving up through the forest to their protection. Whilst the scattered relief was recovering from the confusion into which this unexpected action had thrown it, a French lieutenant inserted a charge of guncotton into the breach of each of the guns, destroyed them, and led his men back the way they had come.
The German line must now be readjusted. It fell back on the village.
A thousand metres from the border of the village the ground was clear. Here were fields, the cultivation of which provided the village with its livelihood. Farther to the French right, the woods were burning, and the little brigade which had made the frontal attack, not risking the delay of making a detour of the blazing woods, literally dashed through the flames in pursuit of their flying enemy.
"It was such a sight as I have never pictured in my wildest dreams," said a French officer, who in peace time is on the staff of one of the great daily newspapers of Paris. "It out-infernoed the Inferno. All the time we were running forward, blazing branches and twigs were falling on to us. I saw two men with their caps smouldering, and another man whose coat burst into a flame as he ran."
On the other side of the little wood the German rallied, but only momentarily; for, with a rush which was irresistible, the French infantry drove straight at the trenches, which they themselves had prepared before they were driven back, carried them at the point of the bayonet, and found themselves at daybreak confronting the slope which led up to the village.
The French brigadier found himself in an extraordinary position. He had penetrated farther into the enemy's line than he ever expected. He could but report his progress, without hoping that the General Commander-in-Chief would send him reinforcements to establish himself there. It was not Joffre's way to follow up an advantage if by so doing he exposed the length of his line to any kind of danger, and only Joffre could tell whether such an advantage had been established.
Far way behind the woods, the General commanding the French Army in that region received the report by telephone, transmitted it to the brigadiers on the left and the right, and ordered them to "feel" the enemy in front of them, to see whether the retirement in the centre had affected the security of the other lines. In the meantime, the German had brought up reinforcements, and the first touch of winter sun that came glinting across the snow white face of the earth brought the packed battalions of the German reserves. The French had not been idle. Though the ground was as hard as iron, they had hacked themselves into the old trenches, strengthening this line, raising. that parapet, and all the time their indefatigable 75's were pouring a concentrated fire into the only road down which the German reinforcements must pass. The place they had taken was to the left of a cross road, and in the angle of the road left and right was the still smouldering wood through which they had passed. Ahead of them were the red roofs of the village ; to their extreme left an oblong slab of forest, through which the men who had taken the bridge were battling a way. The solid masses of German infantry delivered one weak attack and retired, and this was followed by a furious bombardment from guns on the other side of the hill upon which the village stood. This in turn hushed to silence, and again the .solid grey-coated mass came charging across the fields, their machine-guns covering their flanks, their terrifying bayonets at one uniform level. But these grimy men in the French trenches, with their soiled coats, their unshaven chins and their battered képis, were not readily terrified.
The incessant crash of the Lebels was like a knife-edge of unnerving sound. The brown fields became littered with dead and dying, and such of the men as reached the rampart of the trench were driven back by the bayonet. In the meantime, on the left one of those miracles had occurred which all wars witness.
A French 75 battery, half surrounded by a strong infantry force and cut off from all communication, fired its last shot. That shot exploded a German ammunition wagon, putting a whole German battery which was in the immediate vicinity out of action. The French, who had temporarily abandoned three of their guns, rallied, recovered their lost pieces, and pressed forward with such purpose that they were able to open an enfilading fire upon the defenders of the village. The French infantry had to cross a marsh where men were up to their knees in mud, and they had to persevere in face of a rifle and machine-gun fire which drove terrible gaps into the ragged line.
The French artillery had been reinforced in the night, and now five batteries were shelling the village. Houses were blazing, the black smoke which rolled down the hill baffling the German fire.
Then, at a signal, the whole of the French force rose from their positions and drove forward up the hill, charging through the smoke into the village street. The Germans rallied at the far end, and now the Frenchmen were in possession of the first line of houses and were creeping forward, blowing in the sides of intervening cottages, and pushing their way up under cover of the stout walls. By two o'clock in the afternoon the village was gained.
The centre of this little sector of line had succeeded at great sacrifice in making progress over nearly two miles of ground. The Germans had lost in killed alone some 600 men.
The sequel of this fight is to be told in a few words. Three days the French held the village, and then the enemy came down in great force, with very many guns and an overwhelming array of bayonets, and the tiny French force was driven back, first out of the village, then to the edge of the wood, then through the wood itself, whose blackened trunks spoke eloquently of the great fight which had been waged a few days before, then across the river, and finally to the lines they had occupied when they had started out on their great adventure.
From this position the Germans could not drive them. Joffre, hidden away in his far headquarters, had watched this little tragedy without comment. He might have thrown an Army Corps into the disputed area, yet, in doing so, he might have endangered his whole line ; for the attempts which the brigadiers to left and right had made to "feel" and push in their enemy had failed entirely to achieve the result desired.
The story of this almost Homeric combat was told in two official lines. "We captured some trenches in the Argonne, but eventually retired from the new position under pressure from an overwhelming advance by the enemy."
Such an experience as this, such a dashing of high hopes, such a failure after achievement, would be calculated to try the nerves and the moral of the best troops in the world. Possibly the French may say in truth that they are all that. Here is another letter from the officer whose description of the Frenchmen in the trenches preparing for the attack has already been quoted.
"And now we are back again on exactly the same line, in exactly the same trenches, and every man, as far as he can manage, at about the same place he was stationed before the battle. And what do you think they are doing, these children of France? They have recently received fresh supplies of books and papers and pencils, and every other man is now engaged in working out a strategical plan for again taking the village.
In this spirit of cheer did the French soldier meet all the difficulties and dangers which awaited him, and in this spirit he went forward confident of victory. And if victory was for the moment denied him, he was satisfied in his mind that it was as inevitable as the rise of the sun in the east and its setting in the west. In no sense could it be described as fatalism; rather was it faith. And it was this faith which held the French line taut in the snows of the Vosges, in the forest of the Argonne, on the rolling, bullet-swept plains of Champagne, before the quarries of Soissons, in the mud and morass of Flanders.
Joffre nibbled and nibbled, sometimes receiving a rebuff, but taking it silently and without anger. A German airman, flying over the lines south of Arras, dropped insulting messages into the French trenches, one of which said: "Frenchmen! Have you lost your spirit? Are you afraid to advance against the Germans?" On his third visit they shot him down, and that was the only answer they vouchsafed. Joffre's men have indeed been wonderful, and our men in khaki, who hold the left of the French line in France, watched them with admiration and understanding; they, too, had not been without their little triumphs and their disappointments, their pitched battles and their sanguinary victories, as we have seen many times and shall see many times again.
from a popular French almanach - the heroism of the French soldier
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