French Lieutenant's Thrilling Tale of a Night Attack
from a French war-time almanac - heroic poetry
The following graphic story of a raid on the German trenches, and a night of horror spent between two fires, was written by a French Lieutenant who was wounded in the advance and escaped from his crater prison by wriggling along on his back. He gives the full story of his terrible adventure in the "New York Times," from which, the details below are quoted:
"At midnight we were awakened by the bombardment, which was then beginning. Unable to sleep, we arose and began preparations ahead of time. The order to go forward came at last. One by one we moved along the dark, narrow trenches leading to the first lines. Above our heads was the constant hissing of our big shells going ahead of us to the Boches. Once in the first line we tried to spend the hours of waiting as comfortably as we could.
"The dawn came slowly. Through our loopholes we could discern the grey line of trenches which we were to take. The effect of our artillery volcanoes could be seen. Regularly, almost mathematically, our heavy shells dropped on the enemy, demolishing their shelters, smashing their wire entanglements, shattering their trenches, and at times, with my field-glass, I could see distinctly human limbs scattered into the air.
"The bombardment was growing in intensity. It was 7 o'clock. Some artillery officers came into my trench in order to regulate the precision of the firing, which in the end must triumph over all outside obstacles-wire entanglements, chevaux-de-frise, the enemy trenches. In a short time all was regulated and the storm began. It is impossible to realise the frightful din of this firing, which we call efficacy firing. Guns of all calibres sent forth their shells with the maximum of rapidity. This lasted three hours, three deafening, maddening hours. In the midst of this storm of steel and fire the Brigadier-General arrived. He said a few words to me. I told him that I was as sure of my men as of myself. He seemed satisfied and gave me the hour of attack, 10 o'clock. Ten! Each one looked at his watch. It was 9 o'clock. So in an hour then.
"Five minutes to 10! In my turn I place myself ready at the foot of my ladder. In those last moments thoughts come rapidly. To this ladder hangs our destiny. In the trench there is relative security. What will become of us at the top of these four steps? But no one thinks of hesitating. It seems that we are about to be grasped by some unknown and sublime force.
"I take my revolver in hand and provide myself with grenades. One minute to 10. At this instance comes a rumbling detonation, which causes the ground to tremble as if shaken by an earthquake. Our mines have exploded. This is the time. 'Attention,' I said. 'Forward, children, and Vive la France!'
"This salutation is shouted by all, and I spring on my ladder, followed by my soldiers. From that moment I was carried on by the intoxication of the assault. I ran, gesticulating and yelling. I did not see, but rather felt, my men close to me, running by my side, and, like myself, drunk with a sublime intoxication. We reach the first German trench. We throw some hand grenades. But nothing alive is there. Confusedly, in my forward rush, I saw heaps of debris and corpses. The bombardment had almost levelled the trench. Forward, still forward. We kept running breathlessly, carried away by the strange fascination of victory. I went ahead, unconscious of those -who were falling by the wayside. My intelligence was numbed-a greater force was urging me on.
"When we came to the second trench I noticed that our ranks had thinned, but we went on and reached the third trench. A furious hand-to-hand fight started. I unloaded my revolver almost instinctively on a German officer who was aiming at me. By this time our second wave of assault was joining us,
"Suddenly I fell. I was alone. Above my head the constant whizzing of bullets; near by the significant snorting of a machine gun. At first I was a little stunned, then I tried to rise and felt that my right arm moved with difficulty. My coat was covered with blood. My arm hung inert. I felt it. I began to understand. Wounded, of course. But what of my soldiers? I raised my head; a bullet struck the ground very near. I fell back, but I had had time enough to see. Nobody in front of me. Nobody behind me. Corpses all around. I was alone, ten yards from the enemy's trench. I could see the Boches moving in it. With my left hand I took my revolver. But what was the use of firing left-handed? I would miss and they would make an end of me.
"To advance was impossible. To go back was equally impossible. I knew too well that the Boches are accustomed to fire on the wounded. Besides, the French trench was too far away. The least move would be my death. The bullets above my head kept up a fearful hum. It seemed that I could not possibly get out of this, and, passive, resigned, I flattened myself as much as possible against the ground and remained motionless.
"But my arm was burning. This situation could not last long. If I did not get under shelter one of those bullets would surely hit me. Near by, within a few yards, a slight rise in the ground indicated a possible cavity. With great care, without apparent motion, I dragged myself there. Think of my joy. It was a large funnel, dug out by a German mine, and a score of wounded were taking refuge in it. Still another effort and I found myself among them. The cavity was five or six metres deep and quite wide at the opening.
"There came a little calm. Time dragged along slowly, very slowly. Toward noon a fusillade broke forth in the enemy's trench. A ray of hope. Were the French carrying their attack to the fourth trench? A man suddenly tumbled into our crater. He was one of my own soldiers. He was without his equipment. He saw me and, weeping and laughing, embraced me. I asked him where he came from and why he had not his gun, or bayonet, or grenades. In a distracted voice he told me his story.
"After I had been wounded and knocked down, my soldiers kept running forward and rushed into the fourth German trench. But their ranks had been thinned and there were too few left. They were outnumbered; some were killed, others disarmed. The latter, a moment after their equipment had been taken from them, were told by the Boches: 'We do not need you. Get out of here and go back.' My men were stupefied. They could not understand. Again they were ordered to leave, and they finally stepped out of the trench and started running back to the French position. The brutes then began to shoot them from behind. All were killed evidently, with the exception of this soldier, who owed his life to the crater into which he had providentially tumbled.
"Presently the French 75's and 105's began to burst over the German trench. We watched the shells - some burst in the air and others created a volcanic eruption in their fall. They were very near us.
"Towards 9 o'clock the least wounded among us decided to venture forth. He would request, on reaching the French trench, that a gallery be dug out in our direction, so that we might return in safety. We agreed upon a signal to 'be given by our machine guns. Twice four sharp shots to establish the communication. Three times three slow shots would indicate that we must wait till they came for us. Three times three rapid shots would mean that we would have to escape by our own means.
"Half an hour or more elapsed. Rockets kept flashing in the night and the machine guns would not stop their work. We began to fear for the fate of our comrade. Yet at last came the signal-three times three rapid shots, Come back, come back, come back, said the French gun. We had to count on ourselves alone. Then we decided to crawl toward the lines.
"One by one, at long intervals we left.
"I was compelled to crawl on my back and to advance head first towards the French trench. The rockets gave me a glimpse of our lines. They were some hundred yards beyond. I pushed myself along by using my feet, as does a man when swimming on his back. As soon as a rocket flashed its light, I remained motionless, feigning death among the dead.
"Meanwhile the German shells kept falling in rapid succession. I was covered with earth several times, and once roughly handled. But now the trench was very near. I shouted with all my strength: 'France, France, I am the Lieutenant of the Eleventh Company.' I heard voices which said: 'This way, this way.' I directed myself by those voices. I was exhausted. I got entangled in wire defences. My arm hurt unbearably. A shell that fell near by stunned me. I felt myself being seized and pulled. I fell into the trench, the French trench. Then I fainted."
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