an Epic of the French Marines
Told by Charles Le Goffic of the Fusiliers Marins
Translated by Florence Simmonds

Story of the Murder of Commander Jeanniot

French marine fusiliers fighting in flooded trenches at Dixmude in December 1914
watercolor by artist Charles Fouqueray, present during combat

see also : The Fusiliers Marins


The story of the French Marines is one of the epics of the World War. Such is the story of the Breton's. At Dixmude, under command of their own officers, retaining not only the costume, but the soul and language of their profession they were still sailors. Grouped with them were seamen from all the naval stations.


several photos of French marine fusiliers at Dixmude


I — Great Hearts of the French Marines

I had opportunities of talking to several of these "Parigots," and I should not advise anyone to speak slightingly of their officers before them, though, indeed, so few of these have survived that nine times out of ten the quip could be aimed only at a ghost. The deepest and tenderest words I heard uttered concerning Naval Lieutenant Martin des Pallieres were spoken by a Marine of the Rue des Martyrs, George Delaballe, who was one of his gunners in front of the cemetery the night when his machine-guns were jammed, and five hundred Germans, led by a major wearing the Red Cross armlet, threw themselves suddenly into our trenches.

"But why did you love him so?" I asked.

"I don't know. . . . We loved him because he was brave, and was always saying things that made us laugh, . . . but above all because he loved us."

Here we have the secret of this extraordinary empire of the officers over their men, the explanation of that miracle of a four weeks' resistance, one against six, under the most formidable tempest of shells of every caliber that ever fell upon a position, in a shattered town where all the buildings were ablaze, and where, to quote the words of a Daily Telegraph correspondent, it was no longer light or dark, "but only red." When the Boches murdered Commander Jeanniot, his men were half crazy. They would not have felt the death of a father more deeply. I have recently had a letter sent me written by a Breton lad, Jules Cavan, who was wounded at Dixmude. While he was in hospital at Bordeaux he was visited by relatives of Second-Lieutenant Gautier, who was killed on October 27 in the cemetery trenches.

"Dear Sir," he wrote to M. Dalche de Desplanels the following day, "you cannot imagine how your visit went to my heart. On October 19, when my battalion took the offensive at Lannes, three kilometers from Dixmude, I was wounded by a bullet in the thigh. I dragged myself along as best I could on the battlefield, bullets falling thickly all around me. I got over about five hundred meters on the battlefield and reached the road. Just at that moment Lieutenant Gautier, who was coming towards me with a section, seeing me in the ditch, asked: 'Well, my lad, what is the matter with you?'

'Oh, Lieutenant, I am wounded in the leg, and I cannot drag myself further.'

'Here then, get on my back.' And he carried me to a house at Lannes, and said these words, which I shall never forget: 'Stay there, my lad, till they come and fetch you. I will let the motor ambulance men know.'

Then he went off under the fire. Oh, the splendid fellow!"


marine fusiliers leaving fo the battlefield accompanied by a French boy-scout


II — Tales of the Brave "Parigots"

"The splendid fellow!" Jules Cavan echoes Georges Delaballe, the Breton, the "Parigot." There is the same heartfelt ring in the words of each. And sometimes as I muse over these heroic shades, I ask myself which were the more admirable, officers or men. When Second-Lieutenant Gautier received orders to take the place of Lieutenant de Pallieres, buried by a shell in the trench of the cemetery where Lieutenant Eno had already fallen, he read his fate plainly; he said: "It's my turn." And he smiled at Death, who beckoned him. But I know of one case when, as Death seemed about to pass them by, the Marines provoked it; when, after they had used up all their cartridges and were surrounded in a barn, twelve survivors only remaining with their captain, the latter, filled with pity for them, and recognizing the futility of further resistance, said to his men: "My poor fellows, you have done your duty. There is nothing for it but to surrender." Then, disobedient to their captain for the first time, they answered: "No!" To my mind nothing could show more clearly the degree of sublime exaltation and complete self- forgetfulness to which our officers had raised the moral of their men.

Such were the pupils these masters in heroism had formed, that often their own pupils surpassed them. There was at the Trouville Hospital a young Breton sailor called Michel Folgoas. His wound was one of the most frightful imaginable: the whole of his side was shaved off by a shell which killed one of his comrades in the trenches, who was standing next to him, on November 2. "I," he remarks in a letter, "was completely stunned at first. When I came to myself I walked three hundred meters before I noticed that I was wounded, and this was only when my comrades called out: 'Mon Dieu, they have carried away half your side.' " It was true. But does he groan and lament over it ? He makes a joke of it:

"The Boches were so hungry that they took a beef-steak out of my side, but this won't matter, as they have left me a little."

Multiply this Michel Folgoas by 6,000, and you will have the brigade. This inferno of Dixmude was an inferno where everyone made the best of things. And the battues of rabbits, the coursing of the red German hares which were running in front of the army of invasion, the bull-fights in which our Mokos impaled some pacific Flemish bull abandoned by its owners; more dubious escapades, sternly repressed, in the underground premises of the Dixmude drink-shops; a story of two Bretons who went off on a foraging expedition and were seen coming back along the canal in broad daylight towing a great cask of strong beer which they had unearthed Heaven knows where at a time when the whole brigade, officers as well as men, had nothing to drink but the brackish water of the Yser — these, and a hundred other tales of the same kind, which will some day delight village audiences gathered round festal evening fires, bear witness that Jean Gouin (or Le Gwenn, John the White, as the sailors call themselves familiarly*), did not lose his bearings even in his worst vicissitudes.

Dixmude was an epic then, or, as M. Victor Giraud proposes, a French geste, but a geste in which the heroism is entirely without solemnity or deliberation, where the nature of the seaman asserts itself at every turn, where there are thunder, lightning, rain, mud, cold, bullets, shrapnel, high explosive shells, and all the youthful gaiety of the French race.

And this epic did not come to an end at Dixmude. The brigade did not ground arms after November 10. The gaps in its ranks being filled from the depots, it was kept up to the strength of two regiments, and reaped fresh laurels. At Ypres and Saint Georges it charged the troops of Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria and tiie Duke of Wurtemberg in succession. Dixmude was but one panel of the triptych: on the broken apex of the black capital of the Communiers, on the livid backgrounds of the flat country about Nieuport, twice again did the brigade inscribe its stormy silhouette.

But at Ypres and Saint Georges the sailors had the bulk of the Anglo-French forces behind them; at Dixmude up to November 4 they knew that their enterprise was a forlorn hope. And in their hands they held the fate of the two Flanders. One of the heroes of Dixmude, Naval Lieutenant Georges Hebert, said that the Fusiliers had gained more than a naval battle there. My only objection to this statement is its modesty. Dixmude was our Thermopylae in the north, as the Grand-Couronne, near Nancy, was our Thermopylae in the east; the Fusiliers were the first and the most solid element of the long triumphant defensive which will one day be known as the victory of the Yser, a victory less decisive and perhaps less brilliant than that of the Marne, but not less momentous in its consequences.

The Generalissimo is credited with a dictum which he may himself have uttered with a certain astonishment:

"You are my best infantrymen," said he to the Fusiliers. We will close with these simply, soldierly words, more eloquent than the most brilliant harangues. The brigade will reckon them among their proudest trophies to all time.


left : on the coverpage of 'la Guerre des Nations'
marine fusiliers defending Dixmude - an illustration by Charles Fouqueray

right : 'the March of the Marine Fusiliers' composed by Theodore Botrel


III — Story Of Murder of Dr. Duguet

On October 25 (1914), we had not yet received any help from the inundation. Our troops were in dire need of rest, and the enemy was tightening his grip along the entire front. New reinforcements were coming up to fill the gaps in his ranks; our scouts warned us that fresh troops were marching upon Dixmude by the three roads of Essen, Beerst, and Woumen. We had to expect a big affair the next day, if not that very night. It came off that night.

About 7 o'clock the Gamas company went to relieve the men in the southern trenches. On their way, immediately outside the town, they fell in with a German. force of about the same strength as themselves, which had crept up no one knew how. There was a fusillade and a general melee, in which our sailors opened a passage through the troop with bayonets and butt-ends, disposing of some forty Germans and putting the rest to flight.! Then there was a lull. The splash of rain was the only sound heard till 2 A.M., when suddenly a fresh outbreak of rifle-fire was heard near the Caeskerke station, right inside the defences. It was suggested that our men or our allies, exasperated by their life of continual alarms, had been carried away by some reckless impulse. The bravest soldiers admit that hallucinations are not uncommon at night in the trenches. All the pit-falls of darkness rise before the mind; the circulation of the blood makes a noise like the tramp of marching troops; if by chance a nervous sentry should fire his rifle, the whole section will follow suit.

Convinced that some misunderstanding of this kind had taken place, the Staff, still quartered at the Caeskerke railway station, shouted to the sections to cease firing. As, however, the fusillade continued in .the direction of the town, the Admiral sent one of his officers, Lieutenant Durand-Gasselin, to reconnoiter. He got as far as the Yser without finding the enemy; the fusillade had ceased; the roads were clear. He set out on his way back to Caeskerke. On the road he passed an ambulance be longing to the brigade going up towards Dixmude, which, on being challenged, replied: "Rouge Croix." Rather surprised at this inversion, he stopped the ambulance; it was full of Germans, who, however, surrendered with-out offering any resistance. But this capture suggested a new train of thought to the Staff: they were now certain that there had been an infantry raid upon the town; the Germans in the ambulance probably belonged to a troop of mysterious assailants who had made their way into Dixmude in the night and had vanished no less mysteriously after this extraordinary deed of daring.

One of our covering trenches must have given way, but which? Our allies held the railway line by which the enemy had penetrated into the defences, sounding the charge. The riddle was very disturbing, but under the veil of a thick, damp night, which favored the enemy, it was useless to seek a solution. It was found next morning at dawn, when one of our detachments on guard by the Yser suddenly noticed in a meadow a curious medley of Belgians, French Marines, and Germans. Had our men been made prisoners? This uncertainty was of brief duration. There was a sharp volley; the sailors fell; the Germans made off. This was what had happened!

Various versions have been given of this incident, one of the most dramatic of the defence, in the course of which the heroic Commander Jeanniot and Dr. Duguet, chief officer of the medical staff, fell mortally wounded, with several others. The general opinion, however, seems to be that the German attack, which was delivered at 2:30 P.M., was closely connected with the surprise movement attempted at 7 o'clock in the evening on the Essen road and so happily frustrated by the intervention of the Gamas company. It is not impossible that it was carried out by the fragments of the force we had scattered, reinforced by new elements and charging to the sound of the bugle. This would explain the interval of several hours between the two attacks, which were no doubt the outcome of a single inspiration.

"The night," says an eye-witness, "was pursuing its normal course, and as there were no indications of disturbance, Dr. Duguet took the opportunity to go and get a little rest in the house where he was living, which was just across the street opposite his ambulance. The Abbé Le Helloco, chaplain of the 2nd Regiment, had joined him at about i :30 A.M. The latter admits that he was rather uneasy because of the earlier skirmish, in which, as was his habit, he had been unremitting in his ministrations to the wounded. After a few minutes talk the two men separated to seek their straw pallets. The Abbé had been asleep for an hour or two, when he was awakened by shots close at hand. He roused himself and went to Dr. Duguet, who was already up.

The two did not exchange a word. Simultaneously, without taking the precaution of extinguishing the lights behind them, they hurried to the street. Enframed by the lighted doorway, they at once became a target; a volley brought them down in a moment. Dr. Duguet had been struck by a bullet in the abdomen; the Abbé was hit in the head, the arm, and the right thigh. The two bodies were touching each other. 'Abbé,' said Dr. Duguet, 'we are done for. Give me absolution. I regret . . .'

The Abbé found strength to lift his heavy arm and to make the sign of the cross upon his dying comrade. Then he fainted, and this saved him. Neither he nor Dr. Duguet had understood for the moment what was happening. Whence had the band of marauders who had struck them down come, and how had they managed to steal into our lines without being seen? It was a mystery. This fusillade breaking out behind them had caused a certain disorder in the sections nearest to it, who thought they were being taken in the rear, and who would have been, indeed, had the attack been maintained. The band arrived in front of the ambulance station at the moment when the staff (three Belgian doctors, a few naval hospital orderlies, and Quartermaster Bonnet) were attending to Dr. Duguet, who was still breathing. They made the whole lot prisoners and carried them along in their idiotic rush through the streets. Both officers and soldiers must have been drunk. This is the only reasonable explanation of their mad venture.

We held all the approaches to Dixmude; the brief panic that took place in certain sections had been at once contained.


marching up the line to Dixmude


IV — Story of Murder of Commander Jeanniot

"Commander Jeanniot, who had been in reserve that night, and who, roused by the firing like Dr. Duguet and Abbé Le Helloco, had gone into the street to call his sector to arms, had not even taken his revolver in his hand. Mistaking the identity and the intentions of the groups he saw advancing, he ran towards them to reassure them and bring them back to the trenches. This little stout, grizzled officer, rough and simple in manner, was adored by the sailors. He was known to be the bravest of the brave, and he himself was conscious of his power over his men. When he recognized his mistake it was too late. The Germans seized him, disarmed him, and carried him off with loud 'Hochs!' of satisfaction. The band continued to push on towards the Yser, driving a few fugitives before them, and a part of them succeeded in crossing the river under cover of the general confusion.

Happily this did not last long. Captain Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, who was in command of the guard on the bridge, identified the assailants with the help of a searchlight, and at once opened fire upon them. The majority of the Germans within range of our machine-guns were mown down; the rest scattered along the streets and ran to cellars and ruins to hide themselves. But the head of the column had got across with its prisoners, whom they drove before them with the butt-ends of their rifles.

For four hours they wandered about, seeking an issue which would enable them to rejoin their lines. It was raining the whole time. Weary of wading through the mud, the officers stopped behind a hedge to hold a council. A pale light began to pierce the mist; day was dawning, and they could no longer hope to regain the German lines in a body. Prudence dictated that they should disperse until night- fall. But what was to be done with the prisoners ? The majority voted that they should be put to death. The Belgian doctors protested. Commander Jeanniot, who took no part in the debate, was talking calmly to Quarter-master Bonnet. At a sign from their leader the Boches knelt and opened fire upon the prisoners. The Commander fell, and as he was still breathing, they finished him off with their bayonets. The only survivors were the Belgian doctors, who had been spared, and Quartermaster Bonnet, who had only been hit in the shoulder. It was at this moment that the marauders were discovered. One section charged them forthwith; another fell back to cut off their retreat.

What happened afterwards? Some accounts declare that the German officers learned what it costs to murder prisoners, and that our men despatched the dogs there and then; but the truth is, that, in spite of the general desire to avenge Commander Jeannoit, the whole band was taken prisoners and brought before the Admiral, who had only the three most prominent rascals of the gang executed."


marine fusiliers near Dixmude cooking up an improvised meal


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