- 'the Story of the Zouave'
- by Philip Gibbs
a Tale of 1914
the romance of the uniform - French Zouave units in the field
Episodes that seem as incredible as a boy's romance of war took place in those first days of September when the German right rolled back in a retreating tide.
On one of those days an English regiment marched along a dusty road for miles with another body of men tramping at the same pace on a parallel road, in the same white dust which cloaked their uniforms not of English khaki, but made in Germany. Hundreds of German soldiers, exhausted by this forced march in the heat, without food or water, fell out, took to the cover of woods, and remained there for weeks, in parties of six or eight, making their way to lonely farmhouses where they demanded food with rifles levelled at frightened peasants, taking pot- shots at English soldiers who had fallen out in the same way, and hiding in thickets until they were hunted out by battues of soldiers long after the first great battle of the Marne. It was the time for strange adventures when even civilians wandering in the wake of battle found them-selves covered by the weapons of men who cared nothing for human life, whether it was their own or another's, and when small battalions of French or English, led by daring officers, fought separate battles in isolated villages, held by small bodies of the enemy, cut off from the main army but savagely determined to fight to the death.
Out of the experiences of those few days many curious chapters of history will be written by regimental officers and men. I have heard scores of stories of that kind, told while the thrill of them still flushed the cheeks of the narrators, and when the wounds they had gained in these fields of France were still stabbed with red-hot needles of pain, so that a man's laughter would be checked by a quivering sigh and his lips parched by a great thirst.
Because of its vivid interest and its fine candour, I will give one such story. It was told to me by a young officer of Zouaves who had been in the thickest of the fighting to the east of Paris. He had come out of action with a piece of shell in his left arm, and his uniform was splashed with the blood of his wound. I wish I could write it in his soldierly French words; so simple and direct, yet emotional at times with the eloquence of a man who speaks of the horrors which have scorched his eyes and of the fear that for a little while robbed him of all courage and of the great tragedy of this beastly business of war which puts truth upon the lips of men.
I wish also I could convey to my readers' minds the portrait of that young man with his candid brown eyes, his little black moustache, his black stubble of beard, as I saw him in the rags and tatters of his Zouave dress, concealed a little beneath his long grey-blue cape of a German Uhlan, whom he had killed with his sword.
When he described his experience he puffed at a long German pipe which lie had found in the pocket of the cape, and laughed now and then at this trophy, of which he was immensely proud.
"For four days previous to Monday, September 7," he said, "we were engaged in clearing out the German 'boches' from all the villages on the left bank of the Ourcq, which they had occupied in order to protect the flank of their right wing. "Unfortunately for us the English heavy artillery, which would have smashed the beggars to bits, had not yet come up to help us, although we expected them with some anxiety, as the big business events began as soon as we drove the outposts back to their main lines.
"However, we were quite equal to the preliminary task, and heartened by the news of the ammunition convoy which had been turned into a very pretty firework display by 'Soixante-dix Pau.' My Zouaves as you see I belong to the First Division, which has a reputation to keep up n'est-ce pas ? were in splendid form.
"They were just like athletes who want to be first off the mark, or rather perhaps I should say like bloodhounds on the scent.
"Still, just to encourage them a little, don't you know, I pulled out my revolver, showed it to my little ones, and said very gently that the first man who hesitated to advance under the fire of the German guns would be a dead man before he took a step to the rear. (In every regiment there are one or two men who want encouraging in this way.) Of course, they all laughed at me. They wanted to get near those German guns, and nearer still to the gunners. That was before they knew the exact meaning of shell-fire. Well, they did good things, those Zouaves of mine. But it wasn't pleasant work. We fought from village to village, very close fighting, so that sometimes we could look into our enemy's eyes. The Moroccans were with us, the native troops, unlike my boys who are Frenchmen, and they were like demons with their bayonet work.
"Several of the villages were set on fire by the Germans before they retired from them, and soon great columns of smoke with pillars of flame and clouds of flying sparks rose up into the blue sky, and made a picture of hell there. For really it was hell on earth.
"Our gunners were shelling the Germans from pillar to post, as it were, and strewing the ground with their dead. It was across and among these dead bodies that we infantry had to charge. They lay about in heaps, masses of bleeding flesh. It made me sick, even in the excitement of it all. . . .
"The enemy's quickfirers were marvellous. I am bound to say we did not get it all our own way. They always manoeuvre them in the same style, and very clever it is. First of all they mask them with infantry. Then when the French charge they reveal them and put us to the test under the most withering fire. It is almost impossible to stand against it, and in this case we had to retire after each rush for about 250 metres.
"Then quick as lightning the Germans got their mitrailleuses across the ground which we had yielded to them, and waited for us to come on again ; when they repeated the same operation.
"I can tell you it was pretty trying to the nerves, but my Zouaves were very steady in spite of fairly heavy losses.
"In a village named Penchard there was some very sharp fighting, and some of our artillery were posted hereabouts. Presently a German aeroplane came overhead circling round in reconnaissance. But it was out for more than that. Suddenly it began to drop bombs, and whether by design or otherwise they have no manners, these fellows they exploded in the middle of a field hospital. One of my friends, a young doctor, was wounded in the left arm by a bullet from one of these bombs, though I don't know what other casualties there were. But the inevitable happened. Shortly after the disappearance of the aeroplane the German shells searched the position, and found it with unpleasant accuracy. It is always the same. The German aeroplanes are really wonderful in the way they search out the positions of our guns. We always know that within half an hour of a-n observation by aeroplane the shells will begin to fall above the gunners unless they have altered their position. It was so in this fighting round Meaux yesterday.
"For some days this rat-hunting among the villages on the left bank of the Ourcq went on all the time, and we were not very happy. The truth was that we had no water for ourselves, and were four days thirsty. It was really terrible, for the heat was terrific during the day, and some of us were almost mad with thirst. Our tongues were blistered and swollen, our eyes had a silly kind of look in them, and at night we had horrid dreams. It was, I assure you, an intolerable agony.
"But we did our best for the horses. I have said we were four days without drink. That was because we used our last water for the poor beasts. A gentleman has to do that you will agree ? and the French soldier is not a barbarian. Even then the horses had to go without a drop of water for two days, and I'm not ashamed to say that I wept salt tears to see the sufferings of those poor innocent creatures, who did not understand the meaning .of all this bloody business and who wondered at our cruelty.
"The nights were dreadful. All around us were burning villages, the dear hamlets of France, and at every faint puff of wind the sparks floated about them like falling stars. But other fires were burning. Under the cover of the darkness the Germans had collected their dead and had piled them into great heaps and had covered them with straw and paraffin. Then they had set a torch to these funeral pyres.
"Carrion crows were about in the dawn that followed. Not many of them, but they came flopping about the dead bodies, and the living, with hungry beaks. One of my own comrades lay very badly wounded, and when he wakened out of his unconsciousness one of these beastly birds was sitting on his chest waiting for him to die. That is war !
"Yet there are other things in war. Fine and splendid things. It was magnificent to see your English gunners come up. They were rather late in the field. They did not appear until midday on September 7, when the big battle was going on, and when we were doing our best to push back the German right wing. They came up just as if they were on the parade ground, marvellously cool, very chic fellows, superb in their manner of handling their guns. It was heavy artillery, and we badly wanted it. And nothing could budge your men, though the German shell-fire was very hot.
"That is the way with your British gunners. They are different from the French, who are always best when they are moving forward, but do not like to stay in one position. But when your men have taken up their ground, nothing can move them. Nothing on earth !
"And yet the German shells were terrifying. I confess to you that there were times when my nerves were absolutely gone. I crouched down with my men we were in open formation and ducked my head at the sound of the bursting obus and trembled in every limb as though I had a fit of ague. God rebuked me for the bombast with which I had spoken to my men.
"One hears the zip-zip of the bullets, the boom of the great guns, the tang of our sharp French artillery, and in all this infernal experience of noise and stench, the screams of dying horses and men joined with the fury of the gun-fire, and rose shrill above it. No man may boast of his courage. Dear God, there were moments when I was a coward with all of them !
"But one gets used to it, as to all things. My ague did not last long. Soon I was cheering and shouting again. We cleared the enemy out of the village of Bregy, and that was where I fell wounded in the arm pretty badly, by a bit of shell. I bled like a stuck pig, as you can see, but when I came to myself again a brother officer told me that things were going on well, and that we had rolled back the German right. That was better than a bandage to me. I felt very well again, in spite of my weakness
"It is the beginning of the end. The Germans are on the run. They are exhausted and demoralized. Their pride has been broken. They are short of ammunition. They know that their plans have failed. Now that we have them on the move nothing will save them. This war is going to finish quicker than people thought. I believe that in a few days the enemy will be broken, and that we shall have nothing more to do than kill them as they fight back in retreat."
That is the story without any re-touching of my own, of the young lieutenant of Zouaves whom I met after the battle of Meaux, with the blood still splashed upon his uniform.
original color photos of French Zouaves in the Marne region taken in 1914 - 1915
Back to Index