'Prisoner of War'
'a Soldier's Tales of the Army'
Told by Andre Ward, a Soldier in the French Army
Translated by M. Jourdaun

from the Battlefield to the Camp

two coverpages from French magazines 'La Guerre des Nations' and 'La Guerre Documentée'


These are the personal experiences of a common soldier. He tells his tales from the viewpoint of the man in the ranks. His stories have been collected into a volume "Prisoner of War."


I — Story of a Private — Looking Backward

PARIS again, with its streets, where one can walk where one likes, and its restaurants, where one can eat what one pleases, its real houses, real laughter, and real bread! There it is, after seven days and seven nights in the train. I look at my ragged and buttonless overcoat, with its strap pinned on by a safety pin, and the dirty strip of stuff which was once my red cross brassard, and I fancy it is all a dream.

People ask me to "tell them all about it." That isn't easy; just at present I am afraid of losing grip of my will and memory. I think I have lost the taste for writing, just as I have lost the taste for good tobacco and good wine. These last two days I have been constantly asked what I thought of such and such a wine or cigar.

I tell you I don't "think" anything at all. I have lost the habit of such flavours, and it is only by degrees that I shall begin to understand them again. Give me time.

In the same way I must have time to think before telling my story. For the moment I can only see the past — all that happened nine months ago — through a mist of confused impressions, with here and there some quite unimportant event in clear relief against it. I can see the bustle and hurry of mobilisation, our start from the barracks, our marching through Nancy, and people crowding round us with fruit and wine and flowers; there was a dahlia or a rose stuck in every man's gun-barrel. Then the strains of the Marseillaise and the Chant an Depart. We were covered with sweat and dust, and women embraced us. Then, and for the first time, I had a feeling that we were on our way to things heroic and difficult — things we had to do, however difficult. And then on we went again, and here my recollections become confused — a medley of crossing the frontier and tearing down the frontier posts; the first sound of the guns; the first fusillade ; the men who fell, who had to be left behind our lines; the Boches in flight; the intoxication of advancing; and then the sudden halt at Morhange.

Why did we stop there ? I have not the least idea; a private soldier never has. I remember marches and counter-marches at night, heartrending marches on roads crowded with troops, among dragoons, gunners with their guns, carts of all sorts, and ambulances and wounded men who were being attended to. Then we fell back, and at the Grand Couronne de Nancy we were told to halt. There was a rumour that the enemy was quite near, and that he must not be allowed to advance any farther. There was a battle, and I can see Chasseurs and colonial troops dashing on before us, through the din of battle, with their bayonets, and that was the last we saw of them.

We were told that the Bavarian troops in front of them were giving ground. The noise of the guns was terrible, and we dug trenches with bullets whistling around us. Days went by; we were still waiting, and every evening after the day's bombardment we saw a village in flames. They all flared up, one after the other. Would our village we were holding be spared?

No, its turn soon came; and a shell fell on the hospital, and several of our wounded were killed, and then the church! ... I can see the ornaments of the altar scattered in the road, and the windows as full of holes as a spider's web, and above it all the torn and riddled carcass of the belfry. All the time the unceasing thunder of the guns made one dizzy. We were told we were near a place the Germans wanted to take, which we were to defend at all costs. The Chasseurs had been fighting like mad for two days, and we were sent at night to relieve them. We crawled to their position, and crept into their trenches, which were covered with branches. Later we were told that the Kaiser was there watching us and awaiting a triumphal entry into Nancy.

II — The Road Littered with Dead Bodies

We were fairly comfortable in the trench, which was covered with branches and leaves. Bullets passed overhead, almost without touching us. From time to time there was an attempt at an attack, and the grey helmets came on. Then the word of command, "Fire!" and we saw men dropping and hurrying back. We were full of confidence, almost cheerful.

And then I saw the comrade who suddenly ran towards us through the ever-increasing din of the cannonade.

There was blood on his face, and he told our captain that a neighbouring trench had given way under shell-fire, and that we were outflanked and would be rolled up. Then we saw them advancing on our right, with their bayonets, and pouring a steady rain of bullets upon the trench which we had to abandon. It was an awful moment. To get away from this infernal spot and take up another position we had to cross a strip of ground rather more than two hundred yards across. There was nothing for it but to face the steady concentrated fire, which took a heavy toll of us. A man dropped at every step of the way, and when we formed up to retake the trench we had lost, we looked round, and half the company was gone. Then we fell back again; I still do not know why. I felt that the deafening machine-guns were tearing gaps in our ranks; we were very hungry and thirsty and quite exhausted, but our moral .was not bad. And I suddenly remembered our feelings when a small notice was put up on the door of the farm where we were billeted one evening long ago — an order from general headquarters to hold firm "at any cost" until a certain day in September that was mentioned. Only one week more! We counted the days and hours. At last the time came, and the German menace, instead of pressing on, was rolled back. The Germans were not going to take Nancy; they were in retreat. What could have happened ?

Before we followed them up the roll was called. My poor company! Of our squad only three were left. The lieutenants and corporals were all gone; we had but one sergeant; the liaison men, the hospital orderlies, and the stretcher-bearers were all killed. We had to have others at once, and I was chosen.

We were occupying villages which the Boches had abandoned; and this inaction in this melancholy and deserted countryside, in these ruined villages, among these poor little pillaged houses and among these weeping peasants was worse than fighting. There was nothing much to do while we waited for the fighting to begin again, and that was bad for us. We had time to become down- hearted and think too much of home.

Then we got good news. We were to leave! It seemed we were not wanted in the east, but should be useful in the north. So we started for the north. We were in good spirits again, without knowing why. The journey was pleasant, and at every station people crowded round the trains into which we were packed, and cheered us and brought us drinks, food, flowers and tobacco. It was just the same when we reached our journey's end: we were taken possession of; everybody was ready and willing to give us food and lodging. The Boches, apparently, were quite close. Meanwhile I was delighted to make the acquaintance of this land of plenty and land of Cockaigne, where one felt so proud of being a soldier, and so content to be alive.

Our joy was short-lived. Two hours after we de- trained we were told that the Germans were attacking So we left the town to fight again. Then two days were spent in the hideous tumult and fever of battle, in picking up our wounded under fire. The second day the commanding officer came to the dressing station where I was and said that his battalion was evacuating the village, and that we must remove our wounded at once as best we could. A peasant woman lent us her horse, another a four-wheeled cart; the horse was put in and the cart loaded. It soon was full, and we set out, jolting along a road littered with dead bodies and wounded, with dead horses and limbers without drivers and bordered with burning ricks. Shells were bursting round us; and I remember, like a picture, the commanding officer coming back, explaining something, and making signs. Our retreat was cut off, and the regiment quitted the road, and marched across country in good order to some destination unknown to me. But where should I take the cart, which had to keep to the road? I decided to drive straight on.

There was a village five hundred yards or so further on. Perhaps we should be safe there. So I lashed the horse I was leading, running as fast as I could to keep up with its gallop, under the fire of a German machine-gun which swept the road. The bullets whistled by, knocking up dust and pebbles around us, and rattling off the hood of the cart. We went on running as fast as we could. Twice the horse was hit, and stumbled; the third time he dropped. The machine-gun never ceased firing.

There was only one orderly with me, and together we lifted the wounded men from the cart and put them under cover behind a rick. Then we waited. The day seemed unending. The regiment had disappeared, and we were left alone by this deserted road, where the bullets were still whistling. One soldier, who was only slightly wounded, tried to join his comrades, and fell as he started to run. The machine-gun never gave us a moment's peace. Then evening fell, a fine late summer evening, bringing us a little coolness and darkness. Perhaps the firing would cease, and we could overtake out men. We would find a horse or push the cart, and get out of our difficulty somehow. But what was that?

III — How We Were Captured by the Boches

Two hundred yards from us, in the deepening twilight, appeared a row of dark silhouettes, which vanished again. We looked at them in utter astonishment. The machine-gun had ceased firing. Then the black silhouettes appeared and vanished again. There was no possible doubt: it was the Boches. What was to be done?

We were only a party of wounded, guarded by two unarmed men, and a dead horse. We waited for the final volley to make an end of us. Then a Chasseur, with his knees broken, had an inspiration. With a finger dipped in blood from his wounds, he traced a red cross on a handkerchief, tied it to the end of a bayonet, and waved it. We thought we were safe under this emblem, but we got a volley which went clean through our party, hitting no one. A sergeant pulled a rosary from his pocket and began to pray: "Let us commend our souls to God."

Then the dark figures drew closer, and we could see the shape of their helmets. They were a hundred yards, then fifty, then twenty yards from us, and we could hear them speaking German. At ten yards distance three shadows came forward from the group, covering us with their rifles. One of them called out: "Auf!" I got up, and clapping my armlet, answered: "Rothe Kreutz!" They surrounded us and ordered us to abandon our equipment and our knapsacks and march. So, slowly and painfully, the slightly wounded carrying or supporting the others, we entered the enemy's lines. We were prisoners of war.

I can see the farm full of German soldiers busy emptying the cellar and drinking in silence. The barn was full of wounded men. We joined them, and a captain who spoke French ordered our money to be returned to us. All night long my comrade and I were busy attending to the wounded, both French and German, who were lying in a confused heap on the straw. We were allowed to keep our instruments, and we used the men's first aid dressings.

At daybreak carriages and a section of German ambulance men arrived. Our wounded were removed, and I and the orderly, the only two unwounded, were marched off between a corporal and soldiers with fixed bayonets. We did not know where we were being taken.

It was a sinister march as we four went silently on past houses either empty, or ruined, or mere smoking shells, where here and there a shrinking figure of a woman or child showed itself. And then the dead lying on the road, our dead! Their dead had already been removed. On all the doors were notices of billets written in chalk. Their soldiers were taking their ease, and going and coming in silence, or lounging in their grey uniforms in armchairs looted from the houses near by. We passed inns and grocers' shops which had been pillaged, and a cow lay dead in a field.

Our first halt was in the guard-room where we were taken. It was in a lawyer's office. The men greeted us without any apparent antipathy and gave us some of their food, but kept the wine they had stolen from the owner for themselves. The man in charge was fairly well educated. He talked to me about Munich, and showed me photographs of pictures a friend of his had painted and also some vile picture postcards on which we Frenchmen were coarsely caricatured. He had a kindly smile, and really did not seem to see that he was offensive. Then came our examination. A staff officer entered and questioned us in perfect French about the position of our artillery, our fortifications, and the English army. We replied that we were in the medical service and knew nothing about these things. The officer did not press us, and merely said: "This war will be a long one, for after taking Paris we shall have to crush the Russians. But it will all be over in July."

IV — Taken to Germany as Prisoners of War

The staff was quartered in the lawyer's house. We spent the night there, and next morning we were allowed to go into the garden. This was the sight which met our eyes: In front of the house a military van was drawn up, escorted by a party of unarmed soldiers in service caps. They went into the house, and others remained by the door, with hammers, a bag of nails, and a saw. They very quickly knocked together large packing-cases, and the looting was silently and methodically carried on around these cases; a piano went into them, the chairs, and a sofa. Every man was hard at work, sawing, hammering, fetching and carrying. Then the pictures were brought out, all well wrapped up, and fragile objects carefully packed in straw. An officer, smoking a cigar, gave directions. It was all very well done; no professional furniture removers could have done better.

When the van was full it was driven to the station. As for us, we continued our journey on foot. We were/ in the charge of the police, who sent us with a convoy, where we found ourselves mixed up with prisoners of all arms, civilians, and Moroccan soldiers who were obviously dazed and dumfounded at what had befallen them. We marched all that day, guarded by the mounted police. The police turned us over to old men of the Bavarian Landstrum, who wore leather caps with white crosses over the peaks, and who were stiff in their manner to us, but not unkindly. They were not fighting men, and there was nothing of the conquering hero about them. Night fell, the third night since our friend the Chasseur waved his blood-stained handkerchief at the end of his bayonet. Our poor little party was packed into a small coachhouse. The captain, a fat and portly little person, before shutting us in said: "Any one who tries to get out will be shot. Those are my orders." A Bavarian gave us a little soup, and we stretched ourselves on the floor to wait for the morrow.

In our march next day we met on our way ammunition wagons, enormous lorries, ambulances, guns, and cavalry escorts. The carriages were grey, the guns grey, the uniforms grey, the only note of colour the dolls dressed in the uniforms of French soldiers, looted from some shop, on the front of the officers' motors. We met a company of infantry. One tall fellow left the ranks, and with an oath struck one of our wounded, who had his arm in a sling, with the butt-end of his rifle. The poor fellow stumbled, and an officer, without a word, pushed the brute away. We heard shouts from an officer's motor as it passed; they cursed us, and as it vanished in the dust one of them shouted: "You dirty Boches!" Well he knew that there was no worse insult.

We came to a town. Our escort conversed and looked up: they had just seen an aeroplane. It was a French machine, and coming rapidly towards us. The German soldiers were much excited, and we heard the click of their rifles as they pulled the triggers. Then we heard a whistle, and a deafening volley rang in our ears. Then we had another painful experience. Bombs had been dropped from the aeroplane, and we were at once lined up against the wall of a house. The aeroplane had disappeared. The officers argued for a moment; then the captain got on his horse again, and gave the order to march. We entered the town — Cambrai.

The streets looked dead; there were notices on all the walls, in French, from the Kommandantur. People saw us go by without a word. One woman, who stepped forward to give us some bread, was roughly pushed away by a soldier. Then we halted in a square, near the town hall. The bombs from the aeroplane had fallen there, a shop had been gutted, and dead horses were lying in a pool of blood. We were tired out, and stretched ourselves on the ground. The townsfolk, who were allowed to come near us, brought us provisions, chiefly bread and fruit. Our escort seized them and ate their fill, then beat off the crowd with the butt-ends of their rifles, and off we marched again. I saw some women crying.

We had not much farther to go. We were taken to the goods station, where the Bavarians handed us over to some big Saxon soldiers — quite young fellows — who handled our poor flock somewhat brutally. There were all sorts and conditions in this flock which we found there, filling the station, soldiers and civilians and some old men among the civilians. A little lad of thirteen, weeping bitterly, was dragged along by a big fellow in a helmet. The child was found playing in the street with a case of cartridges, and the Boche explained: "Franc-tireur! franc- tireur! Kapout," making a sign to the thirteen-year-old prisoner that he would have his throat cut. That is their mania; they see francs-tireurs everywhere.

Night fell. We were famished, for we had only been given a handful of biscuits since the morning, and we were put into cattle trucks. There were forty-six of us in my truck, among them the poor little lad who was a franc-tireur and ten wounded men. The train moved off into the night towards Germany. Where were we going to ?

The little boy cried all the time.


Back to Index