from the book : ‘Among the Ruins’

'In the Trenches'
by Spanish Journalist Gomez Carillo, 1915

In the Front-line Trenches

a French machine-gun unit


January 3, 1915

Scarcely had we penetrated into the vast hole which serves as an ante-room to the trenches of the first line, when a soldier, a regular "bearded one" (poilu), intercepted me with open arms, crying:

"You here!"

I looked hard at him, seeking in vain for some feature that would help me to identify him under his tangled mane. His mud-stained peaked cap came down over his eyes, and a ragged comforter came up to his mouth, which was smiling rapturously.

"Ch—" he himself at last said.

Ch—! I could scarcely believe it! Ch— the deputy, the exquisite writer!

"We are all like this now," he said, noting my astonishment.

And throwing back his képi, he let me see his clear, gentle eyes, in which gleams of irony and tenderness still lurk timidly.

"What would your constituents say if they could see you now?" I asked.

"My constituents! Why, they are all here with me! The whole district is at the war. Since chance has brought you into our trench, I will be your cicerone, if my lieutenant will allow me. This way ... this way. Stoop, and try not to slip."

We were walking in a very long ditch which connects the trenches. At regular distances a sentry came out to meet us from behind a bombproof screen and seemed quite stupefied to find himself confronted by a civilian. The lieutenant made a sign and our slow and cautious advance in the mud was continued. There was something distinctly comic in our mole-like progress. But the idea that I was going at last to find myself in the first line of battle, on the very spot where men were killing and dying, moved me profoundly. Through the passage in the earth the wounded were passing every moment. I fancied I could see traces of blood in the red clay. This was the spot the range of which the enemy were continually trying to get in order to shower shell upon it.

Soon, turning a sharp angle, we found ourselves in a lair some twenty yards long by two deep, in which a few soldiers were quietly finishing a meal. The lieutenant took me to one of the extremities whence I could see that the ditch was continued behind a bomb- proof screen, and that there were more soldiers in the adjoining trench.

"These screens," explained Ch—, "divide the trenches at intervals, so that if a shell were to burst here, for instance, it would only kill the men on this side."

"Thank you," cried one of the soldiers with a laugh.

As the lieutenant who accompanied me had warned me not to raise my head when we were in front of the loopholes, I continued to stoop, without daring to look and see what was going on in the field of battle. It was not for want of curiosity. What, I wondered, could there be in that tragic space which the soldiers were contesting with such fury? The eyes of the whole world are fixed upon this spot, where the formidable play of destiny is preparing a new Europe, perhaps a new Humanity. . . . And I was in that hole, and if I had liked I might have seen everything, but such was my respect for orders that I dared not.

But what was happening? One of the soldiers stood up on the ledge, raised the upper part of his body out of the trench, and quietly began to clean his bowl. Another followed his example; then another and another. Only Ch—, the lieutenant and I kept in the bottom of the trench, not venturing to mount on the ledge.

"May I see what is happening outside?" I asked.

"There is nothing," replied the officer. "At this hour there is always absolute calm. As far as I am concerned I should say that you might look out, but you know the colonel's orders were very strict."

I got up, accordingly, quivering with expectation, and with my field-glasses I looked for the enemy's trenches, which are some eighty yards from us. All I could see, very much nearer to us, was a Prussian helmet and a grey overcoat lying at the foot of a stack of straw.


bodies awaiting burial


"It's a dead man, a sentry," muttered the soldier, washing out his bowl with the utmost nonchalance.

And indeed I made out, between the helmet and the stack, a white patch which must have been the face, and lower down, two patches which were the hands, standing out strangely distinct upon the black earth.

"Why don't they pick him up?" I asked.

"The dead are only brought in at night," said another.

Then he added:

"That one fell this morning ... about two hours ago. The sergeant shot him. Instead of concealing himself behind the straw, he was going and coming as if he were looking for something."

The poor dead body was the only thing in all the bare grey plain that made one think of life. A cruel anguish seized my heart; I know not if it was because of the man stretched there some thirty paces from us, or because of the indifference of the men at my side; but what is certain is that my ideas of morality are in process of dissolution. What is dying, what is killing, what is all which in normal times seems to us most grave and terrible? Nothing! That German was still alive this morning. These Frenchmen are living now, and this evening, God knows. The sergeant who killed the man is there, talking to Ch—.

This is war.


more dead soldiers


Yes, no doubt; but I had a different idea of war, a somewhat foolish, legendary idea, full of noise, splendour, movement, and great heroic deeds. And when I saw what war in the trenches really is, its caution, its silence, its indifference to life and death, I felt utterly disconcerted.

The lieutenant described his life to me, how he is always in hiding, how monotonous it is. In the beginning, especially, they could neither eat nor sleep. But gradually the adversaries agreed upon little periodical truces, none the less efficacious because they are neither signed nor sealed. In the meal-times, for instance, it is understood that no one is to fire. Convoys pass within a hundred paces of the rifles, the sentries come out of their holes, and platoons go to fetch water at the springs. A captain might seize his enemy's dug-out without much difficulty on one of these occasions. But no one would dare to commit such a felony. And this is not for lack of good-will, for it often happens at the front that one side has plenty, while the other is famishing. The Germans are worse off than the French in this respect. One has only to read the little notebooks of the prisoners to understand how the Kaiser's army is obsessed by the lack of provisions. "It is now two days since we have had anything hot, and life is unbearable to us," they write from every quarter. On the other hand, when they can get a good meal of sausages and potatoes, they are almost happy. An officer who had spent a month in Flanders near the inundated territory told us an amusing story in this connexion.

One morning a Bavarian soldier who had come out of his hole in search of some beetroot left in a field by labourers, mistook his path and wandered into the enemy's lines. The troopers caught him by the feet and brought him into the dugout of the captain of the company, who asked him:

"What are you doing here?"

"I was looking for something to eat," said the German.

"It isn't the dinner hour."

"I know, but we have had nothing for two days."

The captain ordered a sumptuous meal for him: meat, eggs, sardines, cheese, coffee, cognac, and even a penny cigar. When the feast was finished, the captain cried:

"And now be off, we have had enough of you."

"Oh! " said the poor fellow, thinking of the abundant menu of the French trenches, "I consider myself your prisoner."

"No, no, we can't be bothered with one single Boche. Be off. Later on, if we catch you with all your companions, we will keep you. We have enough provisions here for a regiment. Good-bye!"

At nightfall twenty soldiers to whom the honest Bavarian had described his adventure, came over and gave themselves up in the trench of the sardines and cheese. As a recompense they were given a splendid dish of fried potatoes. "Fried potatoes," said Ch—, "are our favourite dish, and the cook is esteemed or detested according as he prepares them well or ill. When we see him coming along there from the south with his saucepans, the first thing we ask is whether he has brought us our favourite dish. The worst of it is that generally he won't take the trouble to cook them to a turn, and so when they get here they are uneatable. Only yesterday we held a court-martial on the cook of our trench, and we condemned him to be degraded for not doing potatoes properly. If they are not good to-day we will condemn him to death."

Everybody laughed. We were in a trench occupied by loquacious, greedy, and boastful Southerners. One of them offered to go and get the dead Prussian's helmet.

"We bet you won't!" cried two or three of his comrades laughing.

"I won't? Well, you'll see." And with one bound he was on the edge of the trench, with all his body out of cover.

"Gently!" ordered the lieutenant. "You know quite well this is the hour when they never shoot."


French trenches in the snow - 1915


We were, it seemed, enjoying a complete armistice. Behind some dry bramble-bushes about fifty yards away from us, there was a vague and confused movement of grey shadows. The bare plain, which Ch— compared to the plateaux of Castille, seemed to be animated by a mysterious subterranean life. From time to time in the bewildering labyrinth of trenches a red képi appeared, a bayonet gleamed, an empty tin hurtled through the air. Until two o'clock anyone who chooses may show himself with impunity and raise his head and shoulders above the parapet.

"When the enemy's trenches are nearer, as they are over there, towards the west, among the bushes," said the lieutenant, "it is not very rare to see a German approach the edge of the ditch to ask for a match or a little tobacco. Our men return the visit on similar errands. And when by chance there is some one on this side who can speak German, or some one on that side who can speak French, these colloquies sometimes take quite an amicable turn. A short time ago the relations between the two trenches had become so cordial that a Prussian captain asked to have his men transferred. Before going away the Germans warned our men to look out for those who were to replace them, because they were Silesians from the Russian frontier, who did not understand 'French customs.' In a general way the German soldiers have a rather diabolical idea of our troops. It is extraordinary what one has to do to gain their confidence. To all the ironical advances made to them they answer: 'We don't believe you.' But when once they are convinced of our good faith, they are like children, full of curiosity and eagerness. We, for our part, detest the German officers, because they are cruel and haughty; but not the poor troopers, who are heroic and intelligent at bottom, though they don't seem so." General von Kluck says with some pride that since the war broke out the French have been learning the great military virtues from the Germans. It is true that, sorely tried by their futile valour of the first days, the Republican troops no longer hurl themselves on the enemy in wild bayonet charges to the sound of the trumpet, and that they fight patiently and tenaciously, having made up their minds not to lavish their heroism unnecessarily. On the other hand, the Imperialists have caught something of the spontaneity and ready wit of their adversaries by daily contact with the enemy's trenches.

"If they did not spend their lives trembling at their officers," said a Parisian piou-piou lately, "the poor Boches would be gayer."

Certainly not one of them ventures to show the slightest spontaneity in the presence of the captains with the single eye-glasses. But it is a very different matter when you meet them alone with their sergeants. The first thing they want is to speak to the French, to hear their voices, to see their faces, and to this end they establish, by means of interpreters, veritable conferences in which they lay the foundations of a kind of armed fraternity. The French translate the Parisian papers to them. When the Germans hear of reverses they become serious and silent. But those who have spent some time in the regions of the Aisne, end by learning to laugh even in the most anxious moments. Fair France, heroic, volatile, gentle, and elegant, gives them the lesson they need.

"Their soldiers," said Ch— to me, "learn to laugh, to show some initiative, not to live like automata. . . . Sometimes they prove so jovial and so brave that they make us all respect them. But this does not apply to the officers. No, indeed! They are impenetrable. They neither hear nor see nor understand. With a pride forged by Krupp they live and die without ever experiencing the immense delight of communing with themselves, alone, and of listening to the voices of their own souls. This is why we are so much more amiable to the non-commissioned prisoners than to the officers. We treat the officers strictly according to the regulations, whereas we receive the privates as cordially as we can. And the soldiers know it; they are grateful to us and they say so. A few days ago, near Saint-Mihiel, where the trenches are only about twenty yards apart, our men were indignant at the brutality with which a Prussian lieutenant treated his men. Every minute his strident voice was heard heaping abuse on some one. Some Parisians determined to avenge their adversaries by killing this lieutenant without harming the soldiers. One night they wrote on a little piece of paper: 'Tomorrow at four o'clock in the afternoon, don't put out your heads whatever you hear, let your lieutenant find out for himself what is happening.' On the following day at the appointed hour, the best marksmen in our trench took their rifles, while the Parisians acted the scene they had arranged beforehand.

" 'The general!' cried one.

" 'Yes, so it is,' exclaimed another.

" 'Here he is on horseback,' they all shouted together. "Long live the general!'

"The German lieutenant put out his head to see what was happening, and two bullets wounded him mortally.

" 'He won't harass you any more with his insolence,' said the Frenchmen to their neighbours.

"And a frank, guttural voice replied:

" 'Thank you.' "

Every one was glad. There are other times when every one is grieved, as for instance when some soldier who has distinguished himself by his bravery falls in an attack. Then friends and foes combine to do honour to his memory in the plaintive and touching fashion of the countryside. More than once we saw in the fields of the Marne a bunch of wild flowers laid at the foot of a German grave; and the prayers of two nations mingle over the graves of good officers and brave soldiers.

"Poor devil!" said one of the Southerners, looking at the corpse of the sentry; "if the crows come to pick out his eyes, we will scare them away with a shot or two."

"Poor devil!" This is the great funeral oration of the battle-field.

Last Sunday, very early in the morning, a French observer who was in an outpost thirty yards from the enemy, noticed an unusual commotion in the opposite trench. There were not twenty Germans there as usual, but a hundred, perhaps more. They were all talking at once, all using the same words and all apparently motionless. Full of curiosity, the observer risked taking a few steps in advance, and crawling along in the mud to a point whence he could see perfectly what was happening in the mysterious trench. A Protestant minister was standing reading prayers, and a compact group around him, composed chiefly of officers, was repeating the sacred words in fervent tones.

"You shall see how our guns serve at Mass!" thought the Frenchman, returning to his lair, whence he telephoned to the distant batteries what was going on. There was a minute's silence. Presently a vigorous voice said in the observer's ear:

"The captain won't let us interrupt the Boches' Mass. When they have finished their prayers, call again."

A quarter of an hour later, when the service was over, a salvo of shells fell on the trench. Then the Frenchman, who was looking on well pleased at the hecatomb, saw something that appalled him. From the middle of the shattered corpses the minister, one arm torn off at the shoulder, his face lacerated by shot, put his head put of the trench, and turning to the enemy's lines, cried out:

"May Christ forgive you!” Then, sinking back on the bloody mass, he lay motionless for ever.

"Poor devil!" said the gunner who told this story, "I see him still with his ghastly face."

Ch—, much touched, told me of the fraternal spirit that reigns among his comrades.

Everything good, noble, generous, and heroic in the French soul has been brought out, he declared.

Leaning on the parapet of the trench, my friend, the trooper-deputy, gazed long at the desolate plain that stretches away indefinitely, without a wood, without a village, without a trace of life or joy. We were in the sinister Champs Catalauniques, a few kilometres from Auterive, in the most solitary part of the country.

"Dreary place!" muttered a soldier.

But Ch— replied:

"It has a mysterious beauty, like the plains of Castille, and surely no place in the world offers a more fitting grave. In some of the landscapes of the Île-de-France, which look like the background of an eclogue, the thought of death is unbearable and repulsive. It seems incongruous to die in a park laid out by Le Nôtre. Here, on the other hand, in these deserts created for grief, tragedy, and repentance, in these fields trampled and withered for all time by Attila, under this grey and hostile sky, life has little value. What does it matter whether one lives or dies. If I had been told six months ago that I should one day find myself under a hurricane of shells, seeing my compatriots falling around me on every side, and that I should not even rise from the spot where I was exposed to the most horrible of deaths, I should never have believed him. There is a special mentality produced by war. And all the more by this war, which is unlike any other. Oh! those Prussians! It is they who in their retrogressive madness have taken us back to the remotest ages, making war a savage subterranean operation, without any grandeur or any grace."

"The mines must be the most terrible things of all," I said. "Of late there has hardly been an official communiqué which has not mentioned trenches destroyed by sap."


French soldiers constructing a mining tunnel


The lieutenant intervened:

"Yes," he explained, "mines are terrible, because of their mysterious quality. One sees the shells coming. But the thought that under our trenches the Germans may be boring tunnels to fill them with dynamite and blow us all up, very often makes us uneasy. Especially at night, when the silence is complete, the dull sounds that rise from the earth disturb our sleep. Our engineers take soundings to try to locate places that have been mined, and when they find one they give their constructors a disagreeable surprise by blowing them up at the moment when they least expect it. Last week at La Grurie, in a single day we surprised five mines that the enemy was preparing for us. But however many we discover, there are always more at the entrances of the villages, awaiting our attacks. When they recognize that they cannot defend a point they mine it, and fire it as they retire. It is a terrible system. It seems that in Belgium they have mined the Grand' Place of Brussels, and the principal streets of Antwerp and Ghent. They don't intend to go without leaving an eternal souvenir of their barbarism."

Ch— made signs to me to approach the screen between our trench and the next.

"Listen," he murmured in my ear.

Two voices came up to us, two clear, rhythmical southern voices, in which a light tone of pleasantry made an unsuccessful attempt to hide underlying depths of tender melancholy.

"What are you thinking about, old chap?"

"About your sister."

"That's not worth while ... you know that she is lame and one-eyed, and that she doesn't love you."

"All right ... nor do I ... really."

"Have you had any news from home?"

"No. They have forgotten us. They think we are dead."

“It's six weeks now."

"No, it's only a month, we mustn't slander our women. Yours sent you your pipe and the tobacco a month ago. As to my poor old woman."

"But if she can't write, old chap. Don't complain of her."

"I complain of her! God forbid! What happens is that sometimes when I am sleeping, I imagine that my little old woman has come to me, and then when I wake I feel inclined to make off and go to see her."

"And I too, don't you suppose that I am always thinking of my wife and little girl? The child must have grown since I saw her last in July. Perhaps she won't know me when she sees me again."

"If it is in another world."

"What must be, must be. It is no use worrying over things one can't help."

"True for you, old fellow. I am certain to get the military medal and my sergeant's stripes. It came out twice when I had my fortune told with cards. The first time was at Verdun, at La Grosse's wine-shop. The second time a week ago, here."

"What about me?"

"Have you never had your fortune told by cards?"


"Well, I will tell it for you, if the fellows who are playing over there will lend me their cards for a minute or two. I am not very great at it, but it is easy enough to find out if you are to be a sergeant. Hallo, you chaps over there! Will you lend me your cards to tell the fortune of my honourable comrade, the fair-haired native of Carcassonne?"

Ch— seems to be touched to the heart. This combination of good temper and resignation, gentleness and moral vigour brings tears to his eyes. According to him all the mean, evil, and selfish elements in man disappear in tragic times, leaving only the noble virtues of heroism, self-sacrifice and fraternity, vital and vibrant. In the humblest as in the greatest, the smiling energy of the race is apparent. Where are now the party divisions which used to agitate every social stratum in the country?

“Did you notice that officer who saluted us in what you call the ante-room of the trenches?" asked Ch—. "That man was my opponent at the last elections. You can't imagine the atrocious things we said of each other during the electoral campaign! Now I am a deputy and a private soldier. He is an officer and not a deputy. And in the evening, when we are resting in the dug-outs, we play écarté together, the best friends in the world, and forget all about politics."

Play is one of the great distractions of the trenches. When the soldiers can get hold of a pack of cards, a backgammon board or a set of chess-men, the time passes less heavily. Cards especially delight the French trooper. They play long games of manilla, forgetting cold, sleep, and danger.

"To show you what gamblers we are," said a soldier, "I will tell you of a recent adventure. It happened just here, where the sergeant is standing. One morning, three weeks ago, we were having a four-handed game of manilla, and the others were looking on enviously behind us. There was only one pack of cards. A shell burst near us from time to time. We are used to that. Much ado about nothing. However, that day it seems the Boches wanted to interrupt our game, and they were aiming at our trench in particular. Michel was against the wall here; the sergeant was opposite; the Bordelais was against the screen, and I was here. All of a sudden, pom! A shell in the trench. What an uproar there was! 'Don't move,' cried the sergeant, ‘I've got the king!' At that moment Michel fell back without a word, and the others carried him off. 'Dead!' cried the hospital orderly. Then one of the others who had been looking on took the cards just as Michel had left them, and the game went on."

"The first essential of a happy life," said the soldier, "is to attach no importance to death. One gets to dread having no coffee or no tobacco more than being blown up by a shell. After all, no one can tell what will happen to him."


bringing up shells to the batteries


This smiling fatalism is to be found in every soul. And when any attempt is made to combat it, the true stones on which its philosophy is based rise to memory in crowds. One day a soldier took shelter carefully behind a tree, while his companions were fighting without any cover in the open. Yet the only one who was killed was the hidden combatant. Another day an artillery observer was at a farm with his telephone directing the fire of some batteries a long way back behind the trenches. All of a sudden the Germans discovered him and sent two enormous shells at him. The farm collapsed, the roof took fire, the walls were shattered. The troopers in the first line thought that the poor observer must be buried under the ruins, and sent a message to the batteries saying that the telephone station must be reinstalled. In the evening, under cover of darkness, the observer, whom every one believed to be dead, came out very quietly from the ruins without a scratch.

"Where heroism is really needed," said the lieutenant, "is in bearing the life of inaction in these holes. When we can get out and attack in the open it is a kind of festival. But here! Look ... everything is quiet and empty. The battle began here three months ago, and as Barrés has said, after burying our first dead, we proceeded to bury our living selves. It is a siege-war, but no one knows whether we or the Germans are the besieged. One day us, the next day our enemies. A trench becomes a fortress, and to take it more lives are sacrificed than in fighting against a whole division in the plain. At the slightest movement a hail of shell-fire comes from every quarter of the horizon, and to reach the nearest village the road must be strewn with corpses. Naturally, commanding officers hesitate to decide upon an action. The Germans don't attack much just here. All their energies are concentrated on the Argonne, where they lose ground every day, and on Flanders, where they sacrifice their men by hundreds of thousands. Here we have a state of siege with all its stagnation. From one end of the line to the other, the enemy has built, not the Great Wall, but the Great Ditch of China. When shall we be able to dislodge them definitively? Our men are dying to rush out and charge. But ..."

The lieutenant paused, as if afraid of saying something more than respect for discipline would permit. Soon a smile broke over his face, and changing the subject abruptly, he went on:

"Observance of periodical truces has reached such a point that even the most violent quarrels do not interrupt it. Not far from here, in the wood of Le Prêtre, in a place already famous, called the Fontaine du Père Horion, our soldiers meet the enemy every morning. The first who come are the first to fill their pitchers, and the others wait their turn patiently. There are quarrels over the veriest trifles at these meetings; but generally all ends amicably with exchanges of post-cards and cigarettes. A week ago, however, a newly arrived Prussian came near to spoiling everything. Hearing one of our men call him a Boche, he turned round in a fury, saying: 'I won't be insulted. I am an educated person, not an ignoramus like a Frenchman.' There was a roar of laughter at this sally. Then the Prussian attacked the Frenchman with his fists. Other Frenchmen threw themselves upon other Germans, and the battle became general. Some one hastened to tell the officer in command of the nearest trench, and he at once sent a sergeant with a picket to call the zealots to order. A German picket arrived at the same time. The two sergeants marched off their respective combatants, after saluting each other courteously."

Of all the chivalrous traditions of warfare, the only one that has survived is this truce imposed by hunger and thirst. It is not much, certainly. But when we think of the savagery of the battles fought five months ago in Belgium, and of the bands of women and children the Germans drove before them to serve as a living screen when they made sorties from villages, we cannot but look upon the amicable manifestations described by the lieutenant as a triumph of civilization, or rather of humanity.

It was time to go.

We returned by the lateral trench to the encampments round headquarters. What a length these ditches are! They had not seemed so interminable, nor so complicated, nor so damp when we arrived. At regular intervals a dug-out covered with tree-trunks opened by a rustic door left or right of the trench. Here the officers sleep, here the chiefs work, here munitions and provisions are stored. In one of them we saw a rough table covered with papers, and a field telephone. The troglodyte who lives here is nothing less than a colonel, the one who gave me leave to visit the trenches, and who now asks if I have been interested by what I have seen.

"Interested and depressed," I said, "for war is not what I imagined it."

"Nor what I imagined it," he replied. "It is the last manifestation of German genius—the warfare of moles," he added, looking ironically round the dark hole which serves him for a dwelling.


siege warfare in the open


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