from ‘Harper’s Weekly’ January 15, 1916
'The Sailors with a Rifle'
by A. H. Gleason

French Fusiliers Marins - Naval Infantry

a section of fusiliers marins in the dunes around Nieuport
painting by Josephe-Félix Bouchor


Most of the belligerent nations are appealing enough, but they don't make the spectator envious of their lot. Austria seems like a rather elderly and very stout man, who thought he was in for a debate and finds it is a bloody fight. , Each time we have a glimpse of him he is retiring to catch his breath and adjust the court-plaster. England is interesting as an exhibit of a democracy continuing to exercise all its peace rights of free speech and personal liberty at a time when the underpinning is sagging and rocking. But even her friends grow worried when each day develops a new crop of individualists who want their drink, or slack their job, or whack Kitchener. The taste of Belgium is bitter in the mouth of Germany. And the fate of Belgium itself is too poignant to afford pleasure to spectator or victim or perpetrator. Our own role is doubtless the only one we are fitted to play, but it is not heroic. It is that of a spectator, who can't swim, at a drowning.

The one nation that has emerged serene and clarified by this war is France. Tributes have accrued to her from all the others. Captured German officers have borne gallant witness to the mixture of dash and endurance that has enabled her to hold the decisive battleline. Poets of England have turned from the home muddling to that unity. France herself has not been voluble on her costly sacrifice. Her men of letters have lent a hand somewhere on or behind the five hundred mile line that goes from the Channel to the German forts.




One of the few books that have come out of France at war, is that of Charles Le Goffic. He calls it Dixmude— un Chapitre de I'Histoire des Fusiliers Marins. These sailors with a rifle held Dixmude for over three weeks, till the whole Yser position was consolidated. They were almost wiped out, because the odds were heavy against them. Since last November they have held Nieuport, the extreme northern end of the west front.

"They came ready for their work. The sea is a perpetual battlefield, and one doesn't fight any less on a ship than in a trench. Community of danger creates community of hearts."

The author says that the particular grace that made the affair possible was a veritable spiritual brotherhood between men and leader—higher than efficiency and discipline. A wounded private writes how his lieutenant came to him, and asked,

"Here, little one, what is the matter?"

"Oh! lieutenant, I am wounded, and I'm not able to move."

"Well, well, climb up on my back."

"And he carried me to a house, and said this to me which I shall remember forever:

" 'Rest here, little one, till they come for you. I'll go and get the ambulance ready.'

"Then he went back into battle, the brave man."

Instances of clear sight are given. That of the lieutenant ordered to the outpost.

"He reads clearly his fate—it is my death,' he says. And he went to the death which had made its sign to him."

Once a captain said to these men,

"My poor children, you have done your duty. There's nothing more to do except give up." And for the first time, disobedient to their captain, they replied "No."

"It wasn't night nor yet day, in Dixmude. It was red."

The account of their work has some of the same accent as the Greek Anthology. These marins were boys who died gladly, believing they were saving their country. They have shown to the modern world, which holds most things lightly except personal security, that it is not human life that is sacred—it is the flash of spirit. The very qualities that come to brightness under danger, the price of which is sometimes death, are alone the qualities worth keeping alive. It is not the carcass of a man that needs safeguarding, but the virtue and gesture which may only be called out by the last moment of all.



two illustrations, one from a humor magazine, the second from a children's weekly

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