- War Letters from France
- the Hearts of Heroes
Collected from the Soldiers by A. De Lapradelle and Frederic R. Coudert
Extracts from Soldiers' Letters Home
the French soldier as portrayed on several covers of 'Le Flambeau'
This is a series of extracts from letters written from the French trenches, from hospitals in France, from officials and soldiers in the French Army and from members of different private families. Spontaneously written and telling of the things as they are from the personal viewpoint of each writer, these letters form an excellent record of history in the making. Suffering, courage and hope speak their simple language and without intent reveal the very soul of the courageous nation.
I Glimpse of a Burning Village
THIS letter was stopped by the receipt of marching orders. It continued a little later with the following vivid descriptive passage:
"The flames of a village destroyed by shell fire, a livid moonlight and a terrible storm, such were the precursors of our entrance this morning into a pretty village of the Vosges, where a dozen houses were gutted, burned or totally demolished by shells. Chickens were pecking at the door- sills of the deserted houses. That is war! Our men might have been put in bad humor by all this. But no! Their witty remarks cheered the situation. They are laughing and chatting now, while the German bombs are falling not far from us, whistling through the air with metallic shrieks, followed by frightful explosions. Our men are getting used to this music of a special style."
II Story of the Good Woman
A good woman in whose house a lieutenant was quartered told him the following story of the occupation: "The worthy old lady with a black cap on her white locks, her face lighted by the flame of the wood fire burning on the hearth, keeps up a tireless flow of anecdote, while the little granddaughter at her side listens with wide open mouth. This woman seems to me to personify the entire French race, gifted with a good share of common sense and with intelligence not entirely devoid of malicious roguishness. In language filled with an imaginative quality she describes the departure of her three sons and her two sons-in-law all reservists.
From two of these men she has received no word since the war began, and when one speaks of them a shadow steals over her face giving it that stamp of grandeur which grief heroically borne impresses. She told me about the conversations she had with the Germans many of whom could speak French; how insufferable and naive they were in their arrogance. Then she told of their retreat and the sudden arrival at a gallop of two little Chasseurs, blue as the summer sky, plain brave little Chasseurs!
'What a pity you are on horseback,' she said. 'Why, mother?' 'Because I should like to kiss you.' 'Don't let a little thing like that stop you,' they cried, and were on the ground in a minute. 'What a good kiss I gave them, monsieur; it was as if one of my own boys had come back. Then amid cheers and flowers they rode off toward the forest with a squadron of ten, on the track of the last Uhlans who had left the village two hours before. We never saw them again.' Isn't that the very soul of France?"
On the twenty-eighth of September, 1914, J. T., a very quiet man in ordinary life, writes the following excited letter, without superscription of date or place: "Courage good always on my feet bullets through my coat twice covered with the dirt plowed up by shells but as yet uninjured. Will tell you perhaps some day the tragic details. They are glorious and sublime. We are bearing everything with absolute confidence in our victory. Victory! That was the word on our lips when we parted at Paris. Let us repeat it, never forgetting the men who have fallen. If I don't come back you know that I shall have done my duty."
J. D., who has not had a chance to wash for two weeks, who sleeps on the ground, and has his ears continually filled with the roars of cannon and musketry, declares with simplicity in a letter of September 26; 1914: "I love this life of bivouac though the stormy nights are hard. What I like most about it is being in the free air and having a feeling of unforeseen danger, the sense of uncertainty and suspense. When the cannon is still at night, I hear the groans and the death rattle of the wounded who have not been picked up in front of the trenches facing the enemy. Our recent victories have strengthened our soldiers' confidence until now they are regular war dogs who don't interrupt their cooking when the shells rain around them not until the pieces fall into the kettle. Still the war is hard and they are waging it against us without mercy or humanity. Quite often the Prussians dispatch our wounded soldiers with a lance thrust or a blow with the butt of a musket. I know what I'm talking about for I have seen it."
On the fifth of October, 1914, F. writes from Fouconcourt in the department of the Somme: "The horrible rain of iron and steel that hundreds of infernal machines are pouring on us every day cannot dampen our courage. It is a grand thing to fight for a holy cause like this of France. In spite of forty continuous days of battle in the Vosges and in Picardie, in spite of forty nights passed mostly in icy weather under the naked stars, in spite of hunger, rain and forced marches, and in the midst of horrors, I find myself admiring the sublime forests of the Vosges, the picturesque villages, and the gay little houses of red brick."
Ill Simple Stories of the Soldiers
There is such literary charm in these simple letters of men who frankly speak their noble thoughts, that they seem hardly inferior to this beautiful letter of a young but well-known writer, Louis Madelin, now Captain Madelin, the historian of Danton and Fouche, and author of the history of the French Revolution, which has been recently crowned with the first grand Gobert prize by the French Academy. From Verdun, one of the gates of France which the Germans are especially anxious to break down, Captain Madelin writes on the fifth of November, 1914:
"I have with the colors three brothers, two brothers-in-law, three nephews, eighteen to nineteen years old, and these men are soldiers of all grades in every rank of the army. They write letters fairly brimming with courage and zeal. Some of them have been wounded, but they returned as soon as possible to the firing line. One of my brothers took some Alsatian villages. He saw the colonel and five out of six of the captains of his battalion of Chasseurs fall. The youngest and sole surviving captain, he took command of what was left, led it from the Vosges to the Marne, enforced marches of forty-five kilometers a day, keeping its morale intact and losing not a single man. After fighting like a lion on the battlefield of the Marne he received his fourth galoon, richly deserved, from the hands of the general of the army corps. He wrote me a charming letter from the trenches in the North, in which he said that his soldiers (like all the rest) were accomplishing prodigies of valor.
Another of my brothers, on the staff of one of the corps, dispatched with a message to a regiment of cavalry, found the regiment without colonel or major. He put himself at the head of the troops and hustled a strong force of German infantry. I have a little devil of a nephew who enlisted at the age of eighteen and five days later was sent to the front. He fought like a demon with the light infantry on the Marne and the Aisne, and when his shoulder was broken by a bursting shell he begged the doctors to heal it quickly so that he could return to the front. Eighteen years old! There's your. type of volunteer that shows what a generation we have in reserve, and with what spirit they will march to reconquer lost ground.
All my life long I shall remember the first night of my command of a post in the Woevre, where I used to walk with my men, the citizens and fathers of the region, every one of them ready when called on to give his last drop of blood for the Fatherland."
From Morcourt in the department of the Somme on the seventh of November, 1914: "Shall we ever return? What does it matter? We march on. Some fall, others advance, and the frightful drama continues to unroll before the eyes of the dazed nations."
IV The Soldiers' Sweethearts
Do not imagine that the soldier is bored. He has his friends and his sweetheart.
"Sweethearts! Don't be astonished. Their names are Gaby, Madelon and Sylvia. Gaby is a little person, plump, with an odor of wild cherry about her. I never spend more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour with her. Sylvia is more slender and frail. She smells of the autumn heather and I talk with her for fifteen or twenty minutes. As for Madelon, she is a grand lady in her splendid brown dress with gold trimmings. She is very cultivated, too, and I spend twenty-five, minutes or half an hour with her.
Gaby, Sylvia and Madelon are pipes. During the long, anxious hours of suspense one hardly knows what to do. It is impossible to read or write, for one has to be ready to start at the first signal. So we smoke our pipes. One of my men carved Gaby for me from a branch of wild cherry. Madelon and Sylvia were presents from my subordinate officers. So much for my sweethearts. As for my friend he is a very devoted personage, very silent and always with me. He lies at my feet with his honest brown eyes fixed on me until he drops asleep. He is a wonderful scout and guide. Moose is his name a black and yellow water dog who got himself adopted on the tenth of September and has never left me since."
Our soldiers are wonderful, so full of hope and courage. Still, when one sees them, one knows what they have endured. They all have a tragic look, but they are filled with energy and zeal, even though they are under no illusion as to the possible duration of the war.
We shall come out victorious and France, that most beautiful nation, will resume its peaceful, prosperous life. War will yield finally to peace and men will live happily forever.
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