from the book : 'Among the Ruins', 1915
'The Battlefields of Lorraine'
by Senor Gomez Carillo
Spanish Journalist

a Spanish Journalist Travels the Battlefields

French front-line trenches


The Ruins of Clermont-En-Argonne


January 20. 1915

Ever since we had passed by one December evening, the glimpse I had caught of those ruins, through the twilight, had pursued me. Each time our travels brought us near the Argonne, I had proposed to my companions that we should stop for an hour or two at Clermont. "The ruins are all alike," they objected. But I recalled the picture of those great, shattered walls stained crimson by the setting sun, and never failed to insist that Clermont was unique.

And then, in broad daylight, I saw through the cold grey fog that I had been wrong not to content myself with a memory. Nothing remained of that gorgeous spectacle of empurpled magic. The ruins were like all the other ruins, and but for the beauty of the situation, they would not even possess the sinister grandeur of other places where not a wall is standing. Happily, the hill on which the town was built is one of the most picturesque in the mountainous region of the Argonne. The pine-trees form a dark undulating curtain on the height, above the crumbling walls.

But when we penetrated into the labyrinth of narrow streets full of débris we found ourselves before the eternal picture we had seen yesterday, and the day before, and perpetually ever since we had been within the war-zone, a picture of silent grief, a tragic picture without surprises, a terrible, heartrending picture of atrocious monotony, not even so extensive as at Sermaize and Gerbéviller.

"It was a town of only a thousand inhabitants!" exclaimed one of my colleagues, noting my disappointment.

This is true. The ancient Clermont, which was the capital of an almost independent county, is but an historical memory. The modern Clermont has no further importance than that of being a cross-roads to which the routes of the invader converge, the routes from Germany to Paris by way of Verdun and Bar- le-Duc. One of the inhabitants led us through the débris to the centre of the town, making us stop before the dwellings which have suffered most. Of some of these only the foundations remain. Others have kept their four outer walls intact. They have all that modest, inoffensive look which makes the attack upon them all the more odious, and awakes wonder as to the mysterious motive-power which can incite the Germans against the poor, and cause the destruction of their humble dwellings.

The streets climb the hillside like goat-tracks, showing the dark foliage of the forest in perspective. The roar of the guns is still audible here, making the poor people who are camping among the ruins aware that the enemy is still close at hand. Black mud, composed of calcined earth, impeded our ascent. From time to time a livid face appeared, peering at us inquisitively. Ragged, famished-looking children followed us in silence. Soldiers of the garrison passed in muddy uniforms going to the neighbouring trenches. What a miserable business war is!Amidst all the ruins and horrors, one figure emerges which recalls the more chivalrous warfare of the past. It is the figure of a Prussian officer, a captain of the reserve since the outbreak of hostilities, and before that a Berlin man of letters, famous and popular. His name, if he is still living, is Bruno Franck, and this name deserves to be respectfully remembered in a country where the most illustrious representatives of German aristocracy have left only the bloody traces of their cruelty. The inhabitant of Clermont who told us of him, was one of the few who would not flee from the town before the invader.

"The house I live in," he said, "was the one in which Prince Bismarck lodged forty-four years ago. The Germans used to come and visit it before the war with evident veneration, for it was there the Council of War which preceded the Battle of Sedan was held. A rich Hamburger once wanted to buy it, but I would not even answer his proposal. The officers who invaded our town must have known all about it, for the first thing they did was to put a placard on my door, ordering their soldiers to abstain from any acts of hostility against the historic dwelling. For my part, I shut myself up quickly, preferring to run any risks rather than abandon my town. The stories current in the neighbourhood, however, were not such as to make anyone desirous of meeting the Kaiser's soldiers. Everywhere they left the corpses of innocent civilians in their wake. Mayors and priests were their favourite victims. I could not, therefore, blame such of our aediles as followed the general exodus. But, personally, I preferred to remain. After all, it doesn't much matter whether one dies in one way or in another. On September 5 a captain knocked at my door, and I opened it myself, making up my mind to answer him in the tone he adopted towards me. I was greatly surprised to find myself in the presence of a very refined person, who spoke French admirably, and began by apologizing for the trouble he was giving me. Do you know why the Mayor left?' he asked. I said I did not. 'I have come to ask you, in the name of my commanding officer, to undertake the administration of the Commune, that the normal life of the place may not be interrupted.' Knowing the laws of war, I accepted the orders of our invaders, but asked why this duty had been imposed upon me. 'Because you are a knight of the Legion of Honour,' replied the captain. Then he told me that he loved France as one of the most cultured nations of the world, that he was familiar with our literature; that he had spent some happy years in Paris, enjoying our museums, and that the war was the greatest sorrow imaginable to him, for he had always hoped that France and Germany would come to an understanding some day, and work together for the good of humanity. Before he left me he asked me to collect any arms in the possession of the few persons remaining in the town. 'They are all old men and women,' I replied, 'and it is not likely that they have any weapons. I myself have a sword presented by Napoleon to one of my ancestors. Must I give that up?' 'No,' he exclaimed, 'certainly not. A relic. May I be allowed to see it?'

"He stood silent and thoughtful before my old sword for five minutes and then saluted it. My relations with the German officers were comparatively amicable. They all assured me that Clermont should be respected, and setting aside the looting of forsaken houses, I had not much to complain of, until one day a fire suddenly broke out in a watchmaker's shop. I hastened to the Kommandatur. The general vowed that his soldiers were not responsible. The flames spread from house to house, destroying everything, and I was in despair, because I had no means of coping with them. The general declared that he regretted the disaster as much as I did, and that from information he had received it was a pure accident. A spirit-lamp had been broken. The truth was very different, for the fire had been deliberately kindled by the soldiers."

"And what did your Captain Bruno Franck say to this?" we asked.

"He seemed very much distressed, almost ashamed, but a captain can't do much. Ah! if he had been the commanding officer!"

In the streets where we walked among the ruins guided by our amiable cicerone, the soldiers we met saluted the worthy Clermontois. It was evident that all who knew him esteemed him. His grave face bears the impress of goodness and uprightness. There is a steady flame in his eyes which indicates extraordinary strength of character. A poor woman speaking of him to us said: "He is a hero."

As a fact, here as at Gerbéviller, Epernay, and many other martyred places, the true hero of these days of woe was a woman, a Sister of Charity.

Every one spoke of her with respect and emotion. When the Germans entered Clermont after bombarding the town, the inhabitants fled towards the south. The houses were empty, the shops forsaken. Almost alone, the Sisters at the hospital continued to nurse the sick, among whom there were some French soldiers. On September 5, at daybreak, several German officers presented themselves at the hospital, and broke in the door instead of waiting to have it opened to them. Revolver in hand, they came into the courtyard with threatening looks, demanding food and drink. A nun came out to them and said: "If you are sick or wounded, you are welcome; all who suffer are at home here." The officers paused, not knowing what to ask. At last one of them, who could speak French, cried: "This belongs to the Emperor of Germany. All France belongs to the Emperor of Germany!"

"This belongs to the poor," said the Sister gently, holding out her arms to prevent them from advancing. A lieutenant aimed his revolver at her. "Shoot me if you like," said the holy woman, "but you shall not come in." At this moment a colonel appeared on the scene, and the officers at once changed their tone. The colonel very courteously asked leave to send his wounded to the hospital, and assured the Sister that she need fear nothing from his soldiers. "We are not savages," he declared. In the evening the wounded Germans began to come in, and Sister Gabrielle tended them with the same devotion she had shown to the French soldiers. The colonel went daily to visit the hospital, and never failed to praise the zeal of the nurses. "Fear nothing," he repeated. One evening, however, when the fire was raging in the town, the Sister saw with horror that the flames were already licking the walls of the hospital. "What can we do?" said the colonel. "The only plan is to remove the patients and leave the house." "If the house is to burn," she replied, "I will die in the flames, for I promised I would never leave it." And there was such détermination in her voice that the Prussians, greatly impressed, pulled down the adjoining walls and isolated the hospital.

The Mayor, speaking of Sister Gabrielle to us, concluded with these words:

"They are all alike, these saintly women." The hospital is the only building left intact in the midst of the ruined town; it shelters not only the sick, but many of the destitute whose homes have been destroyed. There is something strangely moving in the sight of the huge white house full of life and movement rising as in a cemetery, dominating the dark wood in the depths of which one of the most agitating acts of the formidable Franco-German tragedy is in progress.


an illustration by Francois Flameng of the Fort du Troyon


From Toul to Nancy

January 25. 1915

We shall be at Nancy this evening. "We might get there in half an hour by the direct road," says our guide, "but it will be more interesting and more agreeable to follow the banks of the Moselle, and see Fontenoy, Liverdun, and Frouard."

My colleagues do not appear to be very enthusiastic about such an excursion to places where no fighting has taken place. Even here at Toul, where we are stopping for a few hours, they will not deign to leave the hotel and inspect the town. What is there to interest them in a fortress where the guns have not fired a single shot? They are all true war correspondents, and my love for churches, woods, and villages makes them smile.

"Then you don't care to see Saint-Etienne, nor the Bishop's Palace, nor the old garden?" I asked.

"No," replied an Englishman curtly, in the name of the company.

A lieutenant agreed to accompany me that I might not be arrested by sentries. In the solitary streets our footsteps echoed as in a cloister. We spoke involuntarily in hushed tones, as if fearing to awaken the ghosts which seem to be the only inhabitants of the place.

In normal times Toul has 12,000 inhabitants, 6000 of whom are soldiers and 6000 civilians. On the declaration of war, when it was feared that Nancy could not resist the German onslaught, and that the fortress would be besieged, the authorities expelled nearly all the civilians, fearing they might hamper the defenders, as in 1870. It became evident shortly afterwards that the enemy could not approach any of the great Eastern fortresses, and a portion of the troops also evacuated Toul and went off to fight in the north. Of its 12,000 inhabitants, there appear to be hardly twelve left in the town which proudly claims to be the most ancient and the most faithful in France. In my walk through the central quarters I did not meet a single living person, I did not see a single open window, I did not hear a single human voice. The narrow, ill-paved streets stretch out and zigzag in an interminable labyrinth, leading us past forsaken houses and closed churches, without ever bringing us to a spot where there was any life or movement.

"The population emigrated westward in the early days of the war, and has not returned entirely," said the officer.

In reality, no one seems to have come back.

The noble mansions of former canons raise their decaying façades, eloquent of past splendours. At every step there is a stone shield with a blackened coat-of- arms. Mitres and swords are interlaced, encircled by Latin mottoes recalling episcopal and martial pomp. Through iron gates we see austere flights of time- worn stone steps.

"Where do the officers of the garrison live?" I asked my lieutenant.

"Outside the town in the quarter of Les Ecrouves," he replied.

And fearing, no doubt, that our lonely walk was not to my taste, he proposed that we should leave the centre of the town in search of a little life and movement near the railway station, where we should find shops and cafés open.

"It is a pity that we may not see the forts," he said.

The truth is that fortresses interest me much less than churches, since my great disappointment at Verdun in respect of the great subterranean forts. If the fortresses in question were the stately structures of Vauban, whose battlemented walls stand out upon some height, I should certainly like to go and inspect them. But here, as in all modern citadels, even the guns are invisible. "That is the Redoubt of Tillot," said some one this morning, pointing out an insignificant looking hill covered with small leafless trees, in the middle of the plain. And the eleven other defences of Toul are, no doubt, all like this in their formidable occult power.

Yet what endless talk there was four months ago of the forts of this place! Without any very terrific sacrifice, the Germans might seize Nancy, an undefended position, an open town without guns. But when once they reached the heights of Gondreville, their triumphal march would be stopped dead. Engineers had been working for forty years, burying cannon in inexpugnable positions. For forty years the country had put its trust in the art and science of the constructors of these cemented casemates. And now, after a hundred and fifty days of war, neither Toul, Épinal, nor Verdun had had to fire a single shot. Nancy, with no defences but her improvised trenches, had not only been able to defend herself, but to win a victory.

The sad part of it all is that in view of the new guns, which destroy an armour- plated casemate as if it were a straw hut, modern fortifications have become as obsolete as mediaeval fortresses.

What will become of Toul? The only thing that has saved it from death during the last half-century has been its redoubts. When these disappear, as they must do, all that will be left will be the towers of its churches, the walls of its episcopal palace, the cloisters of its convents—in short, its past.

And even this past is so vague, so obscure, so remote. Like its dark streets, its history forms a labyrinth of martial and religious adventures, in which it is easy to lose oneself without ever coming upon any luminous points. Before we get to Charles V, routed before its walls, or to Henry II, entering the city in triumph, we have to wade through innumerable conspiracies of canons and citizens, who in their struggles for power, one day convert what was the day before an episcopal principality into a republic, and the next submit to a Duke of Lorraine to escape anarchy or despotism.

"Mitre on head and axe in hand," says the local chronicle, "prelates converted the cathedral into a guard-room, resting neither day nor night."

They were indeed terrible persons, those lords of the Moselle country! For centuries, while acknowledging the authority of the Emperor in theory, in practice they did only what seemed good in their own eyes. The dark, strong towers of Saint-Etienne proclaim plainly enough that Christian gentleness was not among their virtues. Even the ornaments, delicate as lacework, which the Renaissance laid on the façade of this famous church, fail to modify its bellicose aspect. And as in the cathedral, so in all the ancient structures we noticed during our walk, the fiery temperament of the race makes itself felt. The axe gleams beside the mitre at every step.

But alas! the city of bishops and communalists, now that it has neither communalists nor bishops, is a dead city, as entirely dead as Toledo, Siena, or Bruges-la-Morte. No brazen harmony sounds from its dark towers to enliven the oppressive loneliness of the atmosphere. The old, nail-studded doors seem closed for ever. And when we raise our eyes above, seeking something to relieve the harsh melancholy of the walls, we see only the tragic rock which dominates the enceinte of the citadel, like a dismantled acropolis. How splendid a feudal castle, crowned with crenelated towers, would look upon this frowning promontory! But here as at Verdun, the menace does not rise in noble arrogance upon the heights; it crouches in the hollows of defiles, and hides its fiery jaws in the earth.

As we were leaving Toul, one of the officers who had accompanied us indicated the line of forts, whose fires cross those of the advanced defences of Verdun towards the north on the other side of the Moselle.

"Only one," he said, "the most isolated of them all, has been destroyed by the Germans."

Following the direction in which he pointed, I tried to discover something in the landscape on our left suggestive of the presence of guns. The snow had thrown its winding-sheet over the lonely plain, and in the distance, far beyond Gondreville, the wood of Lagney, with its dark branches, closed the horizon. The only touch of animation in the monotonous picture was the sinuous course of the river, appearing and disappearing in the contours of the road. Yet we knew that the whole region was full of guns, hidden under the frozen earth, and ready to break the vast peace of the landscape at the slightest alarm.


an illustration by Francois Flameng of the Fort du Troyon


"The destroyed fort down there, very far off, towards the north, is Troyon," continued our guide. "Did you hear about the defence? It was one of the finest episodes in the present war."

Then he added with perfect simplicity:

"I was there."

The two other journalists who were in the car with us, hearing these words, turned sharply to our officer.

"You were at Troyon!" they exclaimed.

The surprise with which they contemplated this man, so gentle and so unheroic in appearance, was evident. It must be admitted that he is no paladin to look at! In his severe artillery uniform, talking in a subdued voice, his shortsighted eyes peering timidly through his spectacles, he seems the perfect type of the honest reservist who, after the declaration of war, had to quit his Parisian office to serve in commissariat or hospital.

He answered very quietly: "Yes, I was there."

Then we all begged him to tell us what he remembered, and he began at once, without any reluctance.

"Like every one else, you complain that a modern fort is not very imposing from the outside. It is a pity that we can't go as far as the ruins of Troyon, that you might see what a fort really is. Now that the shells of the big Austrian guns have demolished the mass of cement and steel which covered it, the ruin gives a very exact idea of the subterranean fort. The iron girders that supported the outer shell have been torn into a thousand pieces, and the enormous vaults have been shivered as if they had been made of cardboard, so that the inner structure appears as a formidable hole, like those Eastern temples which have been half- buried by the sands of the desert. The ruin looks more like the result of a cataclysm than a work of man's hand. Our engineers had spent twenty years constructing a gigantic invisible palace in the bowels of the earth. In one morning, modern explosives gutted it and left it like one of those mediaeval citadels which now stand like stage scenery on the summits of ancient military positions. I think personally that one effect of the present war will be the complete disappearance of permanent fortifications.

"Formerly, when the means of defence were superior to those of attack, it was natural to erect stone structures at strategic points. A battlemented wall was almost impregnable against the axes, ladders, and war-engines of Saint-Louis. Nowadays, a 420 mm. gun laid twenty kilometres off, will destroy the most Cyclopean tower in a few hours. Hence the absurd situation, that our troops in the field are defending the fortresses of Verdun and Toul, instead of being covered by those fortresses. If the Germans could succeed in placing their guns within range of Gondreville or Haudainville, we knew that any attempt at resistance would be futile. When the enemy coming from Metz reached the heights of the Meuse, we said at Troyon that it was all over with us. The bombardment began at seven o'clock on the morning of September 8, and at 10 o'clock our cuirass of steel and cement was already mortally shattered. What a sight it was! Every shell blew one of our galleries to pieces! The most highly skilled of our gunners came out into the open with extraordinary heroism, to try to locate the batteries that were hammering us. But guns are invisible when they are laid in the hollows of undulating ground. Besides, our pieces were outranged by those of the Germans, so that even if we had been able to place these we should not have been any better off. In a moment we realized our desperate position, for the French forces were on the other side of the Meuse, fighting a great battle.

"Our only remaining means of communication with the fortresses of Toul and Verdun was the telephone. 'Hold out for forty-eight hours,' said the Governor of Toul, 'to prevent the enemy's artillery from advancing.' You may imagine what we thought of this order, when three hours had sufficed to destroy our casemates. Our Commandant replied: 'We will hold out as long as we have a man or a rifle left.' Our only hope was in our rifles. We proposed, as soon as the fort was destroyed, to prevent the enemy from occupying it, defending ourselves in a hand-to-hand fight. We saw nobody all day. The shells came from an incredible distance every few minutes, methodically and implacably, and each tore a fresh breach in our walls. A cloud of smoke and dust hung over the fort, and the air vibrated as if a whirlwind had been let loose. The blast of the shells was strong enough to knock us down when we were a few yards from their trajectory. At first we officers feared that our men, who were all raw recruits, would never endure this infernal racket under a perpetual storm of fire. But not one of them showed the least sign of flinching. With their invincible habit of jesting, they laughed at the hurricane and waited for death with songs on their lips. Every minute one or the other would fall, literally torn to rags as a vault or a wall gave way. All the rest murmured the stereotyped funeral oration of the battle-field:

'Poor devil!' and nothing more. At six in the evening the Commandant said to me: 'With men like ours we might hold out until there is not a single man left. As long as we have one, the Germans shan't have these ruins.' The Germans, meanwhile, seemed in no hurry to attack us, though they must have been perfectly well aware of the effect of their shells. They continued to bombard us the whole night of September 8. On the 9th, about ten o'clock in the morning, we saw a German column advancing, and we prepared to attack it. Our observer called out to us from his shelter that they were showing the white flag. When the envoys, escorted by a few soldiers, arrived at a distance of 100 paces from us, an officer advanced towards the fort, and addressing our Commandant, who had gone out to meet him, he asked him to surrender. The rapid dialogue that ensued between our chief and the enemy evoked the wars of the First Empire, and the superb insolence of Napoleon's Marshals. 'Surrender! Never!' Resistance is useless; our forces occupy the entire district and the fortress is a ruin.' 'No matter!' 'To-day we should allow you the honours of war, whereas to- morrow you will have to surrender unconditionally.' 'You may have our dead bodies, but you won't get any of us alive.' 'For the third time, will you surrender?' 'For the third time, no!'

The German officer seemed to be deeply and sincerely moved. He was silent for a few moments, looking at the ruins of Troyon. Then, addressing us all, he cried: 'This is terrible, but it's admirable.' 'We are doing our duty, that's all,' replied the Commandant. Two hours later the bombardment began, more intense and more furious, but less methodical. At one moment, fifteen shells came at a time, then twenty or thirty minutes would pass without a shot. The fort, as a matter of fact, had nothing more to lose, for its walls had been destroyed. All we hoped was to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Accordingly, when we saw the Bavarians advancing in close formation to the attack we were full of joy. At last we, too, would be able to fire, we, too, would be able to kill! They had scarcely crossed the bridge when our guns began to salute them. Oh! how well I remember that fight! The Commandant had put me in an outpost shelter to direct the fire of the batteries. The Bavarians marched in groups, holding each other by the hand, and our fire mowed down the immense human mass like a field of corn. Four, five, six times they returned to the attack, and each time our guns drove them back, decimating them. 'To-morrow,' we thought, watching the last useless effort, 'the attack will be in greater force.' That very night a division from Toul came up to reinforce us."

The officer seemed transformed. His eyes sparkled behind his spectacles, his lips contracted and quivered under his fair moustache. But as soon as one of us tried to make him talk of himself and praised his valour, his face relapsed into the tranquil, short-sighted gravity of half an hour ago. "Oh!" he exclaimed, "I only did my duty, like all the rest. In war a man is only an insignificant wheel in a vast mechanism. Whether he will or no, he is perforce carried away by the general movement. The only admirable things are isolated actions, individual deeds of daring. An aviator, all alone in his frail craft, in a storm of bullets, that is magnificent! But we artillerymen are just a part of our batteries, we scarcely exist."

Listening to the officer, we had passed almost without seeing them, those fields of the Moselle which have been the scene of a hundred tragedies. Behind us lay Fontenoy, where a band of sharpshooters destroyed a strategic bridge in 1870 with legendary heroism. The river winds in and out in loops, and the blue line of its tortuous course relieved the vast snow-covered expanse. Suddenly the character of the ground changed, the woods surrounded us, the forest of Haye murmured in our ears.

"Liverdun," cried some one, pointing to a ruined fortress, but not a fortress like Verdun or Toul; this time it was an old romantic citadel, crowned with great towers and battlements.

"How different from Troyon this must seem to you!" I said to the artilleryman.

He scanned the grey walls, the pierced parapets, the huge galleries, the black moat, the vast posterns; then he murmured very softly:

"Not so different as you think. In essentials the new fortresses are as fine as the old. The great difference is that the old ones stood on hill-tops, whilst the new are hidden underground. You have to see them in ruins before you can admire them properly."


the ruins of Troyon as shown in a British magazine


The Battle-Field of Nancy

February 4. 1915

For the last three days we have been studying the battle-fields in which the crosses on the graves mark out the fighting points like the little flags upon a map. We have seen Sainte-Geneviève, Amance, the wood of Champenoux, and all the heights of Le Grand Couronné. We have traversed a front of over fifty kilometres, on which hundreds of thousands of men have been engaged. We have been down into the holes where innumerable batteries established their line of fire, and finally, we visited a great many villages converted into heaps of ruins. A staff captain explained the principal military operations at the beginning of September to us, and declared that, on the whole, they constitute one of the most formidable and glorious episodes in the history of France.

I suppose that all this was of great interest to my colleagues, the true war correspondents. But I am bound to confess to my shame, that in spite of my persevering efforts, I am still unable to form any definite idea of a great modern battle.

"Over there, on the right," said our learned guide to us to-day, "is the army that is defending Pont-à-Mousson. To the left, another army is holding back the advance of the enemy on the banks of the river. Look for yourself."

In vain did I try to verify all this; I could see nothing but the peaceful Lorraine landscape, undulating in the tranquil tide of its hills, stretching away and away to infinity. The huge graveyard is the only thing that marks the limits of the picture. But because, alas! it is so huge, the picture disconcerts us and prevents us from forming a concrete image of the drama.

Placing himself opposite the wood of Champenoux, the black branches of which stood out like a mourning veil on the winding-sheet of snow, our captain described the furious attack of September 7.


German forces at the battle of Nancy


"Towards morning," he said, "the Prussian troops, who were ordered to take Nancy that the Emperor might make his solemn entry into the capital of Lorraine, and establish himself in Duke Rene's palace, marched down the slopes of the Seille, and crossed the river by the bridges of Chambley, Moncel, Brin, and Bioncourt. After a general attack they placed their siege-guns on the crests of Doncourt, Bourthecourt, and Roze-bois. The shells poured upon Amance and its environs, at once set fire to the villages of Bouxières - aux - Chênes, Fleur - Fontaine, and Laître. The church towers collapsed like houses of cards. The woods crackled and flamed in the hurricane of fire and steel. Protected by this infernal artillery, the battalions advanced in perfect order, and as our field guns decimated them, tearing convulsive breaches in the grandiose human wall, other troops hurried forward to fill the gaps, passing over the corpses of their comrades. The solemn clamour of 'Deutschland uber Allés? intoned by thousands of voices, rose in the air mingling dirge-like with the roar of the guns. It was like an avalanche advancing, an avalanche so mighty, so compact, and so methodical that no dyke seemed capable of resisting it. Amance was given up for lost. And if once Amance were in the power of the enemy, the high road, open and defenceless, would be but a broad avenue for a triumphal march, the goal of which would necessarily have been Nancy. The information received at Headquarters stated that William II, with 10,000 cavalry of the Guard, was in the wood of Morel, ready for the great advance which was to bring him with banners flying and fifes sounding, to the Place Stanislas. It would be an exaggeration to say that our chiefs, with their relatively small numbers, hoped to offer a successful resistance to the onslaught of our enemies. All they were bent on for the moment was to gain a few hours. 'If we can hold our own all day,' said a general, 'we shall have performed a miracle.'

And this miracle actually came to pass. When night began to fall the avalanche had not yet overwhelmed us; our 75's kept them at bay; our fire broke the mass at several points. Night came at last, lighted by incendiary fires, and with the night a ray of hope dawned in the French soul. But on the following day the turmoil became more violent, the attack more intense, the enemy stronger. Velaine soon succumbed, and the defile between the two hills of Amance was filled with Uhlans. 'We are lost,' thought the most valiant of our chiefs. At this moment our reinforcements, which had just come up, advanced from all our positions, not in close formation, but in slender lines of marksmen. The guns of Amance suddenly came into action again, mowing down the fields of pointed helmets like ripe corn. The trumpets sounded in our ranks; something like a fever ran through every soul; the very woods seemed to quiver joyously. The Emperor, whose white silhouette dominated the tumult, ordered up his reserves, and a whole army corps from the rear advanced towards the bridges which the first columns had crossed the day before without difficulty. But we had now got the range so perfectly that not a single enemy succeeded in passing the river. No matter! The white horseman shook his golden eagle, crying: 'Forward, forward! Deutschland uber Allés!' For a few hours the shock was so terrific that the air vibrated, shaken by the fire of the guns. A kind of frenzy ran through the lines on both sides. The Emperor, livid, continued to cry: 'Forward.' But suddenly, as if moved by an irresistible impulse, the avalanche fell back, sweeping with it in its retreat the 10,000 horsemen of the Imperial Guard, who galloped towards Metz in disorder. What was a victory the day before had become a rout. On the following day, when our general was preparing for a fresh struggle, a messenger with a flag of truce arrived, asking for an armistice of twenty-four hours to bury the dead. ' In the name of His Majesty,' he said. The French commander bowed and replied: 'In twenty-four hours, when the Emperor has buried his thousands of corpses, we will expect him again.' But His Majesty has not been seen here since."

The captain made a sweeping gesture with his arms as if to embrace the whole scene of the struggle. Instinctively I looked into the distance for some point that might suggest a battle-field. The hills cut across the landscape, and through the defiles, all that can be seen beyond are other white hills, crowned by black pine- woods. In spite of all my efforts I can form no idea of a modern battle, fought with guns that have a range of six kilometres. I have to recall all the terrible details, to think of the thousands of German dead, to imagine the distant masses of the human avalanche, in order to grasp the grandeur of the struggle.

"The battle you have just described to us," said I to our cicerone, "must have been one of the most terrible in the present war."

An enigmatic and contemptuous smile rises to the officer's lips.

"The action I have been talking about," he said, "was merely an episode in the Battle of Nancy, and the Battle of Nancy was only an episode in the great Battle of the Marne."

One cannot but feel utterly disconcerted at the proportions of these military operations of the twentieth century. An extent of ground which the eye cannot even take in, is not the picture, but a little corner of the picture. And this little corner would have sufficed for all the campaigns described by Froissart, which have thrilled us throughout the ages.

"The Battle of Nancy," said our guide, turning to the left, "took place on a line of over fifty kilometres and lasted more than a fortnight. Ever since August 20, one of our divisions had been in the valley of the Moselle, ready to defend the road leading to the capital of Lorraine. At Morhange we suffered a cruel defeat, which enabled the Germans to take possession first of Nomeny, and then, in the early days of September, of Pont-à-Mousson. On September 4, when the enemy's forces began to descend the heights of Château-Salines to attack our centre, they succeeded after a fierce struggle in bombarding our positions at Sainte- Geneviève.

"On the 6th the Germans, finding the ground poorly defended, turned, confident of success, to Loisy, where they were well aware that we had only a single company. What is a company nowadays? Nothing at all. Nevertheless, the company at Loisy, by entrenching themselves in the cemetery, and taking advantage of the hollows in the ground, succeeded not only in making a good defence all the evening of the 6th, but forced those who were attacking them to abandon their frontal advance and make for the road to Sainte-Geneviève by a flanking movement. Do you know what troops were engaged against the company at Loisy? A whole regiment. This regiment was almost completely annihilated in the marshy ground, without achieving the slightest result. But the Germans don't spare their men. On the following day a formidable column rushed the heights of Cuittes, where they placed batteries which commanded our centre. Major M., who was in command at Sainte-Geneviève, saw his soldiers falling under a hail of shell. No matter. 'We won't give way an inch,' he cried. And the general had to send him a written order to induce him to retire towards the rearguard lines, here on the northern hills. It was then that the Emperor, seeing the way clear before his troops, gave the famous order of the day on the morning of the 7th, which ended thus: 'To-morrow, on to Nancy.' But to realize this dream it was necessary to dislodge our troops at Amance."

The captain, understanding that it was impossible for us to follow the movements of the army on the actual territory, unfolded his map, and pointed out the vast outlines of the battle. For three weeks several hundred thousands of men were manoeuvring in this space, which stretches from the gates of Saint-Nicolas to the woods of Lunéville. Following on the paper the red lines that pass by Dommartin, Laneu-velotte, Champenoux, Réméréville, Drouville, Sommerviller, and Héréménil, we grasped the immensity of the battle as a whole. Every position, with its height indicated by figures, is the key to a road; every road is the bulwark of a valley; every stream serves as a trench to defend a pass. For all its epic grandeur the conflict was made up of minute episodes. The company which by holding out for a whole day in a cemetery against several battalions enabled the reserves to come up in time, was a decisive and symbolic pawn on the general chess-board. But all this, which became clear upon a map, with the officer's commentary, was an impenetrable mystery when we attempted to picture it upon the actual landscape.

"It was down there the avalanche came," we heard.

But we could see only the closed horizon. And this was hardly surprising, when we consider that looking out over the plain itself, and knowing that it was occupied at that very moment by a large number of batteries and many regiments, we could distinguish nothing but the undulating landscape, silent and deserted. In this strange modern warfare, so different from that of old, what one sees least is war itself. The guns are buried. The men are buried. The words of command, passing over telephone wires also buried, call forth from the bowels of the earth torrents of fire which are like the eruption of a volcano. And the warriors who fight and die, unseeing and unseen, know nothing of their valour, their triumphs and their reverses, until a communiqué from the staff brings the final echoes of battle to them in their holes.

The learned officer who is our guide, talks with the enthusiasm of an expert of the methodical and occult character of the campaign.

"It is scientific war," he exclaims, and his short-sighted blue eyes sparkle behind his spectacles.

But far from sharing his joy, I feel sorrowful when I evoke, as I do on every contemporary battle-field I visit—great battle-fields, no doubt, and steeped, no doubt, in valiant blood—other fields less immense, in which History conjures up a vision of brilliant banners spread, and of the armies of the knights of old, who fell in the full light of day, and in the full flush of joy and pride.


Back to Index