'la Forêt de Bois-le-Pretre'
by Henry SHeahan
from his book 'A Volunteer Poilu' 1916

An American Ambulance Driver at the Front-Lines

from a French and German magazine - trenches in the Bois-le-Pretre


Beginning at the right bank of the Meuse, a vast plateau of bare, desolate moorland sweeps eastward to the Moselle, and descends to the river in a number of great, wooded ridges perpendicular to the northward-flowing stream. The town of Pont-à-Mousson lies an apron of meadowland spread between two of these ridges, the ridge of Puvenelle and the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. The latter is the highest of all the spurs of the valley. Rising from the river about half a mile to the north of the city, it ascends swiftly to the level of the plateau, and was seen from our headquarters as a long, wooded ridge blocking the sky-line to the northwest. The hamlet of Maidières, in which our headquarters were located, lies just at the foot of Puvenelle, at a point where the amphitheater of Pont-à-Mousson, crowding between the two ridges, becomes a steep-walled valley sharply tilted to the west.

The Bois-le-Prêtre dominated at once the landscape and our minds. Its existence was the one great fact in the lives of some fifty thousand Frenchmen, Germans, and a handful of exiled Americans; it had dominated and ended the lives of the dead; it would dominate the imagination of the future. Yet, looking across the brown walls and claret roofs of the hamlet of Maidières, there was nothing to be seen but a grassy slope, open fields, a reddish ribbon of road, a wreck of a villa burned by a fire shell, and a wood. The autumn had turned the leaves of the trees, seemingly without exception, to a leathery brown, and in almost all lights the trunks of the trees were a cold, purplish slate. Such was the forest which, battle-areas excepted, has cost more lives than any other point along the line. The wood had been contested trench by trench, literally foot by foot. It was at once the key to the Saint-Mihiel salient and the city of Metz.

The Saint-Mihiel salient--"the hernia," as the French call it--begins at the Bois-le-Prêtre. Pivoting on The Wood, the lines turn sharply inland, cross the desolate plateau of La Woevre, attain the Meuse at Saint-Mihiel, turn again, and ascend the river to the Verdunois. The salient, as dangerous for the Germans as it is troublesome for the French, represents the limit of a German offensive directed against Toul in October, 1914. That the French retreated was due to the fact that the plateau was insufficiently protected, many of the regiments having been rushed north to the great battle then raging on the Aisne.

Only one railroad center lies in the territory of the salient, Thiaucourt in Woevre. This pleasant little moorland town, locally famous for its wine, is connected with Metz by two single-track railroad lines, one coming via Conflans, and the other by Arnaville on the Moselle. At Vilcey-sur-Mad, these lines unite, and follow to Thiaucourt the only practicable railroad route, the valley of the Rupt (brook) de Mad.

Thus the domination of Thiaucourt, or the valley of the Rupt de Mad, by French artillery would break the railroad communications between the troops keeping the salient and their base of supplies, Metz. And the fate of Metz itself hangs on the control of the Bois-le-Prêtre.

Metz is the heart of the German organization on the western front: the railroad center, the supply station, the troop dépôt. A blow at Metz would affect the security of every German soldier between Alsace and the Belgian frontier. But if the French can drive the Germans out of the Bois-le-Prêtre and establish big howitzers on the crest the Germans are still holding, there will soon be no more Metz. The French guns will destroy the city as the German cannon destroyed Verdun.

When the Germans, therefore, retired to the trenches after the battles of September and October, 1914, they took to the ground on the heights of the Bois-le-Prêtre, a terrain far enough ahead of Thiaucourt and Metz to preserve these centers from the danger of being shelled. On the crest of the highest ridge along the valley, admirably ambushed in a thick forest, they waited for the coming of the French. And the French came.

They came, young and old, slum-dweller and country schoolmaster, rich young noble and Corsican peasant, to the storming of the wood, upheld by one vision, the unbroken, grassy slope that stretched from behind the German lines to the town of Thiaucourt. In the trenches behind the slaty trunks of the great ash trees, Bavarian peasants, Saxons, and round-headed Wurttem-burgers, the olive-green, jack- booted Boches, awaited their coming, determined to hold the wood, the salient, and the city.


French shelter


A year later the Bois-le-Prêtre (the Priest Wood), with its perfume of ecclesiastical names that reminds one of the odor of incense in an old church, had become the Bois de la Mort (the Wood of Death).

The house in which our bureau was located was once the summer residence of a rich ironmaster who had fled to Paris at the beginning of the war. If there is an architectural style of German origin known as the "Neo-Classic," which affects large, windowless spaces framed in pilasters of tile, and decorations and insets of omelet-yellow and bottle-green glazed brick, "Wisteria Villa" is of that school. It stood behind a high wall of iron spikes on the road leading from Maidières to the trenches, a high, Germano-Pompeian country house, topped by a roof rich in angles, absurd windows, and unexpected gables. There are huge, square, French-roofed houses in New England villages built by local richessîmes of Grant's time, and still called by neighbors "the Jinks place" or the "Levi Oates place"; Wisteria Villa had something of the same social relation to the commune of Maidières. Grotesque and ugly, it was not to be despised; it had character in its way.

Our social center was the dining-room of the villa. Exclusive of the kitchen range, it boasted the only stove in the house, a queerly shaped "Salamandre," a kind of Franklin stove with mica doors. The walls were papered an ugly chocolate brown with a good deal of red in it, and the borders, doors, and fireplace frame were stained a color trembling between mission green and oak brown. The room was rectangular and too high for its width. There were pictures. On each side of the fireplace, profiles toward the chimney, hung concave plaques of Dutch girls. To the left of the door was a yellowed etching of the tower of the château of Heidelberg, and to the right a very small oil painting, in an ornate gilt frame three inches deep, of a beach by moonlight. About two or three hundred books, bound in boards and red leather, stood behind the cracked glass of a bookcase in the corner; they were very "jeune fille," and only the romances of Georges Ohnet appeared to have been read. The thousand cupboards of the house were full of dusty knickknacks, old umbrellas, hats, account-books, and huge boxes holding the débris of sets of checkers, dominoes, and ivory chessmen. An enlarged photograph of the family hung on the walls of a bedroom; it had been taken at somebody's marriage, and showed the group standing on the front steps, the same steps that were later to be blown to pieces by a shell. One saw the bride, the groom, and about twenty relatives, including a boy in short trousers, a wide, white collar, and an old-fashioned, fluffy bow tie. Anxious to be included in the picture, the driver of the bridal barouche has craned his neck forward. On the evidence of the costumes, the picture had been taken about 1902.

Our bureau in the cellar of Wisteria Villa was connected directly with the trenches. When a man had been wounded, he was carried to the poste de secours in the rear lines, and it was our duty to go to this trench post and carry the patient to the hospital at the nearest rail- head. The bureau of the Section was in charge of two Frenchmen who shared the labor of attending to the telephone and keeping the books.

A hundred yards beyond Wisteria Villa, at a certain corner, the principal road to the trenches divided into three branches, and in order to interfere as much as possible with communications, the1 Germans daily shelled this strategic point. A comrade and I had the curiosity to keep an exact record of a week's shelling. It must be remembered that the corner was screened from the Germans, who fired casually in the hope of hitting something and annoying the French. The cannons shelling the corner were usually "seventy- sevens," the German quick-firing pieces that correspond to the French "seventy-fives."

Monday, ten shells at 6.30, two at 7.10, five at 11.28, twenty at intervals between 2.15 and 2.45, a swift rafale of some sixteen at 4.12, another rafale of twenty at 8, and occasional shells between 9 and midnight.

Tuesday, two big shells at mid-day.

Wednesday, rafales at 9.14, 11, 2.18, 4.30, and 6.20.

Thursday--no shells.

Friday, twelve at intervals between 10.16 and 12.20. Solitary big shell at 1.05. Another big shell at 3. Some fifteen stray shells between 5 and midnight.

Saturday--no shells.

Sunday--About five shells an hour between 4 in the afternoon and midnight.

I give the number of shells falling at this corner as a concrete instance of what was happening at a dozen other points along the road. The fire of the German batteries was as capricious as the play of a search-light; one week, the corner and three or four other points would catch it, the next week the corner and another set of localities. And there were periods, sometimes ten days to two weeks long, when hardly a shell was fired at any road. Then, after a certain sense of security had begun to take form, a rafale would come screaming over, blow a horse and wagon to pieces, and leave one or two blue figures huddled in the mud. But the French replied to each shell and every rafale, in addition to firing at random all the day and a good deal of the night. There was hardly a night that Wisteria Villa did not rock to the sound of French guns fired at 2 and 3 in the morning. But the average day at Pont-à-Mousson was a day of random silences. The war had all the capricious-ness of the sea--of uncertain weather. There were hours of calm in the day, during which the desolate silence of the front flooded swiftly over the landscape; there were interruptions of great violence, sometimes desultory, sometimes beginning, in obedience to a human will, at a certain hour. The outbreak would commence with the orderliness of a clock striking, and continue the greater part of the day, rocking the deserted town with its clamor. Hearing it, the soldiers en repos would say, talking of The Wood, "It sings (ça chante)," or, "It knocks (ça tape) up there to- day." The smoke of the bursting shells hung over The Wood in a darkish, gray-blue fog. But since The Wood had a personality for us, many would say simply, "Listen to The Wood."

The shell expresses one idea--energy. The cylinder of iron, piercing the air at a terrific speed, sings a song of swift, appalling energy, of which the final explosion is the only fitting culmination. One gets, too, an idea of an unbending volition in the thing. After a certain time at the front the ear learns to distinguish the sound of a big shell from a small shell, and to know roughly whether or not one is in the danger zone. It was a grim jest with us that it took ten days to qualify as a shell expert, and at the end of two weeks all those who qualified attended the funeral of those who had failed. Life at The Wood had an interesting uncertainty.

A quarter of a mile beyond the corner, on the slope of Puvenelle opposite The Wood, stood Montauville, the last habitable village of the region. To the south of it rose the wooded slopes of Puvenelle; to the north, seen across a marshy meadow, were the slope and the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. The dirty, mud-spattered village was caught between the leathery sweeps of two wooded ridges. Three winding roads, tramped into a pie of mire, crossed the grassy slope of The Wood, and disappeared into the trees at the top. Though less than a mile from the first German line, the village, because of its protection from shells by a spur of the Bois-le-Prêtre, was in remarkably good condition; the only building to show conspicuous damage being the church, whose steeple had been twice struck. It was curious to see pigeons flying in and out of the belfry through the shell rents in the roof. Here and there, among the uncultivated fields of those who had fled, were the green fields of some one who had stayed. A woman of seventy still kept open her grocery shop; it was extraordinarily dirty, full of buzzing flies, and smelled of spilled wine.

"Why did you stay?" I asked her.

"Because I did not want to leave the village. Of course my daughter wanted me to come to Dijon. Imagine me in Dijon, I, who have been to Nancy only once! A fine figure I should make in Dijon in my sabots!"

"And you are not afraid of the shells?"

"Oh, I should be afraid of them if I ever went out in the street. But I never leave my shop."

And so she stayed, selling the three staples of the French front, Camembert cheese, Norwegian sardines, and cakes of chocolate. But Montauville was far from safe. It was there that I first saw a man killed. I had been talking to a sentry, a small young fellow of twenty- one or two, with yellow hair and gray-blue eyes full of weariness. He complained of a touch of jaundice, and wished heartily that the whole affaire--meaning the war in general--was finished. He was very anxious to know if the Americans thought the Boches were going to win. Some vague idea of winning the war just to get even with the Boches seemed to be in his mind. I assured him that American opinion was optimistic in regard to the chances of the Allies, and strolled away. Hardly had I gone ten feet, when a "seventy-seven" shell, arriving without warning, went Zip-bang, and, turning to crouch to the wall, I saw the sentry crumple up in the mud. It was as if he were a rubber effigy of a man blown up with air, and some one had suddenly ripped the envelope. His rifle fell from him, and he, bending from the waist, leaned face down into the mud. I was the first to get to him. The young, discontented face was full of the gray street mud, there was mud in the hollows of the eyes, in the mouth, in the fluffy mustache. A chunk of the shell had ripped open the left breast to the heart. Down his sleeve, as down a pipe, flowed a hasty drop, drop, drop of blood that mixed with the mire.


a French collection of unexploded German shells


Several times a day, at stated hours, the numbers of German missiles that had fallen into the trenches of the Bois-le-Prêtre, together with French answers to them, would be telephoned to headquarters. The soldier in charge of the telephone was an instructor in Latin in a French provincial university, a tall, stoop- shouldered man, with an indefinite, benevolent smile curiously framed on thin lips. Probably very much of a scholar by training and feeling, he had accepted his military destiny, and was as much a poilu as anybody. During his leisure hours he was busy writing a "Comparison of the Campaign on the Marne and the Aisne with Caesar's battles against the Belgian Confederacy." He had a paper edition of the Gallic Wars which he carried round with him. One day he explained his thesis to me. He drew a plan with a green pencil on a piece of paper.

"See, mon ami," he exclaimed, "here is the Aisne, Caesar's Axona; here is Berry-au-Bac; here was Caesar, here were the invaders, here was General French, here Foch, here Von Kluck. Curious, isn't it--two thousand years afterward?" His eyes for an instant filled with dreamy perplexity. A little while later I would hear him mechanically telephoning. "Poste A--five 'seventy-seven' shells, six mines, twelve trench shells; answer--ten 'seventy-five' shells, eight mines, eighteen trench shells; Poste B--two 'seventy-seven' shells, one mine, six grenades; answer--fifteen 'seventy-five' shells; Poste C--one 'two hundred and ten' shell, fifty mines; answer--sixty mines; Poste D--"

At Dieulouard I had entered the shell zone; at Pont-à-Mousson, I crossed the borders of the zone of quiet; at Montauville began the last zone--the zone of invisibility and violence. Civilian life ended at the western end of the village street with the abruptness of a man brought face to face with a high wall. Beyond the village a road was seen climbing the grassy slope of Puvenelle, to disappear as it neared the summit of the ridge in a brown wood. It was just an ordinary hill road of Lorraine, but the fact that it was the direct road to the trenches invested this climbing, winding, silent length with extraordinary character. The gate of the zone of violence, every foot of it bore some scar of the war, now trivial, now gigantic--always awesome in the power and volition it revealed. One passed from the sight of a brown puddle, scooped in the surface of the street by an exploding shell, to a view of a magnificent ash tree splintered by some projectile. It is a very rare thing to see a sinister landscape, but this whole road was sinister. I used to discuss this sinister quality with a distinguished French artist who as a poilu was the infirmier, or medical service man, attached to a squad of engineers working in a quarry frequently shelled. In this frightful place we discussed la qualité du sinistre dans l'art (the sinister in art) as calmly as if we were two Parisian critics sitting on the benches of the Luxembourg Gardens. As the road advanced into the wood, there was hardly a wayside tree that had not been struck by a shell. Branches hung dead from trees, twigs had been lopped off by stray fragments, great trunks were split apart as if by lightning. "Nature as Nature is never sinister," said the artist; "it is when there is a disturbance of the relations between Nature and human life that you have the sinister. Have you ever seen the villages beyond Ravenna overwhelmed by the bogs? There you see the sinister. Here Man is making Nature unlivable for Man." He stroked his fine silky beard meditatively--"This will all end when the peasants plant again." As we talked, a shell, intended for the batteries behind, burst high above us.

Skirting the ravine, now wooded, between Puvenelle and the Bois-le- Prêtre, the road continued westward till it emerged upon the high plateau of La Woevre; the last kilomètre being in full view of the Germans entrenched on the ridge across the rapidly narrowing, rising ravine. Along this visible space the trees and bushes by the roadside were matted by shell fire into an inextricable confusion of destruction, and through the wisps and splinters of this ruin was seen the ridge of the Bois-le-Prêtre rapidly attaining the level of the moor. At length the forest of Puvenelle, the ravine, and the Bois-le-Prêtre ended together in a rolling sweep of furzy fields cut off to the west and north by a vast billow of the moor which, like the rim of a saucer, closed the wide horizon. Continuing straight ahead, the Puvenelle road mounted this rise, dipped and disappeared. Halfway between the edge of the forest of Puvenelle and this crest stood an abandoned inn, a commonplace building made of buff-brown moorland stone trimmed with red brick. Close by this inn, at right angles to the Puvenelle road, another road turned to the north and likewise disappeared over the lift in the moor. At the corner stood a government signpost of iron slightly bent back, bearing in gray-white letters on its clay-blue plaque the legend-- Thiaucourt, 12 kilomètres Metz, 25 kilomètres.

There was not a soul anywhere in sight; I was surrounded with evidences of terrific violence--the shattered trees, the shell holes in the road, the brown-lipped craters in the earth of the fields, the battered inn ; but there was not a sign of the creators of this devastation. A northwest wind blew in great salvos across the mournful, lonely plateau, rippling the furze, and brought to my ears the pounding of shells from behind the rise. When I got to this rim a soldier, a big, blond fellow of the true Gaulois type with drooping yellow mustaches, climbed slowly out of a hole in the ground. The effect was startling. I had arrived at the line where the earth of France completely swallows up the army. This disappearance of life in a decor of intense action is one of the most striking things of the war. All about in the surface of the earth were little, square, sooty holes that served as chimneys, and here and there rectangular, grave-like openings in the soil showing three or four big steps descending to a subterranean hut. Fifty feet away not a sign of human life could be distinguished. Six feet under the ground, framed in the doorway of a hut, a young, black-haired fellow in a dark-brown jersey stood smiling pleasantly up at us; it was he who was to be my guide to the various postes and trenches that I had need to know. He came up to greet me.

"Better bring him down here," growled a voice from somewhere in the earth. "There have been bullets crossing the road all afternoon."

"I am going to show him the Quart-en-Réserve first."

The Quart-en-Réserve (Reserved Quarter) was the section of the Bois-le-Prêtre which, because of its situation on the crest of the great ridge, had been the most fiercely contested. We crept up on the edge of the ridge and looked over. An open, level field some three hundred yards wide swept from the Thiaucourt road to the edges of the Bois- le-Prêtre; across this field ran in the most confused manner a strange pattern of brown lines that disappeared among the stumps and poles of the haggard wood to the east. To the northwest of this plateau, on the road ahead of us, stood a ruined village caught in the torment of the lines. Here and there, in some twenty or thirty places scattered over the scarred plateau, the smoke of trench shells rose in little curling puffs of gray-black that quickly dissolved in the wind.

"The Quart is never quiet," said my guide. "It is now half ours, half theirs."

Close to the ground, a blot of light flashed swifter than a stroke of lightning, and a heavier, thicker smoke rolled away.

"That is one of ours. We are answering their trench shells with an occasional 'one hundred and twenty."

"How on earth is it that everybody is not killed?"

"Because the regiment has occupied the Quart so long that we know every foot, every turn, every shelter of it. When we see a trench shell coming, we know just where to go. It is only the newcomers who get killed. Two months past, when a new regiment occupied the Quart during our absence en repos, it lost twenty-five men in one day."



The first trench that I entered was a simple trench about seven feet deep, with no trimmings whatsoever, just such a trench as might have been dug for the accommodation of a large water conduit. We walked on a narrow board walk very slippery with cheesy, red-brown mire. From time to time the hammer crash of a shell sounded uncomfortably near, and bits of dirt and pebbles, dislodged by the concussion, fell from the wall of the passage. The only vista was the curving wall of the long communication trench and the soft sky of Lorraine, lit with the pleasant sunlight of middle afternoon, and islanded with great golden-white cloud masses. My guide and I might have been the last persons left in a world of strange and terrible noises. The boyau (communication trench) began to turn and wind about in the most perplexing manner, and we entered a veritable labyrinth. This extraordinary, baffling complexity is due primarily to the fact that the trenches advance and retreat, rise and fall, in order to take advantage of the opportunities for defense afforded by every change in the topography of the region. I remember one area along the front consisting of two round, grassy hills divided by a small, grassy valley whose floor rose gently to a low ridge connecting the two heights. In this terrain the defensive line began on the first hill as a semicircle edging the grassy slopes presented to the enemy, then retreated, sinking some forty feet, to take advantage of the connecting link of upland at the head of the ravine, and took semicircular form again on the flat, broad summit of the second hill. In the meadows at the base of these hills a brook flowing from the ravine had created a great swamp, somewhat in the shape of a wedge pointing outward from the mouth of the valley. The lines of the enemy, edging this tract of mire, were consequently in the shape of an open V. Thus the military situation at this particular point may be pictorially represented by a salient semicircle, a dash, and another salient semicircle faced by a wide, open V. Imagine such a situation complicated by offensive and counter-offensive, during which the French have seized part of the hills and the German part of the plain, till the whole region is a madman's maze of barbed wire, earthy lines, trenches,--some of them untenable by either side and still full of the dead who fell in the last combat,--shell holes, and fortified craters. Such was something of the situation in that wind-swept plain at the edge of the Bois-le-Prêtre. I leave for other chapters the account of an average day in the trenches and the story of the great German attack, preferring to tell here of the general impressions made by the appearance of the trenches themselves. Two pictures stand out, particularly, the dead on the barbed wire, and the village called "Fey au Rats" at night.

"The next line is the first line. Speak in whispers now, for if the Boches hear us we shall get a shower of hand-grenades."

I turned into a deep, wide trench whose floor had been trodden into a slop of cheesy, brown mire which clung to the big hobnailed boots of the soldiers. Every foot or so along the parapet there was a rifle slit, made by the insertion of a wedge-shaped wooden box into the wall of brownish sandbags, and the sentries stood about six feet apart. The trench had the hushed quiet of a sickroom.

"Do you want to see the Boches? Here; come, put your eye to this rifle slit."

A horizontal tangle of barbed wire lay before me, the shapeless gully of an empty trench, and, thirty-five feet away, another blue-gray tangle of barbed wire and a low ripple of the brownish earth. As I looked, one of the random silences of the front stole swiftly into the air. French trench and German trench were perfectly silent; you could have heard the ticking of a watch.

"You never see them?"

"Only when we attack them or they attack us."

An old poilu, with a friendly smile revealing a jagged reef of yellow teeth, whispered to me amiably:--

"See them? Good Lord, it's bad enough to smell them. You ought to thank the good God, young man, that the wind is carrying it over our heads."

"Any wounded to-day?"

"Yes; a corporal had his leg ripped up about half an hour ago."

At a point a mile or so farther down the moor I looked again out of a rifle box. No Man's Land had widened to some three hundred feet of waving furze, over whose surface gusts of wind passed as over the surface of the sea. About fifty feet from the German trenches was a swathe of barbed wire supported on a row of five stout, wooden posts. So thickly was the wire strung that the eye failed to distinguish the individual filaments and saw only the rows of brown-black posts filled with a steely purple mist. Upon this mist hung masses of weather-beaten blue rags whose edges waved in the wind.

"Des camarades" (comrades), said my guide very quietly.

A month later I saw the ruined village of Fey-en-Haye by the light of the full golden shield of the Hunters' Moon. The village had been taken from the Germans in the spring, and was now in the French lines, which crossed the village street and continued right on through the houses. "The first village on the road to Metz" had tumbled, in piles and mounds of rubbish, out on a street grown high with grass. Moonlight poured into the roofless cottages, escaping by shattered walls and jagged rents, and the mounds of débris took on fantastic outlines and cast strange shadows. In the middle of the village street stood two wooden crosses marking the graves of soldiers. It was the Biblical "Abomination of Desolation."

Looking at Fey from the end of the village street, I slowly realized that it was not without inhabitants. Wandering through the grass, scurrying over the rubbish heaps, running in and out of the crumbling thresholds were thousands and thousands of rats.

Across the bright sky came a whirring hum, the sound of the motors of aeroplanes on the way to bombard the railroad station at Metz. I looked up, but there was nothing to be seen. The humming died away. The bent signpost at the corner of the deserted moorland road, with its arrow and its directions, somehow seemed a strange, shadowy symbol of the impossibility of the attainment of many human aspirations.


a French command-post in the forest


The Trenches In The "Wood Of Death"

So great has been the interest in the purely military side of the struggle that one is apt to forget that the war is worth study as the supreme occupation of many great nations, whose every energy, physical, moral, and economic, has been put to its service, and relentlessly tested in its fiery furnace. A future historian may find the war more interesting, when considered as the supreme achievement of the industrial civilization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, than as a mere vortex in the age-old ocean of European political strife. There is something awe-inspiring in the spectacle of all the continuous and multitudinous activity of a great nation feeding, by a thousand channels, a thousand rills, to the embattled furrows of the zone of violence.

By a strange decree of fate, a new warfare has come into being, admirably adapted to the use and the testing of all our faculties, organizations, and inventions--trench warfare. The principal element of this modern warfare is lack of mobility.

The lines advance, the lines retreat, but never once, since the establishment of the present trench swathe, have the lines of either combatant been pushed clear out of the normal zone of hostilities. The fierce, invisible combats are limited to the first-line positions, averaging a mile each way behind No Man's Land. This stationary character has made the war a daily battle; it has robbed war of all its ancient panoply, its cavalry, its uniforms brilliant as the sun, and has turned it into the national business. I dislike to use the word "business," with its usual atmosphere of orderly bargaining; I intend rather to call up an idea more familiar to American minds--the idea of a great intricate organization with a corporate volition. The war of to- day is a business, the people are the stockholders, and the object of the organization is the wisest application of violence to the enemy.

To this end, in numberless secteurs along the front, special narrow- gauge railroad lines have been built directly from the railroad station at the edge of the shell zone to the artillery positions. To this end the trenches have been gathered into a special telephone system so that General Joffre at Chantilly can talk to any officers or soldiers anywhere along the great swathe. The food, supplies, clothing, and ammunition are delivered every day at the gate of the swathe, and calmly redistributed to the trenches by a sort of military express system.

Only one thing ever disturbs the vast, orderly system. The bony fingers of Death will persist in getting into the cogs of the machine.

The front is divided, according to military exigencies, into a number of roughly equal lengths called secteurs. Each secteur is an administrative unit with its own government and its own system adapted to the local situation. The heart of this unit is the railroad station at which the supplies arrive for the shell zone; in a normal secteur, one military train arrives every day bringing the needed supplies, and one hospital train departs, carrying the sick and wounded to the hospitals. The station at the front is always a scene of considerable activity, especially when the train arrives; there are pictures of old poilus in red trousers pitching out yellow hay for the horses, commissary officers getting their rations, and artilleurs stacking shells.


a French heavy artillery position


The train not being able to continue into the shell zone, the supplies are carried to the distributing station at the trenches in a convoy of wagons, called the ravitaillement. Every single night, somewhere along the road, each side tries to smash up the other's ravitaillement. To avoid this, the ravitaillement wagons start at different hours after dark, now at dusk, now at midnight. Sometimes, close by the trenches on a clear, still night, the plashing and creaking of the enemy's wagons can be heard through the massacred trees. I remember being shelled along one bleak stretch of moorland road just after a drenching December rain. The trench lights rising over The Wood, three miles away, made the wet road glow with a tarnished glimmer, and burnished the muddy pools into mirrors of pale light. The ravitaillement creaked along in the darkness. Suddenly a shell fell about a hundred yards away, and the wagons brought up jerkily, the harnesses rattling. For ten minutes the Germans shelled the length of road just ahead of us, but no shell came closer to us than the first one. About thirty "seventy-seven" shells burst, some on the road, some on the edges of the fields; we saw them as flashes of reddish-violet light close to the ground. In the middle of the mêlée a trench light rose, showing the line of halted gray wagons, the motionless horses, and the helmeted drivers. The whole affair passed in silence. When it was judged that the last shell had fallen, whips cracked like pistol shots, and the line lumbered on again.

The food came to us fresh every day in a freight car fitted up like a butcher's shop, in charge of a poilu who was a butcher in civilian life. "So many men--so many grammes," and he would cut you off a slice. There was a daily potato ration, and a daily extra, this last from a list ten articles long which began again every ten days, and included beans, macaroni, lentils, rice, and cheese. The French army is very well and plenteously fed. Coffee, sugar, wine, and even tea are ungrudgingly furnished. These foods are taken directly to the rear of the trenches where the regimental cooks have their traveling kitchens. Once the food is prepared, the cooks--the beloved cuistots-- take it to the trenches in great, steaming kettles and distribute it to the men individually. As for clothing, every regiment has a regimental tailor shop and supply of uniforms in the village where they go to repos. I have often seen the soldier tailor of one of the regiments, a little Alsatian Jew, sewing up the shell rents in a comrade's greatcoat. He had his shop in a pleasant kitchen, and used to sit beside the fire sewing as calmly as an old woman.

The sanitary arrangements of the trenches are the usual army latrines, and very severe punishments are inflicted for any fouling.

If a man is wounded, the medical service man of his squad {infirmier), or one of the stretcher-bearers {brancardiers), takes him as quickly as possible to the regimental medical post in the rear lines. If the trench is getting heavily shelled, and the wound is slight, the attendant takes the man to a shelter and applies first aid until a time comes when he and his patient can proceed to the rear with reasonable safety. At this rear post the regimental surgeon cleans the wound, stops the bleeding, and sends for the ambulance, which, at the Bois-le-Prêtre, came right into the heart of the trenches by sunken roads that were in reality broad trenches. The man is then taken to the hospital that his condition requires, the slightly wounded to one hospital, and those requiring an operation to another. The French surgical hospitals all along the front are marvels of cleanliness and order. The heart of each hospital is the power plant, which sterilizes the water, runs the electric lights, and works the X-ray generator. Mounted on an automobile body, it is always ready to decamp in case the locality gets too dangerous. You find these great, lumbering affairs, half steamroller, half donkey-engine, in the courtyards of old castles, schools, and great private houses close by the front.


German trenches


The first-line trenches, in a position at all contested, are very apt still to preserve the hurried arrangement of their first plan, which is sometimes hardly any plan at all. It must be admitted that the Germans have the advantage in the great majority of places, for theirs was the first choice, and they entrenched themselves, as far as possible, along the crests of the eastern hills of France, in a line long prepared for just such an exigency. It has been the frightfully difficult task of the Allies, these two years, not only to hold the positions at the foot of these hills, in which they were at a tactical disadvantage, all their movements being visible to the Boches on the crests above them, but also to attack an enemy entrenched in a strong position of his own choosing. To-day at one point along the line, the French and Germans may share the dominating crest of a position, at another point, they may be equally matched, and at another, such as Les Eparges, the French, after fearful losses, have carried the coveted eminence. One phase of the business of violence is the work of the military undertaker attached to each secteur, who writes down in his little red book the names of the day's dead, and arranges for the wooden cross at the head of each fresh grave. Every day along the front is a battle in which thousands of men die.

The eastern hills of France, those pleasant rolling heights above Rheims, Verdun, and old, provincial Pont-à-Mousson, have been literally gorged with blood. It being out of the question to strengthen or rectify very much the front-line trenches close to the enemy, the effort has taken place in the rear lines. Wherever there is a certain security, the rear lines of all the important strategic points have been converted into veritable subterranean fortresses. The floor plan of these trenches is an adaptation of the military theory of fortification-- with its angles, salients, and bastions--to the topography of the region. The gigantic concrete walls of the bomb-proof shelters, the little forts to shelter the machine guns, and the concrete passages in the rear-line trenches will appear as heavy and massive to future generations as Roman masonry appears to us. There are, of course, many unimportant little links of the trench system, upon whose holding nothing depends and for whose domination neither side cares to spend the life of a single soldier, that have only an apology for a second position. The war needs the money for the preparation of important places. At vital points there may be the tremendously powerful second line, a third line, and even a fourth line. The region between Verdun and the lines, for instance, is the most fearful snarl of barbed wire, pits, and buried explosives that could be imagined. The distance would have to be contested inch by inch.

The trench theory is built about the soldier. It must preserve him as far as possible from artillery and from an infantry attack. The defenses begin with barbed wire; then come the rifles and the machine guns; and behind them the light artillery, the "seventy-fives," and the heavy artillery, the "one hundred and twenties," "two hundred and twenties," and, now, an immense howitzer whose real caliber has been carefully concealed. To take a trench position means the crossing of the entanglements of No Man's Land under fire from artillery, rifles, and machine guns, an almost impossible proceeding. An advance is possible only after the opposing trenches have been made untenable by the concentration of artillery fire. The great offensives begin by blowing the first lines absolutely to pieces; this accomplished, the attacking infantry advances to the vacated trenches under the rifle fire of those few whom the terrible deluge of shells has not killed or crazed, works toward the strong second position under a concentrated artillery fire of the retreating enemy as terrible as its own, fights its way heroically into the second position, and stops there. The great line has been bent, has been dented, but never broken. An offensive must cover at least twenty miles of front, for if the break is too narrow the attacking troops will be massacred by the enemy artillery at both ends of the broken first lines. If the front lines are one mile deep, the artillery must put twenty-five square miles of trenches hors de combat, a task that takes millions of shells. By the time that the first line has been destroyed and the troops have reached the second line, the shells and the men are pretty well used up. A great successful offensive on the western front is theoretically possible, given millions of men, but practically impossible. Outside of important local gains, the great western offensives have been failures. Champagne was a failure, the Calais drive was a failure, Verdun was a failure, and the drive on the Somme has only bent the lines. The Germans may shorten their lines because of a lack of men, but I firmly believe that neither their line nor the Allies' line will ever be broken. What will be the end if the Allies cannot wrest from Germany, Belgium and that part of northern France she is holding for ransom-- to obtain good terms at the peace congress? Is Germany slowly, very slowly going under, or are we going to witness complete European exhaustion? Whatever happens, poor, mourning, desolated France will hold to the end.

In localities where no great offensive is contemplated, and the business of violence has become a routine, the object of the commander is to keep the enemy on the qui-vive, demoralize him by killing and wounding his soldiers, and prevent him from strengthening his first lines. Relations take on the character of an exchange; one day the French throw a thousand mines (high-explosive trench shells) into the German lines, and the next day the Germans throw a thousand back. The French smash up a village where German troops are en repos; while it is being done, the Germans begin to blow a French village to pieces. In the trenches the individual soldiers throw grenades at each other, and wish that the whole tiresome business was done with. They have two weeks in the trenches and two weeks out of them in a cantonment behind the lines. The period in the trenches is divided between the first lines and the rear lines of the first position. Often on my way to the trenches at night I would pass a regiment coming to repos. Silent, vaguely seen, in broken step the regiment passed. Sometimes a shell would come whistling in.

There was one part of the Bois-le-Prêtre region upon which nothing depended, and the war had there settled into the casual exchange of powder and old iron that obtains upon two thirds of the front. At the entrance to this position, in the shadow of a beautiful clump of ash trees, stood the rustic shelters of the regimental cooks. From behind the wall of trees came a terrifying crash. The war-gray, iron field kitchen, which the army slang calls a contre-torpilleur (torpedo-boat destroyer), stood in a little clearing of the wood; there was nothing beautiful to the machine, which was simply an iron box, two feet high and four feet square, mounted on big wheels, and fitted with a high oval chimney. A halo of kitcheny smell floated about it, and the open door of its fire-box, in which brands were burning furiously, and a jet of vapor from somewhere, gave it quite the appearance of an odd steam engine. Beside the contre-torpilleur stood the two cooks, both unusually small in stature. One was about thirty-two or three years old, chunky, and gifted with short, strong, hairy arms; the other was much slighter, younger, and so juvenile of face that his downy mustache was almost invisible. I knew these men very well; one, the older, was a farmhand in a village of Touraine, and the other, an errand boy in a bookbinding works at Saint-Denis. The war had turned them into regimental cooks, though it was the older man who did most of the cooking, while the boy occupied himself with gathering wood and distributing the food. The latter once confessed to me that when he heard that Americans were coming to the Bois-le-Prêtre, he had expected to see Indians, and that he and his comrades had joked, half in jest, half in earnest, about the Boches going to lose their scalps. The other was famous for an episode of the July attacks: cornered in the trench by a Boche, he had emptied his kettle of hot soup over the man's head and finished him off with a knife. They waved friendlily at me. The farmhand, in particular, was one of the pleasantest fellows who ever breathed ; and still fond, like a true good man of Touraine, of a Rabelaisian jest.



The road now entered the wood, and continued straight ahead down a pleasant vista of young ash trees. Suddenly a trench, bearing its name in little black, dauby letters on a piece of yellow board the size of a shingle, began by the side of the forest road, and I went down into it as I might have gone down cellar. The Boyau Poincaré--such was its title--began to curve and twist in the manner of trenches, and I came upon a corner in the first line known as "Three Dead Men," because after the capture of the wood, three dead Germans were found there in mysterious, lifelike attitudes. The names of trenches on the French front often reflect that deep, native instinct to poetry possessed by simple peoples--the instinct that created the English ballads and the exquisite mediaeval French legends of the saints. Other trench names were symbolic, or patriotic, or political; we had the "Trench of the Great Revenge," the "Trench of France," the "Trench of Aristide" (meaning Briand), and the "Boulevard Joffre."

Beyond "Les Trois Morts," began the real lines of the position, and as I wound my way through them to the first lines, the pleasant forest of autumnal branches thinned to a wood of trees bare as telegraph poles. It had taken me half an hour to get from the cook's shelters to the first lines, and during that time I had not heard one single explosion. In the first trench the men stood casually by their posts at the parapet, their bluish coats in an interesting contrast to the brown wall of the trench. Behind the sentries, who peered through the rifle slits every once in a while, flowed the usual populace of the first-line trench, passing as casually as if they were on a Parisian sidewalk, officers as miry as their men, poilus of the Engineer Corps with an eye to the state of the rifle boxes, and an old, unshaven soldier in light-brown corduroy trousers and blue jacket, who volunteered the information that the Boches had thrown a grenade at him as he turned the corner "down there"--"It didn't go off." So calm an atmosphere pervaded the cold, sunny, autumnal afternoon that the idea "the trenches" took on the proportions of a gigantic hoax; we might have been masqueraders in the trenches after the war was over. And the Germans were only seventy-five feet away, across those bare poles, stumps, and matted dead brown leaves !


The atmosphere of the trench changed in a second. Every head in sight looked up searchingly at the sky. Just over the trees, distinctly seen, was a little, black, cylindrical package somersaulting through the air. In another second everybody had calculated the spot in which it was about to land, and those whom it threatened had swiftly found shelter, either by continuing down the trench to a sharp turn, running into the door of an abri (shelter), or simply snuggling into a hole dug in the side of the trench. There was a moment of full, complete silence between the time when everybody had taken refuge and the explosion of the trench shell. The missile burst with that loud hammer pound made by a thick-walled iron shell, and lay smoking in the withered leaves.

"It begins--it begins," said an old poilu, tossing his head. " Now we shall have those pellets all afternoon."

An instant after the burst the trench relaxed; some of the sentries looked back to see where the shell had fallen, others paid no attention to it whatsoever. Once again the quiet was disturbed by a muffled boom somewhere ahead of us, and everybody calculated and took refuge exactly as before. The shells began to come, one on the heels of the other with alarming frequency; hardly had one burst when another was discovered in the air. The poilus, who had taken the first shells as a matter of course, good-naturedly even, began to get as cross as peevish schoolboys. It was decidedly too much of a good thing. Finally the order was given for every one except the sentinels, who were standing under the occasional shelters of beams and earth bridged across the trench, to retire to the abris. I saw one of the exposed sentinels as I withdrew, a big, heavily built, young fellow with a face as placid as that of a farm animal; his rifle leaned against the earth of the trench, and the shadow of the shelter fell on his expressionless features. The next sentinel was a man in the late thirties, a tall, nervous soldier with a fierce, aggressive face.

The abri to which we retired was about twenty-five feet long and eight feet wide, and had a door at either end. The hut had been dug right in the crude, calcareous rock of Lorraine, and the beams of the roof were deeply set into these natural walls. Along the front wall ran a corridor about a foot wide, and between this corridor and the rear wall was a raised platform about seven feet wide piled with hay. Sprawled in this hay, in various attitudes, were about fifteen men, the squad that had just completed its sentry service. Two candles hung from the massive roof and flickered in the draughts between the two doors, revealing, in rare periods of radiance, a shelf along the wall over the sleepers' heads piled with canteens, knapsacks, and helmets. In the middle of the rock wall by the corridor a semicircular funnel had been carved out to serve as a fireplace, and at its base a flameless fire of beautiful, crumbling red brands was glowing. This hearth cut in the living rock was very wonderful and beautiful. Suddenly a trench shell landed right on the roof of the abri, shaking little fragments of stone down into the fire on the hearth. The soldiers, who sat hunched up on the edge of the platform, their feet in the corridor, gave vent to a burst of anger that had its source in exasperation.

"This is going too far."--"Why don't they answer?"--"Are those dirty cows (the classic sales vaches) going to keep this up all afternoon?"

"Really, now, this is getting to be a real nuisance." Suddenly two forms loomed large in the left doorway, and the stolid sentry of whom I have spoken limped in on the arm of an infirmier. Voices murmured in the obscurity, "Who is wounded?"--"Somebody wounded?" And dreamy-eyed ones sat up in the straw. The stolid one--he could not have been much over twenty-one or two--sat down on the edge of the straw near the fireplace, his face showing no emotion, only a pallor. He had a painful but not serious wound; a small fragment of iron, from a shell that had fallen directly into the trench, had lodged in the bones of his foot. He took off his big, ugly shoe and rested the blood-stained sock on the straw. Voices like echoes traveled the length of the shelter--"Is it thou, Jarnac?"--"Art thou wounded, Jarnac?" "Yes," answered the big fellow in a bass whisper. He was a peasant of the Woevre, one of a stolid, laborious race.

"The lieutenant has gone to the telephone shelter to ring up the batteries," said the infirmier. "Good," said a vibrant, masculine voice somewhere in the straw.

A shell coming toward you from the enemy makes a good deal of noise, but it is not to be compared to the noise made by one's own shells rushing on a slant just over one's head to break in the enemy's trenches seventy-five feet away. A swift rafale of some fifty "seventy- five" shells passed whistling like the great wind of the Apocalypse, which is to blow when the firmament collapses. Looking through the rifle slit, after the rafale was over, I could see puffs of smoke apparently rising out of the carpet of dead leaves. The nervous man, the other sentry, held up his finger for us not to make the slightest noise and whispered,--

"I heard somebody yell."


"Over there by that stump."

We strained our ears to catch a sound, but heard nothing.

"I heard the yell plainly," replied the sentry.

The news seemed to give some satisfaction. At any rate, the Germans stopped their trench shells. The quiet hush of late afternoon was at hand. Soon the cook came down the trench with kettles of hot soup.

Five months have passed since I last saw the inhabitants of this abri, the tenants of the "Ritz-Marmite." How many are still alive? What has happened to this fine, brave crowd of Frenchmen, gentlemen all, bons camarades ? I have seen them on guard in a heavy winter snowstorm, when the enemy was throwing grenades which, exploding, blew purplish-black smudges on the snow; I have seen them so bemired in mud and slop that they looked like effigies of brownish earth; I have watched them wading through communication trenches that were veritable canals. And this is the third year of the war.

The most interesting of the lot mentally was a young Socialist named Hippolyte. He was a sous-lieutenant of the Engineers, and had quarters of his own in the rear of the trenches, where one was always sure to find books on social questions lying round in the hay. When the war began he was just finishing his law course at the University of Montpellier. A true son of the South, he was dark, short, but well proportioned, with small hands and feet. The distinguishing features of his countenance were his eyes and mouth--the eyes, eloquent, alert, almost Italian; the mouth, full, firm, and dogmatic. The great orators of the Midi must have resembled him in their youth. He was a Socialist and a pacifist à outrance, continuing his dream of universal fraternity in the midst of war. His work lay in building a tunnel under the Germans, by which he hoped to blow part of the German trenches, Teutons and all, sky-high.

The tunneï (sape) began in the third line, at a door hi the wall of the trench strongly framed in wooden beams the size of railroad ties. At occasional intervals along the passage the roof was reinforced by a frame of these beams, so that the sape had the businesslike, professional look of a gallery in a coal mine. Descending steeply to a point twelve feet beyond the entrance, it then went at a gentle incline under No Man's Land, and ended beneath the German trenches. It was the original intention to blow up part of the German first line, but it being one day discovered that the Germans were building a tunnel parallel to the French one, it was decided to blow up the French safe so that the explosion would spend its force underground, and cause the walls of the German tunnel to cave in on its makers. I happened to see the tunnel the morning of the day it was blown up. The French had stopped working for fear of being overheard by the Germans. It was a ticklish situation. Were the Germans aware of the French tunnel? If so, they would blow up their own at once. Were they still continuing their labor? The earth of the French might burst apart anyminute and rain down again in a dreadful shower of clods, stones, and mangled bodies.

Alone, quiet, at the end of the passage under the German lines sat an old poilu, the sentinel of the tunnel. He was an old coal miner of the North. The light of a candle showed his quiet, bearded face, grave as the countenance of some sculptured saint on the portico of a Gothic church, and revealed the wrinkles and lines of many years of labor. The sentinel held a microphone to his ears; the poles of it disappearing into the wall of damp earth separating us from the Boches.

Hippolyte whispered, "You hear them?"

The old man nodded his head, and gave the microphone to his officer. I saw Hippolyte listen. Then, without a word, he handed it to me. All that I could hear was a faint tapping.

"The Boches," whispered Hippolyte.

The French blew up the sape early in the afternoon, at a time when they felt sure the Germans were at work in their tunnel. I saw the result the next day. A saucer-shaped depression about twenty-five feet in diameter, and perhaps two feet deep, had appeared in No Man's Land. Even the stumps of two trees had sunk and tilted.

It was Hippolyte who had turned on the electricity. I once talked the matter over with him. He became at once intense, Latin, doctrinaire.

"How do you reconcile your theories of fraternity to what you have to do?"

"I do not have to reconcile my theories to my office; I am furthering my theories."

"How so?"

"By combating the Boches. Without them we might have realized our idea of universal peace and fraternity. Voilà l'ennemi! The race is a poisonous race, serpents, massacreurs ! I wish I could smother as many of them every day as I did yesterday."

During my service I did not meet another soldier whose hatred of the Germans was comparable to that of this advocate of universal love.

I left the trenches just at dusk. Above the dreadful depression in No Man's Land shone a bronzy sky against which the trees raised their haggard silhouettes. There was hardly a sound in the whole length of The Wood. A mist came up making haloes round the rising winter stars.


French soldiers in a forest setting - an obviously posed photo


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