- from the book The Soul of the War
- 'the Soldiers of France'
- by Philip Gibbs, 1915
The Soul and Spirit of the Fighting-Men of France
a sing-along in winter camp
WHEN in the first days of the war I saw the soldiers of France on their way to the front, I had even then a conviction that the fighting qualities of the nation had not degenerated in forty-four years of peace, after the downfall in which the courage of the men had been betrayed by the corruption of a Government.
Afterwards, during many months as a wanderer in this war, I came to know the French soldier with the intimacy of long conversations to the sound of guns in the first line of trenches facing the enemy, in hospitals, where he spoke quietly while comrades snored themselves to death, in villages smashed to pieces by shell-fire, in troop trains overcrowded with wounded, in woods and fields pockmarked by the holes of marmites, and in the restaurants of Paris and provincial towns where, with an empty sleeve or one trouser-leg dangling beneath the tablecloth, he told, me his experiences of war with a candour in which there was no concealment of truth ; and out of all these friendships and revelations of soul the character of the soldiers of France stands before my mind in heroic colours.
Individually, of course, the qualities of these men differ as one man from another in any nation or class. I have seen the neurasthenic, quivering with agony in his distress of imaginary terrors, and the man with steady nerves, who can turn a deaf ear to the close roar of guns and eat a hunk of bread-and-cheese with an unspoilt appetite within a yard or two of death ; I have seen the temperament of the aristocrat and the snob in the same carriage with the sons of the soil and the factory whose coarse speech and easy-going manners jarred upon his daintiness. War does not entirely annihilate all distinctions of caste even in France, where Equality is a good word, and it does not blend all intellectual and moral qualities into one type of character, in spite of the discipline of compulsory service and the chemical processes which mix flesh and blood together in the crucible of a battlefield. So it is impossible to write of the French soldier as a single figure, or to make large generalizations about the armies of France. The coward skulks by the side of the war. The priestly spirit in the ranks is outraged by the obscenities of the debauchée.
Yet out of those great masses of men who have fought for France there does emerge a certain definite character overwhelming the details of their individual differences, and I have seen certain qualities of temperament which belong to the majority of them, as essential elements of the national spirit of France. The quality of their patriotism, for example, shines very clear above all these millions of men who have abandoned all their small self-interests for the supreme purpose of defending France. England has her patriotism we give a great proof of it in blood but it is not like that of France, not so religious in its sentiment, not so passionate in its convictions, not so feminine a thing. To most of these French soldiers, indeed to all that I have talked with, the love of France is like the faith of a devout Catholic in his church. It is not to be argued about. It holds the very truth of life. It enshrines all the beauty of French ideals, all the rich colour of imagination, all the poetry and music that has thrilled through France since the beginning of our civilization, all her agonies and tears. To the commonest soldier of France,"La Patrie" is his great mother, with the tenderness of motherhood, the authority of motherhood, the sanctity of motherhood, as to a Catholic the Blessed Virgin is the mother of his soul. Perhaps as one of her children he has been hardly dealt with, has starved and struggled and received many whippings, but he does not lose his mother-love. The thought of outrageous hands plucking at her garments, of hostile feet trampling upon her, of foul attempts upon her liberty and honour, stirs him to just that madness he would feel if his individual mother, out of whose womb he came, were threatened in the same way. He does not like death he dreads the thought of it but without questioning his soul he springs forward to save this mother-country of his and dies upon her bosom with a cry of "Vive la France !"
handing out the post
The French soldier, whatever his coarseness or his delicacy, needs feminine consolation, and all his ideals and his yearnings and his self-pity are intimately associated with the love of women, and especially of one woman his mother. When Napoleon, in the island of St. Helena, used to talk about the glories of his victorious years, and then brooded over the tragedy of his overthrow so that all his soul was clouded with despair, he used to rouse himself after the silence which followed those hours of self-analysis and say, "Let us talk about women and love." Always it is the feminine spirit in which a Frenchman bathes his wounds.
One small incident I saw a year or two ago gave me the clue to this quality in the French character. It was when Vedrines, the famous airman, was beaten by only a few minutes in the flight round England. Capitaine Conneau " Beaumont," as he called himself had outraced his rival and waited, with French gallantry, to shake the hand of the adversary he had defeated on untiring wings. A great crowd of smart men and women waited also at Brooklands to cheer the second in the race, who in England is always more popular than the prize-winner. But when Vedrines came to earth out of a blue sky he was savage and bitter. The loss of the prize-money was a great tragedy to this mechanic who had staked all his ambition on the flight. He shouted out harsh words to those who came to cheer him, and shook them off violently when they tried to clap him on the back. He was savagely angry. Then suddenly something seemed to break in his spirit, and his face quivered.
"Is there any woman to embrace me ?" he asked. Out of the crowd came a pretty Frenchwoman and, understanding the man, though she had not met him before, she held out her arms to him and raised her face.
"Allons-donc, mon vieux ! " she said.
The man put his arms about her and kissed her, while tears streamed down his face, covered in sweat and dust. He was comforted, like a boy who had hurt himself, in his mother's arms.
It was a queer little episode utterly impossible in the imagination of an Englishman but a natural thing in France.
So when a Frenchman lies dying, almost unconscious before the last breath, it is always a woman's name that he cries out, or whispers, though not always the name of his wife or mistress. One word is heard again and again in the hospital wards, where the poilus lie, those bearded fellows, so strong when they went out to the war, but now so weak and helpless before death.
"Maman ! Maman !"
It is to the bosom of motherhood that the spirit of the Frenchman goes in that last hour
"Oh, my dear little mamma," writes a young lieutenant of artillery, " it would be nice to be in my own room again, where your picture hangs over my bed looking down on the white pillows upon which you used to make the sign of the Cross before I went to sleep. I often try to dream myself into that bedroom again, but the cold is too intense for dreams, and another shell comes shrieking overhead. War is nothing but misery, after all."
life under arms
Yet if any English reader imagines that because this thread of sentiment runs through the character of France there is a softness in the qualities of French soldiers, he does not know the truth. Those men whom I saw at the front and behind the fighting lines were as hard in moral and spiritual strength as in physical endurance. It was this very hardness which impressed me even in the beginning of the war, when I did not know the soldiers of France as well as I do now.
After a few weeks in the field these men, who had been labourers and mechanics, clerks and journalists, artists and poets, shop assistants and railway porters, hotel waiters, and young aristocrats of Paris who had played the fool with pretty girls, were fined down to the quality of tempered steel. With not a spare ounce of flesh on them the rations of the French army are not as rich as ours and tested by long marches down dusty roads, by incessant fighting in retreat against overwhelming odds, by the moral torture of those rearguard actions, and by their first experience of indescribable horrors, among dead and dying comrades, they had a beauty of manhood which I found sublime. They were bronzed and dirty and hairy, but they had the look of knighthood, with a calm light shining in their eyes and with resolute lips. They had no gaiety in those days, when France was in gravest peril, and they did not find any kind of fun in this war. Out of their baptism of fire they had come with scorched souls, knowing the murderous quality of the business to which they were apprenticed; but though they did not hide their loathing of it, nor the fears which had assailed them, nor their passionate anger against the people who had thrust this thing upon them, they showed no sign of weakness. They were willing to die for France, though they hated death, and in spite of the first great rush of the German legions, they had a fine intellectual contempt of that army, which seemed to me then unjustified, though they were right, as history now shows. Man against man, in courage and cunning they were better than the Germans, gun against gun they were better, in cavalry charge and in bayonet charge they were better, and in equal number irresistible.
There was in England a hidden conviction, expressed privately in clubs and by women over their knitting, that the French soldiers were poor fellows as fighting men, filled with sentimentality, full of brag, with fine words on their lips, but with no strength of courage or endurance. British soldiers coming back wounded from the first battles and a three weeks' rearguard action, spread abroad the tale that "those French fellows were utterly useless and had run like rabbits before the German advance." They knew nothing but what they had seen in their own ditches on the fighting ground, they were sick with horror at the monstrous character of the war, and they had a rankling grudge against the French because they had not been supported strongly enough during those weeks in August between Charleroi and Compiegne.
Later the English Press, anxious, naturally enough, to throw into high relief the exploits of our own troops in France, and getting only scraps of news from the French lines, gave a distorted view of the general situation, and threw the whole picture of the war out of perspective, like the image of a man in a convex mirror. The relative importance of the British Expedition was vastly exaggerated, not because its particular importance was over-estimated, but because the French operations received very scant notice. There are still people in England who believe with a pious and passionate faith that our soldiers sustained the entire and continual attack of the German army, while the French looked on and thanked God for our work of rescue. The fact that we only held a front of thirty miles, at most, during the first nine months of war, and that the French were successfully holding a line of five hundred miles through which the Germans were trying to smash their way by repeated attacks of ferocious character, never took hold of the imagination of many honest souls at home, who thrilled with patriotic pride at the heroism of the British troops, according to the old tradition of " How England saved Europe."
Well, nothing will ever minimize our services to France. The graves of our men will stand as records of the help we gave, paying our debt of honour with priceless blood. But England must know what France did in self-defence and understand the fine enduring heroism of those armies of France which, after the first mistakes, built a wall of steel against which the greatest fighting machine in Europe shattered itself in vain.
Not a mile along all that five hundred miles of front was without its battle, and not a mile there but is the grave of young Frenchmen who fought with a martyr's faith and recklessness of life. As far back as the last days of September 1914 I met men of the eastern frontier who had a right already to call themselves veterans because they had been fighting continuously for two months in innumerable engagements for the most part unrecorded in the public Press.
At the outset they were smart fellows, clean-shaven and even spruce in their new blue coats and scarlet trousers. Now the war had put its dirt upon them and seemed to have aged them by fifteen years, leaving its ineffaceable imprint upon their faces. They had stubble beards upon their chins, and their cheeks were sunken and hollow, after short rations in the trenches and sleepless nights on the battlefields, with death as their bedfellow. Their blue coats had changed to a dusty grey. Their scarlet trousers had deep patches of crimson, where the blood of comrades had splashed them. They were tattered and torn and foul with the muck and slime of their frontier work. But they were also hard and tough for the most part though here and there a man coughed wheezily with bronchitis or had the pallor of excessive fatigue and Napoleon would not have wished for better fighting-men.
In the wooded country of the two "Lost Provinces" there was but little time or chance to bury the dead en- cumbering the bills and fields. Even six weeks after the beginning of the war horror made a camping ground of the regions which lay to the east of the Meurthe, between the villages of Blamont and Badonviller, Cirey les Forges and Arracourt, Chateau Salins and Baudrecourt. The slopes of Hartmansweilerkopf were already washed by waves of blood which surged round it for nine months and more, until its final capture by the French. St. Mihiel and Les Eparges and the triangle which the Germans had wedged between the French lines were a shambles before the leaves had fallen from the autumn trees in the first year of war. In the country of the Argonne men fought like wolves and began a guerilla warfare with smaller bodies of men, fighting from wood to wood, from village to village, the forces on each side being scattered over a wide area in advance of their main lines. Then they dug themselves into trenches from which they came out at night, creeping up to each other's lines, flinging themselves upon each other with bayonets and butt-ends, killing each other as beasts kill, without pity and in the mad rage of terror which is the fiercest kind of courage.
In Lorraine the tide of war ebbed and flowed over the same tracts of ground, and neither side picked up its dead or its wounded. Men lay there alive for days and nights, bleeding slowly to death. The hot sun glared down upon them and made them mad with thirst, so that they drank their own urine and jabbered in wild delirium. Some of them lay there for as long as three weeks, still alive, with gangrened limbs in which lice crawled, so that they stank abominably.
"I cannot tell you all the things I saw," said one of the young soldiers who talked to me on his way back from Lorraine. He had a queer look in his eyes when he spoke those words which he tried to hide from me by turning his head away. But he told me how the fields were littered with dead, decomposing and swarmed with flies, lying here in huddled postures, yet some of them so placed that their fixed eyes seemed to be staring at the corpses near them. And he told me how on the night he had his own wound French and German soldiers not yet dead talked together by light of the moon, which shed its pale light upon all those prostrate men, making their faces look very white. He heard the murmurs of voices about him, and the groans of the dying, rising to hideous anguish as men were tortured by ghastly wounds and broken limbs. In that night enmity was forgotten by those who had fought like beasts and now lay together. A French soldier gave his water-bottle to a German officer who was crying out with thirst. The German sipped a little and then kissed the hand of the man who had been his enemy. " There will be no war on the other side," he said.
Another Frenchman who came from Montmartre found lying within a yard of him a Luxembourgeois whom he had known as his chasseur in a big hotel in Paris. The young German wept to see his old acquaintance. "It is stupid," he said, " this war. You and I were happy when we were good friends in Paris. Why should we have been made to fight with each other ? " He died with his arms round the neck of the soldier who told me the story, unashamed of his own tears.
Round this man's neck also were clasped the arms of a German officer when a week previously the French piou-piou went across the field of a battle one of the innumerable skirmishes which had been fought and won four days before another French retirement. The young German had had both legs broken by a shell, and was wounded in other places. He had strength enough to groan piteously, but when my friend lifted him up death was near to him.
"He was all rotten," said the soldier, " and there came such a terrible stench from him that I nearly dropped him, and vomited as I carried him along."
I learnt something of the psychology of the French soldier from this young infantryman with whom I travelled in a train full of wounded soon after that night in Lorraine, when the moon had looked down on the field of the dead and dying in which he lay with a broken leg. He had passed through a great ordeal, so that his nerves were still torn and quivering, and I think he was afraid of going mad at the memory of the things he had seen and suffered, because he tried to compel himself to talk of trivial things, such as the beauty of the flowers growing on the railway banks and the different badges on English uniforms. But suddenly he would go back to the tale of his fighting in Lorraine and resume a long and rapid monologue in which little pictures of horror flashed after each other as though his brain were a cinematograph recording some melodrama. Queer bits of philosophy jerked out between this narrative. "This war is only endurable because it is for a final peace in Europe."
Men will refuse to suffer these things again. It Is the end of militarism." "If I thought that a child of mine would have to go through all that I have suffered during these last weeks, I would strangle him in his cradle to save him from it."
Sometimes he spoke of France with a kind of religion in his eyes.
"Of course, I am ready to die for France. She can demand my life as a right. I belong to her and she can do with me what she likes. It's my duty to fight in her defence, and although I tell you all the worst of war, monsieur, I do not mean that I am not glad to have done my part. In a few weeks this wound of mine will be healed and I shall go back, for the sake of France, to that Hell again. It is Hell, quand meme !"
He analysed his fears with simple candour and confessed that many times he had suffered most from imaginary terrors. After the German retreat from Luneville, he was put on a chain of outposts linked up with the main French lines. It was at night, and as he stood leaning on his rifle he saw black figures moving towards him. He raised his rifle, and his finger trembled on the trigger. At the first shot he would arouse the battalion nearest to him. They were sleeping, but as men sleep who may be suddenly attacked. They would fire without further question, and probably he would be the first to die from their bullets. Was it the enemy ? They were coming at right angles to the French lines. The foremost were even within twenty yards of him now. His nerves were all trembling. He broke out into a hot sweat. His eyes straining through the darkness were shot through with pain. He had almost an irresistible desire to fire and shout out, so as to end the strain of suspense which racked his soul. At last he gave the challenge, restraining himself from firing that first shot. It was well he did so. For the advancing French troops belonged to a French regiment changing their position under cover of darkness. If my little friend had lost his nerve and fired too soon they would have been shot down by their own comrades.
"It's one's imagination that gives one most trouble," he said, and I thought of the words of an English officer, who "told me one day that " No one with an imagination ought to come out to this war." It is for that reason the possession of a highly developed imagination that so many French soldiers have suffered more acutely than their English allies. They see the risks of war more vividly, though they take them with great valour. They are more sensitive to the sights and sounds of the fighting lines than the average English "Tommy," who has a tougher temperament and does not allow his mind to brood over blood and agony. They have the gift, also, of self-analysis and self-expression, so that -they are able to translate their emotions into vivid words, whereas our own men are taciturn for the most part about their side of the business and talk objectively, looking out wards, and not inwards.
Some of the letters from French soldiers, scrawled in the squalor of the trenches by men caked in filth and mud, are human documents in which they reveal themselves with extraordinary intimacy, and in which they put the whole truth, not disguising their terror or their blood-lust in the savage madness of a bayonet charge, or the heartache which comes to them when they think of the woman they love, or the queer little emotions and sentiments which come to them in the grim business of war. They watch the dawn, and in a line or two put some of its beauty into their letters home. They describe with a literary skill that comes from strong emotions the gloom and horror of long nights near the enemy's trenches from which at any moment a new attack may come. And yet, though they do not hide their moments of spiritual misery or despair, there is in all these letters the splendid courage of men who are ready for the last sacrifice and eager for their chance of honour.
"I send this letter," writes a young Zouave, " as I sit huddled under an earth-heap at twenty yards from a German trench, less to be envied than a rabbit in its burrow, because when the hunter is far away it can come out and feed at pleasure. You who live through the same agonies, old friend, must learn and rejoice that I have been promoted adjutant on the night of November 13 on the banks of the Yser. There were seventy men out of 250 the rest of the company sleep for ever round that ferryman's house which the papers have made famous. . . . What moral sufferings I have endured! We have now been brought to the south of Ypres and continue this depressing life in advanced trenches. Not a quarter of an hour's respite : shells, shrapnels, bombs and bullets fall around us continuously. How courage has changed with this modern war ! The hero of olden times was of a special type, who put on a fine pose and played up to the gallery because he fought before admiring spectators. Now, apart from our night attacks, always murderous, in which courage is not to be seen, because one can hardly discern one's neighbour in the darkness, our valour consists in a perfect stoicism. Just now I had a fellow killed before a loophole. His comrades dragged him away, and with perfect quietude replaced the man who is eternally out of action.
Isn't that courage ? Isn't it courage to get the brains of one's comrade full in the face, and then to stand on guard in the same place while suffering the extremes of cold and dampness ? . . . On the night of the 18th I commanded a section of corpses which a mitrailleuse had raked. I had the luck to escape, and I shouted to these poor devils to make a last assault. Then I saw what had happened and found myself with a broken rifle and a uniform in rags and tatters. My commandant spoke to me that night, and said : ' You had better change those clothes. You can put on an adjutant's stripes.' "
One passage in this young Zouave's letter reveals the full misery of the war to a Frenchman's spirit: "Our courage consists in a perfect stoicism." It is not the kind of courage which suits his temperament, and to sit in a trench for months, inactive, waiting for death under the rain of shells, is the worst ordeal to which the soul of the French soldier is asked to submit. Yet he has submitted, and held firm, along lines of trenches, 500 miles from end to end, with a patience in endurance which no critics of France would have believed possible until the proof was given. Above parapet lie the corpses of comrades and of men who were his enemies until they became poor clay.
"The greater number of the bodies," writes a soldier, still lie between the trenches, and we have been unable to withdraw them. We can see them always, in frightful quantity, some of them intact, others torn to bits by the shells which continue to fall upon them. The stench of this corruption floats down upon us with foul odours. Bits of their rotting carcases are flung into our faces and over our heads as new shells burst and scatter them. It is like living in a charnel house where devils are at play flinging dead men's flesh at living men, with fiendish mockery. The smell of this corruption taints our food, and taints our very souls, so that we are spiritually and physically sick. That, is war ! "
"This horrible game of war, "writes another man, "goes on passionately in our corner. In seventy-four days we have ' progressed ' about 1200 yards. That tells you everything. Ground is gained, so to speak, by the inch, and we all know now how much it costs to get back a bit of free France."
Along the French lines Death did not rest from his harvesting whatever the weather, and although for months there was no general advance on either side, not a day passed without new work for the surgeons, the stretcher-bearers, and the gravediggers. One incident is typical of a hospital scene near the front. It was told in a letter from a hospital nurse to a friend in Paris.
"About midday we received a wounded general, whom we made as comfortable as possible in a little room. Although he suffered terribly, he would submit to no special care, and only thought of the comfort of two of his officers. By an extraordinary chance a soldier of his own regiment was brought in a few moments later. Joy of the general, who wanted to learn at once what had happened to his children. He asked to see the soldier immediately :
" 'Tell me the commandant ?'
" 'Dead, mon general.'
" 'And the captain ? '
" 'Dead, mon general.'
"Four times questions were asked, and four times the soldier, whose voice became lower, made his answer of death. Then the general lowered his head and asked no more. We saw the tears running down his scarred old face, and we crept out of the room on tip-toe."
In spite of all this tragedy, the French soldier into whose soul it sank, and who will never forget, wrote home with a gaiety which gleamed through the sadness of his memories. There was a new series of " Lettres de mon moulin " from a young officer of artillery keeping guard in an old mill-house in an important position at the front. They were addressed to his " dearest mamma," and, thoughtful of all the pretty hands which had been knitting garments for him, he described his endeavours to keep warm in them :
"To-night I have piled on to my respectable body a flannel waistcoat, a flannel shirt, and a flannel belt going round three times, a jacket with sleeves sent by mamma herself, a leather waistcoat from Aunt Charlotte, a woollen vest which came to me from the unknown mother of a young dragoon, a warm undercoat recently received from my tailor, and a woollen jacket and wrap knitted by Madame P. J. So I prepare to sleep in peace, if the ' Bodies ' will kindly allow me."
The enemy did not often allow the young gentleman to sleep, and about the windmill the shells were bursting.
They reached one Sunday morning almost as far as the little twelfth-century church to which the young officer had stepped down from his windmill to hear Mass in the middle of a crowd of soldiers chanting the office, recited by a soldier, accompanied by a harmonium played by another soldier. The windows were shattered, and a beautiful old house next to the church lay in ruins.
The officer spent lonely hours in the windmill in charge of the telephone exchange, from which the batteries were worked. The men in the trenches and the gun-pits pitied his loneliness, and invented a scheme to cheer him up. So after dark, when the cannonade slackened, he put the receiver to his ears and listened to a Tyrolese ballad sung by an orderly, and to the admirable imitation of a barking dog performed by a sapper, and to a Parisian chanson delightfully rendered by the aviator.
"Bonne nuit, maman," wrote the officer of artillery at the end of each letter from his windmill.
The front did not change its outline on the map, except by hairbreadths, for months at a stretch, yet at many points of the line there were desperate battles, a bayonet charge now and then, and hours of frightful slaughter, when men saw red and killed with joy.
There was a little farm near Steinbach round which a battle raged for many days. Leading to it was a sunken road, defended by the enemy, until one day they put up a number of non-combatants from captured villages to prevent a French attack.
"Among them we could distinguish a woman, with her hair falling to her shoulders and her hands tied behind her back. This new infamy inflamed the courage of our soldiers. A company rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The road to the farm was swept by the enemy's fire, but nothing stopped our men. In spite of our losses we carried the position and are masters of the farm. There was no mercy in those moments of triumph. The ghastly business of war was done to the uttermost."
There were ghastly things in some of the enemy's trenches. One of the worst of them was seen in the forest of Apremont, in the district of Woevre, where the enemy was strongly entrenched in some quarries quite close to the French trenches which sapped their way forward to those pits. When the guns ceased firing the French soldiers often heard the sound of singing. But above the voices of the Germans there came sometimes a series of piercing cries like the screeching of an owl in a terrible plaint, followed by strange and blood-curdling laughter. It was the voice of a mad woman who was one of those captured from neighbouring villages and brought into the trenches by the Germans. One day the German soldiers carried her the length of their own trenches. Only her head was visible above the ground. She wore a German helmet above the wild hair which blew in wisps about her death-white face, and it 'seemed like a vision of hell as she passed shrieking with the laughter of insanity.
a French soldier-priest celebrating maas at the front
One turns from such horrors to the heroism of the French soldier, his devotion to his officers, his letters to that chere maman before whom his hearths always that of a little child, to the faith which saves men from at least the grosser brutalities of war.
One of the tragic ironies of the war was that men whose lives had been dedicated to the service of Christ, and whose hands should be clean of blood, found themselves compelled by the law of France (and in many cases urged by their own instincts of nationality) to serve as soldiers in the fighting ranks. Instead of denouncing from every pulpit the shamefulness of this butchery, which has made a mockery of our so-called civilization and involved all humanity in its crime, those priests and monks put themselves under discipline which sent them into the shambles in which they must kill or be killed. When the mobilization orders were issued, the call to the colours was sent to young cures and abbes through-out the country, and to monks belonging to religious orders banished by its politicians. Jesuits and Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites, who had been exiled from France for conscience' sake, hurried back at the first summons, dispensed from that Canon Law which forbids them to shed blood, and as Frenchmen, loving their country though it expelled them, rallied to the flag in the hour of peril. They were Christian priests, but they were also patriots, and Christianity is not so instinctive in its emotion as the spirit of nationality which, by some natural law, makes men on one side of a frontier eager to fight till death when they are challenged by men across the boundary line, forgetting their principles of peace and the command, "Thou shalt not kill," in their loyalty to their own soil, crown, or national ideas.
There were twenty thousand priests in the French army, and although many of them were acting according to their religious vocations as chaplains, or stretcher- bearers, the great majority were serving as simple soldiers in the ranks or as officers who had gained promotion by merit.
Although nothing may explain away the paradox that those whose duty it seems to preach the gospel of peace and charity should be helping to heap up the fields of Christendom with the corruption of dead bodies, there is at least this to be said : the priest-soldier in France has been a spiritual influence among his comrades, so that some of them fought with nobler motives than that of blood-lust, and went to death or victory, influenced not with hatred of fellow men, but with a conviction that out of all that death there would come a new life to nations, and that in killing their enemy they were killing a brutal tyranny with its grip upon the world, and a barbarism which would make human life a slavery.
A young priest who said his prayers before lying down on his straw mattress or in the mud of his trench, put a check upon blasphemy, and his fellows anti- clericals perhaps in the old days or frank materialists watched him curiously and were thoughtful after their watchfulness. It was easy to see that he was eager to give up his life as a sacrifice to the God of his faith. His courage had something supernatural in it, and he was careless of death. Then, again, he was the best comrade in the company. Never a grumble came from his lips, though he was as cold and wet and hungry as the others. He did a thousand little acts of service to his fellow soldiers, and especially to those who were most sullen, most brutal or most miserable. He spoke sometimes of the next life with a cheerful certainty which made death seem less than an end of things, and he was upborne with a strange fervour which gave a kind of glory to the most wretched toil.
Not a week passed without some priest being cited in the Order of the Day.
"Corporal Delabre Alphonse (priest of the diocese of Puy) and Private Miolane Antoine (priest of the diocese of Clermont) belonging to the 292nd Regiment of Infantry, distinguished themselves throughout the battle by an untiring gallantry and devotion, going to collect the wounded in the line and afterwards spending their nights in assisting the wounded and dying."
That is one notice out of hundreds which I had in official documents.
"M. l'Abbé Martin," says another, "having been wounded in the hand by a bursting shell, remained at his post in the line of fire, prodigal in his help to the wounded and in his consolations to the dying."
The Abbé Bertrand, vicar of St. Germain de Coulamer, was mobilized on the outbreak of war, and for his gallantry in the field promoted successively to the ranks of sergeant, sergeant-major, sub-lieutenant, and lieutenant. He fell on November 4 at the battle of Audrechy, leading his men to the assault. A few days before his death he wrote : "I always look upon this war as an expiation, and I am proud to be a victim."
And again : "Oh, how cold the rain is, and how severe the weather I For our faith in France I have offered God to let me be wet and soaked to the very bones."
The story of the Abbé Armand, in the 14.th battalion of the Chasseurs Alpins, is that of a hero. A simple man, he used to open his heart to his rough comrades, and often in the trenches, under shell-fire, he would recite the Psalms in a clear voice so that they could hear him. On November 17, to the south of Ypres, his company was selected to hold a dangerous position, swept by the heavy guns of the Germans and near the enemy's trenches. All day until the evening the priest and his comrades stayed there, raked by a hideous shell-fire. At last nearly all the men were killed, and on his side of the emplacement the Abbé Armand was left with two men alive. He signalled the fact to those below by raising three fingers, but shortly afterwards a bullet struck him so that he fell and another hit him in the stomach.
It was impossible to send help to him at the time, and he died half an hour later on the tumulus surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades. They buried him up there, and that night his loss was mourned, not without tears, by many rough soldiers who had loved the man for his cheeriness, and honoured him for the simple faith, which seemed to put a glamour about the mud-stained uniform of a soldier of France.
There were scores of stories like that, and the army lists contained the names of hundreds of these priest-soldiers decorated with the Legion of Honour or mentioned in dispatches for gallant acts.
The character of these men was filled with the spirit of Christian faith, though the war in which they sacrificed their lives was an outrage against Christianity itself. The riddle of it all bewilders one's soul, and one can only go groping in the dark of despair, glad of the little light which comes to the trench of the battlefield, because men like these still promise something better than hatred and blood, and look beyond the gates of death, to peace.
lining up for wine rations
Not all French soldiers are like these priests who were valiant with the spirit of Christian faith. Side by side with the priest was the apache, or the slum-dweller, or the peasant from the fields, who in conversation was habitually and unconsciously foul. Not even the mild protest of one of these priests could check the flow of richly imagined blasphemies which are learnt in the barracks during the three years' service, and in the bistros of the back streets of France from Cherbourg to Marseilles. But, as a rule, the priest did not protest, except by the example of keeping his own tongue clean. "What is the use ? " said one of them.
"That kind of thing is second nature to the men and, after all, it is part of my sacrifice."
Along the roads of France, swinging along to dig a new line of trenches, or on a march from a divisional headquarters to the front, the soldiers would begin one of their Rabelaisian songs which have no ending, but in verse after verse roam further into the purlieus of indecent mirth, so that, as one French officer told me, "these ballads used to make the heather blush." After the song would come the great game of French soldiers on the march. The humorist of the company would remark upon the fatigued appearance of a sous-officier near enough to hear.
"He is not in good form to-day, our little corporal. Perhaps it has something to do with his week-end in Paris ! "
Another humorist would take up the cue. "He has a great thirst, our corporal. His first bottle of wine just whets his whistle. At the sixth bottle he begins to think of drinking seriously ! "
"He is a great amourist, too, they tell me, and very passionate in his love-making !"
So the ball is started and goes rolling from one man to another in the ranks, growing in audacity and wallowing along filthy ways of thought, until the sous- officier, who had been grinning under his k6pi, suddenly turns red with anger and growls out a protest.
"Taisez-vous, cochons. Foutez-moi la paix ! "
All this obscenity of song and speech spoils the heroic picture a little, and yet does not mean very much in spite of its outrageous heights and depths. It belongs to the character of men who have faced all the facts of life with frank eyes, and find laughter in the grossest humours without losing altogether the finer sentiments of the heart and little delicacies of mind which seem untarnished by the rank weeds which grow in human nature. Laughter is one of the great needs of the French soldier. In war he must laugh or lose all courage. So if there is a clown in the company he may be as coarse as one of Shakespeare's jesters as long as he be funny, and it is with the boldness of one of Shakespeare's heroes like Benedick that a young Frenchman, however noble in his blood, seizes the ball of wit and tosses it higher. Like D'Artagnan, he is not squeamish, though a very gallant gentleman.
marching to battle
The spirit of D'Artagnan is not dead. Along many roads of France I have met gay fellows whose courage has the laughing quality of that Musketeer, and his Gascon audacity which makes a jest of death itself. In spite of all the horrors of modern warfare, with its annihilating shell-fire and the monstrous ruthlessness of great guns, the French soldier at his best retains that quality of youth which soars even above the muck and misery of the trenches.
The character of a young lieutenant of artillery, who came to fill the place of a poor fellow killed at the side of his caisson, is typical of innumerable soldiers of France. He presented himself with a jaunty good humour, made a little speech to his battery which set all the men laughing, and then shook hands with them one by one. Next day he knew each man by name, used the familiar "thee" and "thou" to them, and won their hearts by his devil-may-care manners and the smile which came from a heart amused by life. Everything was a joke to him. He baptized his four guns by absurd nicknames, and had a particular affection for old "Bumps," which had been scarred by several shells. The captain called this young gentleman Lieutenant Mascot, because he had a lucky way with him. He directed the aim of his guns with astounding skill. A German battery had to shift very quickly five minutes after his first shell had got away, and when the enemy's fire was silenced, he would call out, "Don't chuck any more," to the telephone operator. That was his way of ordering the cease-fire.
But Lieutenant "Mascot," one day jumped on the top of a hayrick to direct the marksmanship of his battery, and a moment later a German shell burst above him and scattered part of the rick in all directions. It was a moment of anguish for the onlookers. The captain became as pale as death, and the gunners went on plugging out shells in an automatic way with grief-stricken faces. The telephone man put his head out of his dugout. He stared at the broken rick. Beyond doubt Monsieur Mascot was as dead as mutton. Suddenly, with the receiver at his ear and transfigured, he began to shout : "Don't chuck any more !" It was the lieutenant who had sent him the usual order. Ten minutes later the lieutenant came back laughing gaily and, after shaking some straw out of his muddy uniform, gave a caressing touch to old " Bumps," who had got the enemy's range to perfection. . . Then the captain embraced him.
The spirit of youth and the spirit of faith cannot rob war of its horrors, nor redeem the crime in which all humanity is involved, nor check the slaughter that goes on incessantly. But they burn with a bright light out of the darkness, and make the killing of men less beastlike. The soul of France has not been destroyed by this war, and no German guns shattering the beauty of old towns and strewing the northern fields with the bodies of beautiful young manhood could be victorious over this nation, which, with all her faults, her incredulities and passions, has at the core a spiritual fervour which lifts it above the clay of life.
The soldiers of France have learnt the full range of human suffering, so that one cannot grudge them their hours of laughter, however coarse their mirth. There were many armies of men from Ypres to St. Mihiel who were put to greater tasks of courage than were demanded of the human soul in mediseval torture chambers, and they passed through the ordeal with a heroism which belongs to the splendid things of history. As yet the history has been written only in brief bulletins stating facts baldly, as when on a Saturday in March of 1915 it was stated that In Malancourt Wood, between the Argonne and the Meuse, the enemy sprayed one of our trenches with burning liquid so that it had to be abandoned.
The occupants were badly burnt." That official account does not convey in any way the horror which overwhelmed the witnesses of the new German method of attacking trenches by drenching them with inflammatory liquid. A more detailed narrative of this first attack by liquid fire was given by one of the soldiers ;
"It was yesterday evening, just as night fell, that it happened. The day had been fairly calm, with the usual quantity of bursting shells overhead, and nothing forewarned us of a German attack. Suddenly one of my comrades. shouted, ' Hallo ! what is this coming down on us ? Anyone would think it was petroleum.' At that time we could not believe the truth, but the liquid which began to spray on us was certainly some kind of petroleum. The Germans were pumping it from hoses. Our sub-lieutenant made us put out our pipes. But it was a useless precaution. A few seconds later incendiary bombs began to rain down on us and the whole trench burst into flame. It was like being in hell. Some of the men began to scream terribly, tearing off their clothes, trying to beat out the flames. Others were cursing and choking in the hot vapour which stifled us. 'Oh, my Christ! ' cried a comrade of mine. ' They've blinded me!'
In order to complete their work those German bandits took advantage of our disturbance by advancing on the trench and throwing burning torches into it. None of us escaped that torrent of fire. We had our eyebrows and eyelashes burnt off, and clothes were burnt in great patches and our flesh was sizzling like roasting meat. But some of us shot through the greasy vapour which made a cloud about us and some of those devils had to pay for their game."
Although some of them had become harmless torches and others lay charred to death, the trench was not abandoned until the second line were ready to make a counter-attack, which they did with fixed bayonets, frenzied by the shrieks which still came from the burning pit where those comrades lay, and flinging themselves with the ferocity of wild beasts upon the enemy, who fled after leaving three hundred dead and wounded on the ground.
temporary shelters along the front lines
Along five hundred miles of front such scenes took place week after week, month after month, from Artois to the Argonne, not always with inflammatory liquid, but with hand grenades, bombs, stink-shells, fire balls, smoke balls, and a storm of shrapnel. The deadly monotony of the life in wet trenches, where men crouched in mud, cold, often hungry, in the abyss of misery, unable to put their heads above ground for a single second without risk of instant death, was broken only by "the attacks and counter-attacks when the order was given to leave the trench and make one of those wild rushes for a hundred yards or so in which the risks of death were at heavy odds against the chances of life. Let a French soldier describe the scene:
"Two sections of infantry have crouched since morning on the edge of a wood, waiting for the order which hurls them to the assault of that stupid and formidable position which is made up of barbed wire in front of the advanced trenches. Since midday the guns thunder without cessation, sweeping the ground. The Germans answer with great smashing blows, and it is the artillery duel which precedes heroic work.
Every one knows that when the guns are silent the brief order which will ring out above the huddled men will hold their promise of death. Yet those men talk quietly, and there are some of them who in this time of danger find some poignant satisfaction, softening their anguish, in calling up the memory of those dear beings whom perhaps they will never see again. With my own ears I have heard a great fair-headed lad expatiate to all his neighbours on the pretty ways of his little daughter who is eight years old. A kind of dry twittering interrupts his discourse. The field telegraph, fixed up in a tree, has called the lieutenant. At the same moment the artillery fired a few single shots and then was silent. The officer drew his watch, let ten minutes pass, and then said, 'Get up,' in the same tranquil and commonplace tones with which a corporal says 'attention ' on parade ground. It was the order to go forward. Every one understood and rose up, except five men whom a nervous agony chained to their ground. They had been demoralized by their long wait and weakened by their yearnings for the abandoned homes, and were in the grip of fear. The lieutenant a reservist who had a little white in his beard looked at the five defaulters without anger. Then he drew, not his sword from its scabbard, but a cigarette from its case, lighted it, and said simply:
" 'Eh bien ?'
"Who can render the intonation of that 'Eh bien' ? What actor could imitate it ? In that 'Eh bien? ' there was neither astonishment nor severity, nor brusque recall to duty, but rather the compassionate emotion of an elder brother before a youngster's weakness which he knows is only a passing mood. That 'Eh bien ?' how he put into it, this elder of ours, so much pitiful authority, such sweetness of command, such brotherly confidence, and also such strength of will. The five men sprang up. . . . And you know that we took the village after having fought from house to house. At the angle of two alleys the lieutenant was killed, and that is why the two notes of his 'Eh bien ?' will always echo in my heart as the fine call of an unrecorded heroism. It appears that this war must be impersonal it is the political formula of the time and it is forbidden to mention names. Eh bien ? Have I named any one ?"
in the trenches
Out of the monotonous narratives of trench-warfare, stories more horrible than the nightmare phantasies of Edgar Alien Poe, stories of men buried alive by sapping and mining, and of men torn to bits by a subterranean explosion which leaves one man alive amidst the litter of his comrades' limbs so that he goes mad and laughs at the frightful humour of death, come now and then to reveal the meaning of this modern warfare which is hidden by censors behind decent veils. It is a French lieutenant who tells this story, which is heroic as well as horrid:
"We were about to tidy up a captured trench. At the barrier of sand-bags which closed up one end of it, two sentinels kept a sharp look-out so that we could work in peace of mind. Suddenly from a tunnel, hidden by a fold in the ground, an avalanche of bombs was hurled over our heads, and before we could collect our wits ten of our men had fallen dead and wounded, all hugger-mugger. I opened my mouth to shout a word of command when a pebble, knocked by a piece of shell, struck me on the head and I fell, quite dazed. But my unconsciousness only lasted a second or two. A bursting shell tore off my left hand and I was awakened by the pain of it. When I opened my eyes and groaned, I saw the Germans Jump across the sand-bags and invade the trench. There were twenty of them. They had no rifles, but each man carried a sort of wicker basket filled with bombs. I looked round to the left. All our men had fled except those who were lying in their blood. And the Germans were coming on. Another slip or two and they would have been on the top of me. At that moment one of my men, wounded in the forehead, wounded in the chin, and with his face all in a pulp of blood, sat up, snatched at a bag of hand grenades, and shouted out :
"Arise, ye dead ! "
He got on his knees, and began to fling his bombs into the crowd of Germans. At his call, tlie other wounded men struggled up. Two with broken legs grasped their rifle and opened fire. The hero with his left arm hanging limp, grabbed a bayonet. When I stood up, with all my senses about me now, some of the Germans were wounded and others were scrambling out of the trench in a panic. But with his back to the sand-bags stayed a German Unteroffizier, enormous, sweating, apoplectic with rage, who fired two revolver shots in our direction. The man who had first organized the defence of the trench the hero of that "Arise, ye dead !" received a shot full in the throat and fell. But the man who held the bayonet and who had dragged himself from corpse to corpse, staggered up at four feet from the sand-bags, missed death from two shots, and plunged his weapon into the German's throat. The position was saved, and it was as though the dead had really risen.
off to war
The French soldier, as I have said, is strangely candid in the analysis of his emotions, and is not ashamed of confessing his fears. I remember a young lieutenant of Dragoons who told me of the terror which took possession of him when the enemy's shrapnel first burst above his head.
"As every shell came whizzing past, and then burst, I ducked my head and wondered whether it was this shell which was going to kill me, or the next. The shrapnel bullets came singing along with a 'Tue ! Tue !' Ah, that is a bad song ! But most of all I feared the rifle-shots of an infantry attack. I could not help glancing sideways at the sound of that 'Zip ! zip ! zip !' There was something menacing and deadly in it, and one cannot dodge the death which comes with one of these little bullets. It is horrible !"
And yet this man, who had an abscess in his leg after riding for weeks in his saddle and who had fought every day and nearly every night for a fortnight, was distressed because he had to retire from his squadron for awhile until his leg healed. In five days at the most he would go back again to hell hating the horror of it all, fearing those screeching shells and hissing bullets, yet preferring to die for France rather than remain alive and inactive when his comrades were fighting.
Imagine the life of one of these cavalrymen, as I heard it described by many of them in the beginning of the war.
They were sent forward on a reconnaissance a patrol of six or eight. The enemy was known to be in the neighbourhood. It was necessary to get into touch with him, to discover his strength, to kill some of his outposts, and then to fall back to the division of cavalry and report the facts. Not an easy task ! It quite often happened that only one man out of six came back to tell the tale, surprised at his own luck. The German scouts had clever tricks.
One day near Bethune they played one of them a favourite one. A friend of mine led six of his dragoons towards a village where Uhlans had been seen. They became visible at a turn of the road, and after firing a few shots with their carbines turned tail and fled. The French dragoons gave chase, across some fields and round the edge of a quiet wood. Suddenly at this point the Uhlans reined in their horses and out of the wood came the sudden shattering fire of a German quickfirer. Fortunately it was badly aimed, and my friend with his six dragoons was able to gallop away from that infernal machine which had so cleverly ambushed them.
There was no rest for the cavalry in those first days of the war. The infantry had its bivouac every day, there was rest sometimes in the trenches, but the cavalry had to push on always upon new adventures to check the enemy in his advance.
A young Russian officer in the French dragoons told me that he had been fighting since the beginning of the war with never more than three hours sleep a night and often no sleep at all. On many nights those brief hours of rest were in beetroot fields in which the German shrapnel had been searching for victims, and he awakened now and then to listen to the well-known sound of that singing death before dozing off again.
It was " Boot and saddle " at four o'clock in the morning, before the dawn. It was cold then a cold which made men tremble as with an ague. A cup of black coffee was served, and a piece of bread.
The Russian officer of French dragoons, who has lived in British Colonies, saw a vision then a false mirage of a British breakfast. It was the thought of grilled bloaters, followed by ham and eggs, which unmanned him for a moment.
Ten minutes later the cavalry was moving away. A detachment was sent forward on a mission of peril, to guard a bridge. There was a bridge near Bethune one night guarded by a little patrol. It was only when the last man had been killed that the Germans made their way across.
Through the darkness these mounted men leaned forward over their saddles, peering for the enemy, listening for any jangle of stirrup or clink of bit. On that night there came a whisper from the cavalry leader.
"They are coming ! ... Quiet there ! "
A file of dark shadows moved forward. The dragoons swung their carbines forward. There was a volley of shots before a cry rang out.
"Cessez feu ! Cessez feu ! "
The cry had been heard before from German officers speaking excellent French, but this time there was no. treachery in it. The shadows who moved forward through the night were Frenchmen changing from one trench to another.
The infantryman had a hard time, too. It was true that theoretically he might sometimes snatch a few hours of sleep in a trench or out in an open field, but actually the coldness of the night was often an acute agony, which kept him awake. The food question was a difficult one. When there was heavy fighting to be done, and rapid marching, the provisions became as theoretical as the hours of sleep.
I heard the graphic recital of a sergeant of infantry, which was typical of many others in those early days.
His section awakened one morning near Armentieres with a famishing hunger, to find an old peasant woman coming up with a great barrow-load of potatoes.
" These are for your breakfast, my little ones," she said. " See, I have some faggots here. If you care to make a fire there will be roast potatoes for you in twenty minutes."
"Madame, you are too kind," said my sergeant. He helped to make the fire, to pack it with potatoes. He added his eloquence to that of his comrades when the fragrant smell , made his nostrils quiver. And just as the potatoes were nearly done up came a motor cyclist with orders that the section was to move on immediately to a place fifteen kilometres away.
It was a tragedy ! There were tearful farewells to those potatoes. Fifteen kilometres away there was a chateau, and a friendly lady, and a good cook who prepared a dinner of excellent roast beef and most admirable fried potatoes. And just as the lady came to say "Mes amis. Ie diner est servi," up panted a Belgian cyclist with the news that German cavalry was advancing in strong force accompanied by 500 motor-cars with mitrailleuses and many motor-cycles, and a battery of horse artillery. It was another tragedy ! And the third took place sixteen hours later, when this section of infantry which had been marching most of that time lay down on an open field to sleep without a supper.
Yet "Nothing matters except the rain," said a friend of mine in the French artillery. He shrugged his shoulders as he - spoke, and an expression of disgust came upon his bearded face. He was thinking, perhaps, of his beloved guns, which lose their mobility in the quagmires of the fields. But the rain is bad also for men and beasts. It takes eight days for a French overcoat to get thoroughly dry after a bad wetting. Even the cavalryman's cloak is a poor shield against the driving rain, and at night wet straw or a water pool in a trench is not a pleasant kind of bed.
"War," said one of the French officers with whom I have chatted, " is not only fighting, as some people seem to think. The physical discomforts are more dangerous to one's health than shrapnel. And it is par exemple the impossibility of changing one's linen for weeks and weeks which saps one's moral fibre more than the risk of losing one's head."
The risk of death is taken lightly by all these men. It is curious, indeed, that almost every French soldier has a conviction that he will die in battle sooner or later. In moments of imagination he sees his own corpse lying out in the field, and is full of pity for his wife and children. But it does not destroy his courage or his gift of gaiety or his desire to fight for France or his sublime endurance of pain.
The wounded men who pour down from the battlefields are incredibly patient. I have seen them stand on a wounded leg to give their places in a railway-carriage to peasant women with their babies. They have used their bandaged hands to lift up the baskets of refugees. They forget their wounds in remembering their adventures, and the simple soldier describes his combats with a vivid eloquence not to be attained by the British Tommy, who has no gift of words.
The French soldier has something in his blood and strain which uplifts him as a fighting man, and gives him the quality of chivalry. Peasant or bourgeois or of patrician stock he has always the fine manners of a gentleman, and to know him in the field is to love the humour and temper of the man.
setting off for the front lines
Yet there were some men in the French army, as in our own, who showed how thin is the veneer which hides the civilized being from the primitive savage, to whom there is a joy in killing, like the wild animal who hunts his prey in the jungles and desert places. One such man comes to my mind now.
He was in the advanced lines near Albert, but was always restless in the trench. As soon as darkness came he would creep out and crawl on his belly across the swampy ground to a deep hole dug by the explosion of a marmite quite close to the German lines. Here he found a hiding-place from which he could take " pot shots " at any German soldiers who under cover of darkness left their burrows to drag in the bodies of their comrades or to gather bits of wood with which to make a floor to their trenches. They were quite unconscious of that man in the hole staring down the length of his rifle, and listening intently for any sound which would betray an enemy. Every night he shot two or three men, perfectly patient in his long cold vigil if he could have that " luck." Then at dawn he would crawl back again, bringing a helmet or two with him, a cartridge belt or some other trophy as a sign of his success.
One night he shot a man who had stumbled quite close to his pit, and some great instinct of pity for his victim stirred in him, so that he risked a double journey over the open ground to fetch a spade with which he buried the man. But soon afterwards he added to his "bag" of human life. In his own trench he spoke very little and always seemed to be waiting for the hour when he could crawl out again like a Red Indian in search of scalps. He was the primitive man, living like one of his ancestors of the Stone Age, except for the fire-stick with which he was armed and the knowledge of the arts and beauties of modern life in his hunter's head. For he was not a French Canadian from the backwoods, or an Alpine chasseur from lonely mountains, but a well-known lawyer from a French provincial town, with the blood and education of a gentleman.
As a queer character this man is worth remembering by those who study the psychology of war, but he is not typical of the soldiers of France, who in the mass nave no blood- lust, and hate butchering their fellow beings, except in their moments of mad excitement, made up of fear as well as of rage, when to the shout of " En avant! "they leap out of the trenches and charge a body of Germans, stabbing and slashing with their bayonets, clubbing men to death with the butt-ends of their rifles, and for a few minutes of devilish intoxication, with the smell of blood in their nostrils, and with blood-shot eyes, rejoicing in slaughter.
"We did not listen to the cries of surrender or to the beseeching plaints of the wounded," said a French soldier, describing one of these scenes. " We had no use for prisoners and on both sides there was no quarter given in this Argonne wood.
Better than fixed bayonets was an unfixed bayonet grasped as a dagger. Better than any bayonet was a bit of iron or a broken gun-stock, or a sharp knife. In that hand-to- hand fighting there was no shooting but only the struggling of interlaced bodies, with fists and claws grabbing for each other's throats. I saw men use teeth and bite their enemy to death with their jaws, gnawing at their wind- pipes. This is modern war in the twentieth century or one scene in it and it is only afterwards, if one escapes with life, that one is stricken with the thought of all that horror which has debased us as low as the beasts lower than beasts, because we have an intelligence and a soul to teach us better things." .
The soldiers of France- have an intelligence which makes them, or most of them, revolt from the hideous work they have to do and cry out against this infamy which has been thrust upon them by a nation which compelled the war. Again and again, for ,nine months and more, I have heard French soldiers ask the question, " Why are such things allowed by God ? What is the use of civilization if it leads to this ? " And, upon my soul, I could not answer them.
men of all ages under the colors
The mobilization of all the manhood of France, from boys of eighteen and nineteen to men of forty-five, was a demonstration of national unity and of a great people rising as one man in self-defence, which to the Englishman was an astounding and overwhelming phenomenon.
Though I knew the meaning of it and it had no real surprises for me, I could never avoid the sense of wonderment when I met young aristocrats marching in the ranks as common soldiers, professors, poets, priests and painters, as hairy and dirty as the poilus who had come from the farms and the meat markets, millionaires and the sons of millionaires driving automobiles as military chauffeurs or as orderlies to officers upon whom they waited respectfully, forbidden to sit at table with them in public places, and having to "keep their place" at all times. Even now I am astonished at a system which makes young merchants abandon their businesses at a moment's notice to serve in the ranks, and great employers of labour go marching with their own labourers, giving only a backward glance at the ruin of their property and their trade. There is something magnificent in this, but all one's admiration of a universal military service which abolishes all distinctions of class and wealth after all there were not many embusqués, or privileged exemples need not blind one to abuses and unnecessary hardships inflicted upon large numbers of men.
Abuses there have been in France, as was inevitable in a system like this, and this general call to the colours inflicted an enormous amount of suffering upon men who would have suffered more willingly if it had been to serve France usefully. But in thousands and hundreds of thousands of cases there was no useful purpose served. General Joffre had as many men as he could manage along the fighting lines. More would have choked up his lines of communication and the whole machinery of the war. But behind the front there were millions of men in reserve, and behind them vast bodies of men idling in depots, crowded into barracks, and eating their hearts out for lack of work. They had been forced to abandon their homes and their professions, and yet during the whole length of the war they found no higher duty to do for France than sweep out a barrack-yard or clean out a military latrine. It was especially hard upon the reformés men of delicate health who had been exempted from their military service in their youth but who now were re-examined by the Conseil de Revision and found " good for auxiliary service in time of war."
To the old soldiers who have done their three years a return to the barracks is not so distressing. They know what the life is like and the rude discipline of it does not shock them.
But to the reformé, sent to barracks for the first time at thirty-five or forty years of age, it is a moral sacrifice which is almost unendurable. After the grief of parting from his wife and children and the refinements of his home, he arrives at the barracks inspired by the best sentiments, happy in the idea of being useful to his country, of serving like other Frenchmen. But when he has gone through the great gate, guarded by soldiers with loaded rifles, when he has changed his civil clothes for an old and soiled uniform, when he has found that his bed is a filthy old mattress in a barn where hundreds of men are quartered, when he has received for the first time certain brief and harsh orders from a sous-officier, and finally, when he goes out again into the immense courtyard, surrounded by high grey walls, a strange impression of solitude takes hold of him, and he finds himself abandoned, broken and imprisoned.
Many of these reformés are men of delicate health, suffering from heart or chest complaints, but in these barracks there is no comfort for the invalid. I know one of them in which nearly seven hundred men slept together in a great garret, with only one window and a dozen narrow skylights, so that the atmosphere was suffocating above their rows of straw trusses, rarely changed and of indescribable filth. But what hurts the spirits of men who have attained good positions in civil life, who have said to this man " Go ! " and he goeth, and to that man " Come! " and he cometh, is to find their positions reversed and to be under the orders of a corporal or sergeant with a touch of the bully about him, happy to dominate men more educated and more intelligent than himself. I can quote an example of an aristocrat who, in spite of his splendid chateau in the country, was mobilized as a simple soldat. At the barracks this gentleman found that his corporal was a labourer in the village where the old chateau stands. In order to amuse himself the corporal made M. Ie Chatelain do all the dirtiest jobs, such as sweeping the rooms, cleaning the staircases and the lavatories. At the same barracks were a number of priests, including an archipretre, who was about to become a bishop.
Even the most ferocious anti-clericals in the caserne had to acknowledge that these men were excellent soldiers and good comrades. They submitted to all inconveniences, did any task as though it were a religious duty, and submitted to the rough life among men of foul speech with a wonderful resignation. But that did not save them from the tyranny of a sous-officier, who called them the hardest names his tongue could find when they made any faux pas in their barrack drill, and swore as terribly as those in Flanders when they did not obey his commands with the lightning rapidity of soldiers who have nothing more to learn. These cases could be multiplied by hundreds of thousands, and for men of refinement there was a long torture in their barracks when there was no mental satisfaction in useful work for France. Yet their sacrifice has not been in vain perhaps.
"They serve who only stand and wait," and they proved by their submission to the system a loyalty and a patriotism equal to those who went into the trenches. They, too, who know what war means for war is not only at the front will come back with a deep-rooted hatred of militarism which will make it more difficult in future for politicians who breathe out fire and slaughter and urge a people to take up arms for any other cause than that of self-defence.
an improvised concert in a ruined village
It is curious how long the song of La Marseillaise has held its power. It has been like a leit-motif through all the drama of this war in France, through the spirit of the French people waiting patiently for victory, hiding their tears for the dead, consoling their wounded and their cripples, and giving their youngest and their manhood to the God of War.
What is the magic in this tune so that if one hear it even on a cheap piano in an auxiliary hospital, or scraped thinly on a violin in a courtyard of Paris, it thrills one horribly ? On the night of August 2, when I travelled from Paris to Nancy, it seemed to me that France sang La Marseillaise the strains of it rose from every wayside station and that out of its graveyards across those dark hills and fields, with a thin luminous line on the far horizon the ghosts of slain soldiers rose to sing it to those men who were going to fight again for liberty.
Since then it has always been in my ears. I heard it that night in Amiens when the French army was in retreat, and when all the young men of the city, not yet called to the colours because of their youth, escaped hurriedly on truck trains before a bridge was blown up, so that if they stayed they would be prisoners in German hands. It was these boys who sang it, with fresh, clear voices, joining in a fine chorus, though not far away the soldiers of France were limping through the night from abandoned positions :
Entendess-vous, dans les campagnes, Mugir ces féroces soldats ? Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras Egorger nos fils, nos compagnes !
Aux armes, citoyens ! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons ! . . .
I listened to those boys' voices, and something of the history of the song put its spell upon me then. There was the passion of old heroism in it, of old and bloody deeds, with the wild wars of revolution and lust for liberty. Rouget de Lisle wrote it one night at Strasburg, when he was drunk, says the legend. But it was not the drunkenness of wine which inspired his soul. It was the drunkenness of that year 1792, when the desire of liberty made Frenchmen mad. . . The men of Marseilles came singing it into Paris. The Parisians heard and caught up the strains. It marched to the victories of the Republican armies. "We fought one against ten," wrote a French general, "but La Marseillaise was on our side." " Send us," wrote another general, "ten thousand men and one copy of La Marseillaise, and I will answer for victory."
A hundred years and more have passed since then, but the tune has not gone stale. Again and again in the Orders of the Day one read that " the company went into action singing La Marseillaise, Lieutenant X was still singing when, after carrying the enemy's position, he was shot in the throat " ; or " the Chasseurs Alpins climbed the ridge to the song of La Marseillaise."
The spirit of it runs through the narrative of a French infantryman who described an action in the Argonne, where his regiment held a village heavily attacked by the enemy. There was street-fighting of the fiercest kind, and hand-to-hand combats in the houses and even in the cellars. "Blood," he wrote, "ran in the gutters like water on a rainy day." The French soldiers were being hard pressed and reserves came with their new regiments in the nick of time.
"Suddenly the Marseillaise rang out while the bugles of the three regiments sounded the charge. From where we stood by the fire of burning houses we could see the action very clearly, and never again shall I see anything more fantastic than those thousands of red legs charging in close ranks. The grey legs began to tremble (they do not love the bayonet), and the Marseillaise continued with the bugles, while our guns vomited without a pause. Our infantry had closed with the enemy. Not a shot now, but cold steel. . . . Suddenly the charge ceased its bugle-notes. They sounded instead the call to the flag. Au drapeau! Our flag was captured 1 Instinctively we ceased fire, thunderstruck. Then very loud and strong the Marseillaise rang out above the music of the bugles, calling Au drapeau again and again. We saw the awful melee, the struggle to the death with that song above all the shouting and the shrieks. . . . You who imagine you know La Marseillaise because you have heard it played at prize distributions must acknowledge your error. In order to know it you must have heard it as I have tried to tell you, when blood is flowing and the flag of France is in danger."
To this soldier it is an intolerable thought that he should hear the hymn of victory sung at a " prize distribution," or in a music-hall scented with the perfume of women. But even in a music-hall in Paris, or in a third-rate cabaret in a provincial town, the song may be heard with all its magic. I heard it one night in such a place, where the song was greater than the singer. French poilus were in the hall, crippled or convalescent, after their day of battle, and with their women around them they stood at attention while the national hymn was sung. They knew the meaning of it, and the women knew. Some of them became quite pale, with others faces flushed. Their eyes were grave, but with a queer fire in them as the verses rang out. ... It seemed to me as I stood there in this hall, filled with stale smoke and woman's scent, that I smelt blood, and gunpowder, and heard through the music of the Marseillaise the shouts of hoarse voices, charging with the bayonet, the screams of wounded, and then the murmur of a battlefield when dawn comes, lighting the tattered flags of France.
listening to a tale of the trenches
The soldiers of France in that strange land called Ia-bas had one consolation which should have helped them a little did help them, I think, more than a little to endure the almost intolerable misery of their winter quarters at the front in one of the wettest half years within living memory. They stood in the waterlogged trenches, shivering and coughing, they tramped through cotton-wool mists with heavy overcoats which had absorbed many quarts of rain, they slept at nights in barns through which the water dripped on to puddled straw, or in holes beneath the carts with dampness oozing through the clay walls, or in boggy beet-root fields under a hail of shrapnel, and their physical discomfort of coldness and humidity was harder to bear than their fear of death or mutilation.
But throughout those months of mud and blood a spirit came to visit them in their trenches, and though it could not cure frozen feet or put a healing touch for men spitting blood and coughing their lungs away, it warmed the hearts of men who otherwise would have been chilled to a moral death. The love of women and of all those people who had not been called upon to fight went out to those poilus at the front, in waves of emotion which reached as far as the advanced trenches. By millions of letters, which in spite of an almost hopeless muddle of the postal service did at last reach the soldier, they knew that France, the very heart of France, was full of pity and hero-worship and yearning for them. By the gifts which came to them after months of delay, sometimes not only from their own kinsfolk but from unknown benefactors, school children, convents, societies, and all classes of men and women, they knew that their sufferings were understood and that throughout the country there was a great prayer going up from freethinkers as well as from Catholic souls that the soldiers of France might be blessed with victory and that they might have the strength to endure the cruelties of war. It may be thought that this sentiment would not comfort a man lying on his stomach as sentinel on outpost duty, staring through the mist and rain, and listening for the slightest sound of an approaching enemy, or a man crouching beneath a ledge of earth, waiting for the quiet words of En avant! which would make him scramble up and go into a storm of shells with a fair chance of being cut to bits by flying scythes.
But in truth the sentiment that came welling up to those men at the front was of infinite comfort and kept alight a flame in them which no winter wind could douse. That sentinel on his stomach, gripping a cold rifle with numbed hands, and cursing silently the fate which had brought him to this agony, checked the fear that was creeping up to his heart was that a line of Boches stealing through the mist ? when he thought that the women he knew, the folk in the Normandy village, the old curé, and all the spirit of France had made a hero of him and expected him to bear himself bravely, and in imagination stood beside him to share his vigil. In order not to spoil the image they had made of him, to live up to their ideals of him. he must hold on and kill these little devils of fear, and die, if need be, as a gallant soldier of France. It would be fine to come back with a stripe on his arm, perhaps with the military medal on his breast. . . . But oh, the pain in those frozen feet of his ! and the coldness of this bed of mud !
Poor devils! hundreds of them have told me their stories and at the end of a tale of misery have said : "I do not complain, you know. It's war, and I am glad to do my duty for the sake of France." And yet sometimes, when they thought back, to the homes they had left, and their old ways of civil life, they had moments of weakness in which all the strength of their souls seemed to ebb away.
"It's fatal to think of one's life before the war," said a young Frenchman who sat with me at the table of a little cafe not far from the front. He was a rich young man, with a great business in Paris which had been suspended on the first day of mobilization, and with a pretty young wife who had just had her first baby. Now he was a simple soldier, and. for nine months he had not seen Paris or his home or his pretty wife. The baby's eyes were grey-blue, it seemed, but he had not been able to test the truth of that description.
"As a rule," he said, " one doesn't think back to one's old life. A great gulf lies between us and the past and it is as though one had been bom again just to be a soldier in this war. The roots of our former existence have been torn up. All one's old interests have been buried. My wife ? I hardly ever think of her. My home ? Is there such a place ? ... It is only at night, or suddenly, sometimes, as one goes marching with one's company that one's thoughts begin to roam back over old grounds for a moment or two. The other fellows know what one's silence means, and one's deafness, so that one doesn't hear a neighbour's joke or answer his question. It gives one a horrible heartache and one is overwhelmed with depression. . . Great God, how long is this war going to last ? "
in the rear lines
It is only those who have been to the front in France who can realize the life of the men there as it went on month after month the misery of it, the dreariness of it, the lack of any thrill except that of fear. At the end of April in this year 1915 I went to the most desolate part of the French front, along the battlefields of Champagne, where after nine months of desperate fighting the guns were still at work ceaselessly and great armies of France and Germany were still divided from each other by a few barren meadows, a burnt wood or two, a river bank, a few yards of trenches and a zone of Death.
It was in Champagne-Pouilleuse mangy Champagne it is called, because it has none of the richness of the vineyard country, but is a great stretch of barren land through which the chalk breaks out in bald patches. The spirit of war brooded over all this countryside, and I passed through many ruined villages, burnt and broken by incendiarism and shell-fire. Gradually as we approached nearer to the front, the signs of ordinary life were left behind, and we came into a region where all the activities of men were devoted to one extraordinary purpose, and where they lived in strange conditions.
No civilian came this way unless as a correspondent under the charge of a staff officer. The labourers on the roadside carting stones to this country of chalk were all in uniform. No women invaded this territory except, where, here and there, by rare chance, a wrinkled dame drove a plough across a lonely field. No children played about the brooks or plucked the wild flowers on the hillsides. The inhabitants of this country were all soldiers, tanned by months of hard weather, in war-worn clothes, dusty after marching down the long, white roads, hard and tough in spite of a winter's misery, with calm, resolute eyes in spite of the daily peril of death in which they live.
They lived in a world which is as different from this known world of ours as though they belonged to another race of men inhabiting another planet, or to an old race far back behind the memory of the first civilization. For in this district of Champagne, the soldiers of France were earth-men or troglodytes, not only in the trenches, but for miles behind the trenches. When the rains came last autumn they were without shelter, and there were few villages on this lonely stretch of country in which to billet them.
But here were soft, chalky ridges and slopes in which it was not difficult to dig holes and caverns. The troops took to picks and shovels, and very soon they built habitations for themselves in which they have been living ever since when not in the trenches.
I was invited into some of these subterranean parlours, and ducked my head as I went down clay steps into dim caves where three or four men lived in close comradeship in each of them. They had tacked the photographs of their wives or sweethearts on the walls, to make these places "homelike," and there was space in some of them for wood fires, which burned with glowing embers and a smoke that made my eyes smart, so that by the light of them these soldiers would see the portraits of those who wait for them to come back, who have waited so patiently and so long through the dreary months.
But now that spring had come the earth-men had emerged from their holes to bask in the sun again, and with that love of beauty which is instinctive in a Frenchman's heart, they were planting gardens and shrubberies outside their chalk dwellings with allegorical designs in cockle-shells or white stones.
"Tres chic ! " said the commandant to a group of soldiers proud to their handicraft.
And chic also, though touching in its sentiment, was a little graveyard behind a fringe of branches which mask a French battery. The gunners were still at work plugging out shells over the enemy's lines, from which came answering shells with the challenge of death, but they had found time to decorate the graves of the comrades who had been "unfortunate." They had twined wild flowers about the wooden crosses and made borders of blossom about those mounds of earth. It was the most beautiful cemetery in which I have ever stood with bared head. Death was busy not far away. Great guns were speaking in deep, reverberating tones, which gave a solemn import to the day ; but Nature was singing to a different tune.
"It is strange, is it not," said our commandant, this contrast between war and peace ? Those cherry trees comfort one's spirit."
He was a soldier in every fibre of his being, but behind those keen, piercing eyes of his there was the sentiment of France stirred now by the beauty through which we passed, in spite of war. We drove for a mile or more down a long, straight road which was an avenue of cherry trees. They made an archway of white blossom above our heads, and the warm sun of the day drew out their perfume. Away on either side of us the fields were streaked with long rays of brilliant yellow where saffron grew as though the sun had split bars of molten metal there, and below the hillside the pear-blossom and cherry- blossom which bloomed in deserted orchards lay white and gleaming like snow on the Swiss peaks in summer.
"Even war is less horrible now that the sun shines," said a French officer.
The sky was cloudlessly blue, but as I gazed up into a patch of it, where a winged machine flew high with a humming song, five tiny white clouds appeared quite suddenly.
"They are shelling him," said the commandant. " Pretty close too."
Invisible in the winged machine was a French aviator, reconnoitring the German lines away over Beausejour. Afterwards he became visible, and I talked with him when he had landed in the aviation field, where a number of aeroplanes stood ready for flight.
"They touched her three times," he said, pointing to his machine. " You can see the holes where the shrapnel bullets pierced the metal sheath."
He showed me how he worked his mitrailleuse, and then strolled away to light a cigarette against the wind. He had done his morning job, and had escaped death in the air by half an inch or so. But in the afternoon he would go up again 2000 feet up above the German guns and thought no more of it than of just a simple duty with a little sport to keep his spirits up.
"We are quite at home here," said one of the French officers, leading the way through a boyau, or tunnel, to a row of underground dwellings which had been burrowed out of the earth below a high ridge overlooking the German positions opposite Perthes, Mesnil-lez- Hurlus, and Beause- jour, where there had been some of the most ferocious fighting in the war, so that the names of those places have been written in blood upon the history of France.
"You see we have made ourselves as comfortable as possible," said the general, who received us at the doorway of the little hole which, with delightful irony, he called his " palace." He is an elderly man, this general who has held in check some of the most violent assaults of the German army, but there was a boyish smile in his eyes and none of the harshness of old age in the sweetness of his voice. He lived in a hole in the earth with just a peep-hole out of which he could see the German lines on the opposite hills and his won trenches down below. As he spread out his maps and explained the positions of his batteries and lines, I glanced round his room at the truckle-bed which filled the length of it, and the deal table over which he was bending, and the wooden chair in which he sat to think out the problems of his task. There was only one touch of colour in this hole in the hillside, and it belonged to a bunch of carnations placed in a German shell and giving out a rich odour so that some of the beauty of spring had come into this hiding-place where an old man directed the operations of death.
"Look," said the general, pointing to the opposite lines, - here is Crest 196, about which you gentlemen have written so much in newspapers," It was just a rise in the ground above the ravine which divided us from the German ridges, but I gazed at it with a thrill, remembering what waves of blood have washed around this hillock, and how many heroes of France have given their lives to gain that crest. Faintly I could see the lines of German trenches with their earth-works thrown up along the hillsides and along the barren fields on each side of the ravine, where French and German soldiers are very close to each other's tunnels. From where we stood subterranean passages led to the advanced trenches down there, and to a famous " trapeze " on the right of the German position, forming an angle behind the enemy's lines, so that now and again their soldiers might be seen;
"It is not often in this war that we can see our enemy unless we visit them in their trenches, or they come to us," said the general, " but a few days ago, when I was in the trapeze, I saw one of them stooping down as though gathering something in his hands or tying up his boot-laces." Those words were spoken by a man who had commanded French troops for nine months of incessant fighting which reveal the character of this amazing war. He was delighted because he had seen a German soldier in the open and found it a strange unusual thing. Not a sign of any human being could I see as I gazed over the great battlefields of France. There was no glint of helmets, no flash of guns, no movements of regiments, no stirring of the earth. There was a long tract of country in which no living thing moved : utterly desolate in its abandonment. Yet beneath the earth here, close to us as well as far away, men crouched in holes waiting to kill or to be killed, and all along the ridges, concealed in dug-outs or behind the low-lying crests, great guns were firing so that their thunder rolled across the ravines, and their smoke-clouds rested for a little while above the batteries.
The general was pointing out a spot on Hill 196 where the Germans still held a ridge. I could not see it very clearly, or at least the general thought my eyes were wandering too much to the right.
"I will drop a shell there," he said, and then turned to a telephone operator who was crouched in a hole in the wall, and gave an order to him.
The man touched his instrument and spoke in the mouth-piece.
"C'est la batterie ? "
There was a little crackling in the telephone, like twigs under a pot, and it seemed as though a tiny voice were speaking from a great distance.
"Now ! " said the general, pointing towards the crest.
I stared intently, and a second later, after a solitary thunderstroke from a heavy gun, I saw a shell burst and leave a soft white cloud at the very spot indicated by the old man at my side. I wondered if a few Germans had been killed to prove the point for my satisfaction. What did it matter a few more deaths to indicate a mark on the map ? It was just like sweeping a few crumbs off the table in an argument on strategy.
In another hole to which the general took me was the officers' mess about as large as a suburban bathroom. At the end of the dining-table the captain was shaving himself, and laughed with embarrassment at our entry. But he gave me two fingers of a soapy hand and said " Enchanté " with fine courtesy.
Outside, at the top of the tunnel, was another group of officers, who seemed to me cheery men in spite of all the hardships of their winter in a subterranean world. The spring had warmed their spirits, and they laughed under the blue sky. But one of them, who stood chatting with me, had a sudden thrill in his voice as he said, "How is Paris ?" He spoke the word again and said, "Paris !" as though it held all his soul.
bringing up supplies
There was the real spirit of old-world chivalry in a chateau of France which I visited two days ago. This old building, with its high gables and pointed roofs, holds the memory of many great chapters in French history. Attila the Hun came this way with his hordes, checked and broken at last, as centuries later, not far away, 100,000 Germans were checked and broken by Dumouriez and the French army of 1792 on the plain of Valmy.
A French officer pointed to a tablet on the wall of the chateau commemorating that victory, and said : "Perhaps history will be repeated here by the general whom you will see later on." He stooped down and rubbed some dust off a stone, revealing a tracing of the footprint of Henri IV, who once crossed this threshold, and on the way upstairs pointed to other memorial tablets of kings and princes, statesmen and soldiers, who had received the hospitality of this old house.
There are many chateaux of this kind in Champagne, and in one of them we entered a long, bare room, where a French general stood with some of his officers, and I knew that the old spirit of France and its traditions of chivalry have not died. This general, with a silver star on his breast, seemed to me like one of those nobles who fought in the wars of the sixteenth century under the Due de Guise.
He is a man of less than fifty years of age, with a black beard and steel-blue eyes, extraordinarily keen and piercing, and a fine poise of the head, which gives him an air of dignity and pride, in spite of the simplicity and charm of his manners.
I sat opposite to him at table, and in this old room, with stone walls, he seemed to me like the central figure of some mediaeval painting. Yet there was nothing mediaeval except the touch of chivalry and the faith of France in the character of this general and his officers. Men of modern science and trained in a modern school of thought, their conversation ranged over many subjects both grave and gay, and, listening to them, I saw the secret of Germany's failure to strike France to her knees.
With such men as these in command, with that steel-eyed general on the watch energy and intellectual force personified in his keen, vivacious face the old faults of 1870 could not happen so easily again, and Germany counted without this renaissance of France. These men do not minimize the strength of the German defensive, but there is no tear in their hearts about the final issue of the war, and they are sure of their own position along this front in Champagne.
It was to the first lines of defence along that front that I went in the afternoon with other officers. Our way was through a wood famous in this war because it has been the scene of heavy fighting, ending in its brilliant capture by the French. It has another interest, because it is one of the few places along the front as far as I know the only place where troops have not entrenched themselves.
This was an impossibility, because the ground is so moist that water is reached a few feet down. It was necessary to build shell-proof shelters above-ground, and this was done by turning the troops into an army of wood-cutters.
This sylvan life of the French troops here is not without its charm, apart from the marmites which come crashing through the trees, and shrapnel bullets which whip through the branches. The ground has dried up during recent days, so that the long boarded paths leading to the first lines are no longer the only way of escape from bogs and swamps.
It might have been the scene of "A Midsummer Night's Dream " as I made my way through thickets all aglint with the first green of the spring's foliage, treading on a carpet of white and yellow flowers and accompanied on my way by butterflies and flying beetles.
But a tremendous noise beyond the stage would have spoilt the play. French batteries were hard at work and their shells came rushing like fierce birds above the trees. The sharp " tang " of the French "Soixante-quinze" cracked out between the duller thuds of the "Cent-vingt" and other heavy guns, and there were only brief moments of silence between those violent explosions and the long-drawn sighs of wind as the shells passed overhead and then burst with that final crash which scatters death.
In one of the silences, when the wood was very still and murmurous with humming insects, I heard a voice call. It was not a challenge of "Qui va la ?" or "Garde a vous," but the voice of spring. It called "Cuckoo ! Cuckoo !" and mocked at war.
A young officer with me was more interested in the voices of the guns. He knew them all, even when they spoke from the enemy's batteries, and as we walked he said alternately, "Depart . . . Arrive . . . Depart . . . Arrive . . ."as one of the French shells left and one of the German shells arrived.
The enemy's shells came shattering across the French lines very frequently, and sometimes as I made my way through the trees towards the outer bastions I heard the splintering of wood not far away.
But the soldiers near me seemed quite unconscious of any peril overhead. Some of them were gardening and making little bowers about their huts. Only a few sentinels were at their posts, along the bastions built of logs and clay, behind a fringe of brushwood which screened them from the first line of German trenches outside this boundary of the wood.
"Don't show your head round that corner," said an officer, touching me on the sleeve, as I caught a glimpse of bare fields and, a thousand yards away, a red-roofed house. There was nothing much to see although the enemies of France were there with watchful eyes for any movement behind our screen.
"A second is long enough for a shot in the forehead," said the officer, " and if I were you I would take that other path. The screen has worn a bit thin just there."
It was curious. I found it absolutely impossible to realize, without an intellectual effort, that out of the silence of those flat fields death would come instantly if I showed my head. But I did not try the experiment to settle all doubts.
In the heart of the wood was a small house, spared by some freak of chance by the German shells which came dropping on every side of it. "Here I took tea with the officers, who used it as their headquarters, and never did tea taste better than on that warm spring day, though it was served with a ladle out of a tin bowl to the music of many guns. The officers were a cheery set who had become quite accustomed to the menace of death which at any moment might shatter this place and make a wreckage of its peasant furniture. The colonel sat back in a wooden arm-chair, asking for news about the outer world as though he were a shipwrecked mariner on a desert isle ; but every now and then he would listen to the sound of the shells and say, "Depart! . . . Arrive!" just like the officer who had walked with me through the wood. Two of the younger officers sat on the edge of a truckle-bed beneath the portrait of a buxom peasant woman, who was obviously the wife of the late proprietor. Two other officers lounged against the door-posts, entertaining the guests of the day with droll stories of death. Another came in with the latest communiqué received by the wireless station outside, and there was a "Bravo ! bravo !" from all of us because it had been a good day for France. They were simple fellows, these men, and they had the manners of fine gentlemen in spite of their mud-stained uniforms and the poverty of the cottage in which they lived. Hardly a day passed without one of their comrades being killed or wounded, but some officer came to take his place and his risk, and they made him welcome to the wooden chair and his turn of the truckle-bed. I think in that peasant's hut I saw the whole spirit of the French army in its surrender of self-interest and its good-humoured gallantry.
The guns were still thundering as I drove back from the wood.
The driver of the car turned to me for a moment with a smile and pointed a few yards away.
"Did you see that shell burst then ? It was pretty close."
Death was always pretty close when one reached the fighting-lines of France.
Soldiers of France, for nearly a year of war I have been walking among you with watchful eyes, seeing you in all your moods, of gaiety and depression, of youthful spirits and middle-aged fatigues, and listening to your tales of war along the roads of France, where you have gone marching to the zone of death valiantly. I know some of your weaknesses and the strength of the spirit that is in you, and the sentiment that lies deep and pure in your hearts in spite of the common clay of your peasant life or the cynical wit you learnt in Paris. Sons of a great race, you have not forgotten the traditions of a thousand years, which makes your history glorious with the spirit of a keen and flashing people, which century after century has renewed its youth out of the weariness of old vices and reached forward to new beauties of science and art with quick intelligence.
This monstrous war has been your greatest test, straining your moral fibre beyond even the ordeal of those days when your Republican armies fought in rags and tatters on the frontiers and swept across Europe to victories which drained your manhood.
The debacle of 1870 was not your fault, for not all your courage could save you from corruption and treachery, and in this new war you have risen above your frailties with a strength and faith that have wiped out all those memories of failure. It is good to have made friends among you, to have clasped some of your brown hands, to have walked a little along the roads with you. Always now the name of France will be like a song in my heart, stirring a thousand memories of valour and fine endurance, and of patience in this senseless business of slaughter, which made you unwilling butchers and victims of a bloody sacrifice.
Bonne chance, soldats de France !
coverpages from the French magazine 'les Annales'
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