'Under Fire in the Front-Lines'
by Henry Sheahan
from his book 'A Volunteer Poilu' 1916


The Germans Attack

French poilus in the front-line trenches

The schoolmaster {instituteur) and the schoolmistress (institutrice) of Montauville were a married couple, and had a flat of four rooms on the second story of the schoolhouse. The kitchen of this fiat had been struck by a shell, and was still a mess of plaster, bits of stone, and glass, and a fragment had torn clear through the sooty bottom of a copper saucepan still hanging on the wall. In one of the rooms, else quite bare of furniture, was an upright piano. Sometimes while stationed at Montauville, I whiled away the waits between calls to the trenches in playing this instrument.

It was about nine o'clock in the morning, and thus far not a single call had come in. The sun was shining very brightly in a sky washed clear by a night of rain, the morning mists were rising from the wood, and up and down the very muddy street walked little groups of soldiers. I drew up the rickety stool and began to play the waltz from "The Count of Luxembourg." In a short time Ï heard the sound of tramping on the stairs voices. In came three poilus--a pale boy with a weary, gentle expression in his rather faded blue eyes; a dark, heavy fellow of twenty-five or six, with big wrists, big, muscular hands, and a rather unpleasant, lowering face; and a little, middle-aged man with straightforward, friendly hazel eyes and a pointed beard. The pale, boyish one carried a violin made from a cigar box under his arm, just such a violin as the darkies make down South. This violin was very beautifully made, and decorated with a rustic design. I stopped playing.

"Don't, don't," cried the dark, big fellow; "we haven't heard any music for a long time. Please keep on. Jacques, here, will accompany you."

"I never heard the waltz," said the violinist; "but if you play it over for me once or twice, I'll try to get the air--if you would like to have me to," he added with a shy, gentle courtesy.

So I played the rather banal waltz again, till the lad caught the tune. He hit it amazingly well, and his ear was unusually true. The dark one had been in Canada and was hungry for American rag-time. "'The Good Old Summer Time'--you know that? 'Harrigan'--you know that?" he said in English. The rag-time of "Harrigan" floated out on the street of Montauville. But I did not care to play things which could have no violin obligato, so I began to play what I remembered of waltzes dear to every Frenchman's heart--the tunes of the "Merry Widow." "Sylvia" went off with quite a dash. The concert was getting popular. Somebody wanted to send for a certain Alphonse who had an occarina. Two other poilus, men in the forties, came up, their dark- brown, horseshoe beards making them look like brothers. Side by side against the faded paper on the sunny wall they stood, surveying us contentedly. The violinist, who turned out to be a Norman, played a solo--some music-hall fantasy, I imagine. The next number was the ever popular "Tipperaree," which every single poilu in the French army has learned to sing in a kind of English. Our piano-violin duet hit off this piece even better than the "Merry Widow." I thanked Heaven that I was not called on to translate it, a feat frequently demanded of the American drivers. The song is silly enough in the King's English, but in lucid, exact French, it sinks to positive imbecility.

"You play, don't you?" said the violinist to the small bearded man.

"A little," he replied modestly.

"Please play."

The little man sat down at the piano, meditated a minute, and began to play the rich chords of Rachmaninof's "Prelude." He got about half through, when Zip-bang ! a small shell burst down the street. The dark fellow threw open the French window. The poilus were scurrying to shelter. The pianist continued with the "Prelude."

Zip-bang ! Zip-bang ! Zshh--Bang--Bang. Bang-Bang !

The piano stopped. Everybody listened. The village was still as death. Suddenly down the street came the rattle of a volley of rifle shots. Over this sound rose the choked, metallic notes of a bugle-call. The rifle shots continued. The ominous popping of machine guns resounded. The village, recovering from its silence, filled with murmurs. Bang! Bang! Bang I Bang! went some more shells. The same knowledge took definite shape in our minds.

"An attack!"

The violinist, clutching his instrument, hurried down the stairs followed by all the others, leaving the chords of the uncompleted "Prelude" to hang in the startled air. Shells were popping everywhere--crashes of smoke and violence--in the roads, in the fields, and overhead. The Germans were trying to isolate the few detachments en repos in the village, and prevent reinforcements coming from Dieulouard or any other place. To this end all the roads between Pont-à-Mousson and the trenches, and the roads leading directly to the trenches, were being shelled.

"Go at once to Poste C!"

The winding road lay straight ahead, and just at the end of the village street, the Germans had established a tir de barrage. This meant that a shell was falling at that particular point about once every fifty seconds. I heard two rafales break there as I was grinding up the machine. Up the slope of the Montauville hill came several of the other drivers. Tyler, of New York, a comrade who united remarkable bravery to the kindest of hearts, followed close behind me, also evidently bound for Poste C. German bullets, fired wildly from the ridge of The Wood over the French trenches, sang across the Montauville valley, lodging in the trees of Puvenelle behind us with a vicious tspt; shells broke here and there on the stretch leading to the Quart-en-Réserve, throwing the small rocks of the road surfacing wildly in every direction. The French batteries to our left were firing at the Germans, the German batteries were firing at the French trenches and the roads, and the machine guns rattled ceaselessly. I saw the poilus hurrying up the muddy roads of the slope of the Bois- le-Prêtre--vague masses of moving blue on the brown ways. A storm of shells was breaking round certain points in the road and particularly at the entrance to The Wood. I wondered what had become of the audience at the concert. Various sounds, transit of shells, bursting of shells, crashing of near-by cannon, and rat-tat-tat-tat! of mitrailleuses played the treble to a roar formed of echoes and cadences--the roar of battle. The Wood of Death (Le Bois de la Mort) was singing again.


French soldiers behind and in the front-lines


That day's attack was an attempt by the Germans to take back from the French the eastern third of the Quart-en-Réserve and the rest of the adjoining ridge half hidden in the shattered trees. At the top of the plateau, by the rise in the moorland I described in the preceding chapter, I had an instant's view of the near-by battle, for the focus was hardly more than four hundred yards away. There was a glimpse of human beings in the Quart--soldiers in green, soldiers in blue--the very fact that anybody was to be seen there was profoundly stirring. They were fighting in No Man's Land. Tyler and I watched for a second, wondering what scenes of agony, of heroism, of despair were being enacted in that dreadful field by the ruined wood.

We hurried our wounded to the hospital, passing on our way detachments of soldiers rushing toward The Wood from the villages of the region. Three or four big shells had just fallen in Dieulouard, and the village was deserted and horribly still. The wind carried the roar of the attack to our ears. In three quarters of an hour, I was back again at the same moorland poste, to which an order of our commander had attached me. Montauville was full of wounded. I had three on stretchers inside, one beside me on the seat, and two others on the front mudguards. And The Wood continued to sing. From Montauville I could hear the savage yells and cries which accompanied the fighting.

Half an hour after the beginning of the attack, the war invaded the sky, with the coming of the German reconnoitering aeroplanes. One went to watch the roads leading to The Wood along the plateau, one went to watch the Dieulouard road, and the other hovered over the scene of the combat. The sky was soon dotted with the puffs of smoke left by the exploding shells of the special anti-aircraft "seventy- fives." These puffs blossomed from a pin-point of light to a vaporous, gray-white puff-ball about the size of the full moon, and then dissolved in the air or blew about in streaks and wisps. These cloudlets, fired at an aviator flying along a certain line, often were gathered by the eye into arrangements resembling constellations. The three machines were very high, and had a likeness to little brown and silver insects.

The Boche watching the conflict appeared to hang almost immobile over the Quart. With a striking suddenness, another machine appeared behind him and above him. So unexpected was the approach of this second aeroplane that its appearance had a touch of the miraculous. It might have been created at that very moment in the sky. The Frenchman--for it was an aviator from the parc at Toul, since killed at Verdun, poor fellow--swooped beneath his antagonist and fired his machine gun at him. The German answered with two shots of a carbine. The Frenchman fired again. Suddenly the German machine flopped to the right and swooped down; it then flopped to the left, the tail of the machine flew up, and the apparatus fell, not so swiftly as one might expect, down a thousand feet into The Wood. When I saw the wreckage, a few days afterwards, it looked like the spilt contents of â waste-paper basket, and the aviators, a pilot and an observer, had had to be collected from all over the landscape. The French buried them with full military honors.

Thanks to the use of a flame machine, the Germans succeeded in regaining the part of the ridge they had lost, but the French made it so hot for them that they abandoned it, and the contested trenches now lie in No Man's Land. All that night the whole Wood was illuminated, trench light after trench light rising over the dark branches. There would be a rocket like the trail of bronze-red powder sparks hanging for an instant in the sky, then a loud Plop! and the French light would spread out its parachute and sail slowly down the sky toward the river. The German lights (fusées éclairantes), cartridges of magnesium fired from a gun resembling a shotgun, burned only during their dazzling trajectory. At midnight the sky darkened with low, black rain clouds, upon whose surface the constant cannon fire flashed in pools of violet-white light. Coming down from the plateau at two in the morning, I could see sharp jabs of cannon fire for thirty miles along the front on the other side of the Moselle.

Just after this attack a doctor of the army service was walking through the trenches in which the French had made their stand. He noticed something oddly skewered to a tree. He knocked it down with a stone, and a human heart fell at his feet.

The most interesting question of the whole business is, "How do the soldiers stand it?" At the beginning of my own service, I thought Pont- à-Mousson, with its ruins, its danger, and its darkness, the most awful place on the face of the earth. After a little while, I grew accustomed to the décor, and when the time came for me to leave it, I went with as much regret as if I were leaving the friendliest, most peaceful of towns. First the décor, growing familiar, lost the keener edges of its horror, and then the life of the front--the violence, the destruction, the dying and the dead--all became casual, part of the day's work. A human being is profoundly affected by those about him; thus, when a new soldier finds himself for the first time in a trench, he is sustained by the attitude of the veterans. Violence becomes the commonplace; shells, gases, and flames are the things that life is made of. The war is another lesson in the power of the species to adapt itself to circumstances. When this power of adaptability has been reinforced by a tenacious national will "to see the thing through," men will stand hell itself. The slow, dogged determination of the British cannot be more powerful than the resolution of the French. Their decision to continue at all costs has been reached by a purely intellectual process, and to enforce it, they have called upon those ancient foundations of the French character, the sober reasonableness and unbending will they inherit from Rome.

And a new religion has risen in the trenches, a faith much more akin to Mahomet than to Christ. It is a fatalism of action. The soldier finds his salvation in the belief that nothing will happen to him until his hour comes, and the logical corollary of this belief, that it does no good to worry, is his rock of ages. It is a curious thing to see poilus--peasants, artisans, scholars--completely in the grip of this philosophy. There has been a certain return to the Church of Rome, for which several reasons exist, the greatest being that the war has made men turn to spiritual things. Only an animal could be confronted with the pageant of heroism, the glory of sacrifice, and the presence of Death, and not be moved to a contemplation of the fountain-head of these sublime mysteries. But it is the upper class which in particular has returned to the Church. Before the war, rationalist and genial skeptic, the educated Frenchman went to church because it was the thing to do, and because non-attendance would weaken an institution which the world was by no means ready to lay aside. This same educated Frenchman, brought face to face with the mystery of human existence, has felt a real need of spiritual support, and consequently returned to the Church of his fathers.

The religious revival is a return of upper-class prodigals to the fold, and a rekindling of the chilled brands of the faith of the amiably skeptical. The great mass of the nation has felt this spiritual force, but because the mass of the nation was always Catholic, nothing much has changed. I failed to find any trace of conversions among the still hostile working men of the towns, and the bred-in-the-bone Socialists. The rallying of the conservative classes about the Cross is also due to the fact that the war has exposed the mediocrity and sterile windiness of the old socialistic governments; this misgovernment the upper classes have determined to end once they return from the trenches, and remembering that the Church of Rome was the enemy of the past administrations, cannot help regarding her with a certain friendliness. But this issue of past misgovernment will be fought out on purely secular grounds, and the Church will be only a sympathizer behind the fray. The manner in which the French priests have fought and died is worthy of the admiration of the world. Never in the history of any country has the national religion been so closely enmeshed in the national life. The older clergy, as a rule, have been attached to the medical services of the front, serving as hospital orderlies and stretcher-bearers, but the younger priests have been put right into the army and are fighting to-day as common soldiers. There are hundreds of officer-priests--captains and lieutenants of the regular army.

But the real religion of the front is the philosophy of Mahomet. Life will end only when Death has been decreed by Fate, and the Boches are the unbelievers. After all, Islam in its great days was a virile faith, the faith of a race of soldiers.


a forest encampment


The Town In The Trenches

At the beginning of the war the German plan of campaign was to take France on the flank by marching through Belgium, and once the success of this northern venture assured, strike at the Verdun-Belfort line which had baffled them in the first instance. Had they not lost the battle of the Marne, this second venture might have proved successful, for the body of the French army was fighting in the north, and the remaining troops would have been discouraged by the capture of Paris. On the eve of the battle of the Marne the campaign seeming to be well in hand in the north, a German invasion of Lorraine began, one army striking at the defenses of the great plateau which slopes from the Vosges to the Moselle, and the other attempting to ascend the valley of the river. It was this second army which entered Pont-à-Mousson.

Immediately following the declaration of hostilities the troops who had been quartered in the town were withdrawn, and the town was left open to the enemy who, going very cautiously, was on his way from Metz. For several weeks in August, this city, almost directly on the frontier, saw no soldiers, French or German. It was a time of dramatic suspense. The best recital of it I ever heard came from the lips of the housekeeper of Wisteria Villa, a splendid, brave French woman who had never left her post. She was short, of a clear, tanned complexion, and always had her hair tightly rolled up in a little classic pug. She was as fearless of shells as a soldier in the trenches, and once went to a deserted orchard, practically in the trenches, to get some apples for Messieurs les Américains. When asked why she did not get them at a safer place, she replied that she did not have to pay for these apples as the land belonged to her father! Her ear for shells was the most accurate of the neighborhood, and when a deafening crash would shake the kettles on the stove and rattle the teacups, she could tell you exactly from what direction it had come and the probable caliber. I remember one morning seeing her wash dishes while the Germans were shelling the corner I have already described. The window over the sink opened directly on the dangerous area, and she might have been killed any minute by a flying eclat. Standing with her hands in the soapy water, or wiping dry the hideous blue- and-white dinner service of Wisteria Villa, she never even bothered to look up to see where the shells were landing. Two "seventy-sevens" went off with a horrid pop; "Those are only 'seventy-sevens,'" she murmured as if to herself. A fearful swish was next heard and the house rocked to the din of an explosion. "That's a 'two hundred and ten'--the rogues--oh, the rogues!" she exclaimed in the tone she might have used in scolding a depraved boy.

At night, when the kitchen was cleared up, she sat down to write her daily letter to her soldier son, and once this duty finished, liked nothing better than a friendly chat. She knew the history of Pont-à- Mousson and Montauville and the inhabitants thereof by heart; she had tales to tell of the shrewdness of the peasants and diverting anecdotes of their manners and morals. These stories she told very well and picturesquely.

"The first thing we saw was the President's poster saying not to be alarmed, that the measures of military preparation were required by circumstances (les événements) and did not mean war. Then over this bill the maire posted a notice that in case of a real mobilization (une mobilisation sérieuse) they would ring the tocsin. At eleven o'clock the tocsin rang, oh, la la, monsieur, what a fracas! All the bells in the town, Saint-Martin, Saint-Laurent, the hôtel de ville. Immediately all our troops went away. We did not want to see them go. 'We shall be back again,' they said. They liked Pont-à-Mousson. Such good young fellows! The butcher's wife has heard that only fifty- five of the six hundred who were here are alive. They were of the active forces (de l'active). A great many people followed the soldiers. So for two weeks we were left all alone, wondering what was to become of us. And all the time we heard frightful stories about the villages beyond Nancy. On the nth of August we heard cannon for the first time, and on the 12th and the 14th we were bombarded. On the 4th of September, at five o'clock in the evening, the bells began to ring again. Everybody ran out to find the reason. Les Allemands--they were not then called Boches--were coming. Baoum! went the bridge over the Moselle. Everybody went into their houses, so that the Germans came down streets absolutely deserted. I peeked from my window blind. The Boches came down the road from Norroy, les Uhlans, the infantry--how big and ugly they all were. And their officers were so stiff (raide). They were not like our bons petits soldats Français. In the morning I went out to get some bread.

"'Eh là, good woman' (bonne femme), said a grand Boche to me.

'"What do you want?' said I.

" ‘Are there any soldats français in the town?' said the Boche.

" 'How should I know?' I answered.

" ‘You do not want to tell, good woman.'

" 'I do not know.'

" 'Are there any francs-tireurs (civilian snipers) in this town?'

" 'Don't bother me ; I 'm going for some bread.'

"During the night all the clocks had been changed to German time. Many of the Boches spoke French. There were Alsatians and Lorrains who did not like the fracas at all. Yes, the Boches behaved themselves all right at Pont-à-Mousson--there were some vulgarities (grossièretés). One of the soldiers, a big blond, went down the street wearing an ostrich feather hat and a woman's union suit and chemise. It was a scandale. But uncle laughed to kill himself; he was peeping out through the blinds. Right in front of my door were ten cannon, and all the street was full of artillery. Well we had four days of this, hearing never a word from the French side.

"On the night of the 9th I heard a good deal of noise, and somebody woke up the Boches sous-officiers who were quartered in a house across the street. I saw lights and heard shouts. I was peeping out of my window all the time. The dark street filled with soldiers. I saw their officers lashing them to make them hurry. They harnessed the artillery horses to the guns, and at four o'clock in the morning there was not a single Boche in Pont-à-Mousson. They had all gone away in the night, taking with them the German flag on the city hall. You know, monsieur, on the night of the 9th they received news of the battle of the Marne.

"For five days more we saw neither Français nor Boches. Finally some French dragoons came down the road from Dieulouard, and little by little other soldiers came too. But, hélas, monsieur, the Boches were waiting for them in the Bois-le-Prêtre."

Such was the way that Pont-à-Mousson did not become Mussenbruck. The episode is an agreeable interlude of decency in the history of German occupations, for that atrocities were perpetrated in Nomény, just across the river, is beyond question. I have talked with survivors. At Pont-à-Mousson everything was orderly; six miles to the east, houses were burned over the heads of the inhabitants, and women and children brutally massacred.

I best remember the little city as it was one afternoon in early December. The population of 17,000 had then shrunk to about 900, and only a little furtive life lingered in the town. My promenade began at the river-bank by the wooden footbridge crossing from the shore to the remaining arches of the graceful eighteenth-century stone bridge blown up in September, 1914. There is always something melancholy about a ruined bridge, perhaps because the structure symbolizes a patient human victory over the material world. There was something intensely tragic in the view of the wrecked quarter of Saint-Martin, seen across the deep, greenish, wintry river, and in the great curve of the broad flood sullenly hurrying to Metz. At the end of the bridge, ancient and gray, rose the two round towers of the fifteenth-century parish church, with that blind, solemn look to them the towers of Notre Dame possess, and beyond this edifice, a tile-roofed town and the great triangular hill called the Mousson. It was dangerous to cross the bridge, because German snipers occasionally fired at it, so I contented myself with looking down the river. Beyond the Bois-le- Prêtre, the next ridge to rise from the river was a grassy spur bearing the village of Norroy on its back. You could see the hill, only four kilomètres away, the brown walls of the village, the red roofs, and sometimes the glint of sunlight on a window; but for us the village might have been on another planet. All social and economic relations with Norroy had ceased since September, 1914, and reflecting on this fact, the invisible wall of the trenches became more than a mere military wall, became a barrier to every human relation and peaceful tie.

A sentry stood by the ruined bridge, a small, well-knit man with beautiful silver-gray hair, blue eyes, and pink cheeks; his uniform was exceptionally clean, and he appeared to be some decent burgher torn from his customary life. I fell into conversation with him. He recollected that his father, a veteran of 1870, had prophesied the present war.

"'We shall see them again, the spiked helmets (les casques à pointe),' said my father--'we shall see them again.'

"'Why?' I asked him.

"'Because they have eaten of us, and will be hungry once more.'"

The principal street of the town led from this bridge to a great square, and continued straight on toward Maidières and Montauville. The sidewalks around this square were in arcades under the houses, for the second story of every building projected for seven or eight feet over the first and rested on a line of arches at the edge of the street. To avoid damage from shells bursting in the open space, every one of these arcades, and there were perhaps a hundred all told, had been plugged with sandbags, so that the square had an odd, blind look. A little life flickered in the damp, dark alleys behind these obstructions. There was a tobacco shop, kept by two pretty young women whom the younger soldiers were always jollying, a wineshop, a tailorshop, and a bookstore, always well supplied with the great Parisian weeklies, which one found later in odd corners of shelters in the trenches. Occasionally a soldier bought a serious book when it was to be found in the dusty files of the "Collection Nelson"; I remember seeing a young lieutenant of artillery buying Ségur's "Histoire de la Grande Armée en 1812," and another taking Flaubert's "Un cœur simple." But the military life, roughly lived, and shared with simple people, appears to make even the wisest boyish, and after a while at the front the intellect will not read anything intellectual. It simply won't, perhaps because it can't. The soldier mind delights in rough, genial, and simple jokes. A sergeant, whom I knew to be a distinguished young scholar in civilian life, was always throwing messages wrapped round a stone into the German trenches; the messages were killingly funny, amiably indecent, and very jejune. Invariably they provoked a storm of grenades, and sometimes epistles in the same vein from the Boches. In spite of the vicious pang of the grenades, there was an absurd "Boys-will-be-boys " air to the whole performance. Conversation, however, did not sink to this boyish level, and the rag-tag and bob-tail of one's cultivation found its outlet in speech.

At the end of this street was the railroad crossing, the passage à niveau, and the station in a jungle of dead grass and brambles. Like the bridge, its rustiness and weediness was a dreadful symbol of the cessation of human activity, and the blue enamel signpost lettered in white with the legend, "Metz--32 kilomètres," was another reminder of the town to which the French aspired with all the fierce intensity of crusaders longing for Jerusalem. It was impossible to get away from the omnipresence of the name of the fated city--it stared at you from obscure street corners, and was to be found on the covers of printed books and post-cards. I saw the city once from the top of the hill of the Mousson; its cathedral towers pierced the blue mists of the brown moorlands, and it appeared phantasmal and tremendously distant. Yet for those towers countless men had died, were dying, would die. A French soldier who had made the ascent with me pointed out Metz the much desired.

"Are you going to get it?" I asked. "Perhaps so," he replied gravely. "After so many sacrifices." (Après tant de sacrifices.) He made no gesture, but I know that his vision included the soldiers' cemetery at the foot of the Mousson hill. It lay, a rust-colored field, on the steep hillside just at the border of the town, and was new, raw, and dreadful. The guardian of the cemetery, an old veteran of 1870, once took me through the place. He was a very lean, hooped-over old man with a big, aquiline nose, blue-gray eyes framed in red lids, and a huge, yellowish-white mustache. First he showed me the hideous picture of the civilian cemetery, in which giant shells had torn open the tombs, hurled great sarcophagi a distance of fifty feet, and dug craters in the rows of graves. Though the civilian authorities had done what they could to put the place in order, there were still memories of the disturbed dead to whom the war had denied rest. Coming to the military cemetery, the guardian whispered, pointing to the new mounds with his rustic cane, "I have two colonels, three commandants, and a captain. Yes, two colonels" (deux colonels). Following his staff, my eye looked at the graves as if it expected to see the living men or their effigies. Somewhat apart lay another grave. "Voilà un colonel boche," said the sexton; "and a lieutenant boche--and fifty soldats boches."

The destroyed quarter of Pont-à-Mousson lay between the main street and the flank of the Bois-le-Prêtre. The quarter was almost totally deserted, probably not more than ten houses being inhabited out of several thousand. The streets that led into it had grass growing high in the gutters, and a velvety moss wearing a winter rustiness grew packed between the paving-stones. Beyond the main street, la rue Fabvrier went straight down this loneliness, and halted or turned at a clump of wrecked houses a quarter of a mile away. Over this clump, slately-purple and cold, appeared the Bois-le-Prêtre, and every once in a while a puffy cloud of greenish-brown or gray-black would float solemnly over the crests of the trees. This stretch of la rue Fabvrier was one of the most melancholy pictures it was possible to see. Hardly a house had been spared by the German shells; there were pock-marks and pits of shell fragments in the plaster, window glass outside, and holes in walls and roofs. I wandered down the street, passing the famous miraculous statue of the Virgin of Pont-à- Mousson. The image, only a foot or two high and quite devoid of facial expression, managed somehow to express emotion in the outstretched arms, drooping in a gesture at once of invitation and acceptance. A shell had maculated the wall on each side and above the statue, but the little niche and canopy were quite untouched. The heavy sound of my soldier boots went dump! clump! down the silence.

At the end of the road, in the fields on the slope, a beautiful eighteenth-century house stood behind a mossy green wall. It was just such a French house as is the analogue of our brick mansions of Georgian days; it was two stories high and had a great front room on each side of an entry on both floors, each room being lighted with two well-proportioned French windows. The outer walls were a golden brown, and the roof, which curved in gently from the four sides to central ridge, a very beautiful rich red. The house had the atmosphere of the era of the French Revolution; one's fancy could people it with soberly dressed provincial grandees. A pare of larches and hemlocks lay about it, concealing in their silent obscurity an artificial lake heavily coated with a pea-soup scum.

Beyond the house lay the deserted rose-garden, rank and grown to weeds. On some of the bushes were cankered, frozen buds. In the center of the garden, at the meeting-point of several paths, a mossy fountain was flowing into a greenish basin shaped like a seashell, and in this basin a poilu was washing his clothes. He was a man of thirty- eight or nine, big, muscular, out-of-doors looking; whistling, he washed his gray underclothes with the soap the army furnishes, wrung them, and tossed them over the rose-bushes to dry.

"Does anybody live in this house?"

"Yes, a squad of travailleurs."

A regiment of travailleurs is attached to every secteur of trenches. These soldiers, depending, I believe, on the Engineer Corps, are quartered just behind the lines, and go to them every day to put them in order, repair the roads, and do all the manual labor. Humble folk these, peasants, ditch-diggers, road-menders, and village carpenters. Those at Pont-à-Mousson were nearly all fathers of families, and it was one of the sights of the war most charged with true pathos to see these gray-haired men marching to the trenches with their shovels on their shoulders.

"Are you comfortable?"

"Oh, yes. We live very quietly. I, being a stonemason and a carpenter, stay behind and keep the house in repair. In summer we have our little vegetable gardens down behind those trees where the Boches can't see us."

"Can I see the house?"

"Surely; just wait till I have finished sousing these clothes."

The room on the ground floor to the left of the hallway was imposing in a stately Old-World way. The rooms in Wisteria Villa were rooms for personages from Zola; this room was inhabited by ghosts from the pages of Balzac. It was large, high, and square; the walls were hung with a golden scroll design printed on ancient yellow silk; the furniture was of some rich brown finish with streaks and lusters of bronzy yellow, and a glass chandelier, all spangles and teardrops of crystal, hung from a round golden panel in the ceiling. Over a severe Louis XVI mantel was a large oil portrait of Pius IX, and on the opposite wall a portrait head of a very beautiful young girl. Chestnut hair, parted in the fashion of the late sixties, formed a silky frame round an oval face, and the features were small and well proportioned. The most remarkable part of the countenance were the curiously level eyes. The calm, apart-from-the-world character of the expression in the eyes was in interesting contrast to the good-natured and somewhat childish look in the eyes of the old Pope.

"Who lived here?"

"An old man (un vieux). He was a captain of the Papal Zouaves in his youth. See here, read the inscription on the portrait--'Presented by His Holiness to a champion (défenseur) of the Church.'"

"Is he still alive?"

"He died three months ago in Paris. I should hate to die before I see how the war is going to end. I imagine he would have been willing to last a bit longer."

"And this picture on the right, the jeune fille?"

"That was his daughter, an only child. She became a nun, and died when she was still young. The old man's gardener comes round from time to time to see if the place is all right. It is a pity he is not here; he could tell you all about them."

"You are very fortunate not to have been blown to pieces. Surely you are very near the trenches."

"Near enough--yes, indeed. A communication trench comes right into the cellar. But it is quiet in this part of The Wood. There is a regiment of old Boches in the trenches opposite our territorials, fathers of families (pères de familles), just as they are. We fire rifles at each other from time to time just to remember it is war (c'est la guerre). We share the crest together here; nothing depends on it. What good should we do in killing each other? Besides it would be a waste of shells."

"How do you know that the Boches opposite you are old?"

"We see them from time to time. They are great hands at a parley. The first thing they tell you is the number of children they have. I met an old Boche not long ago down by the river. He held up two fingers to show that he had two children, put his hand out just above his knee to show the height of his first child, and raised it just above his waist to show the height of the second. So I held up five fingers to show him I had five children, when the Lord knows I have only one. But I did not want to be beaten by a Boche."

A sound of voices was heard beneath us, and the clang of the shovels being placed against the stone walls of the cellar.

"Those are the travailleurs. The sergeant will be coming in and I must report to him. Good-bye, American friend, and come again."

A melancholy dusk was beginning as I turned home from the romantic house, and the deserted streets were filling with purplish shadows. The concussion of exploding shells had blown almost all the glass out of the windows of the Church of St. Laurent, and the few brilliant red and yellow fragments that still clung to the twisted leaden frames reminded me of the autumn leaves that sometimes cling to winter-stricken trees. The interior of the church was swept and garnished, and about twenty candles with golden flames, slowly waving in the drafts from the ruined windows, shone beneath a statue of the Virgin. There was not another soul in the church. A terrible silence fell with the gathering darkness. In a little wicker basket at the foot of the benignant mother were about twenty photographs of soldiers, some in little brassy frames with spots of verdigris on them, some the old-fashioned "cabinet" kind, some on simple post-cards. There was a young, dark Zouave who stood with his hand on an ugly little table, a sergeant of the Engineer Corps with a vacant, uninteresting face, and two young infantry men, brothers, on the same shabby finger-marked post-card. Pious hands had left them thus in the care of the unhappy mother, "Marie, consolatrice des malheureux."

The darkness of midnight was beginning at Pont-à-Mousson, for the town was always as black as a pit. On my way home I saw a furtive knife edge of yellow light here and there under a door. The sentry stood by his shuttered lantern. Suddenly the first of the trench lights flowered in the sky over the long dark ridge of the Bois-le-Prétre.


preparing dinner at an encampment


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